Altr Collector’s Chronicles: The Early Rolex Submariners

Lucidao
4 min readMar 11, 2024

The Rolex Submariner is an icon and emblem of precision, durability, and luxury. It embodies Rolex's pioneering spirit in creating the first professional wristwatches capable of withstanding the depths of the ocean.

Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex and Tudor, significantly impacted watchmaking with his invention of the Oyster case in 1926, a waterproof case that revolutionized the industry. Prioritising functionality and elegance, Wilsdorf’s design addressed the main threats to watch precision — dust and water — by introducing a hermetically sealed case achieved through a screw-down winding crown and case back, both secured with rubber gaskets. This innovation not only showcased Wilsdorf’s marketing genius, exemplified by his promotional stunts like displaying the watches in fishbowls of water but also cemented the Oyster case’s role in professional and adventurous pursuits. Supplied to explorers and military forces worldwide, the Oyster case became a symbol of reliability and durability. Its design, while refined over decades, remains true to its origins, standing as a testament to Wilsdorf’s visionary contribution to watchmaking.

The journey of Rolex’s professional waterproof watches began in the early 1950s, a time when modern diving equipment was becoming more accessible and recreational diving was on the rise. This era’s technological advancements, coupled with the post-World War II developments, paved the way for Rolex to introduce a wristwatch that would become an indispensable piece of safety equipment for divers.

The Rolex Submariner reference 6204 marked a significant milestone as the first dive watch rated to a depth of 100 meters. It featured a highly legible dial layout with radium-coated hands and hour markers, ensuring visibility in dark conditions, such as underwater or at night. The watch’s rotating bezel, with a luminous triangle, allowed divers to measure elapsed time accurately, a crucial feature for monitoring the duration of a dive. The importance of a reliable dive watch for safety in underwater expeditions cannot be overstated, making the Submariner an essential tool for divers.

In 1954, Rolex introduced the reference 6200 Submariner, which featured an oversized winding crown for easier operation and a thicker case that allowed it to withstand depths of up to 200 meters. This model coexisted with the 6204 and 6205, with the latter resembling the 6204 but featuring Mercedes-pattern hands instead of pencil hands. The 6200 became known among collectors as the first “Big Crown” Submariner, distinguishing it from the “small crown” models represented by the 6204 and 6205.

The early Submariners were part of Rolex’s experimental and market-testing efforts, which culminated in the consolidation of these models into two distinct references in 1955: the Big Crown (reference 6538) and the Small Crown (reference 6536), both equipped with Rolex’s new 1030 calibre. These watches, especially those with original gilt dials and inserts, are highly sought after by collectors. The variety of dial variations alone could fill an entire article.

In 1958, Rolex released the Big Crown 5510 and the Small Crown 5508, both housing the latest Rolex calibre 1530. These models are considered transitional, bridging the gap to the movements that would remain in the Submariner line for the next three decades.

The most significant transformation of the non-date Submariner came in 1959 with the introduction of the twin-lock 7mm crown in reference 5512. This model featured new crown guards that provided additional protection to the winding crown, one of the watch’s most vulnerable parts. The 5512, which had a run of two decades before being discontinued in the late 1970s, introduced a new era for the Submariner, focusing on increased durability and protection.

The early development of the Rolex Submariner and its Oyster case represents a landmark in watchmaking history. It showcases Rolex’s commitment to innovation and its dedication to serving the needs of professional divers. These early models not only set the standard for dive watches but also laid the foundation for the Submariner’s enduring legacy as a symbol of adventure, precision, and elegance.

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