Rolex invented the water-resistant Oyster case in 1926, raising the possibility of a watch that could be used in the water. The Oyster Perpetual upped the ante by eliminating the need to unscrew the crown during use. The Rolex Oyster watches (with hand winding movements by Cortébert) formed the basis for the first dive watches, jointly developed by Rolex and Panerai in the 1930s.
After World War II, diving and exploring became important, both in the military and as a civilian passtime. In the early 1950s, dive watches began appearing on the market. The earliest models, from Panerai, Squale, and Blancpain, were tools for military and sporting use rather than daily-wear watches. Rolex was involved in this market as well, holding the patent on a screw-down crown and developing special Deep Sea watches for extreme submersion. The Submariner is part of the Perpetual and Oyster families, having an automatic movement and waterproof case, respectively.
The critical characteristics of the Submariner developed over the first decade: A clean inlaid rotating bezel with numerals, a dark dial without numeric index markers, a Mercedes-shaped hour hand, and protruding crown guards. Other features, including the optional date window with cyclops magnifier and uni-directional bezel (a Blancpain patent), came later. Even the Submariner name wasn't uniformly used on dials and in advertising in the first decade of production. Yet the Submariner look has become so famous that even the earliest models are instantly recognizable to the general public and it is one of the most-counterfeited watches in history.
Rolex has preserved the nature of the Submariner even as it evolved from tool to fashion accessory. No Submariner has a complication beyond a date wheel, for example, and the size and dimensions have remained remarkably consistent. Yet Rolex has bowed to the demands of luxury buyers by adding color (blue or green) to the dial and bezel and producing gold-cased models (some even with diamond markers). The Rolex Submariner remains one of the best-selling luxury watches in the world. A sibling model with greater depth capabilities, the Sea-Dweller, was introduced in 1971.
Rolex introduced their first commercial dive watches in 1953, shortly after the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms entered production. There is some controversy about when exactly the first references appeared, the order of their appearance, and the exact specifications at any given time. The three early references are Ref. 6200, with a thicker case, large crown, and Cal. A.296 and References 6204 and 6205, with Cal. A.260.
Ref. 6200, numerically the first, did not use the Submariner name and had more in common with the contemporary Explorer than later models. It had a thick case with a large 8 mm screw-down crown and was rated for 200 meters (660 feet), though this was not printed on the dial. It had pencil-shaped stick hands, a "lollipop" seconds hand, and an Explorer-like dial with Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9. The movement was Cal A.296. That large crown, with the Rolex crown and "Brevet" ("patent") causes this to be called the Big Crown Submariner today, though other references also had the large crown. This "pre-Submariner" Ref. 6200 was also available with Mercedes-style hands and a Submariner-style dial after a few years, though the Explorer-look version remained available as well.
The next early Submariner was Ref. 6204, launched at the Basil Fair in 1954 and already in production at that time. This early model may have lacked the "Submariner" name on the dial above 6:00 at first, though on some examples this is obscured with black paint. The dial featured the now-familiar arrangement of triangle marker at 12:00, stick markers at 3, 6, and 9 and dots at the other hours. With a smaller 6 mm crown, Ref. 6204 was rated to 100 meters (330 feet) and included the thinner Cal. A.260. The original Ref. 6204 was rebranded Ref. 6538 in 1955.
The similar Ref. 6205 arrived at about the same time and most examples feature the Mercedes-style hands familiar on Submariner models today along with the same distinctive dial used in the Ref. 6204. Most importantly, nearly all Ref. 6205 watches are branded "Submariner" on the dial, making this perhaps the first real Rolex Submariner model. Ref. 6205 was also updated in 1955, becoming Ref. 6536 and receiving the new Cal. 1030 movement.
The bezel was redesigned in 1956 with individual minute marks between 0 and 15, and the triangle at 0 was painted red. The cases for Ref. 6536 and Ref. 6538 were enlarged that year, along with a larger crown being fitted, further muddying the waters versus Ref. 6200. A chronometer option also appeared that year with Cal. 1030, branded Ref. 6536/1 for the first two years and Ref. 5508 after 1958. Ref. 6200 was renamed Ref. 5510 in 1958 and was finally updated to Cal. 1530. These models remained in production until 1965.
- 6200 (1953-1958) - Big Crown, thick case, Cal. A296
- 5510 (1958-1965) - Cal. 1530
- 6204 (1953-1955) - Small crown, thin case, Cal. A.260
- 6538 (1955-1965) - Cal. 1030
- 6205 (1953-1955) - Small crown, thin case, Cal. A.260
- See Also: Rolex Sea-Dweller
The model came into its own in the 1960s, cemented in the public imagination after a Big Crown Submariner (Ref. 6538) was featured on the wrist of James Bond in the 1962 film, Dr. No. As sales of dive watches rose, Rolex began refining and standardizing the model, leading to a "classic" period for the Submariner in the 1960s. The earlier references were renamed and homogenized, copyright on the Submariner name was resolved, and Rolex Submariner sales soared.
The original models moved into the 1960s with refinements and new names. The thick case, large crown, and improved Cal. 1030 was adopted across the line, and the early models were renamed. Ref. 6200 became Ref. 5510 in 1958 and the chronometer Ref. 6536/1 became Ref. 5508. References 6536 and 6538 continued on offer until 1965, though they received all these improvements as well.
The first big change to the Submariner case came in late 1958 as crown guards or "shoulders" were added around the crown. This new Ref. 5512 was first produced with the old movements before adopting the new chronometer-certified Cal. 1560. These watches then gained the famous "Officially Certified Chronometer" text on the dial, along with the "Submariner" name and "200 m / 660 ft" depth rating. This reference lasted in production until 1978.
A non-chronometer alternative with crown guards was introduced in 1962, Ref. 5513. This was launched with Cal. 1530 before moving to Cal. 1520 later in the decade. It also remained in production even longer, finally being retired in 1989.
The next big addition was the first (and to date only) complication on a Submariner. The aptly-named Submariner Date, Ref. 1680, debuted in 1966 with Cal. 1575. This added a few other twists to the Submariner design. The domed crystal was replaced by a thick, flat mineral crystal with a "cyclops" magnification bubble. Additionally, the word "Submariner" was printed in red on the dial, a much sought-after characteristic among collectors. White-text Ref. 1680 watches appeared as early as 1974, but the red text remained on some watches through 1980. Ref. 1680 was superseded by the updated Ref. 16800 in the 1980s.
Up to 1965, Rolex used gilt printing on glossy black dials. This was then discontinued in favor of simpler white printing. Rolex also replaced the early radium lume paint with tritium in the early 1960s.
Rolex continued supplying Submariners to military units, including Ref. 5513, 5513/17, 5514, and 5517 "Milsub". These were produced in very limited numbers and never available to the public, making them highly prized today. Ref. 5513/17 was produced for the Royal Navy (UK), features a large "T" on the dial (for tritium), sword hands, and fixed metal bars for use with NATO straps. The COMEX version adds a helium escape valve at 9:00, similar to the Rolex Sea-Dweller. Many included a large white box with the word, "COMEX", on the dial, but some only have this text on the back.
- Ref. 5512 (1958-1978) - Crown guards, Cal. 1560 a few years later, Officially Certified Chronometer on the dial
- Ref. 5513 (1962-1989) - Crown guards, Cal. 1530 then Cal. 1520 a few years later, not a chronometer
- Ref. 5513/17 (1972-1978) - "Milsub", sword hands, bar lugs
- Ref. 1680 (1966-1981) - Submariner Date, Cal. 1575, many with "Red Line" text
- Ref. 5514 (1972-1978) - "COMEX" with helium escape valve
- Ref. 5517 (1972-1978) - "Milsub", sword hands, bar lugs
The classic Submariner references (5512, 5513, and 1680) remained in production through the 1970s, the quartz crisis, and the onslaught of Swiss and Japanese competition in the dive watch market. Once the mechanical watch market began opening up again, Rolex turned to updating these models.
The "Transitional" Submariner Date, Ref. 16800, appeared in the Rolex catalog between 1977 and 1979, replacing the Ref. 1680 but continuing to use the same case and dials. One major upgrade was the movement, which was now the high-beat Cal. 3035 with quickset date. This reference also added a sapphire crystal, a novelty at the time, which slimmed the watch substantially and boosted the depth rating to 1000 ft or 300 m. But the case was literally held over from Ref. 1680 and the dial continued the matte look with painted hour markers. It is in this period that Rolex introduced the so-called "Maxi dial" with larger tritium plots.
Between 1983 and 1986, Rolex transitioned to gloss black dials and added white gold surrounds to the markers. Production officially ended after 1985 but some sources claim that Transitional Ref. 16800 models continued in production until as late as 1989.
A very short-lived model, Ref. 168000 or "Triple Zero", was produced for a few months starting in 1987. It featured a case made with the stronger 904L stainless steel rather than 316L as on all previous Submariners. It was replaced by the new Ref. 16610 with Cal. 3135 almost immediately.
Another major upgrade to the Submariner line was a uni-directional rotating bezel. This was patented by Blancpain for their famous Fifty Fathoms dive watch, which pre-dated the Submariner and served as a template for the category. But Blancpain ceased to be a going concern in the late 1970s and Rolex was then free to implement this concept starting in 1981. At this time, Rolex also introduced Cal. 3085.
The old non-date Submariner, Ref. 5513, remained in production as well. It was officially retired in 1989, though the chronometer Ref. 5512 was retired a decade earlier.
- Ref. 16800 (1977-1989) - Submariner Date, Cal. 3035, sapphire crystal and 1000 ft rating
- Ref. 16803 (1984-1988) - Steel and yellow gold
- Ref. 168000 (1987-1988) - "Triple Zero" 904L steel, 93150 oyster bracelet
Rolex introduced 904L stainless steel in the late 1980s and a new line of movements, Cal. 3135, in the new Submariner Date Ref. 16610 in 1988. A similar non-date Submariner, Ref. 14060, followed around 1990 with Cal. 3000. These would be the core offerings for Rolex through the 1990s and 2000s before being updated as Ref. 116610 and 114060 with a new case and ceramic bezel in 2010.
Rolex enlarged the hour markers, the so-called "Maxi dial", starting in 2003 with the 20th anniversary model. This watch also featured a green bezel, earning the nickname, "Kermit".
Rolex introduced a new large case (called "Maxi case" or "supercase" informally) in the GMT Master II and brought this to the Submariner line starting in 2010. The new Ref. 116610 and non-date Ref. 114060 (introduced in 2012) appear larger due to thicker lugs and crown guards but remain at 40 mm. They also have a cerachrome bezel and an updated bracelet and "Glidelock" extendable clasp. They also use an updated version of Cal. 3130/3135 with a Parachrom blue hairspring. These remain the most recent references in the Submariner line.
On August 31, 2020, Rolex introduced the next-generation Submariner line. It features an all-new 41 mm case with wider-spaced but narrower lugs, a reversion to the smaller dial decorations, and slimmer hands. Inside is the new Cal. 3230/3235, introduced three years earlier in the larger Sea-Dweller. The bracelet was updated as well, wider to match the lugs but also with tighter tolerances for a smoother and more stable fit. The green-dial "Hulk" model was retired, with the new green- and blue-bezel models sporting a black dial instead. The "Rolesor" two-tone models saw a more-significant price hike than the other models, with the Submariner now starting at US$8,100 or $9,150 for Date, $14,300 in Rolesor, $36,950 in yellow gold, and $39,650 in white gold. All feature a ceramic bezel insert and a Rolex crown between the words "Swiss Made" on the dial.
- Submariner Date - Cal. 3135
- Ref. 16610 (1988-2010)
- Ref. 16610LV (2003-2010) "Kermit" (50th anniversary model) - Steel, black dial, green bezel, first "Maxi" dial
- Ref. 16618 (1988-2010) - Yellow gold, black dial and bezel (LN), blue dial and bezel (LB), silver and blue with diamonds ("Serti")
- Ref. 16613 (1988-2010) "Sultan" - Steel and yellow gold, blue dial and bezel, solid bracelet
- Ref. 116610 (2010-2020) - Steel "supercase"
- Ref. 116610LN (2010-2020) - Steel, black dial
- Ref. 116610LV (2010-2020) "Hulk" - Steel, green dial and bezel
- Ref. 116613LN (2009-2020) - Steel and yellow gold, black dial
- Ref. 116613LB (2009-2020) - Steel and yellow gold, blue dial
- Ref. 116618LN (2009-2020) - Yellow gold, black dial
- Ref. 116618LB (2009-2020) - Yellow gold, blue dial
- Ref. 116619LB (2008-2020) "Smurf" - White gold, blue dial and bezel
- Ref. 126610 (2020-present) - Cal. 3235 41 mm case
- Ref. 126610LN (2020-present) - Steel, black dial and bezel
- Ref. 126610LV (2020-present) "Kermit" - Steel, black dial and green bezel
- Ref. 126613LB (2020-present) "Sultan" - Steel and yellow gold, blue dial and bezel
- Ref. 126613LN (2020-present) - Steel and yellow gold, black dial and bezel
- Ref. 126618LB (2020-present) - Yellow gold, blue dial and bezel
- Ref. 126618LN (2020-present) - Yellow gold, black dial and bezel
- Ref. 126619LB (2020-present) "Blueberry" - White gold, black dial and blue bezel
- Ref. 16610 (1988-2010)