A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex Submariner Watches
So you’ve decided that you want to buy a pre-owned Rolex watch. Congratulations! As you are well aware, Rolex timepieces are not only some of the best and most durable luxury watches in the market but also the most desirable. However, if this is your first foray into buying from the secondary Rolex market, then there are probably a few things that you may want to learn first. After all, a well-informed buyer is a savvy shopper. To help the novice buyer, we are launching our new Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex series, where each chapter will focus on a specific Rolex collection. And since this is the most popular Rolex model, we’ll kick things off with a Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex Submariner Watches.
Origin Story of the Rolex Submariner
Rolex debuted the Submariner in 1953 specifically as a tool watch for scuba divers. As a result, Rolex included very specific features on the Submariner to ensure that it is a practical diver’s watch.
It featured a stainless steel case and a stainless steel bracelet for durability and anti-corrosion properties. Its watertight “Oyster” case (a patented case construction Rolex introduced in 1926) was constructed with a screw-down caseback, screw-in winding crown, and a crystal clamped down by a bezel to ensure its water resistance. The Rolex Submariner was the first diver’s watch waterproof to 100 meters deep.
The black rotating bezel that sat on top of the case was marked to 60 minutes to permit divers to keep track of how long they were underwater for. The black dial included luminous hour markers and luminous hands for optimal legibility while diving in dark waters.
Rolex has continuously improved the Submariner watch since its inception but has faithfully stuck to the design fundamentals of the original one.
There Are Two Main Types of Rolex Submariner Watches
First things first, there are two main versions of the Rolex Submariner. There’s the Rolex Submariner (sometimes referred to as the No-Date Submariner) and the Rolex Submariner Date.
While the Submariner began its life as a time-only dive watch, in the late 1960s, Rolex unveiled the first Submariner Date with a date window at 3 o’clock and an accompanying magnification lens (officially called the Cyclops) protruding from the crystal above it.
Today, Rolex offers a wide range of Submariner Date models and one Submariner reference without a date window.
The Rolex Submariner Case Evolution
The case of the Rolex Submariner has evolved over the last six decades. Very early Submariner models featured cases measuring around 37 mm in diameter. They also did not have crown guards (metal “shoulders”) around the winding crown.
In the late 1950s/early 1960s, Rolex introduced crown guards to the (no-date) Submariner collection and enlarged the case to 40 mm. The Submariner crown guards evolved in shape too, first starting with square crown guards, then pointed crown guards, then finally, rounded crown guards—which is the shape still used today.
Because of its release year, all versions of the Submariner Date are 40 mm in size and fitted with crown guards.
The next major change to the Submariner case took place in 2008 when Rolex unveiled the Submariner with a “super case.” While the official measurements still remain at 40 mm in diameter, the lugs are fatter, the bezel is wider, and the crown guards are broader—which makes the new Submariners larger in look and fit.
The Rolex Submariner Bezel Evolution
When the Submariner was first released, it included a bi-directional bezel to keep track of immersion times. However, this proved not to be the best option for a dive watch. If the watch gets accidentally knocked, the bezel could turn in either direction, meaning that divers could underestimate how long they have been underwater for—which could be dangerous. Therefore, in the late 1980s, Rolex fitted the Submariner with a unidirectional bezel and continues to use this today. As a result, if the watch gets hit, the bezel can only turn in the direction that overestimates how much time has passed—a much safer error.
In terms of materials and design, for most of the Submariner’s history, the bezels included black aluminum inserts. In fact, all of the no-date Submariner references have sported black bezels (but in different materials).
Then, when the first yellow gold Submariners came around, Rolex began offering blue aluminum inserts as another option. The blue aluminum bezels were also eventually offered on two-tone Submariner watches. On the 50th anniversary of the Submariner, Rolex released a steel model with a green aluminum bezel.
In 2008, when Rolex launched the “super case” Submariner, the new dive watches also came with new bezels, crafted in Cerachrom. Cerachrom is Rolex’s patented ceramic alloy that boasts resistance to fading and scratching. Today, the Submariner Cerachrom bezel is available in three different colors depending on the model: black, blue, and green.
The Rolex Submariner Dial Evolution
The evolution of the Submariner dial can be divided into three general eras. The first is what is referred to as the gilt dials, characterized by gold text and a shiny(ish) black background. Vintage Submariners with gilt dials are highly sought after by collectors.
In the late 1960s, Rolex switched to what is referred to as matte dials, characterized by a matte black background and white text.
Finally, in the mid-1980s, Rolex outfitted the Submariners with what is referred to as gloss dials, characterized by a glossy background, white text, and applied hour markers with white or yellow gold edges (often called “surrounds”). Rolex continues to use gloss dials today. However, note that in 2008, with the introduction of the “super case” Submariner, the dial layout also became beefier with larger indexes and broader hands. This type of modern dial is typically called the “maxi dial”.
The Submariner models without date windows always had black dials. On the other hand, the Submariner Date models have had a few different color options throughout the years. Along with black, there are some models with blue or green dials. What’s more, there have also been special champagne and silver dials with diamond and sapphire hour markers, which are called “Serti dials”. Vintage gold and two-tone Submariner Date models also had what is referred to as “nipple dials,” characterized by raised gold hour makers filled with lume.
Another component that has changed on Rolex Submariner dials is the luminescent materials. Early models used radium paint, which is self-luminous but highly radioactive. Submariner radium dials include the SWISS label right below 6 o’clock.
Around 1963, Rolex replaced the luminous material with tritium, which is slightly radioactive but much safer than radium. Tritium dials are labeled with “Swiss-T <25,” “T Swiss Made T,” or “T SWISS T” right below 6 o’clock. Vintage Submariners with tritium generally do not glow that bright (if at all) today. Plus, it is common to find dials where the original tritium has either flaked off or has been re-lumed during servicing.
After a few decades, Rolex changed the lume material yet again. Rolex first opted for photoluminescent (a material that first needs light exposure before it’s able to glow in the dark) Luminova in the mid-1990s followed by SuperLuminova in 2000. Both Luminova and SuperLuminova glow green in the dark.
Finally, in 2008, Rolex unveiled a proprietary photoluminescent substance they call Chromalight, which glows blue in the dark and lasts longer than SuperLuminova.
The Rolex Submariner Crystal Evolution
Protecting the face of the watch is a piece of crystal. Early Submariner models had domed acrylic (aka Plexiglas) crystals. Acrylic crystals tend to get scratched up quite easily but these scratches are fairly easy to buff out.
Rolex switched to scratch-resistant sapphire in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Sapphire crystals are flatter and offer a clearer view into the dial but they can be more expensive to replace if they break.
Submariner watches with no date windows have smooth crystals while those with a date window have a Cyclops magnification lens jutting out on the exterior of the crystal.
Metal Options of the Rolex Submariner
The Submariner models without a date function are exclusively available in stainless steel.
Conversely, the Rolex Submariner Date collection is much more varied in terms of metals. For example, there have been several stainless steel, yellow gold, two-tone steel and yellow gold references throughout the Submariner Date collection’s history. And in 2008, Rolex launched the very first 18k white gold Submariner Date.
It’s also worth knowing that Rolex eventually moved away from industry standard 316L stainless steel to 904L stainless steel for improved durability and enhanced resistance to corrosion. Rolex produced the first 904L steel Submariner Date in 1988. However, initially, only the cases were made from 904L steel while the bracelets were made from 316L. By the 2000s, Rolex used 904L steel to make both the cases and bracelets of the Submariner.
The Rolex Submariner Bracelet Evolution
Rolex has only ever equipped the Rolex Submariner with the sporty Oyster bracelet with a flat, three-link design. However, like all other components of a Rolex watch, the Oyster bracelet underwent plenty of enhancements over its lifespan.
The first generation of the Oyster bracelet found on Submariner watches is called the riveted Oyster bracelet, characterized by noticeable rivets holding the bracelet together. There are also some riveted Oyster bracelets with expandable links. The next generation (introduced around 1967) is the folded link Oyster bracelet where the links are fashioned from folded metal pieces where the folds are clearly visible from the sides. The last style (introduced around 1975) is the solid link Oyster bracelet where the edges of the link surfaces are flat and solid. The solid link Oyster bracelet is not to be confused with the bracelet’s solid center links, which were only introduced in the 2000s to replace the preceding hollow center links.
Along with the general Oyster bracelet style, the end links of the Oyster bracelet were also modified. As the name suggests, the end links are the last links on the bracelet that attach to the case. Rolex replaced the hollow end links with solid end links (SEL) to reduce the chance of bracelet stretching. Solid end links were introduced to the Submariner Date around 2001 and to the no-date Submariner in 2012.
Finally, the Oyster bracelet clasp is yet another area that Rolex enhanced along the way. Early clasps were simple mechanisms where two curved blades folded in and were held together via an overlapping clasp. The main problem with these clasps is that they could unintentionally pop open. In 1969, Rolex introduced an improved clasp mechanism for the Submariner that not only included a more secure flip lock clasp but also a patented diver’s extension system.
The newest generation Submariner watches also benefit from the innovative “Glidelock” system incorporated into the clasp. This allows the Oyster bracelet to extend/contract in 2mm increments for a total of 20mm.
The Submariner Eras and Reference Numbers
As we demonstrated, Rolex constantly tinkered with the design and functionality of the Submariner watch. Size, water resistance, crystal type, luminescent materials, dial details, movements and so on all evolved over the years. Here’s a quick look at different Submariner reference numbers divided into separate tables for the Submariner and the Submariner Date models. (There’s a legend below after the tables).
Overview of Submariner Reference Numbers and Details:
|Ref. #||Prod. Years||Case Size||Lume Type||Dial Details||Crystal Type||Bezel||Cal.||Water Rating|
|6204||1953||37mm; NCG; 5mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Pencil Hands||Acrylic||Al; BD; 5 min intervals||A260||100m|
|6205||1954 – 1955||37mm; NCG; 6mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Pencil or Mercedes Hands||Acrylic||Al; BD; 5 min intervals||A260||100m|
|6200 “Big Crown”||1954||37mm; NCG; 8mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Mercedes Hands; Explorer (3/6/9)||Acrylic||Al; BD; 5 min intervals||A269||200m|
|6538 “Bond Sub”||1954 -1959||37mm; NCG; 8mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Mercedes Hands||Acrylic||Al; BD; First 15min marked||1030 Some COSC||200m|
|6536||1955||37mm; NCG; 6mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Mercedes Hands||Acrylic||Al; BD; First 15min marked||1030||100m|
|6536/1||1955 – 1959||37mm; NCG; 6mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Mercedes Hands||Acrylic||Al; BD; First 15min marked||1030||100m|
|5508||1958 – 1962||37mm; NCG; 6mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Mercedes Hands; Some with SCOC||Acrylic||Al; BD; First 15min marked||1530||100m|
|5510 “Big Crown”||1958 – 1959||37mm; NCG; 8mm WC||Radium||Gilt Dial; Mercedes Hands||Acrylic||Al; BD; First 15min marked||1530||200m|
|5512||1959 – 1978||40mm; SCG/PCG/RCG;||Radium then Tritium||Gilt Dial then Matte Dial; Mercedes Hands; Most with SCOC||Acrylic||Al; BD; First 15min marked||1530 then 1560 (COSC) then 1570 (COSC)||200m|
|5513||1962 -1989||40mm; RCG||Radium then Tritium||Gilt Dial then Matte Dial; Mercedes Hands||Acrylic then Sapphire||Al; BD; First 15min marked;||1520 then 1530||200m|
|5514 “COMEX”||1972 – 1978||40mm; RCG; HEV;||Tritium||Matte Dial; Mercedes Hands; COMEX Logo||Acrylic||Al; BD; First 15min marked||1520 then 1530||200m|
|14060||1990 – 1998||40mm||Tritium then Luminova||Gloss Dial;||Sapphire||Al; UD; First 15min marked||3000||300m|
|14060M||1998 – 2012||40mm||Luminova then Super Luminova||Gloss Dial||Sapphire||Al; UD; First 15min marked||3130||300m|
|114060 “Super case”||2012 –||40mm||Chromalight||Gloss Maxi Dial||Sapphire||Cer; UD First 15min marked||3130||300m|
Overview of Submariner Date Reference Numbers and Details:
|Ref. #||Prod. Years||Metal||Lume Type||Dial Details||Crystal Type||Bezel||Cal.||Water Rating|
|1680 “Red Sub” & “Great White”||1967 – 1979||Steel||Tritium||Matte Dial; Red text then white text||Acrylic||Al; BD; Black||1575||200m|
|1680/8||1969 – 1979||Yellow Gold||Tritium||Black or Blue Nipple Dial;||Acrylic||Al; BD; Black or Blue||1575||200m|
|16800||1979 – 1988||Steel||Tritium||Matte Dial;||Sapphire||Al; UD; Black||3035||300m|
|16808||1979 – 1988||Yellow Gold||Tritium||Black or Blue Nipple Dial then Gloss Dial; Serti Dial||Sapphire||Al; UD; Black or Blue||3035||300m|
|16803||1983 – 1988||Steel & Yellow Gold||Tritium||Black or Blue Nipple Dial then Gloss Dial; Serti Dial||Sapphire||Al; UD; Black or Blue||3035||300m|
|168000||1988 – 1989||Steel (904L)||Tritium||Matte Dial;||Sapphire||Al; UD; Black||3035||300m|
|16610||1988 -2010||Steel||Tritium then Luminova then Super Luminova||Black Gloss Dial||Sapphire||Al; UD; Black||3135||300m|
|16610LV “Kermit”||2003 -2010||Steel||Super Luminova||Black Gloss Dial;||Sapphire||Al; UD; Green||3135||300m|
|16618||1988 -2008||Yellow Gold||Tritium then Luminova then Super Luminova||Gloss Dial; Serti Dial||Sapphire||Al; UD; Black or Blue||3135||300m|
|16613||1988 -2009||Steel & Yellow Gold||Tritium then Luminova then Super Luminova||Gloss Dial; Serti Dial||Sapphire||Al; UD; Black||3135||300m|
|116618||2008 –||Yellow Gold||Chromalight||Gloss Maxi Dial||Sapphire||Cer; UD; Black or Blue||3135||300m|
|116619 “Smurf”||2008 –||White Gold||Chromalight||Blue Gloss Maxi Dial||Sapphire||Cer; UD; Blue||3135||300m|
|116613||2009 –||Steel & Yellow Gold||Chromalight||Black or Blue Gloss Maxi Dial||Sapphire||Cer; UD; Black or Blue||3135||300m|
|116610||2010 –||Steel||Chromalight||Black Gloss Maxi Dial||Sapphire||Cer; UD; Black||3135||300m|
|116610LV “Hulk”||2010 –||Steel||Chromalight||Green Gloss Maxi Dial||Sapphire||Cer; UD; Green||3135||300m|
NCG = No Crown Guards
SCG = Square Crown Guards
PCG = Pointed Crown Guards
RCG = Rounded Crown Guards
WC = Winding Crown
SCOC = Superlative Chronometer Officially certified
A Word About Aftermarket or Service Components on Pre-Owned Submariner Watches
When shopping for a pre-owned Submariner watch, the goal of many collectors is to find a model it its original condition with original bezels, dials, hands, bracelets, and so on. Yet, given the age of these watches (and in many cases, the types of active lives lead by their owners) this is not always feasible.
Responsible watch owners typically send their timepieces in for regular servicing to maintain the watch’s beauty and performance. And of course, if a Rolex gets damaged, it gets sent in to a repair center to get fixed. However, it is standard procedure for worn out/damaged components to be replaced during servicing. Therefore, it is very common to find an older Submariner watch fitted with newer service dials, bezels, and other parts in the pre-owned Rolex market.
Furthermore, some watch owners like to customize their Rolexes with aftermarket parts such as bracelets, gems, dials, and bezels. Note that an authorized Rolex service center will not service any watch that has been modified or customized by non-authorized Rolex parties.
So when looking at used Rolex Submariner models, it’s important to inquire about the service history of the particular watch you’re contemplating to buy to determine which parts are original, which are service replacements, and which are aftermarket.
Stay tuned for the other chapters of our Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex series where we’ll go deep into other models like the Day-Date, Datejust, GMT-Master, and Daytona.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.