THE ICONS: How the Rolex Submariner went from bulletproof tool watch to stone-cold classicD.C. Hannay
Welcome to The Icons, a series where we take a horological deep dive into the most legendary watches of all time. We’ll delve into the story behind the watch, its evolution over the years, famous (and infamous) wearers, the classic references, and the contemporary versions you should be checking out. This week it’s the Rolex Submariner…
This edition of The Icons is big. As in, not only “the most well-known dive watch in history” big, but one of the most recognisable watches, period. And, if we’re being honest, it’s likely the most wanted. If the Rolex Submariner didn’t invent the dive watch category, it most certainly came to define it. Despite nearly 70 years and numerous incremental changes, from the earliest examples to the most modern, you can always recognise a Sub as a Sub. Such is its influence, the Submariner has inspired a raft of similar watches from other brands, including those heavily borrowing the overall look, quite a number of unabashed homages, and a rampant trade shilling outright counterfeits. Chalk it up to the enduring design language, a perfect example of getting it very, very right the very first time. So how did the Sub evolve from bulletproof tool watch to inflation-proof luxury icon? Let’s dive into a brief history of the world’s most influential underwater timepiece.
It’s impossible to blast through the entire history of the Submariner in this account, so we’ll just hit the highlights for those of us that don’t have every reference number committed to memory, myself included.
One very important moment in Rolex’s history came in 1922, when founder Hans Wilsdorf oversaw the release of their first “waterproof” watch, the presciently-named Submarine. With a name like that, it’s practically a Marvel origin story (why yes, there is a superhero named Sub-Mariner).
Clad in an outer case (as opposed to a fish-scaled Speedo), the Submarine watch was water resistant by way of a screwdown bezel on the outer case, but not exactly convenient: You had to open the case to set the time and wind the watch.
It took four years of development, but in a 1926 patent, Rolex debuted the now-legendary Oyster case, which employed a screwdown caseback, bezel, and crown, and marked a vitally important leap forward in wristwatch design. Wilsdorf had recognised early on that a more durable, water-resistant watch was going to be popular with sporting types and fans of the outdoors, long before scuba diving was even dreamed of.
Ever the marketer, Wilsdorf even recruited British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to carry the watch with her in her attempt to cross the English Channel. Needless to say, both survived in fine fettle.
It was many years later with the advent of scuba diving that a more purpose-built underwater timepiece was needed. Pioneered after World War II by French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau (following his naval career), the Aqua-Lung revolutionized life below sea level, and led to an explosion in recreational diving. And although Blancpain was first to market with their Fifty Fathoms dive watch, it was Rolex who really ran away with the category after the first Submariner was introduced in 1953. The 37mm Reference 6204 had most of the hallmark design cues and features we associate with the Sub of today, from which many other manufacturers borrowed liberally. Both the Sub and the Fifty Fathoms shared black dials with luminous hands and markers (painted with radium), a turning bezel for critical underwater timing, and similar water resistance ratings of around 100 metres. Unlike the now-iconic “Mercedes” hands, the first Subs utilised basic “pencil” hands, bezel markings only every five minutes, and featured “gilt” dials. Different in many ways from today’s Sub, to be sure, but instantly recognisable.
In 1954 we saw the release of the 6200, with its “Explorer” dial featuring large luminous Arabic numeral markers. For the first time, we see “Mercedes” hands, the easier to handle “big crown”, and an improved 200 metres of water resistance.
Now available with a chronometer-rated movement, here’s where the Sub really gained traction in the collective consciousness: The Reference 6538 from 1956, which forever cemented the Sub’s legend after it was worn by the world’s most famous spy, James Bond, in 1962’s Dr. No.
First worn on a plain leather strap, Sean Connery later wore the Sub in Goldfinger on a too-small regimental-striped fabric strap of black, olive, and red. And although the original was a single-pass design, many of us bought a “Bond NATO” strap to recreate the secret agent look.
By 1959, the case size had grown to 40mm with the 5512, and also sprouted something new: crown guards. Soon after, that radioactive radium paint used for the lume plots was replaced with the much-safer tritium. Undersea explorers and military units worldwide relied on the Sub by this point, and the watch became the industry standard for aquatic adventures of all kinds. In 1969, the new 1680 Sub was available with a date window (including the infamous “cyclops” magnifier affixed to the crystal), creatively dubbed the Submariner Date. And for the first time, a solid gold version was offered. It was at this time that the Sub had truly crossed over from practical tool to the luxury play it remains today. And though decidedly not a dress watch, customers were perfectly satisfied pairing it with a smart suit or sports coat. The Sub travelled with equal ease from the office to an oceanfront holiday.
Incremental improvements (Rolex’s trademark M.O.) saw the replacement of acrylic crystals with sapphire, water resistance improved to 300m, and when the ‘80s rolled around, the traditional printed lume markers were replaced with luxurious white gold indices. Buyers could opt for blue dials and two-tone metal options as well, and by the end of the decade, even their 316L stainless-steel was replaced by the harder 904L, which came to be known as Oystersteel.
Rise To Fame
Having fully established itself as the wristwear of choice for well-heeled customers worldwide, the Sub continued to implement gradual advancements to the line, with improved movements and greater choices in colourways, including the highly coveted 2003 Anniversary edition, the 16610LV “Kermit”, with its distinctive green bezel. But a sea change (sorry) was just around the corner.
In 2010 we saw the introduction of the so-called “Super Case”, which, although still 40mm in diameter, saw an expansion of the lugs’ width and thickness, and an overall bolder look. Traditionalists may have recoiled, but the new watch saw massive success. Its style just went from classically reserved to face-meltingly brash, and the watch-buying public was loving it. This was also the first time the Sub featured the new Cerachrom bezel insert, a proprietary ceramic with an unfading, polished finish, bringing even more flash and heat to an already white-hot watch.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the release of the monstrously successful 116610LV “Hulk” in 2010, with its unmissable all-green aesthetic, including an industry-first green ceramic bezel insert.
The most recent iteration of the Sub, released in 2020, saw another incremental tweak to the case design, although you wouldn’t know it was minor from the online furor that followed. The dimensions expanded the watch’s diameter to 41mm, but with a slimming of the Super Case’s lugs, many argue that wearability is improved.
Tempest in a teacup if you ask me, but it all comes down to personal preference. No matter where you fall on the redesign, the Submariner remains one of the most in-demand timepieces in the world, and anyone that’s able to score one at retail (and resists the temptation to flip it for a profit) should count themselves as truly lucky. These days, the FOMO-afflicted are desperate to get their hands on any Rolex, but the Sub remains at the top of the wantlist, along with the GMT-Master II and Daytona. That’s the staying power of a real icon.
Who among the glitterati doesn’t wear a Sub? The classic design is favored by celebrities, star athletes, and power players the world over, such is its timeless style.
Guitar hero and absolute legend Slash may be best known for his scorching leads with Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver, but he’s also known to rock the Hulk Sub onstage as one of his favoured timepieces.
Comedian and talk show powerhouse Ellen DeGeneres has one of the sickest Rolex collections you’ve ever seen, and it includes both a vintage Bond 6538 and a white gold and blue “Smurf”.
Film icon Keanu Reeves is known as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, and surprised his John Wick stunt team with matching engraved Subs when the film wrapped. I’m guessing that they probably chipped in for a “World’s Greatest Boss” coffee mug soon thereafter.
Rap pioneer and actress Queen Latifah has been known to drop sucka MCs while rocking a Rolex without breaking a sweat, and counts a two-tone blue-dialled model among her collection.
Your chances of scoring a Submariner (at retail, anyway) are scant at best, but in case you’re among the #blessed, here are my picks from the current catalogue.
Here’s my current favourite, the standard, all-black, all-the-time Rolex no-date Sub. Although it’s a thoroughly modern Rolex, I can’t help but love the symmetrical look of the dial that calls back to the early days of the model. And like a classic tux or little black dress, it goes with absolutely everything.
Next up is the modern iteration of the previously-mentioned Kermit, the unfortunately-nicknamed “Starbucks” (at least for those who appreciate a damn fine cup of coffee). This is a Date model in Oystersteel, but with the addition of that verdant pop of colour on the Cerachrom bezel, it’s a damn handsome choice for that trek to the corner cafe..
Here’s a blast of note-perfect ‘80s goodness, the blue-dialled and bezelled two-tone Submariner Date. Its flashy looks and unapologetic presence will have you digging though your closet for the Armani suit (with suspenders, natch).
The market may be in the toilet, but if you bought low (and are bargain-hunting now), the yellow gold and black Sub is the perfect choice to blow that bonus on. It’s a classic combo that remains timeless, and let’s face it, it just looks badass.
If you’re hunting for something low-key but still extra, the white gold and blue 126619LB is a less-shouty choice than the yellow or two-tone iterations. Terrible nickname aside (“Cookie Monster”), it’s quite handsome, and the blue lets it dress up or down with equal aplomb.