written by BENJAMIN CLYMER
still-life photography by BRAD BRIDGERS
In the decade immediately following World War II, the planet’s greatest companies presented the products that would shape the next century of style, design, and function. While innovations in electronics and manufacturing would perhaps become the most important to the global economy, another product, a wristwatch meant to be worn deep into the ocean, would set forth something else — an entirely new hybrid of function coupled flawlessly with form. 1953’s Rolex Submariner is indeed the archetype, according to many, for what we now know as the dive watch, but it is also so much more than that.
It was as if the Submariner from the very start was destined for greatness. The earliest, reference 6204, with its thin case and small crown, was a revelation for the industry. Rolex had already proven its chops with its patented Oyster cases — so water resistant they could be worn while swimming the English Channel, which, incidentally, one actually was. Why would Rolex, or anybody, need to go as far as producing a wristwatch that was resistant to an unthinkable 100 meters? The answer to this question has defined not only the Submariner’s story, but that of Rolex itself for the past century: just enough is never good enough.
Within the first three years of production, the iconic “no crown guard” Submariners — references 6536 and 6538 — would work their way onto the wrists of the world’s professional and military divers, and assorted men of mystery. When Sean Connery first uttered the words “Bond, James Bond” on the big screen, he was wearing a Big Crown 6538 Submariner, making it an instant classic.
A half decade later, the Submariner would gain crown guards and change its reference to the 5513. The 5513 is the purest Submariner and the model that many think of when the term is mentioned. The 5513 was in production from the early sixties until the late eighties, making it one of the most lasting references in the history of the Rolex brand. While the 5513 had no date function, nor did any of its predecessors, the late sixties would see the birth of the reference 1680, the first to display the day of the month.
The earliest examples of the 1680 have red writing on the dial. These so-called Red Submariners are highly sought after by collectors. The Red Submariner 1680 was quickly replaced by the White Submariner, which can be considered the progenitor to the watches that Rolex makes in its dive category today.
While the eighties and nineties saw various technical improvements on the references already mentioned, it was not until recently that true innovation became part of the Submariner story. The introduction of the parachrom hairspring — exclusive to Rolex — as well as the ceramic bezel found solely in the most modern of Rolex Submariners mark a decidedly high-tech approach to the original dive watch. Further, while the Submariner was launched with-out a single ounce of “luxury,” the latest models are offered in any number of precious metal configurations, including both yellow and white gold. On top of that, the Submariner now comes with and without a date — similar to what was offered in the sixties and seventies.
What’s more, Rolex has continued to offer a product that is constructed to even more impressive tolerances than the mighty Submariner’s. The Sea-Dweller and Deepsea options from Rolex offer the incredible capabilities of professional-grade instruments, allowing divers to reach up to 1,220 meters and 4,000 meters, respectively. It was the latter that famed director and explorer James Cameron would choose to bring with him as he descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. To mark this historic moment, Rolex created a new Deepsea with a gradient blue-to-black dial that the conservative Swiss company had never seen before — it was an instant collectible.
The Rolex Submariner stands alone in its historical importance and casual elegance. A marvel of performance and ingenuity, offering world-class durability, it retains an everlasting cool unseen in practically any other men’s luxury item. It is the choice of James Bond, the choice of Steve McQueen, and millions of other guys around the world. The Submariner is, in a sense, the men’s wristwatch defined.