M ore than a mere watch brand, Rolex is international shorthand for quality. Hyperbolic as that may sound, it’s no exaggeration: based on Google statistics, Rolex regularly ranks among the top five luxury brands worldwide and is consistently the most searched-for watchmaker. Of those searches, Rolex’s single most sought-after model is the Submariner. What the Birkin is to handbags, what the Bugatti Veyron is to supercars, the Submariner is to watches. In plainer terms, it is the most coveted watch in the world.
What is it about this relatively humble dive watch that inspires such widespread adoration? Rolex, of course, has produced many cult collectibles over the course of its 115-year history. It has yielded G.O.A.T. models aplenty, from the Datejust to the Daytona. In many ways, the Submariner is the apotheosis of everything Rolex represents: precision, functionality, timeless design. It distills all those principles into one superlative chronometer. It is the Rolex.
Understanding how the Submariner came to be the brand’s most emblematic design requires a bit of historical context. The watch’s debut in 1953 was a pivotal point in the brand’s trajectory, marking a turn toward the Rolex that we know today. After its founding in 1905, Rolex made its name with the first precision wristwatch. This game-changing breakthrough was followed by several other momentous innovations: the first waterproof watch in 1926, the first self-winding movement in 1931, the first automatic watch with a date indication in 1945.
While each of these inventions is historically significant, they are rather quotidian. That is the biggest difference of Rolex in the pre-Submariner era: the brand specialized in practical, everyday timepieces for the everyman. Though certainly a luxury item, Rolex watches weren’t built to serve any greater purpose than impeccably, and elegantly, telling the time. That was the case with many brands at this point in history—a watch was simply a watch. There were no sport watches versus dress watches; tool watches existed for specialized use but weren’t desired by general consumers. That all changed in 1953.
Earlier in the 1940s and 1950s, Rolex had tinkered around with tool watches for various professions, like aviation and the military. Developed to meet the particular needs of these industries, Rolex’s earliest tool watches were not commercially available to the general public. One such model was an Oyster Perpetual specially created for Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition to Mount Everest—the first watch to conquer the world’s highest summit. Inspired by that historic prototype, the Rolex Explorer debuted in 1953. It closely followed the Turn-O-Graph, a stylistic precursor to the Submariner and the first serially-produced Rolex to feature a rotating bezel.
These two early examples of a tool watch for laymen found their zenith in the Submariner—a watch that was rugged enough for professional use yet refined enough for everyday wear. Seminal as it was, the visionaries at Rolex didn’t set out to redefine the industry with a diving watch. Its origin story begins with a Frenchman by the name of René-Paul Jeanneret. In addition to being an enthusiast of underwater exploration and being pals with none other than Jacques Cousteau, Jeanneret also happened to be on the Board of Directors of Rolex.
Clearly having a finger on the cultural pulse, Jeanneret sensed an increased interest in aquatic sports and suggested that Rolex might benefit from developing a watch that maintained the elegant practicality for which the brand was known while offering more performance-minded durability. He wanted a watch he could wear while diving and while throwing back a tipple at the yacht club. Having already pioneered waterproof watches, Rolex was a leader in nautical horology. The Submariner pushed that virtuosity further with a watch that could keep perfect time at depths up to 100 meters (330 feet). It was a record-breaking feat, besting Blancpain’s Fifthy Fathoms (waterproof to 91.45 meters) which had been released several months prior. It established the marriage of technical brawn and aesthetic beauty that would become a tenet of every timepiece bearing the Rolex name.
Created in 1953, the Submariner officially launched at the Basel Watch Fair of 1954. The very first iteration, reference 6204, introduced the now iconic face: a graphic black dial punctuated with an upside-down triangle at 12 o’clock, luminous baton indices at 3, 6 and 9, and dot indices for the remaining hours. Another hallmark is the black, gilt-finish rotating bezel. All of these features are geared toward performance—the high contrast dial offered superior legibility in the ocean’s depths and the rotating bezel played a critical role in measuring one’s time underwater (and, ipso facto, how much oxygen was left in their tank).
Upcoming Rolex Submariners at Auction
The influence of these details can’t be overstated. The Submariner articulated a design language that still defines sport watches to this day. Ref. 6204 was only produced for a brief time and is identifiable by minimalist “pencil” hands in lieu of the “Mercedes” hour hand introduced with the ref. 6205. In the Submariner’s early years, Rolex was almost constantly tweaking the design so examples can be found with a number of subtle variations: a “clean dial” without the Submariner demarcation, alternate sizing of the words “Oyster Perpetual”, and so on.
One of the most collectible of these variants is the ref. 6200 (released after the 6204 and 6205, the lower reference number is an anomaly). It is better known as the Explorer Dial Submariner or, more jocularly, “King Sub”. This model is marked by Arabic numerals at 3, 6 and 9 (resembling the Explorer), a larger 8mm crown and a depth rating of 200 meters.
Another hotly sought iteration is the ref. 6538, thanks to its association with a certain secret agent. Beginning with Sean Connery in Dr. No, James Bond wore a Submariner 6538 in his first four films—bringing life to watch’s adventurous allure. Subsequent 007’s would sport various Submariners up through 1989’s License to Kill. The model was also adopted by numerous real-world men of mystery, including Che Guevara and the King of Cool, Steve McQueen. To this day, it remains a favorite of bold personalities such as Tom Hardy and Russell Wilson. One rather weathered 6538—with a NATO strap and no bezel—set the record price for a Submariner, fetching $1,068,500 in 2018.
Over the years, the Submariner went through several evolutions to maintain its competitive edge. Most controversial was the addition of a “cyclops” magnified date window in the 1960s — purist collectors prefer the cleaner appearance (and historical reverence) of non-date models. Today, the Submariner boasts a water pressure endurance of 300 meters and innovations such as a virtually indestructible Cerachrom bezel and an adjustable Glidelock bracelet.
Just this month, an array of amped up Submariners headlined Rolex’s debuts for 2020. More than 50 years since it was first introduced, the model is still at the beating heart of Rolex’s collection. There have been more technically impressive movements and more overtly luxurious fabrications, but the Submariner’s appeal has never waned. In fact, it has sky-rocketed—the demand is so great that the model consistently accrues value on the secondary market. Considering that it is the quintessential embodiment of all things Rolex, though, the Submariner’s enduring strength is no surprise.