Say dive watch, think Rolex Submariner. The word association has been inescapable since the 1950s, the fabled timepiece—from a manufacture not short on icons—introduced to coincide with the explosion in popularity of the new sport of Scuba diving. It may not technically have been the first of the breed (we can look to Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms for that) but it is undoubtedly the one which has gone on to define the genre and influence just about everything that followed.

Photo credit: @watchphotocollector

As with all legends, it had to start somewhere. For the Sub, that somewhere was with the ref. 6204, initially produced in 1953, released to an unsuspecting public at the following year’s Basel show.

Over the ensuing 65-years, both the watch itself, as well as its audience, have changed significantly.

Visually, the debutant and the most recent iteration, the ref. 116610LN, are clearly cut from the same cloth, testament to Rolex’s timeless design codes. But where its former role was as an indispensable tool and a vital part of any diver’s safety equipment, today the closest most contemporary Submariners get to the life aquatic is the office water cooler.

Below we look at just how far the modern piece has come, while still retaining that essential Sub spirit.

54 Years of Refinement

As with many of Rolex’s most enduring models, the first of the Submariners was here and gone in the blink of an eye. The ref. 6204 was only in production for a matter of months, but two other references of the watch were also released the same year, which leads to a certain amount of confusion.

There is actually some debate as to whether the ref. 6204 really was the first, with the Sub ref. 6200 being another introduction in 1954. Logically, and numerically, it would follow that the 6200 was the inaugural model, but a close study of the serial numbers reveals the earliest pieces were indeed the 6204s.

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You have to remember this was at a time when Rolex, while not exactly a fledgling company anymore, was still a world away from the flawlessly regimented, vertically integrated manufacturer they are today. Reference numbers back in those days had a certain randomness to them. As an example, the Turn-O-Graph, a watch founded in 1953 and one that essentially formed the basis for the Submariner, with the first rotatable bezel the brand ever put into serial production, had the reference 6202—again, lower than the 6200.

What is known, however, is that by the end of the year, the third of the Subs, the ref. 6205, had replaced the 6204. The 6200 would go at the end of 1955.

In fact, it wouldn’t be until the end of the decade, after another five references had been issued, that the watch hit on a model with any sort of longevity. The ref. 5512 lasted from 1959 all the way through to 1978. Its non-COSC certified equivalent, the ref. 5513, would go on even longer than that, from 1962 to 1990.

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By contrast, the latest model was issued back in 2010, the first of the six digit references. 9 years is a decent run for any Rolex with the overwhelming popularity of the Submariner and it has led many fans to speculate that the ref. 116610LN is due an update any time now. But, if history is anything to go by, the earliest we should realistically expect any from of revision is 2024, when the grand old diver celebrates its 70th anniversary.

The Cases

The Sub has certainly grown up over the generations, but not, perhaps, as much as some of its admirers would like.

The ref. 6204 measured some 36.5mm which, even for the era, was not an especially large watch. By the time the 5512 arrived, the first reference to be granted crown guards, it had enlarged to 40mm (well, actually, 39.5mm).

Those are the dimensions it has since stuck with, resisting the urge to follow fashion and break beyond its self-imposed barrier. If Rolex customers want a larger dive watch, they now have the option of the 43mm Sea-Dweller.

The ref. 116610LN did go some way towards appeasing those desperate for a little more wrist presence though. It introduced the brand’s Super Case to the range, still the same 40mm on paper but with lugs and guards almost twice as thick as before. It lent the whole thing a far more muscular stance, giving the impression of having grown a couple of mils in diameter.

Similarly, the metals used have evolved dramatically. The ref. 6204 was an all-steel affair, the 316L still used by the vast majority of the industry.

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As for the ref. 116610LN, it is forged from the company’s own Oystersteel, part of the insanely tough 904L family they debuted in 1985 and started to roll out across their portfolio in the 2000s. Most commonly found in the aeronautical and chemical engineering fields, it is almost exclusively the reserve of Rolex.

The Sub has also long been available in yellow and white gold as well as Rolesor, the brand’s combination of gold and steel. As yet, there have been no platinum or Everose Submariners, but anything is possible.

The Bezels

Perhaps the single most defining element of the Submariner, the bezel has changed in some very important ways between our two references. Firstly, on the ref. 6204, it was bi-directional, meaning it rotated both clockwise and counterclockwise. The patent for a bezel which only turned one way (unidirectional) was held by Blancpain for the Fifty Fathoms until 1983. A vital safety feature, a unidirectional bezel will only overestimate time if knocked, leading a diver to surface sooner rather than later and saving their air supply. It is such a crucial feature, in fact, that a unidirectional bezel makes up part of the ISO 6425 regulations on what a model must have in order to officially be deemed a dive watch.

Another difference concerns the markings. The very earliest examples of the 6204 only had engravings on the surround every five minutes, before changing them soon after to having one hash per minute for the first 15 minutes. That has remained ever since.

And the material used now is a world away from that of the 50s. The initial examples were cast from a brass alloy, plated in a white metal. They were particularly prone to wearing through and revealing the base metal underneath. As such, the bezels were routinely replaced during servicing, making models still wearing their original surround extremely rare.

Compare that with the ultra high-tech Cerachrom of today, Rolex’s proprietary ceramic compound, which is fade and corrosion resistant and virtually scratchproof.

In addition, the 6204’s bezel has the lowest profile of any of the Sub’s references and, because it didn’t overhang to any degree, was more tricky to turn. It was actually the British Ministry of Defense which pinpointed that discrepancy. When the Sub became regulation military issue, the MOD requested the bezel extend over the sides of the case and be given a serrated edge, as opposed to the coin-style edging it had had previously, so divers could rotate the bezel easier while wearing gloves. The two alterations became part of the standard makeup soon after.

The Dials

The ref. 6204 was actually available with two different dial finishes; in matte black or in the honeycomb used on a number of Rolex’s sports models and which is sadly absent from the current portfolio.

Unusually, none of the dials carried the watch’s depth rating, a strange omission seeing as the Submariner was the first watch rated safe down to 100m and given how much Rolex like to promote their achievements. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the fourth in the series, the ref. 6536, that the rating would be displayed.

Also in keeping with the rest of the brand’s professional collection at the time, both types were gilt dials and featured a chapter ring. A chapter ring is simply an enclosing loop around the outside of the dial that joins up the minute markings. A gilt dial is one with the text and logo printed in a warm gold color.

The wording layout, and also, strangely, the name of the watch, changed during the 6204’s extremely short run. In the U.K., it very briefly became known as the Sub-Aqua, after the country’s biggest diving organization, BSAC (the British Sub-Aqua Club). The title could be written either just above the six o’clock index as with the modern day example or, more rarely, it would be on the top half of the dial, below ‘Rolex’.

The hands on the ref. 6204 are pencil style and, in fact, it is the only reference to use them. All subsequent iterations switched to the universally recognized Mercedes type. The seconds hand is especially noteworthy, being a ‘lollipop’, but with the circle at the very end. Covering the dial is an extra thick, domed acrylic crystal, known as a Tropic 16 which, together with the Oyster case and screw-down crown, ensured its water resistance.

Photo credit: @ogsubmariner

As for the ref. 116610LV, it uses the black gloss dials Rolex introduced in the mid-1980s, with all white text and applied indices ringed in white gold. It was the first in the series to incorporate the so-called Maxi Dial which, like with the Super Case, gives the impression of increased size by using larger markers and hands. Those hands, filled with Chromalight as opposed to the 6204’s radium, are also made from white gold.

The wording arrangement has been consistent for many years now and includes the ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified’ which designates the watch has passed Rolex’s own stringent tests for accuracy. As such, it is a much busier face than the original.

The crystal is now the scratchproof synthetic crystal the company initially presented on the ref. 5100 Beta-21 quartz prototype from 1970. The ref. 16800 from 1979 was the first Submariner to use it.

The Movements

The internal mechanisms are obviously where the biggest differences between old and new can be found.

The ref. 6204 was fitted with the A260, a non-chronometer, non butterfly movement they carried over from the early Oyster Perpetuals. A perfectly serviceable 18,000vph, 19 jewel caliber, it was chosen for the Sub due to its inherent strength and built in shock protection but, because of its size, it meant the watch required a rounded case back to contain it. For this reason, the first three references of the watch are known as the ‘Bubbleback Subs’.

Cut to the latest version and we find the Cal. 3135, introduced in 1988. Among the most successful movements Rolex has ever produced, it has powered more of the brand’s watches than any other.

Beating at the now standard 28,800vph, or 4Hz, the 31 jewel caliber benefits from Rolex’s relentless pursuit of timekeeping precision. The free sprung balance wheel is made from Glucydur, a high performance alloy of beryllium and copper, known for its rigidity and resistance to temperature variations. And the hairspring is the renowned Parachrom Bleu, an antimagnetic mix of niobium and zirconium with an oxide coating, which is reportedly ten times more shock resistant than previous examples.

Photo credit: @joshjang.eno

However, ultra-reliable workhorse though it has long been, it can only be a matter of time before it is updated to the Cal. 32XX series currently powering the Sea-Dweller and GMT-Master among others.

But the biggest difference with the latest caliber over the original is the date function.

The ref. 1680 from 1967 was the first Sub to feature it, causing a certain amount of consternation amongst purists who argued it was an unnecessary inclusion on a dive watch. In fact, the ref. 1680 could well mark the point the Sub stopped being a diver and became more of an everyday status symbol. Clearly not wanting to take sides, Rolex continued to produce a no-date Submariner, but they were developed and updated at a much slower rate than the dated version. In the contemporary catalog there is only one, in all steel, as opposed to a total of seven different models with the feature, in various metal and color types.

65-years is a very long time for anything to stay at the top, but the Rolex Submariner has managed it, and almost without breaking a sweat. It remains the last word in luxury dive watches, the most emulated, copied and downright counterfeited timepiece ever made, and one deserving of its legendary status and reputation.