Alongside the Daytona and fellow diver the Sea-Dweller, the Submariner is among the most collectible of any watch in the Rolex stable.
Its turbulent early life, with the brand seemingly experimenting endlessly in order to get every element exactly right, threw out ten separate references in the first decade of production. While none could be described as plentiful on the vintage market, there are some that redefine the word rare.
Strangely, there has long been an argument over which was the first model released. The ref. 6200 and ref. 6204 both came out almost simultaneously, the former fitted with a larger 8mm crown that gave it a 200m water resistance, as opposed to the standard 6mm of the latter, rating it down to 100m. The pair were only made for a very short time, replaced by the similarly fleeting ref. 6205, which differed from the 6204 only in the shape of its handset—replacing the pencil style with the time-honored Mercedes.
With such a brief manufacture, all three qualify as extremely scarce, but even more uncommon is a reference from 1955, the ref. 6536. This is seen as something of a transition piece, the small crown version of the ref. 6538, the watch Sean Connery wore as he set about fixing Dr. No’s wagon. Estimates put the number of 6536’s in existence at around 100.
James Bond’s Submariner is obviously especially desirable too, with examples selling for deep into six figure territory. The ref. 6538 is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as the first of the ‘Big Crown’ Subs.
The final pair of references released without crown guards, the ref. 5508 and ref. 5510, were only made in the hundreds rather than the thousands like later references, but you will still be able to find them for sale quite readily. Prices, however, can get astronomical.
What followed on from that piece are a duo of Submariners with two of the longest production runs of them all. The ref. 5512 emerged in 1959, complete with guards for the crown, a model still being made until 1978.
Outdoing even that, the ref. 5513 was launched in 1962, ostensibly identical to the 5512 but never given a COSC-rated movement and therefore the cheaper of the two. Over its 40-years in the catalog, far more of the 5513 were made and today it acts as an accessible and very popular gateway into the world of vintage Rolex collecting.
The last great upheaval to the Submariner was introduced in 1969, with the arrival of the ref. 1680 and its date function, along with the controversial Cyclops. Although pricier than the 5513, this historically important chapter in the Sub’s story is still more attainable than you might imagine.
There are, as anyone with a passing interest in Rolex collecting will know, little subsets within all these different watches that have tiny discrepancies which can put their resale value through the roof.
The first run of the 1680, for instance, have ‘Submariner’ printed in red, adding on massive premiums over the more usual white writing. Some model references have the depth rating shown in meters first, others have a small dot under the baton at six o’clock which have become known as the exclamation mark dials.
We looked at the models issued to the military earlier, the MilSubs consisting of specially modified 6538, 5512 and 5513 pieces and the custom-made 5517.
And don’t forget the 5514, the prototype forerunner to the Sea-Dweller, essentially a standard 5513 retro-fitted with a Helium Escape Valve and never officially released to the public.
Of the most recent run, the more colorful pieces remain excellent targets for collectors and investors alike. The Hulk is still being made, as is the so-called Smurf (a stunning white gold model with blue dial and bezel) and so don’t yet have the all-important exclusivity factor. But the Kermit, the 50thanniversary release with its green surround, was discontinued in 2010, triggering an upsurge in prices for pre-owned models.
All these watches, and many many more besides, exist in greater or lesser numbers and there are enough differences between them to fill a coffee table book.
The key for those wanting to secure themselves a vintage Submariner is to do as much homework as possible. As we said, there are oceans of counterfeits out there, and it is imperative you trust your seller completely.