How to Start Collecting the Rolex Submariner

How to Start Collecting the Rolex Submariner

The Sub. It’s the world’s most famous watch, with more than 70 years of history and dozens of different configurations. Here’s everything you need to dive right in.
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The Sub. It’s the world’s most famous watch, with more than 70 years of history and dozens of different configurations. Here’s everything you need to dive right in.

W hen it comes to collecting watches, almost all roads eventually lead to the Rolex Submariner. Its basic profile, its rotating timing bezel, its bold, easy-to-read dial and its sporty bracelet have all become archetypes in the 70-plus years since the Sub’s first introduction. It’s been on the wrist of James Bond, it’s aided in deep-sea exploration and it’s set countless auction records.

Such a storied horological history has led to dozens of mega-collectible references, beginning with the early 6538 Big Crown and 6200 King Sub models alongside more accessible vintage models like the 5512, 5513 and 1680 up through neo-vintage five-digit Subs like the 16800 and 14060 and today’s reference 124060. One could genuinely spend a lifetime collecting just Submariners and never get bored – in fact, many people do. And because of the sports watch’s rich history and dedicated fans, new watches and new scholarship are entering the market each year, with new things being discovered.

The word is greatly overused, but the Rolex Submariner is truly an icon.

The History of the Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner was first introduced in 1953 as part of a trio of new black-dialed, stainless-steel sport watches released by the Crown. Its siblings were the Turn-o-Graph (short-lived) and the Explorer (plenty famous on its own), but the Submariner dive watch is clearly the most impactful of the lot. Since day one on the reference 6204, its core elements have included a Tonneau-shaped case, black rotating bezel with 60-minute gradations for dive timing, a bold dial with luminous hour markers and hands (including a running seconds hand with a luminous dot near or at the tip), a screw-down crown for water resistance and, importantly, those 10 characters printed at six o’clock: SUBMARINER.

  • The ref. 6204 was the original Rolex Submariner, released in 1953.
The ref. 6204 (right) was the original Rolex Submariner, released in 1953.

For the last seven decades, Rolex has continuously made some version of this watch, with almost all these original elements intact throughout incremental improvements. Crown guards were eventually added to the case, while the crown itself has varied in size over the years. The bezel has changed design and material (from aluminum to ceramic). And the dials have gone through multiple generational changes, including moving from radioactive radium- and tritium-based luminous material to safer synthetic lume. But at the end of the day, every one of these watches looks quintessentially and undeniably like a Submariner.

Going for Gold

“Despite their popularity, I still think late 1950s and early 1960s Submariners are underrated,” says Vincent Brasesco, VP, Director of Digital Strategy and Specialist in Sotheby’s Watch Department. “Rolex was still dialing in the DNA of what would become one of the most iconic watches in the world. Every year they made small changes to the case and dial, and as the collecting world has moved towards modern watches, many of these early watches have become attainable again. They are such an important part of the Submariner history.”

Given its fame today, it’s not immediately obvious what an iconoclastic shift in design the Submariner represented for wristwatches. Less than a decade after World War II, watches were still mostly either built for military applications or refined and made to mesh with the era’s dressier attire. A few meters of water resistance and any kind of shock protection was all it took for something to be called a sport watch. The average watch case was still well below 36mm across. The Submariner, with its 40mm case and hard-wearing construction, was something totally new.

Importantly, it was also marketed as much to middle-class, weekend hobbyist divers as it was to professionals repairing oil tankers. This was a watch that offered access to a particular mid-century lifestyle with new leisure activities and an optimistic take on the world.

Three Tips for Collecting Rolex Submariners

When it comes to Submariners over the years, minutiae is key. Dive deep enough into the model’s waters and you’ll learn all about long serif dials and “Bart Simpsons.” But to get started, there are just a few key distinctions you need to know.

 

Date or No Date?

First is a simple but important one: Does the watch show the date or not? In 1969, Rolex introduced the reference 1680 Submariner, also known as Red Subs due to the color of the text on early dials. A pillar of the “special” vintage Rolex market, Red Subs saw the addition of the date complication from watches like the Datejust – alongside its famous cyclops magnifier – to the hearty dive watch. Ever since, Rolex has produced both date and no-date versions of the Submariner simultaneously, so customers can choose which they prefer. Opinions abound. Do you prefer the pared-down purity of the no-date Sub or the added utility and style of the 3-o’clock window? The choice is entirely yours.

The ref. 16800 (left) and ref. 14060 (right) are the date and no-date models of the five-digit neo-vintage Rolex Submariners.
The ref. 16800 (left) and ref. 14060 (right) are the date and no-date models of the five-digit neo-vintage Rolex Submariners.

Crown Guards or No Crown Guards?

Then there is the question of whether or not the case has crown guards – small, curved protrusions from that frame and protect the crown. Early Submariners feature “no crown guards” cases, with the feature added later to increase the watch’s durability when diving. Significantly rarer than later Submariners with crown guards, these early models are extremely desirable and typically command among the highest prices at auction. (Crown guards were added before the first Submariner with a date, so every Submariner that has a date also has crown guards.)

Going to the Tropics

  • Older Submariners – absent sturdy materials like sapphire and ceramic – usually show signs of their age, which can often increase their value. Tropical-dial watches are ones whose black colors have faded to various shades of brown (ranging from dark walnut to light caramel) due to decades of exposure to sunlight and salt water. Authentic examples of tropical Submariners can fetch significant premiums.

Gilt, Matte or Gloss Dial?

Finally, it’s important to understand the three main styles of dials used over the years: gilt, matte and gloss. The earliest Subs have a slightly inky, shiny surface with gold-colored text. These so-called gilt dials were made using a galvanic process and have a very unique visual appearance. In the mid-1960s Rolex transitioned to matte dials with a more powdery black surface and typically white printing. These carried through for a little over 20 years, with the late 1980s seeing the introduction of the earliest gloss dials, defined by their shiny lacquered surfaces and the gold frames surrounding the luminous hour markers. This style of dial continues to be used today, but each era has its own set of collectible references, special traits and devotees.

Important Rolex Submariner Reference Numbers

Despite the myriad differences to be found across Submariners, they break down into five rough categories.

Early Rolex Submariners

This ref. 6205 Small Crown Rolex Submariner was introduced in 1954, one year after the storied ref. 6538 Big Crown Sub. The main difference, as the name suggests, is the size of each model’s crown.
This ref. 6205 Small Crown Rolex Submariner was introduced in 1954, one year after the storied ref. 6538 Big Crown Sub. The main difference, as the name suggests, is the size of each model’s crown.

These are the first few generations of the Submariner, produced as the watch was still finding its footing. Rolex was experimenting, adding and subtracting things, adjusting proportions and looking for just the right formula. These watches include the original reference 6204, the Small Crown reference 6534, the transitional reference 6536, the Big Crown reference 6538, the reference 6200 King Sub variants with their Explorer-style dials and the reference 5508, the last of the Submariners produced without crown guards, among others.

These watches vary in case size, use different hand sets (lollipop, pencil and Mercedes-style hands all see use in various combinations), and display a mix of bezel designs with different gradations. However, they all feature gilt dials with radium luminous material, giving them an extremely warm, rich appearance. These Submariners set the blueprint for everything that came after. Rolex also made significantly fewer watches in this era than it would even a decade later, so these watches are rarer than their younger siblings, adding to their collectability.

 

Vintage Rolex Submariners

The ref. 5512 Rolex Submariner – alongside the ref. 5513 and 1680 – is one of the three most popular vintage Subs.
The ref. 5512 Rolex Submariner – alongside the ref. 5513 and 1680 – is one of the three most popular vintage Subs.

A trio of references make up the vast majority of vintage Submariners available on the market. The no-date reference 5512 and reference 5513 (with and without COSC Chronometer Certification, respectively) and the date reference 1680 are the three versions every Submariner collector needs to know.

Each was made for over 20 years, with subtle and not-so-subtle variations through each production run. For example, the earliest 5513 references feature gilt dials with radium lume, and the latest 5513 references have gloss dials with white-gold surrounds. Within each generation there are distinctions between logos and font choices, the exact color of printing used, the hour markers and more. Just these three references alone offer tremendous opportunity for collecting, whether you’re looking for a daily driver or hunting for a particularly unusual variant.

Either way, the best advice is to collect what you like. “I love gilt dials, but maybe they’re not for everyone,” reflects Brasesco. “Do not be swayed by the tastes or opinions of others. Watches are very tactile and you should always try to experience something in-the-metal to see if it resonates with you – or reach out to a specialist who can help.”

 

Special Rolex Submariners

This Rolex ‘Comex’ Submariner also features a ‘ghost‘ bezel (faded from black to bluish gray), further enhancing its value.
This Rolex ‘Comex’ Submariner also features a ‘ghost‘ bezel (faded from black to bluish gray), further enhancing its value.

In addition to the various Submariners available to civilians, Rolex also made special Submariner watches for various military and industrial applications over the decades. In the 1970s, special Subs were issued to some members of the British Royal Navy, now called MilSubs by collectors. These watches are defined by their special 60-minute graduated bezels, sword-shaped hands, the circle-T emblem at 6 o’clock on the dial and fixed lug bars. There are a few variants to be found, with some carrying the 5513 reference number and others carrying the unique reference 5517.

Related to the MilSub are the watches produced for the COMEX diving company, which also exist in a few different variations. Typically, these are reference 5513 Submariners that were modified by Rolex with a helium escape valve in the case and a COMEX logo printed on the dial and/or engraved on the caseback, classified under the new reference 5514. There are collectors dedicated entirely to these types of special Submariners, and when fresh, interesting examples come to market it can be big news.

 

Tudor Submariner

  • Tudor, Rolex’s sister company, also manufactured Submariners in the 1950s-90s. The Tudor Sub paired a more workaday ETA movement with Rolex’s Oyster case, and it came with and without a date display, in multiple sizes and in a few different color configurations. Early models, like the reference 7928, shared Rolex’s Mercedes-style and lollipop hands, while later models, like the reference 9401 (above), introduced Tudor’s beloved snowflake hands – purportedly at the request of the French Navy.

Transitional Rolex Submariners

This ref. 16610 Rolex Submariner is stamped with the logo for the Italian State Police Nautical Division
This ref. 16610 Rolex Submariner is stamped with the logo for the Italian State Police Nautical Division

When glossy dials, gold surrounds for the hour markers and sapphire crystals started appearing in the late 1980s and 1990s, the so-called vintage era came to a close. The watch industry was then beginning to recover from the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s, and real mechanical innovation was happening again. New materials, along with the widespread use of computer-aided design and manufacturing, fundamentally changed how watches were made and what they looked and felt like.

For the Rolex Submariner, this meant the introduction of five-digit reference numbers in Rolex’s new classification system. The reference 16800 (with date) and reference 14060 (without date) are the most emblematic watches here. They have slightly more contemporary proportions and the newer gloss dials, but they wear and feel a bit like a vintage watch. (You may still hear people refer to these watches as “neo-vintage” models, even three or four decades on.) These watches offer a great middle ground for someone looking for a watch that can be treated mostly like a modern watch while still having a dash of extra charm.

 

Modern Rolex Submariners

The ref. 116610LV Rolex Submariner, known as the ‘Hulk,’ is one of several green-bezel Submariners – along with the ref. 16610LV ‘Kermit’ and ref. 126610LV ‘Starbucks,’ both of which have black dials.
The ref. 116610LV Rolex Submariner, known as the ‘Hulk,’ is one of several green-bezel Submariners – along with the ref. 16610LV ‘Kermit’ and ref. 126610LV ‘Starbucks,’ both of which have black dials.

After the introduction of gloss dials and sapphire crystals, the next two big changes to the Submariner were the addition of the Cerachrom bezel inserts (Rolex’s proprietary colored ceramic material) and the move to the larger Maxi-style case (which itself has changed over the years since its first appearance). These are now fully modern sport watches, with tough-as-nails build quality, extremely tight tolerances and materials designed to look fresh and clear as long as possible – all of which gives these watches a very different personality from earlier models whose charm comes from the ways they show their age.

Making it easier to understand, these watches feature even longer reference numbers that often feature letters denoting (in French) a specific watch’s bezel color. There’s the reference 116610LN – the first black-bezeled Cerachrom Submariner. There’s the reference 116610LV – the iconic Hulk with its green bezel and dial (not to be confused with the earlier reference 16610 Kermit, which has a green bezel and black dial). And there’s the reference 124060, the current black-bezel no-date Submariner. That’s just to name a few you’re likely to find at Sotheby’s.

Even with dozens of reference numbers mentioned and multiple experts consulted, we have barely scratched the surface of what the Rolex Submariner has to offer. Lifetimes could be spent collecting these incredible watches, as new bits of history and new ways to appreciate the Sub are constantly making their way into the collecting community. Whether you’re looking to get started or hunting for a particular model, Sotheby’s team of specialists is here to help.

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