“It is very distinctive, it is very stylish – it is very Louis Vuitton… wherever you go in the world you will see people carrying the distinctive Louis Vuitton brand… whether it is a little bag or a huge suitcase. It talks of distinction and taste” – Cherie Blair at the London Louis Vuitton New Bond Street Maison Opening.
Most people who think of a Rolex can quickly name some distinguishing characteristics: the bubble, smooth oyster bracelet and black bezel. A quaint but distinctive description of what could be Rolex's most famous and sought after watch, the Submariner.
To those uninitiated watch aficionados, the early Submariners are a much sought after collectible while the modern Submariner is also highly sought by new comers to the watch craze – so much so, that many overseas retailers quote waiting periods of up to five years!
So why the fuss over a watch that is made for the niche market of deep sea diving? There surely couldn't be that many divers amongst us?
Most well read collectors will cite two main reasons for why the Submariner has caught the admiration of collectors.
The first and probably foremost, is the Submariner's presence in the early James Bond films. Who wouldn't want a watch, whose bezel, spinning like a circular saw, allowed 007 to slice through the ropes that bound him? The "James Bond" Submariner would be the jewel in any collection, though exactly which models are the elusive "James Bond" models can cause a furore – a matter that will be dealt with shortly.
The second reason is Rolex's practice of actively marketing the "over engineering" of their watches! In last magazine's article, we covered briefly, the whole range of Rolex's "tool watches" - watches designed to withstand the most rigorous conditions of the fields of work for which they are designed. The history of the Submariner is testimony to the lengths that Rolex will go to ensure that their watches will withstand anything.
That story begins in 1953 when Rolex designed the Deep Sea Special which, when attached to the outside of the now infamous 'bathyscaphe' withstood the pressure of 10,336 feet (3150 feet)!
In 1960, Rolex successfully tested the protégé of the Deep Sea Special, most aptly named the "Piccard" (model 7205/0) after the owner of the bathyscaphes on which they were tested. This model was able to reach the astonishing depth of 35,798 feet (11,000 metres). These masterstrokes by the Rolex publicity machine created major worldwide interest and, when coupled with the Rolex Submariner featuring in the full length underwater film "Le monde du silence" by Dumas and Cousteau, ensured the public release of the Submariner would by a success when it first appeared at the 1954 Basel Spring Fair.
As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of debate amongst collectors as to which models can be accurately referred to as "James Bond" Submariners. The descriptions in this article, whilst only being a summary of the material available on the subject, should satisfy the most discerning of collectors.
Most collectors consider any Submariner without crown guards (the protrusions that protect the screw down crown found on modern Submariners) as a "James Bond", while some of the more astute collectors will argue that that feature alone is not enough. What is also required is that it must be a model 6200, 6204, 6536 or 6538 as well as having the larger 'Brevet' crown (the predecessor to the modern 'Triplock' crown).
The "James Bond" watches that have all of the latter features have fetched relatively phenomenal prices at auction, but that shouldn't dishearten those that are green to collecting. The moderately priced 5513, that is still relatively easy to obtain today is arguably a "James Bond", having featured on the wrist of Roger Moore in Live and Let Die. Out of interest, the actual 5513 worn by Roger Moore sold at a Christie's auction in 2001 for ₤26,523!
The Submariner was so well regarded, that many models were adapted for use by the British Royal Navy. Throughout the 1950's Rolex customised the 6204 and the 6538 for the British Royal Navy and in the 1960's started to issue them with the 5513, with the easily distinguishing letter "T" within a circle on the dial. The British Royal Marines, not to be short changed, were issued with the specially designed 5517 which is identical to the 5513 with the exception of the bezel which features individual minute markings all the way round as opposed to the first fifteen minutes. The common features of all the military issued Submariners are that their strap bars are soldered in place to allow the watch to be fitted with a military-style cloth strap and "identifying service numbers" are engraved on the case backs.
Last but not least, one cannot write about collectible Submariners and not make mention of the "Red" and Comex Submariners. The more well known "Red" Submariner was introduced in what could be described as the formative years from 1960 – 1980 which lays claim to model references 5512, 5513, 1680 red and 1680 white. For the sake of completeness the experimental years from 1950 – 1960 include model references 6200, 6204, 6205, 6536, 6536/1, 6538, 5508 and 5510; while the stable years include model references 16800, 16610, 14060, 14060M and the newly released "Green" Submariner (model 16610LV) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Submariner. It can be clearly identified by its green bezel and distinctively larger hour makers on par with those of the 1680.
The 1680 was the successor of the 5512 and 5513 and introduced the date feature to the Submariner range. It was on these early 1680's that the word Submariner was printed in red but was quickly changed to white, hence guaranteeing the "Red" Submariner a spot in every collection.
The Comex Submariner can only be described as rare as rocking horse manure! These models were the result of Rolex's early experimentation with the 5513 and 5514 fitted with a "Gas Escape Valve" at the request of the French saturation diving company C.O.M.E.X (Compagnie Maritime E d'Expertise) and culminated into today's Sea-Dweller, but that is another story…………………..