The development of the Submariner — perhaps the most recognisable watch in history — started long before its release in 1953. Twenty-seven years earlier, a young swimmer names Mercedes Gleitz swam the English Channel with the first ever waterproof watch hanging from a cord around her neck. It was the ‘Oyster, a case sealed with a screw-down case back, a tight-fitting sealed crystal and a double-sealed screw-down crown. Rolex dealers advertised the Oyster watches by submerging them in fish tanks in their shop windows, which made them an immediate success.
The Oyster case had been developed from early pocket-to-wristwatch conversions, which had little more protection than a snap-shut hinged door over its movement. Hans Wilsdorf, father of Rolex, recognised this flaw and, taking inspiration from jar lids, created a watch that sat inside a sealed case whose front section had to be completely unscrewed to reveal the crown. This ‘hermetic’ watch was the inspiration for the watch that Mercedes swam with, using the same principles to seal it from the water.
A further development that helped make the Submariner legendary was that of the perpetual movement. The screw-down sealed crown was frustrating to undo to manually wind the movement, and frequent usage wore the rubber gaskets down, so Rolex, using unsuccessful developments from other manufacturers, invented a self-winding system that used an oscillating weight that spun 360 degrees with the wearers wrist movement. The oft-copied rotating bezel, pioneered on the Rolex Turn-O-Graph, was another feature that made it to the Submariner.
By 1953, all the components were available to Rolex to make the perfect diving watch. The legendary Jacques Cousteau helped to test the prototypes, and can be seen wearing one in ‘The Silent World, the Academy Award-winning documentary about the Mediterranean Sea.
The Submariner was a revelation. Water resistant to 100 metres, it was clear to read, solidly built and classically styled. The bracelet included a divers extension, too, which allowed the watch to be adjusted for use over a wetsuit without the need for tools. To the untrained eye, the Submariner has all but stayed the same since its inception — as they say: if it aint broke, dont fix it.
Subtle changes were made over the years, such as the inclusion of a date window, the COSC certification of the movement and slight dial changes to keep the Submariner looking fresh, but overall the DNA remained the same. The most significant changes were implemented recently with release of the 116610 in 2010, which features a larger case, ceramic bezel, updated movement, and refined bracelet and clasp. These updates brought the Rolex Submariner into the 21st century. It is a classic watch that represents the innovation of Hans Wilsdorf and is considered pretty much horological perfection.
- The Submariner was the original watch of James Bond, appearing in nine of the films.
- The Submariner 16610 Lunette Verde (Green Bezel) was released in 2003 to celebrate 50 years of the Submariner.
- One of the rarest Submariners produced is the 168000, made for no more than nine months during 1987.
[Note: This is an updated post of a Guest Article published earlier on our website by Gary Robery from Watchfinder.co.uk]