The claim that the Rolex Submariner is the greatest watch in the world isn’t a fringe belief, held onto by acolytes of the brand and prissy watch collectors. It’s widely regarded as a statement of fact, and a notion which even the most passionate fan of other brands and models would struggle to argue against.
Ever since it first came onto the scene in 1954, the Submariner has been one of the most highly sought-after and most frequently imitated watches in the world. Its combination of timeless style and rugged practicality have made this timepiece the Rolex model. Indeed, even those who don’t have the first clue about luxury watches could easily identify the Submariner as belonging to this world-famous brand.
But what is it that makes the Submariner so special, and that imbues this particular series with such unwavering and enduring appeal? Let’s take a closer look at this unique timepiece, and consider the facts behind this truly impressive example of what Rolex have always done best.
The Submariner: Launching a Legend
Rolex founder and president Hans Wilsdorf was a formidable businessman, with an eye for marketing details which led him to the headiest heights of his industry. However, he was no dictator when it came to running his business; he was genuinely interested in the ideas of his staff members, and was renowned for his open-mindedness when it came to the new ideas floating around the Rolex headquarters. His board of directors featured a certain Rene-Paul Jeanneret, whose passions in life were divided between two things: fine watchmaking, and deep-sea diving.
Jeanneret was aware of the relatively recent developments in naval and diving watches (such as those pioneered in the late ‘50s by Blancpain), and presented to Wilsdorf a new concept: a watch which not only could be used by divers at impressive depths, but which also doubled as an elegant timepiece for everyday use. He believed, and was proven correct, that diving was associated with the spirit of adventure and new frontiers of discovery that Rolex should have at its core. As such, a Rolex diving watch would be the ideal accessory for modern men looking to embrace that very spirit, and they would be interested in wearing a timepiece which so clearly represented a new leap forward in design and potential.
Water-resistant watches which also functioned as sophisticated timepieces for regular wear were nothing new to Rolex, and Jeanneret had to return to the president’s office on more than one occasion to press his belief that his idea had the legs the company looked for. Rolex had gained considerable success throughout the early 50’s with a series of high-quality tool watches, and once Jeanneret could convince Wilsdorf that this idea for a professional diver’s watch was the next logical step on that trajectory, the concept really took flight. The rest is history: the fully water-resistant Oyster case with a perfectly-fitting screw-down crown and self-winding movement just needed a sharp new design, a pioneering use of new materials, and catchy name. Once all of this was achieved, and the earlier models were tested by world-class divers (which included the legendary Jacques Cousteau, whose endorsement had a profound effect on the popularity of the Rolex diver’s watch) the Submariner was born.
It seems unlikely that Wilsdorf, Jeanneret, or even Cousteau could have envisioned the life the Submariner was to take on for the remainder of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the new millennium. However, it wasn’t particularly long before this model became a firm favourite with some of the 20th century’s most enduring style icons and stars; Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster, and even James Bond himself were all dedicated wearers of the the Submariner model. Their enthusiasm for the series, alongside the fact that the Submariner watch has a timeless charm all of its own, paved the way for a modern legend, and a timepiece which remains high on the wishlists of discerning watch wearers across the globe.
A Six-Decade Evolution of Perfection
One of the keys to the Submariner’s success has been the fact that this series, perhaps more effectively than any other, has been able to maintain a truly distinctive style while experimenting with new colour schemes and technological advancements. Over the past sixty years, it has evolved remarkably as a diving watch, constantly bettering itself, while remaining true to its roots.
For example, the strength of steel used in the Submariner has been continually updated across the decades, upping the durability of the watch to truly impressive levels. Indeed, contemporary Submariner watches are made of 904L steel; a material only commonly used by the aerospace industry.
The crown guards have also been updated several times, the scratch-resistant ceramic bezel replaced the previous aluminium insert, the original caliber was replaced with a 3135 in 1988… the list goes on. What hasn’t changed, however, is the unmistakable shape, style, and sense of peerless cool that this watch displays by the bucketload.
Versatility and Enduring Style
We could talk endlessly about the incredible feats of engineering which go into the creation of the Submariner and the remarkable materials used in these timepieces. However, this would only go halfway towards explaining why the Sub is so special and often thought of as the world’s greatest timepiece.
One of the principal reasons the Submariner is such a favourite is its versatility. Need an impressive watch to wear with a sharp suit? The Submariner fits the bill perfectly. Want to add an element of timeless charm to a jeans and t-shirt ensemble? This watch is the one for you. Looking for the perfect item to accessorise your tuxedo? If it’s good enough for Bond, it’s good enough for anyone. There’s something about the simplicity and directness of the design of the Submariner, along with Rolex’s clever use of contrasting and harmonising colours, which makes this timepiece look utterly fantastic with any outfit. Appropriate for business meetings, nights on the town, high society functions, and everyday wear, there really isn’t another watch in the world with the same charm and incredible versatility.
A Point of Inspiration
The Rolex Submariner holds the rather dubious distinction of being the most counterfeited watch design in the world. While that’s nothing to crow about, there’s a lot to be said for the fact that a large handful of genuine luxury watchmakers have shown that imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.
Several luxury timepiece companies, including Bremont and Breitling, have released their own ‘reimaginings’ of the Submariner (some of which are out-and-out homages, others of which are somewhat more subtle nods to the classic design), proving that this design has solidly cemented itself as the benchmark diver’s watch all others are measured by.
Variations on a Truly Timeless Theme
It’s often said that there’s a Submariner for every wrist. Looking at the full range out there on the pre-owned market, it’s hard to disagree with this sentiment, and it seems as though Rolex have made it something of a personal mission to ensure that this really is the case. It’s hard to think of another watch series in the world which offers so many variations on the same theme, and which comes in enough styles, colours, and materials to suit every taste.
Those looking to purchase a Sub today can choose from three different colour options in three case and bracelet materials. If that isn't enough choice, looking into the pre-owned and vintage markets opens up a whole world of options. There are multiple dial variations, particularly early on in the Submariners lifetime when Rolex were at their most experimental. There are changes in colour, case size, hour markers and bracelet thickness. For the collector and the everyday watch fan alike, looking through the models available is like opening a treasure chest of timepieces.
One of the great things about buying a pre-owned Rolex Submariner, of course, is that as these watches are made to last several generations, buying pre-owned is a highly viable option.
Words like icon and legendary get bandied about a lot in the watch world. However, with sixty-four years of unrivaled popularity and history behind it, the trailblazing Rolex Submariner is genuinely worthy of the hype, and will continue to be so for many, many years to come.
Browse our full collection of pre-owned and vintage Rolex Submariner watches here.