Few of the twentieth century’s coolest figures didn’t wear a Submariner at some point in their careers. It has been the world’s number one watch since the fifties, and with good reason. After an initial flurry of tweaks and fine-tuning during its developmental stages, Rolex brought it so close to perfection it has since taken them on average a decade to come up with the next way to improve the design.
The Submariner family tree can loosely be broken down into six generations. It has appeared in a number of metals, colour schemes and dial variations, but by far its most popular ensemble is its stainless steel “LN” variation, (Lunette Noire or black bezel), and with a date function covered by a “Cyclops” lens. Its two most recent offspring are the 16610LN, which ran from 1989 to 2010, and the 116610LN which has been in production ever since.
Of course, the newer piece is an upgrade and although clearly better in a number of areas, and available at a more attractive price, it’s not necessarily the one you’ll want to buy. Its older brother looks different, though not in a bad way, and earlier models have now entered vintage territory, giving them a certain cachet. These key factors borne in mind, today, I’ll compare the two for style, function and value for money, which will hopefully help you settle on the right one for you.
Much of the Submariner’s considerable power lies in its style. Robust and functional, it’s as suited to deep water as it is to the office. Unassuming and meticulously considered, its aesthetic has largely been left unchanged since the early years, but to the trained eye, there are in fact a number of differences.
The most obvious of these, and indeed its main selling point, is the addition of the ceramic bezel. “Cerachrom”, as Rolex calls its own extra-durable ceramic compound, has the advantage of being one of the most scratch proof materials in existence. In addition, its colour doesn’t fade like its metal counterpart and all in all it looks super smart. As such, Rolex has now rolled out ceramic bezels across all its sports watches and most rival brands have followed suit.
The two present editions have the same case and bracelet made from 904L steel; a metal with durability and hardness properties generally favoured within the aerospace industry. But the more recent design was given more bulk in its shoulders and crown guards, affording an overall more robust appearance to suit modern tastes. When placed side by side these subtle changes become especially noticeable, and on the wrist, the 116610LN does actually feel a fair bit larger.
The same effect is also apparent on the dial. The 116610LN is fitted with Rolex’s “Maxi dial” set-up, first introduced with the Yacht-Master in 1991, and in use ever since. This translates to slightly larger hour markers and minute hand, with many people describing it as looking slightly sportier. The final change is only apparent in the dark. The 116610LN has the latest lume, which appears brighter and has a cool blue glow.
Of course, in the end, picking between the two comes down to personal taste. The ceramic is the main difference most people are drawn to, and it certainly plays a key role within the decision process. In my opinion, it’s definitely a plus and the lume is equally convincing, but personally, I think the earlier piece looks a shade more elegant thanks to its slimmer profile and slightly softer dial. As a result, I’d say it’s better suited to smarter clothes, which is ultimately what I’m looking to pair it with. To go a step further, looks-wise, I would be tempted to shoot for an early nineties 16610LN, since it has the benefit of the aged, weathered effect affording the overall look an extra touch of elegance.
In terms of quality, Rolex has found some ingenious ways to improve the Submariner. The first and most evident of these is the bracelet. The 21st-century Rolex bracelet is a thing of beauty and in a sense a benchmark for Swiss watch-houses. It is now 100% 904L steel, whereas previously the clasp was made from standard steel. There are no more hollow links either so the problem older Rolexes had of bracelets stretching over prolonged wear is long gone. Finally, the new clasp with its handy Glidelock feature is far more comfortable to use and no longer opens accidentally. It can also be easily adjusted by up to 5 mm, giving you enough slack to loosen it on a warm day.
Inside the case, we find other favourable tune-ups. Rolex has been using the 3135 calibre since 1988 and it still sets the standards in terms of mass-produced automatic movements. It’s a true workhorse requiring infrequent servicing. The newer version is largely the same but it now uses a “Parachrom” hairspring, which is Rolex’s own anti-magnetic material offering up to ten times more resistance to shocks. This is a clear advantage as magnetism is one of the main reasons affecting time gain or loss in watches.
Finally — and this upgrade could be deemed as more subtle, yet when pointed out it can be appreciated — for the newer bezel, Rolex has employed four “click springs” as opposed to one on the previous design . This means the bezel moves much more smoothly and satisfyingly.
All these tweaks are clear enhancements, so for those wanting the latest and shiniest piece, take note. However, we can turn the argument on it head, in that the previous Submariner was already a masterpiece in its own right, and while the new one is indeed “technically better”, these modifications are relatively minimal and not likely to affect your experience with the watch.
As often is the case, the price can play an important part in the final decision, and for most people and it’s where we find the biggest discrepancy. To buy a 116610LN straight out of Rolex you’ll pay £6,250, however, there is such high demand for this model, that the average waiting time is up to six months. As a result, most people turn their attention to the pre-owned market, where there is a premium of up to £2,500. As a rough estimate, for a pre-owned 116610LN in immaculate condition with box and papers, you should expect to pay between £7,800 and £8,700.
Furthermore, the 16610LN was discontinued in 2010 so you can only buy it pre-owned. Generally speaking, given their bulletproof nature, you can expect them to be in excellent condition, although they can range from very good to near-new. Age comes into play here too, with the start and end of production serial numbers commanding the highest values. Expect to pay between £6,000-7,000 for a top grade example and as low as £5,000 for mid-production models in well-worn condition.
If you have followed me this far, then you can understand there is a lot to consider here. In short: chunkier vs slimmer, ceramic vs metal, and meaningful upgrades vs price difference.
Of course, there is no clear answer, but as I mentioned before, there is a standout best value deal — the mid-production 16610LN, on average can be picked up for £5,000-5,500. As mentioned, these also have the added benefit of bringing into play an aged look affording the watch character, plus the more restrained profile and dial layout, and this indeed is where I would be tempted to go.
That said, the 116610LN has a number of first-rate new features — particularly the upgraded bracelet, movement and lume — and for many, the ceramic bezel is the dealmaker. It was widely praised when it was introduced and its visual merits play a big role. So, if you’re willing to shell out a little extra, the 116610LN is the one for you. Either way, you can be safe in the knowledge you’re getting one of the best watches on the planet!
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