The History and Evolution of the Rolex Submariner Watch

1953 Rolex Submariner

Hans Wilsdorf was a remarkable business person and market guru. He would become the president and founder of Rolex partially because of his willingness to embrace new ideas. One of his employees, Rene-Paul Jeanneret, was a consummate diver, as well as a member of the board of directors for Rolex. He would become the driving force behind designing a watch that could not only be used underwater but would be considered appropriate for everyday wear.

Wilsdorf was known for listening to his employees and when Jeanneret launched the diving watch idea, an entirely new division of Rolex was created: sports watches. Many types of sports were included in this collection and Rolex grew exponentially. Wilsdorf contributed the ideas of the self-winding movement and the screw down crown. These touches made Rolex Submariner watch an elegant choice for discriminating buyers.

The Submariner watch by Rolex has an interesting history. The most recent Rolex Submariner watch which was introduced four years ago is the evolution of the first one designed over 60 years ago. Even though this first model was introduced in 1953, many of today’s standards are seen in the masculine casing with a steel bracelet and ceramic bezel, just like their ancestors.

Rolex Submariner

There were Submariner predecessors in the Rolex collection. These watches were water-resistant and had been around since the early 1930’s. This start did enlist the partnership with Panerai, who dealt Italian Rolexes but also sold diving equipment. The Panerai Radiomir combination produced Oyster-shaped cases with caliber movement provided by the Rolex Company. Jeanneret’s Submariner Rolex was inspired by this earlier model.

Interestingly enough, Jeanneret developed a friendship with the famous diver and explorer, Jacques Cousteau. This relationship bolstered the attempts to persuade Rolex top leaders to develop a professional watch for divers. Cousteau was an invaluable source of information about the needs and special demands of a diver. Even in the 1950’s, there was trial and experiments being done daily to produce an authentic diving watch. The name Submariner was free, so history was made.

Rolex announced to the world in September of 1953 that they had developed the best in diver watches. This was proven in a spectacular way. A diver named August Piccard dived to a depth of 3131 meters in his deep-diving submarine. Attached to the vessel’s heavy shell was the Rolex watch. It featured a clearly legible Rolex logo and a lighted dial. Dramatically when the submarine emerged from the ocean, the Rolex was keeping correct time, leaving onlookers speechless.

SONY DSC

Again, in 1960, Rolex sought to prove the durability and accuracy of the Submariner. It was placed on the submarine Trieste and dived to the Challenger Deep, which is the deepest dip in the ocean. Complete with an Oyster case and the ability to withstand the pressure of 1,125 km- this watch looked and performed precisely as it had done above the water. The public was amazed at the construction of this new kind of watch. It was touted by advertisers as the newest phenomenon in daily watch wear. This would eventually lead to the popularity of other sports related watches, such as the ones which can withstand cold and or heat.

Accomplishments such as these dives created much interest in the public. Rolex followed up with a display at the Basel fair which featured a wristwatch, with bezels that rotated and a black dial. The position of zero was enhanced with an arrow holding a bright pearl in the center. This watch boasted of a water resistance equal to 100 meters, proclaimed to be the ultimate diver’s watch.

Marketing for the watch was begun after the Submariner had been subjected to formidable field testing. The Institute for Deep Sea Research produced a report in 1953, outlining the many tests it had conducted. The results were from 132 dives made in 12-60 meters of water. Some of its conclusions are as follows:

  • The Submariner did not show any corrosion, despite the high salt content and tropical temperatures found in the Mediterranean waters. It also successfully resisted the high tropical temperatures as well as humidity.
  • There was no water detected inside the watch itself.
  • The watch was used in dives with the crown pulled out to set the hands and was not affected by the pressure of the dive.
  • We used a cord to drop the Submariner to a depth of 120 meters for a one hour period, and no leaks or other issues were detected.

Green Anniversary Bezel

As the Rolex Submariner came onto the market in 1954, buyers had three different models to choose from. There was the 6200 reference with a self-winding movement; a 6204 reference with a water resistance of 100 meters and a 6205 reference to change that was self-winding. Interestingly, the word Submariner was not found on these early watches.

History of the Rolex Submariner can be divided into three time periods:

  • Experimentation Years-designated for the years 1950-1960. Model ref 6200, 6204, 6205, 6536, 6536/1, 6538, 6538/6, 5508, 5510.
  • Formative years of 1960 and 1980. Model ref 5512, 5513, 1680 red, 1680 white.
  • Stability years were from 1980-to present day. Model re16800, 168000, 16610, 14060, 14060M.

Rolex Submariner watches are some of the most sought after collectibles found at auction. Here are a few examples of the latest finds:

  • Submariner with White Printing (1979). Reference number 1680. This watch sold at Christie’s for $6,785 in 2009
  • Submariner with Red Printing (1972). Reference number 1680. Christies sold this timepiece for $12, 439 in 2009.
  • Submariner in Yellow Gold (1970). Reference number 1680/8. This watch was sold by Christies in 2009 for $18,750.
  • Navy Blue Submariner with Yellow Gold (1970). Reference number-16808. Sold by Christies for $14, 675 in 2008.
  • Submariner with James Bond small crown piece (1958). Reference number 5508. This sold for $13,200 in 2006.

Other notable Rolex Submariners have been created over the years. One particular piece is the Green Anniversary Bezel, made since 2004. This watch is adorned with 31 gemstones and a calendar function. One improvement found in this particular watch is its lighted dial and magnified date window. It was marketed in 2004 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Submariner by Rolex.

No matter the era of watch you choose or the design, the Rolex Submariner remains as the earliest everyday watch that could also be used effectively by professional divers. This unique duality has ensured the Rolex Submariner will continue to be a cherished collector’s item.


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