The Rolex Submariner, hate it or love it, has been adorning wrists for more than 60 years now. It is arguably the most recognizable dive watch this side of the Galaxy. The dive watch that seems to inspire all other dive watches. Eventually every collector, ends up at the very least casually flirting with it. In this buyer’s guide, we’re having a look at the key steel releases over the past decades. This knowledge will then hopefully help guide you when facing the unavoidable: buying your first Submariner.
Books have been written and a seemingly unlimited amount of data is floating around the internet concerning the Rolex Submariner. As per good old tradition, our aim is to provide you with the essential bits and pieces to get you started on your journey. One thing is for certain, if you’re going to buy a vintage sub: Do your homework. Within a single reference number you will find several dial variations and case variations. Reason being that Rolex has been experimenting quite a bit, relentlessly tweaking and improving upon this now classic design. Before it became the luxury watch that it is today, this was all about functionality and making a reliable & professional toolwatch. In this guide, COMEX and other special variations will not be covered. We’ll do a special guide on the special editions on another special moment in time (see what I did there).
Without further ado, let’s get to it, gather your gear, secure loose hoses and other objects that may dangle and damage the reef. Do a head to toe check and let’s explore the Submariner legacy together.
Note: As for all our Buyer’s Guides we are occasionally updating and fine-tuning these with new information & or pictures as we go along.
Too long; didn’t read summary: First, do your homework. Then, if you really want to treat yourself, go for a grail-worthy 6200. If you enjoy the hunt, perhaps peek into the flavorful world of the 5512 & 5513. Feeling like Bond, then go grab em by the 5538. Pre-168X vintage subs didn’t make a distinction between ‘date’ and ‘no-date’, none of them had date windows. Rather they set themselves apart through their depth ratings (100m Small Crown vs 200m Big Crown). Big Crowns tend to be where the party’s at. For a ‘modern’ vintage, the 168X references are a very good place to start.
Gilt-y as charged
Prior to diving in the Submariner variations, it is worth understanding the evolution of Rolex Sub dials. Specifically the evolution from gilt dials, to matte dials, back to shiny non-gilt dials. As per the Cambridge dictionary, gilt means “covered with a thin layer of gold or a substance that is intended to look like it”.
Gilt dials are essentially a black lacquer, glossy dial with gilt (not white) printing on them. There is in principle nothing printed in white and the dials shouldn’t be matte (there are exceptions to this rule). Technically speaking they are not printed, but that’s a whole other discussion. What is visually very appealing about a gilt dial is that depending on the light, it looks quite a bit different. Gilt dial Rolex’s are more rare and sought-after, and therefore also catch a premium over their non-gilt siblings.
For reference, Rolex used Gilt dials for the Submariners generally speaking during the Fifties and Sixties, and just before the turn of the Seventies they switched to the printed matte dials. Then in the mid-eighties or so, they introduced glossy dials with white print as we know them today. So if someone is selling you a fifties era matte & white print dialed sub, think twice before buying…
Key takeaway: The birth of an icon and extremely rare
I’m starting this write-up with the 6204 and 6205, despite there being a 6200 as well which one would logically expect to come first. The verdict is still out there as to which was the very first Submariner release. Logically speaking the 6200 would be the first, although 6204 was the first official documented release at Baselworld. All three are considered very rare & this is reflected in the high prices they are currently going for. The 6200 seems to reign king on the secondary market.
The 6204 was first introduced to the world at Baselworld in 1954. They have a small (screw down) crown and a much thinner case when comparing to the 6200. Neither the 6204 nor the 6205 necessarily have the stereotypical Mercedes hands which we today associate with Rolex & the Sub specifically. The 6204’s would generally be sporting pencil hands and most of the 6205’s would come with the Mercedes hands (Radium Lumed). The water resistance for both is half that of the 6200 and maxes out at 100 meters. The 6205 is a hair bigger than the 6204. Both are powered by Calibre A260.
If you’re looking at acquiring one of these, a lot of homework is recommended. Several dial variations exist, including a honeycomb variation. On many dials the word Submariner is either not present or blacked out, it was not yet trademarked at the time. These were in very short production, and were replaced rather quickly by the 6536/6538.
Key takeaway: Holy Grail be thy name and 3-6-9
The mother of all Submariners. It is the ‘tool’ version of the 6204/5. It was the more robust and ‘professional’ version of the former and powered by calibre A296. It has three distinct features when comparing to the 6204/5: Mercedes hands (Radium Lumed), a big 8mm ‘Brevet’ crown, and it features the Explorer’s gorgeous 3-6-9 on the dial. It had a water resistance of 200 meters, doubling that of the 6204/5. This is also the watch that launched the big crown which is also shared afterwards by the 6538 and 5510. One thing which seems to ring true for any of the Subs that follow, any of the Big Crown models seem to fetch more than their Small Crown brethren on the collectors market.
From a collector’s point of view this is a (very) tempting piece as it was a rather limited release compared to the 6204/6205. For many, this is considered the essential Rolex (submariner). The reference 6200 is quite simply put one of the most collectible of all vintage sport watches to date – and the sky high price reflects that.
Key takeaway: It’s complicated.
The upgraded 6204, now powered by calibre 1030. For the first time the automatic movement is able to wind bi-directional. Essentially the same watch as the 6538 that follows it, with the distinct difference that the 6536 has a slimmer case, smaller crown, and half the water resistance. It features a much upgraded Calibre 1030, a serious upgrade from the 6204. This particular ref was in extremely short production and received an upgrade which is being referenced as Ref 6536-1. Despite the similar reference number, both of these are quite different watches. The 6536 is often misquoted to be a (much more common) 6536-1.
Key takeaway: Bond. James Bond. And also a Big Crown.
The upgraded 6205, 200m water resistant slightly thicker case than the 6536 and Big Crown. It has a (often faded) red triangle on the bezel to add some spice.
Note that this has a bit of a history similar to the current Explorer 214270 in that it has been slightly tweaked without having its reference number changed. The Mark II of the 6538 had a more substantial case, a different bezel design from the Mark I and the calibre now being chronometer. Here again, there have been different dial variations and the taste of the day seems to be the 3-6-9 variant. There are dials out there with two-lines of text and others with four lines of text etc…
The 6583 is arguably the most commercially important release to date for the Submariner. For the simple reason that it was this reference that featured in James Bond “Dr No” on Sean Connery’s wrist which has been boosting Submariner sales to date.
Submariner 5508 – 5510
Key takeaway: The last of the no-guards.
The Small and Big Crown variations and the last models of the submariner to feature no crown guards. The last of their kind so to speak.
The Big Crown 5510 model seems to have been produced for only a very limited time and in very limited quantity (300-400 or so watches), extremely rare indeed. Therefore I’m not sure if a kidney or two will cover the downpayment for one of these given the current vintage market conditions.
The 5508 is in addition to being the last of the no-guard generation also the very last ‘small crown’ submariner, as a bigger crown will end up becoming standard for the Submariners. If you’re on the hunt for this particular model and want to go for an ultra collectible piece, be on the lookout for the “Exclamatian Point Dial”. At the 6-o’clock position it has a dot under the marker, making it appear like an exclamation point. These were only produced in very limited quantity around 1961-62.
Submariner 5512 and 5513
Key takeaway: Big Crown and Crown guards reign.
These two see a big cosmetic change over their predecessors with the introduction of crown guards. Note that the difference between both references is that the 5512 is generally speaking chronometer certified whereas the 5513 was not. There is no longer a small & big crown variant, both of these feature the (soon to be) standard crown. Good to know is that there’s also a special 5513 out there nicknamed the ‘MilSub’ which was issued to the British divers (a.o. this version has fixed bars).
As this was new territory, within these references you see some experimenting going on, specifically you will find some cases with flat or ‘square’ crown guards and others with more pointy crown guards. In addition, both these references were in production for a long time so there are plenty of them out there. Challenge is finding one that hasn’t been serviced to oblivion and in original condition. If going after one of these, I would argue not to aim for one specific reference as they are so similar. Rather I would suggest to go for the one you can find at a correct price and in the best and most original condition. Keep in mind that the 5512 are quite a bit more expensive as the 5513’s out there (as there are fewer of them available).
In fact, there were so many variations within this same reference, that I would suggest quite a bit of study-time prior to buying one of these. I’d say a book could be filled detailing all the variations (explorer dials, military dials…) and changes within this reference. Note also that they are switching from Radium to Tritium at this point in time. For the true treasure hunters out there not shying away from a challenge, this is the reference for you.
Key takeaway: Red or dead, Super Dome and Cyclops
The key aspect of the 1680 is that the 55-series has been upgraded (downgraded for some) with a date window (and a cyclops). It has a very high domed crystal which is quite interesting to observe. In addition, the transition which happened with the 5513 is complete and the 1680 is now with a glossy black dial. There’s a red and a white variant of this reference, both powered by calibre 1575. The ‘Red’ means that the word Submariner is written in Red and that’s pretty much all the rage with the collectors. The Red was discontinued and ipso facto these now command a serious premium over their white variant.
I’m repeating myself here, but also within this reference 1680 there are several dial variations, it appears that there were seven dial variations total. Homework is required – nay mandatory – prior to purchasing one of these. Not only the dial has variations, but also the bezel. You will find the (most desirable) ‘fat font’ bezel and a standard bezel variation. The fat font bezel, as the name suggests, has a fatter font used for the numbers in the bezel, and is the most rare of the two.
Ignoring the ‘red’ variant of this one, as from the 1680 these can all be considered watch purchases for your only & daily watch. Simply due to the fact that firstly, they’re crazy versatile, and not too rare that you need to take on a second mortgage to find one. Specifically if you move up to ref 16800 and beyond, you’re looking at lovely ‘modern’ watches you can wear rather than store in a vault.
Key takeaway: Sapphire.
The 16800 signals the introduction of sapphire crystal to the submariner range. As the reference number indicates, this is an evolved and modernized 1680. These were in production for about a decade and can be found today at ‘reasonable’ price levels. While these don’t come with dial variations and such, here you’re looking at condition of the piece, should you wish to buy one of these. Do you go for a minty fresh one, or a particular model in need of some horological TLC?
Key takeaway: Transitional
The triple zero is hard to distinguish from the double zero to the naked eye. Excluding exceptions, what the 168000 has that the 16800 doesn’t, is the introduction of Rolex’s 904L Steel. This particular reference was a transition piece and has not been in production for a very long time (less than one year).
If you’re looking for a vintage daily wearer, this is not a bad choice at all (understatement).
Submariner 16610 and 116610
Key takeaway: Take my money
I’m grouping both of these in one paragraph as you’ll be comparing both either way if you’re looking at either of these models. Key difference is that the latter has all the latest and greatest Rolex innovations whereas the former may appeal more to some due to its similar specs (including the 300m depth rating) in a more classic case design.
The ref 16610 shows the now standard white gold luminous markers on the glossy dial. The 116610 sees the introduction of a ceramic bezel (love it or hate it) and leaves the aluminium bezel of the 16610 in the past. It also features the latest and greatest Rolex Parachrome Blue hairspring powered Caliber 3135. The 16610 has the old-fashioned green lume, whereas the 116610 is sporting the new and improved blue Chromalight.
Key difference other than the minor (visually speaking) tweaks mentioned above is that the older one has a more classic proportioned case whereas the 116610 has the fatter more modern case. The difference is quite considerable and it is worth checking both out in real life as it alters the look of the watch drastically in my opinion. The latest version has fatter lugs, fatter crown guards, resulting in an overall larger wearing watch.
Submariner 14060 – 14060M – 114060
Key takeaway: No date surprise
I’m grouping all three of these no-date subs in one bucket, yes indeed. The essential bits for all three can be summarized quite simply as follows: The 14060 gives you the option to continue a life without a date window and thus moving forward from the 55 references. It was released shortly before the abovementioned 16800. The 14060M saw a modified movement and was also the very last sleek case no-date sub. This was then replaced by the 114060 which has the maxi case and ceramic bezel.
There seems to be a submariner variation out there for everybody. Once you single out the reference that ticks all your boxes, make sure to really dig in and do some reading. There are excellent books out there on the subject. They are not for free, but they will spare you a potential expensive headache. In addition, when talking vintage watches never forget the golden rule: You’re not just buying the watch, you’re buying the seller.