Imagine for a second you knew nothing about watches (I know, but just imagine). Even if you couldn’t tell an Audemars Piguet from a cuckoo clock, I’m willing to bet there would still be one watch you could confidently identify as a Rolex at first glance. You might not know the model name, but the Submariner’s no-nonsense, timeless design is so emblematic, it couldn’t possibly be associated with anyone else.
Since its launch in 1954, the Rolex Submariner one of the most iconic timepieces ever created. Its six-decade journey has taken it from being the last word in essential equipment for professional divers to the ultimate symbol of robust refinement and understated luxury.
So, how has the ubiquitous Submariner earned its place as one of the most important designs in the history of watchmaking?
Form Follows Function
For any design to be considered a classic, it has to tick several boxes.
It has to capture the imagination, it has to have a simple, timeless aesthetic—but above all else, it has to work. And keep on working.
Like Hasselblad cameras (the first cameras to be used on the surface of the moon) and Rolls Royce cars (the first cars to be driven into a swimming pool by Keith Moon! Ha!) Rolex’s build quality is unmatched and almost unbelievably tough.
Of course, it had to be. When it was first dreamt up, it was conceived as the definitive diver’s watch. Rolex’s then director, Rene-Paul Jeanneret, was a keen amateur diver and he enlisted the help of legendary underwater pioneer Jacques Cousteau to test his new ‘tool watch’—and the great adventurer wore an early prototype extensively in his Oscar award-winning movie The Silent World.
Today, the Submariner is even hardier. The waterproof rating has increased to 300m, and the in-house movement comes with Rolex’s own Parachrom hairspring, making the Sub ten times more shock resistant than conventional watches.
Modern Submariners are made from 904L steel, while the majority of competitors use a 316L. Incredibly strong, 904L steel is usually only found in the aerospace and chemical engineering sectors.
If you want to break a Submariner, you’re going to have to try really hard.
Pioneering and Innovative
Another box that needs ticking by all classic designs is the one marked ‘innovation’.
While the outward design of the watch has changed relatively little over its 60 years, the Submariner has added a few groundbreaking advancements during its lifespan.
After upping its waterproofing from the original’s 200m, the Submariner further cemented its reputation as the essential partner for hardcore professional divers when it pioneered the Helium Escape Valve (HEV). It was designed to release built up helium molecules that seep into the case during prolonged commercial dives at great depths, the HEV became a critical safety feature when it was introduced in the 1960s.
The 31-jewel caliber 3135 was fitted in 1988. A highly accurate and, more importantly, highly durable movement, it was the perfect accompaniment to the ultra tough sports watch.
Also a deft innovation, considering the depths the Submariner was now rated to, the photoluminescent ‘Superluminova’ compound used on the dial’s hour markers replaced the former Tritium in the late 90s, glowing brighter and lasting longer than its radioactive predecessor.
If there was ever a watch that could be described as “go anywhere, do anything,” it’s the Submariner. It somehow manages to be both sporty enough to match with jeans and t-shirt and classy enough to look perfectly at home under a tuxedo sleeve. There’s no hint of bling with a Sub—even with the more flamboyantly colored special editions in green and blue. Above all else, it’s tasteful.
The versatility carries over into the cost too. There’s a huge range of prices for Submariners. While a new no-date Sub (ref. 114060) will set you back $7,500, a rare vintage model can cause even the most well-heeled watch enthusiast’s eyes to water.
Speaking of Vintage…
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Submariner has become highly collectible for true aficionados, and they enjoy the best resale value on the market.
At auction, exceptional examples change hands for truly staggering amounts—the previous record sum for a Sub was beaten recently at ‘A Rolex Afternoon’ held in Geneva by auction house Christie’s, where the gavel came down at $628,572 for a white gold prototype with a blue dial from the early 1970s. The former most expensive model had sold a year earlier, a snip at just $568,561.
Of course, you don’t have to have pockets quite that deep to be able to make a wise investment in a Submariner. The durability of the design and the manufacturing means they really are watches you can pass down to successive generations.
Every few years Rolex introduces a new revision, and with each successive release vintage models gain just a little more scarcity value and a little more soul.
The Great and the Good
Ok. So the Submariner is extremely functional. It packs a host of technical innovations inside a bombproof case. It pairs with anything, it’s a great investment and it’s waterproof far beyond the depths mere mortals will ever take it.
But let’s stop kidding ourselves—we still haven’t touched on the biggest reason it’s become the one of the most iconic watch ever made.
It’s gained that honor through its association with one guy. Although the Sub has had legions of impossibly cool fans since its inception—Steve McQueen, Robert Redford and Burt Lancaster were all devotees—its reputation was secured the minute James Bond checked the time on his ref. 6538 in the glow of a cigarette lighter in Goldfinger.
Before Daniel Craig’s 007 made the switch to Omega (after Roger Moore’s err…Casio years of the 70s) the Rolex Submariner made an appearance in eleven Bond films. It was also the superspy’s watch of choice in Fleming’s original novels, being used as a knuckle-duster on more than one occasion when he really didn’t want an adversary standing up again in a hurry. (MI6 had to foot the repair bill each time).
The same magic worked by the Bond franchise on Aston Martin also did more for Rolex than any slick advertising campaign could ever have achieved. In the 1960s it just wasn’t possible to be cooler than Sean Connery, and Sean Connery wore a Submariner.
One More Bonus Reason
While Rolex holds the dubious distinction of being the most counterfeited watch brand on earth, with the Submariner making up the majority of the fakes that flood the market from China and elsewhere, the sincerest form of flattery comes from other genuine watchmakers.
Everyone from Breitling to Bremont has their own version, or ‘homage’, to the design—a Submariner by any other name. Proof, if it was needed, that the decades-old design represents exactly what a watch should be.
And is there a better definition of ‘iconic’ than that?