Rolex Decades: The ‘50s Submariner Versus the ‘60s Submariner -

Rolex Decades: The ‘50s Submariner Versus the ‘60s Submariner

Among the many things for which Rolex is world renowned is the agelessness of their watch designs. 

With most of their heavy hitters taking shape in the 1950s, there has generally been little else to do with them visually over the subsequent decades other than a subtle alteration here and there—put simply, for the most part, the brand just gets it right the first time.

That means a piece from today’s collection is unmistakably derived, outwardly at least, from its debut model some 60+ years ago. 

Inside, however, is a different story. As enduringly traditional as their watches might look, Rolex has always been at the forefront of advancing new materials and pushing revolutionary mechanics. The catalog of developments pioneered by the manufacture is exhaustive, as is their list of patents. 

Of course, this road of progression is a long and winding one, with improvements made over long periods in small incremental steps.

That leaves certain models looking apparently unchanged from one decade to the next. Yet that is seldom the case. You might have to squint, but it is rare that any Rolex watch stays exactly the same for more than a few years.

To that end, we have put together a new series of blogs highlighting what changes actually take place on a particular piece. And where better to start than perhaps the most recognized and sought-after of them all; the Rolex Submariner.

The ‘50s Submariner Versus the ‘60s Submariner: History

The 1950s was a ridiculously fertile time at Rolex. As well as the world’s favorite dive watch, this was the era which also gave rise to the Explorer, the GMT-Master, the Day-Date, the Turn-O-Graph and the Milgauss.

While some went on to become more successful than others, all of them helped seal the company’s status as being among the most forward-thinking and cutting-edge watchmakers operating anywhere—a reputation already taking shape on the back of the Datejust released in the mid-1940s.

But it was the Submariner which did far more than its fair share of the heavy lifting where the prominence of the Rolex name was concerned.

The first watch rated waterproof to the magic number of 100m, its no-nonsense build married previously unheard-of robustness to perfect legibility and still managed to wrap it all up in a design versatile enough to be worn with anything from a business suit to a wetsuit.

It was a hit from the get-go but, as with just about every new model debuting in the ‘50s, its first few years in production were turbulent ones.

From its unveiling in 1953 until the end of the decade, the Sub went through a total of nine different references. Some ran concurrently with others, but all were given some form of delicate tweak to try and perfect the enterprise in one way or another.

In order, those references were as follows:

Ref. 6204—(1953): The original model

Ref. 6205—(1954): Thicker case than the ref. 6204 and slightly larger crown

Ref. 6200—(1955-1956): First ‘Big Crown’ Sub and first to be waterproof to 200m

Ref. 6536—(1955-1959): Thinner case and smaller crown. Upgraded to Cal. 1030 rather than Cal. A296 or Cal. A260 from previous references

Ref. 6536/1—(1957-1960): Identical to ref. 6536 except with chronometer-rated movement

Ref. 6538—(1956-1959): Chronometer-rated Big Crown, and the reference worn by Sean Connery in Dr No, so sealing its unofficial nickname of the ‘Bond Sub’

Ref. 5510—(1958): Identical to the ref. 6538 but fitted with the new Cal. 1530

Ref. 5508—(1958-1962): Small crown version of the ref. 6536 and the first Submariner to be marked as a ‘Superlative Chronometer’

Ref. 5512—(1959-1980)—the reference which really amalgamated everything which had worked on the other eight models, as well as introducing a little something extra

The ‘50s Submariner Versus the ‘60s Submariner: the ref. 5512

As you can see, Rolex didn’t exactly rest on their laurels when they brought out the original Submariner in 1953. But after just six years of frenetic activity, they hit on the ref. 5512, a model so well put-together that the Sub’s overall aesthetic remained practically untouched for the next half-century.

It was the first reference to measure 40mm in diameter, while the others ranged from 36mm to 38mm. It was also the first to introduce crown guards but, this being Rolex, it isn’t quite as simple as that. The shape of those guards restructured slightly in the years that followed; a seemingly inconsequential change which does nevertheless have huge ramifications on value. 

Of course, with a production run of some 21 years, that wasn’t the only thing which was altered and the 1960s saw plenty of variety in this legendary watch compared to its ‘50s counterpart. But as a starting point, the final Sub from 1959 looked like this:

•           40mm diameter steel case

•           Mercedes handset

•           15-minute hash marked bezel

•           Square or ‘Eagle Beak’ crown guards

•           Red triangle at the 0/60 bezel point 

•           Cal. 1530 movement

•           200m water resistance

•           Black gilt dial with chapter ring

The ‘50s Submariner Versus the ‘60s Submariner: Into the 1960s

The ref. 5512 was the Submariner’s reference going forward into the new decade and was joined in 1962 by the ref. 5513; a duplicate piece save for using a non-chronometer-rated caliber which therefore made it cheaper to buy. (That piece had an even longer run, not retiring until as late as 1989).

The Crown Guards

But the first significant change to the ref. 5512 actually happened towards the end of 1959 when Rolex realized the new square-shaped guards were making it difficult to operate the crown and took to shaving the ends into more of a tapered point—what collectors now call the ‘Eagle Beak’ guards.

The form would continue to evolve throughout the ‘60s, first into the so-called PCG type, or ‘Pointed Crown Guards’ which had a straighter profile, until finally, they became the more rounded sort circa 1964 which would carry the watch for the rest of its run. 

The Movement

Moving to the calibers, the earliest versions of the ref. 5512 were powered by the Cal. 1530, the base movement in Rolex’s new generation of workhorses and the first they had produced entirely in-house. It was a fairly rudimentary mechanism but one which still stands today as among the best the brand has ever made.

The Cal. 1530 also made it into the first run of the ref. 5513, except the units fitted in those models were not sent off to the COSC for certification. Those were soon replaced with the Cal. 1520 which were more basic still, operating without the Microstella regulation system or Breguet overcoil of the Cal. 1530.

Around 1965, the ref. 5512 received an internal upgrade in the form of the Cal. 1560, another 18,000vph movement but one which brought with it Kif shock absorbers and a free-sprung hairspring. The easiest way to tell which movement from this period a ref. 5512 might have is actually the presence or otherwise of the red triangle at the 12 o’clock on the bezel. That was phased out around the same time as the Cal. 1530.

The Cal. 5512 would stick with the Cal. 1560 for the rest of the ‘60s.

The Dial

As for the dial, this too was altered substantially. The first change came in response to the release of the non-chronometer ref. 5513 and introduced the concept of so-called 2-line and 4-line Submariners.

As a quick way to visually separate these otherwise identical watches, the ref. 5513’s lower dial text read simply ‘Submariner’ and ‘200m-660ft’, the lines arranged one on top of the other.

With the ref. 5512’s more expensive, COSC-rated movement, the script ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially certified’ was added, totaling four lines altogether. (To make it more confusing, some ref. 5512s released prior to the ref. 5513 also only had two lines, but were still chronometer rated). 

Then in 1967 or thereabouts, Rolex started their transition from galvanic gilt dials, with beautiful glossy finishes and gold text, to the relatively short-lived matte dials. These had a uniform, greyish-black surface, with the text now in white and the hour markers painted with tritium. It was around this time the Submariner also lost its encircling chapter ring, a small but identifiable vintage touch.

There is another, massively collectable dial type fitted, sparingly, to both the ref. 5512 and 5513. The ‘Explorer’ dial Subs feature the famous 3/6/9 hour markers which have become the defining characteristic of the Rolex watch of the same name. These models were released mainly, for reasons unknown, into the U.K. market. You will also find them (if you are extremely lucky) on some of the very early ref. 6200 and ref. 6538 models.

Of course, there are other seemingly endless tiny variations to the dials on these two references of the Submariner, and we could fill up several posts discussing types such as the Bart Simpson, the Feet First, the Underline, the Double Swiss Underline, the Exclamation Point and on and on and on. However, there’s not enough room for all that here and, quite frankly, it gives me a headache, so for now let’s move on to the really big change the watch went through towards the end of the 1960s.

The ‘50s Submariner Versus the ‘60s Submariner: The Arrival of the Date Display

Somewhere around the end of the decade (incredibly, no one seems to be able to put a definitive date on it) the Submariner received its biggest alteration before or since. 

The arrival of the ref. 1680 brought a date display to the Sub for the very first time and, it is often argued, oversaw its shift from all-out tool watch to businessman’s status symbol. 

Why would a hairy chested scuba diver need to know what date it was while engaged in underwater daring-do, went the cry from some corners (completely ignoring the fact that the recently released Sea-Dweller—built specifically for the hairiest of hairy chested divers—had one from the start).

Whatever your opinion on the matter, the complication was a long time coming and also marked the point where the collection split in two.

From that point on, there has always been a no-date Submariner cast in nothing but stainless steel, and a date version, made in all sorts of precious metals and a variety of colorways.

The fact that the ref. 1680 soon became available in full yellow gold around 1969 gives some credence to the status symbol folk, yet the Sub had already become such a hit by then that it was pretty much inevitable. 

But rather than the date display itself, what most naysayers seemed to object to was the Cyclops magnifying lens over it. While this obviously made the date far easier to read, it did certainly break up the otherwise near-perfect symmetry of the dial as a whole. Regardless, there’s no denying the dated versions have been even more successful than the original. 

Apart from the date function, and the movement driving it (the Cal. 1575), the ref. 1680 was more or less the same as the ref. 5512. The two shared a case shape, with there being no reason to mess with that winning formula, and water resistance stuck at 200m. Even though the Triplock crown had already been invented for the Sea-Dweller, it wouldn’t be until the arrival of the ref. 168000 nearly a decade later that the Sub reached its current 300m rating.

One difference not seen before was the ref. 1680’s ‘Submariner’ text being picked out in red in the earliest pieces, leading to their imaginative moniker amongst collectors as the ‘Single Red’ subs. That reference would also go through plenty of changes throughout its long life, but we have reached the end of the 1960s, so that is a tale for another day.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Rolex Submariner, perhaps the most famous sports watch of all time, is one which has changed the least over its history. But as you can see, it has, and is still, going through an almost ceaseless process of evolution. 

As a brand, Rolex never seems to be satisfied, always pushing to go better still, even in the tiniest amounts. Like an elite athlete, always striving to shave milliseconds off their time by making the most minute adjustments, it is what keeps them at the very top of their game—and the Submariner is the perfect representation. 

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