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15 Mar

Rolex Submariner Ultimate Buying Guide

Among Rolex’s extensive portfolio of iconic models, the Submariner is arguably the most famous. When you think of the perfect dive watch, the name Submariner immediately springs to mind, even after 70 years of its existence.

Since its inception in 1953, this Rolex model has, in many ways, defined not just the dive watch but also the sports watch category with its combination of high functionality and timeless design. In fact, it can be safe to crown the Submariner as the most recognised, most important and most emulated Rolex creation of all time.

To truly understand the value of the Submariner and why so many people choose to invest in this legendary watch, it may be helpful to dive deep into its origin. So, here’s sketching a little background of this classic timepiece. With this information, you may be better prepared to buy the right Submariner model for your particular style and taste.

Table of Contents

  • Brief History
  • First Submariner
  • Major Milestones
  • Key Features Of The Submariner
  • Submariner Terminology
  • Generations Of The Rolex Submariner
  • Popular Submariner Models
  • Buying New vs. Pre-owned Submariner

Diving Into The Submariner’s History

In the 1950s, Rolex released various popular models, such as the Explorer, GMT-Master, Turn-O-Graph, Milgauss, and the Day-Date. However, the brand achieved its greatest triumph in 1953 with the release of the Submariner.

As professional deep-sea diving and scientific exploration of the seas flourished, Rolex developed the Submariner, making it the undisputed reference amongst all divers’ watches. It was the first watch to offer a water resistance of 100m and came equipped with a rotatable bezel for divers to read. Since then, it served as the blueprint for underwater timepieces.

First Submariner Model

Like all other sports watches, Rolex created the Submariner to solve a problem. The sport of Scuba diving was soaring in the 1950s. Thanks to the creation of the Aqua-Lung by Émile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a popular underwater explorer, filmmaker, conservationist, and a beloved friend of Rene-Paul Jeanneret (a passionate diver), Rolex’s Public Relations Director. Jeanneret was the key force behind Rolex’s adoption of the tool watch concept. He believed that a wristwatch should be more than a mere time-telling piece and that it could be much more useful and functional.

Under his guidance and Cousteau’s real-life input, Rolex released the first Submariner with Ref. 6204 in 1953. However, the official announcement was made at the 1954 Basel Fair.

It came in a 37mm stainless steel case with ‘Submariner’ written on the dial, along with mixed-shape markers and slim pencil-like hands. This professional diver’s piece was equipped with a water resistance of 100 meters and was powered by automatic movement. It had no crown guards and no depth rating. The black rotating bezel exhibited a bold style without smaller graduations between zero and 15. The bezel ring had a coin style instead of the usual serrated design. The Sub 6204 remains one of Rolex’s most iconic watches ever produced.

1953 – Rolex launched the first Submariner model, Reference 6204, with a 37mm steel case and water resistance of 100 meters.

1959—Rolex released Ref. 5512, the model that cemented the Sub’s outward appearance for the next 50 years. The case size went from 37mm to 40mm. Crown guards were added. The bezel slightly overhung the case side, making it easier to turn.

1962 – James Bond wore a Rolex Submariner. Sean Connery, the first actor to play Agent 007 in the film Dr. No, wore ‘Big Crown’ Submariner Ref. 6538. Following this, the Submariner appeared in different movies until 1989.

1967—The Submariner gets a makeover. Design changes were revealed, such as variations of matte dials with black text and gilt gloss dials and changes from radium to tritium luminescence.

1969— During this time, the Submariner achieved a status symbol from being a utilitarian timepiece. Rolex introduced the ‘Date’ complication, displayed through a window at 3 o’clock. The first Gold Submariner was also introduced.

1979—Three major innovations were introduced that still exist in the current Submariner lineup: First, the change from bidirectional to unidirectional rotating bezels. Next is the switch from acrylic to scratch-resistant sapphire crystals. Lastly, the water resistance was enhanced from 100 meters to 300 meters.

1984—Rolex launched the first two-tone (steel and gold) Submariner model. It also replaced the Submariner’s matte dials with gloss dials featuring white gold markers.

1988—The Submariner’s 316L steel was changed to stronger 904L stainless steel. The watches also came fitted with the Calibre 3135, considered one of Rolex’s best movements.

2003—Rolex celebrates the Submariner’s 50th anniversary. To commemorate this milestone, it released the first-ever Rolex Submariner with a green bezel, ‘Kermit’ Ref. 16610LV. This was the first time Rolex used green on any of the dive watches. The watch came with a Maxi dial and Super Case, giving the Kermit Submariner more prominence on the wrist. The Kermit was followed by the ‘Hulk’ in 2010 and the ‘Starbucks’ in 2021.

2010—The Cerachrom bezel was introduced to the Submariner Date with the Rolex Hulk Ref. 116610LV. This was the first time a Submariner model came with a green bezel and dial.

2012 – Rolex upgraded the Submariner Non-Date with the patented Cerachrom bezel.

2020 – A new range of Rolex Submariner models surfaced with a 41mm case diameter. Lugs were made slimmer and longer, and crown guards became thinner, giving the Submariner watches a more tapered profile despite the larger case size. The watches are now powered by the Calibre 3235, offering 70 hours of power reserve.

Distinct Features Of The Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner is considered one of the least visually modified models in the brand’s history. However, it embraces almost all the fundamental elements found in modern dive watches.

Here are the 4 key features you’ll find across all Submariner references.  

  • Water-Resistant Oyster Case

Rolex crafted the world’s first Oyster case, the waterproof wristwatch case, in 1926. Thanks to the brand’s patented system of screwing the bezel, winding crown and case back against the middle case, ensuring no dust and moisture could peep in. The Submariner’s Oyster case has a screw-down Triplock winding crown and a screw-down case back that keeps any foreign element out. The triple waterproofness system protects the watch from dust, moisture, shocks and pressure.

  • Luminous Markers

While diving into the deep sea, reading the time with absolute clarity and certainty is crucial. To achieve this, dive watches are adorned with luminous hands and hour markers, making it easy to read time under murky waters. The first type of lume used on the Submariner was radium, which remained the standard luminous material for Rolex until 1963 when it phased out due to the toxicity of radium. It was replaced by tritium.

Over the years, Rolex has used various types of luminescence. In 2008, it introduced the proprietary lume ‘Chromalight’, which offers higher legibility and glow in low-light situations.

  • 60-Minute Bezel

The bezel in a Rolex Submariner always features a distinct arrow marker at 12 o’clock and 60-minute graduations. These graduations help the wearer precisely monitor their time underwater. The early Submariner models feature a bidirectional rotating bezel, as Blancpain owned the patent for a unidirectional bezel until 1983.

Later, the Submariner bezels were improved into unidirectional rotating bezels that helped divers avoid overestimating immersion time. When the bezel is struck underwater, a unidirectional bezel will only move forward, indicating a longer time spent underwater. As a result, the wearer will tend to overestimate the duration spent underwater, reducing the risk of staying submerged for longer than intended, safeguarding them from decompression sickness.

  • Oyster Bracelet

Because of its sporty characteristics, Rolex has always used the three-link Oyster bracelet on all Submariner models. The Oyster bracelet in Rolex Submariner models comes equipped with the Oysterlock safety clasp, which prevents accidental opening and secures the bracelet onto the wrist.

Common Rolex Submariner Terms

If you’re planning to buy a Rolex Submariner, you must be familiar with some of the most common terms you’ll find within the Submariner family.

Diving Bezel: While numerous sports watches feature bezel markings, dive watches have specialised 60-minute graduations, crucial for timing bottom or decompression times. Early Sub models had bi-directional bezels until 1983.

Gilt Dial: A dial with the indices, text and hour markers printed in gold is a gilt dial. This results from galvanisation, revealing the gold-plated brass plate underneath the glossy surface. Early Submariner models came with Gilt dials until they switched to matte dials in the mid-late 1960s.  

Matte Dial: A matte dial is a flat, greyish-tone dial with white text and tritium-coated indices and markers. Rolex started using matte dials for the Submariner models in 1966 to offer a utilitarian outlook. 

Glossy Dial: As the name suggests, a glossy dial has a glossy appearance. It is adorned with white text and luminous markers surrounded by white gold, offering a luxurious outlook. Rolex started using this dial type in Submariner in the 1980s, and it continues to be used in the models even today.

Maxi Dial: A dial with larger hour and minute hands and lume plots for enhanced legibility is a maxi dial. Rolex first used maxi dial on the Submariner ‘Kermit’ Ref. 16610LV. 

Pencil Hands: Rolex used slim, arrow-tipped pencil hands before switching to Mercedes-style hands. 

Mercedes Hands: Watches whose hour hand has a tip resembling the Mercedes Benz logo. This resemblance is purely coincidental, as Rolex used the three-way sign to accommodate a sufficient amount of luminous paint.  Submariners in the mid-1950s were equipped with Mercedes-style hands. 

Super Case: Rolex implemented this new generation of cases in the 2008 Submariner catalogue. It features a wider bezel, broader and fatter lugs and a thicker overall profile. 

Glidelock Clasp: This is Rolex’s most advanced clasp system, allowing the wearer to expand the band by 2mm. While the glidelock clasp first appeared in the Submariner watches in the 2010s, it is now exclusively found in Rolex dive watches, including the Rolex Deepsea and Sea-Dweller.

Rolex Submariner Over The Generations

Over the years, Rolex has made subtle yet significant changes to the Submariner models. Even if there’s a decades-long gap between the two Submariner models, one can still easily recognise the Rolex Submariner for its timeless design.

Below, we will discuss the evolution of the Rolex Submariner over the generations, including its key feature updates.

Rolex Submariner (1953 – 1962): Case Without Crown Guards

Reference Numbers: 6204, 6205, 6200, 6536, 6536/1, 6538, 5508 & 5510.

Key features: 

  • 37mm stainless steel case
  • Water-resistance 100meter – 200 meter
  • Pencil-style hands
  • Different crown sizes, ranging from 5.3 to 7mm
  • No crown guards
  • Submariner models featuring gilt dials, acrylic crystals and bi-directional rotating bezels

Rolex Submariner (1959 – 1989): Case With Crown Guards

Reference Numbers: 5512 & 5513

This generation of the Rolex Submariner models embodies the same design we see today. During this period, the Submariner started taking its first steps towards becoming a status symbol from being a utility timepiece. Versions of the Submariner Ref. 5512 became COSC certified.

Key features: 

  • 40mm stainless steel wide case
  • It comes with crown guards
  • Bevelled lugs
  • 7mm crown
  • Dial with text at 6 & 12 o’clock
  • Water resistance of up to 200 meters
  • Demarcated dive bezel
  • Change of luminescence from radium to tritium
  • Variations of matte dials with black text and gilt gloss dials

Rolex Submariner (1969 – 1979): Introduction Of The Date Function & Precious Metals

Reference Numbers: 1680 & 1680/8

The Submariner Ref. 1680 acquired a date window beneath the Cyclops lens. It is one of the brand’s best designs. In terms of investment, the Submariner models with dates appreciate in value.

Key features:

  • Date complication at 3 o’clock on the dial
  • Magnifying Cyclops lens/window on the case
  • Early iterations featured ‘Red’ Submariner text on the dial, hence the nickname ‘Red Submariner’. However, Rolex changed the Submariner writing to white in 1977.

This period also saw the release of the first Submariner in solid 18ct gold with Ref. 1680/8, marking a transition from a tool watch to a robust, luxurious timepiece.

Key features:

  • Non-date Submariner in solid 18ct gold
  • First model with a Black Aluminium bezel and dial, followed by a blue version
  • ‘Nipple’ dial markers with protruding shapes

Rolex Submariner (1979 – 1999): Introduction Of Unidirectional Bezel, Sapphire Crystal & Water Resistance 300M

Reference Numbers: 16800, 168000, 16803, 14060 (1979 – 1988) & 14060 (1990 – 1999)

The design elements introduced in the Submariner models with 168xxx references are still seen in today’s collection.

Key features:

  • Acrylic crystal to Scratch-resistant sapphire crystal
  • Bi-directional to Unidirectional bezel
  • Improved water-resistance to 300 meters

The Submariner Ref. 16803, released in 1984, was the first Rolex Submariner model in a Rolesor (stainless steel & 18ct yellow gold) combination.

Key features:

  • First Rolex Rolesor model
  • Unidirectional blue/black bezel in 18ct yellow gold with inserts made from anodised aluminium
  • Blue/ Black dial
  • Powered by the Rolex Calibre 3035 (first high-beat movement)

Released in 1990, the Submariner Ref. 14060 is generally considered the ‘last of the best’. After this, Rolex introduced the Super Case.

Key features:

  • No date complication
  • Comes with a sapphire crystal
  • 300meters water-resistance
  • Unidirectional rotating bezel
  • Black dial with aluminium bezel

Rolex Submariner (1988 – Mid-1989): Introduction Of 904L Stainless Steel 

Reference Numbers: 168000

While the Rolex Submariner Ref. 168000 was produced briefly, it marked an important milestone in the model’s history. Older Submariner watches were produced in industry-standard 316L steel, while the Ref. 168000 introduced 904L steel to the lineup in 1985. The 904L stainless steel offered greater corrosion resistance and required a higher polish than other grades of steel.

Key features:

  • 904L Stainless Steel case of 40mm
  • Black glossy dial with date function at 3 o’clock
  • Water resistance of 300meters
  • Powered by movement Calibre 3035
  • First Submariner with a unidirectional bezel

Rolex Submariner (1988 – 2012): Introduction Of Calibre 313x

Reference Numbers: 16610, 16610LV, 16613, 16618 & 14060M

Rolex introduced the 3130 (no-date) and 3135 (date) movements in 1988. These high-end automatic movements, featuring a Parachrom hairspring, are used in a large number of Rolex pieces. The Parachrom hairspring, which is now considered a base movement, allows for greater resistance to temperature variations and shocks.

The Rolex Submariner Ref. 166xx marked the transition from tritium to Luminova markers and then Super Luminova.

Key features:

  • 40mm stainless steel/Yellow Rolesor /18ct yellow gold case
  • Helium escape valve in Rolex 16600
  • (16600) Unidirectional bezel with 60-minute scale / (16618)Bi-Directional Aluminium insert Black or Blue/ (16613) Unidirectional Black or Blue Aluminum Insert w/ 60-Minute Scale Bezel
  • Sapphire Crystal

In 2003, Rolex released the Submariner ‘Kermit’ Ref. 16610LV to commemorate its 50th anniversary. It remained in production until 2010. It was the first Submariner to sport a green aluminium bezel.

Key features:

  • Stainless steel 40mm case
  • Green aluminium bezel
  • Black dial with date function at 3 o’clock
  • Rolex Calibre 3135 movement
  • Power reserve of 48 hours
  • Water resistance 300 meters

Rolex Submariner (2010 – 2020): Introduction Of Ceramic Bezel, Maxi Dial & Super Case

Reference Numbers: 116610, 116618, 116619, 116613, & 114060

Submariner references with six digits denote the introduction of some of the key updates. However, Rolex discontinued all the references in 2020, followed by a complete redesign of the Rolex Submariner catalogue.

Key features:

  • Cerachrom ceramic bezel
  • Broader and squarer lugs
  • Maxi Dial
  • Super Case
  • Wider Crow Guards
  • Glidelock Extension System

Rolex Submariner (2020): Launch Of 41mm Oyster Case & Calibre 323x

Reference Numbers: 126610, 126613, 126618, 126619 & 124060

In 2021, Rolex changed the case size of the entire Submariner lineup to 41mm. It also dropped the Super Case and presented the watches with a look that resembled the vintage Submariner models.

Key features:

  • Oyster Case
  • Thinner crown guards
  • Slimmer & Longer lugs
  • Power reserve of 70 hours
  • New-generation in-house Calibre 3235 (date) & 3230 (non-date)

Popular Rolex Submariner Models For Investment

Over the decades, Rolex has released a wide range of Submariner models to suit every style and taste, using various materials, bezels, and dial colours. Here, we have listed some of the most versatile and sought-after Submariner models of all time.

1. ‘James Bond’ Submariner Ref. 6538

Worn by James Bond, the Submariner Ref. 6538 has appeared in several 007 films. The design pairs very well with an active lifestyle and is one of the most coveted vintage Rolex timepieces. Forever known as the ‘Bond Sub’, the watch with its thicker and heavier body has a prominent presence on the wrist. It is also called the ‘Big Crown’ for its 8mm crown.

Specifications:

  • Case: 38mm stainless steel
  • Dial: Gilt/Gloss Black dial
  • Bezel: Black bezel calibrated for 60 units with a ‘Red Triangle’ insert
  • Water-Resistance: 200m
  • Movement: Calibre 1030

2. ‘Hulk’ Submariner Ref. 116610LV

Released in 2010 by replacing the Kermit, the Rolex Submariner ‘Hulk’ Ref. 116610LV continues to be a massively sought-after watch. The timepiece draws its nickname from its all-green appearance, featuring a green Cerachrom bezel and a green dial. It’s an excellent option for anyone looking to buy an eye-catching Rolex with huge market demand.

Specifications:

  • Case: 40mm stainless steel
  • Dial: Vibrant green ‘Maxi’ dial
  • Bezel: Green Ceramic bezel
  • Water-Resistance: 300m
  • Movement: Calibre 3135

3. ‘Bluesy’ Submariner Ref. 16613

The Rolex Submariner Ref. 16613 brought a touch of luxury to the collection with its stunning stainless steel and 18ct yellow gold combination. This beautiful two-tone watch has a blue dial and bezel, hence the nickname ‘Bluesy’. This is undoubtedly one of the best-looking blue dials ever produced by Rolex and is a desirable investment option for many of today’s collectors.

Specifications:

  • Case: 40mm Yellow Rolesor (stainless steel & 18ct yellow gold)
  • Dial: Blue dial
  • Bezel: Unidirectional Blue Aluminium insert with 60-minute scale
  • Water-Resistance: 300m
  • Movement: Calibre 3135

4. Classic Submariner Ref. 16610

Having stayed in production for almost 20 years, the Submariner Ref. 16610 is one of the most popular Rolex creations and a collector’s favourite. This model is a quintessential Rolex dive watch with a date feature. It is perfect for black-tie events and also everything in between.

Specifications:

  • Case: 40mm stainless steel
  • Dial: Black with luminous markers
  • Bezel: Unidirectional Black Aluminium insert with 60-minute scale
  • Water-Resistance: 300m
  • Movement: Calibre 3135

5. ‘Smurf’ Submariner Ref. 116619LB

Released in 2008 to celebrate the Submariner’s 55th anniversary and Rolex’s 100th anniversary (considering the brand registered the name ‘Rolex’ in 1908), the Rolex Submariner Smurf was a completely redesigned timepiece. This stylish anniversary model came in a luxurious 18ct white gold case with a bright blue dial and bezel. The Ref. 116619LB is visually distinct from all other Sub-variants, and since its discontinuation in 2020, it has entered a new realm of collectability.

Specifications:

  • Case: 40mm 18ct white gold case
  • Dial: Blue Dial with luminous markers
  • Bezel: Unidirectional Blue Ceramic insert with a 60-minute scale
  • Water-Resistance: 300m
  • Movement: Calibre 3135

Buying New Vs. Pre-Owned Submariner

When it finally comes down to investing in a worthy model like the Rolex Submariner, one of the most critical questions buyers face is whether they should opt for a brand-new timepiece or consider purchasing a pre-owned Submariner.

Rolex Submariner watches are highly sought after and always in demand. Therefore, there are very few chances you’ll come across the timepieces at an authorised store or with dealers. And, even if you do, it will entail years of waiting. This is where the secondary market proves beneficial.

Several authorised and certified watch dealers in the pre-owned market sell 100% authentic Rolex Submariner watches. Buying Rolex from the secondary market allows you to explore a wider range of Submariner models at a feasible price point. There are older and vintage Submariner watches that you can buy at a competitive rate, which is otherwise unavailable in retail. It also opens up a vast array of rare, limited edition and even discontinued models to choose from.

Another potential benefit of buying pre-owned Rolex watches is avoiding the initial depreciation. In general, if you buy a new Rolex, the moment the watch leaves the dealership, it is considered used, whether or not it is worn after that. But when you buy it secondhand, you don’t take this initial hit as the previous owner already took this blow for you.  

However, if you’re determined to purchase a brand-new Rolex Submariner, that’s great, too! Buying new allows you to access the latest advancements, ensuring you have the most up-to-date version of the Submariner.

Ultimately, whether you buy a pre-owned Rolex Submariner or a brand-new piece depends on your preferences, budget, and the importance you place on other factors like warranty coverage, condition, etc. But what matters most is your satisfaction as a Rolex enthusiast. Happy Shopping!

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