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The Rolex Submariner. It's quite possibly the most recognized watch the world over. Despite practical origins, vintage references are treated with near mystical reverence and modern "Subs" are symbols of luxury and prestige. It can be intimidating to approach this world from the outside, but we're here to help.

The prototypical dive watch, introduced in 1953, the Submariner has evolved over its lifetime. But Rolex isn't the type of company to introduce sweeping changes in one of its flagship products simply for the hell of it — in fact, the changes can be so incremental that a novice watch buyer (or even a watch nerd!) might have trouble identifying them.

three vintage rolex submariners
A reference 5513s from 1968, another one from 1989 and, finally, a reference 1680 from 1971. After reading this article, you may be able to tell which is which.
Allen Farmelo

Though the Submariner was in fact an outgrowth of the water-resistant, Oyster-cased watches of the 1930s and 1940s, it emerged largely fully formed — to the extent that if a time-traveling Hans Wilsdorf (Rolex’s founder) suddenly emerged in the 2020s, he would certainly recognize a modern version. All of the classic Sub hallmarks were present in ‘53: the black, luminous dial; the rotating dive bezel; the matching steel bracelet; the screw-down crown.

And yet. Watch nerds love to get into the minutiae and really pick apart what differentiates one Sub from another. In fact, the taxonomy has become so dense that said nerds will differentiate different versions within a single reference number — matte vs. glossy 5513s, for example, or red or white 1680s. It gets intense.

But that’s what we’re here for — we’re going to break down each reference for you so that you can fit in at your next Red Bar meeting. (Alternatively, if you need to put normal, non-watch people to sleep, this is great ammunition to stuff into your Boredom Cannon.) But we’re not going to get into every single variation within every single reference. (If you want that type of breakdown, we recommend this post from our good friend Stephen Pulvirent at Hodinkee. It’s wildly detailed.) We’re here to give you a “comprehensive overview,” so to speak.

So without further ado, here we go…

rolex submariner vintage ad
An vintage ad from a rather famous Rolex campaign. 
Airows
rolex submariner ad the power of precision with a triplock winding crown and a unidirecitonal rotatable bezel, the rolex submariner is a timeless timepiece 1,000 feet above or below sea level
A more modern advertisement seeming to reflect how the Submariner has taken on more of a "desk diver" role.
Insure-Jewelry.com

A Bit of History

Rolex first employed a water-resistant (“waterproof,” in its own early terminology) watch case in the 1920s, which it dubbed the “Oyster.” Company founder Hans Wilsdorf was a brilliant marketer, and even had English swimmer Mercedes Glitz wear one of these watches around her neck as she attempted to swim the English Channel in 1927, taking out print advertisements featuring her with the watch. In the early 1930s, he combined the Oyster case with an automatic movement, giving birth to the Oyster Perpetual. Today, all Oyster-cased, automatic Rolex watches bear this nomenclature in addition to their individual model names.

In 1953, as recreational SCUBA diving was taking hold in the public consciousness post-WWII, Rolex launched the Submariner, one of the world’s first dedicated diving watches. (The Zodiac Sea Wolf and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms launched at almost the exact same time.) Water-resistant to 100m and featuring a rotating dive bezel, it proved the prototype to thousands of watches that followed it into the murky depths.

Throughout the years, Rolex iterated upon the initial design, adding crown guards, upsizing the case somewhat, and, eventually, offering a model with a date. (Technically, the Submariner and the Submariner Date are two different watches that often exist concurrently within the Rolex catalog at any given time.) It also began offering gold-cased Subs, and then Subs with different-colored bezels. These days, as a Rolex collector, the world is sort of your Oyster.

(See what we did there?)

rolex submariner dial
Now emblematic of the brand, Rolex only began using the "Mercedes" handset design in the 1950s.
Rolex

Buying a Submariner

Ok — good news, bad news.

Bad news first. For the past, say, five to 10 years, it’s been increasingly difficult — if not outright impossible — to buy a new Submariner at retail if you’re not already an established client at a Rolex authorized dealer (an “AD”). And how does one become an established client? Well, you buy lots of watches, of course. Possibly stuff you don’t even want, simply in order to get your hands on something you do want. (Ironically, the wildly expensive gold watches you don’t want are more often in stock than the steel sports watches.) If you’re a brand new client, be prepared to perhaps have to buy something else first — or wait a lonnngggg time for your watch. Rolex makes over 1M watches a year, but even they admitted that they can’t keep up with current demand.

So that’s regarding new Subs. How about pre-owned and vintage?

Thankfully, given that Rolex does make over 1M watches a year, there are plenty of pre-owned and vintage examples on the market. But here’s the kicker: You’re going to pay well over retail for a pre-owned model. Seem weird? Well, that’s Rolex! You want something everybody else wants, you’re gonna pay for it. But they’re available.

For vintage — well, pump the breaks a second. Understanding vintage Rolex takes some time, so for the love of all that is holy, please do your research first. It’s best to speak to and buy from someone like James Lamdin from Analog/Shift or Eric Wind from Wind Vintage — these guys have been doing this for years and can source exactly what you want. The Hodinkee Shop also has experts who can help. Bob’s Watches specialize in Rolex, and both HQ Milton and Tropical Watch always carry plenty of great Rollies. These are all great places to turn to for help.

For God’s sake though, man — don’t buy something that looks good to you blindly on the internet without doing your research first. We can pretty much guarantee you’ll end up paying for it twice!

rolex submariner laying in water
The modern "No Date" Sub.
Rolex

Key Terminology

Without getting too far into the weeds, there are some key terms/concepts any Submariner devotee should be aware of:

Crown Guards: These are outcroppings of the steel case that surround and protect the winding/setting crown. They weren’t present on the very first Submariners — Rolex added them in 1959.

Gilt Dial: A black dial whose writing/indices appear gold due to the manufacturing process, which exposes the brass dial blank beneath. Rolex used these dials on their earliest Subs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and switched to a matte dial in the late ‘60s. Gilt-dial Subs are going to be more expensive.

Matte Dial: A dial with a flat, black-grey finish with painted white text and tritium indices. Rolex began using this dial type in the mid-late 1960s.

Glossy Dial: A dial with a glossy finish with painted white text and applied, white gold surrounds on the luminous indices. Rolex switched to this dial type in the mid-1980s and continues to use it today.

Oyster Bracelet: The sportiest of Rolex’s bracelet types and the one most often found on the Submariner. Rolex patented this bracelet in the late 1940s, but its origins lie with the Gay Frères-made bracelets used by the brand in the 1930s.

Pencil Hands: The plain, straight handset present on the first few Submariners, before the switch to the Mercedes type.

Mercedes Hands: A handset that uses an hour hand with a tip shaped like the famed German auto manufacturer’s logo. (Surely coincidental — this shape is simply a good one to hold luminous paint.) Rolex began using this hand type on the Sub in the mid-1950s.

Dive Bezel: A feature common to the first crop of “modern” dive watches in the early 1950s, the dive bezel rotates and features a minute scale counting upwards, which can be used to time bottom or decompression times. (Originally, the bezel moved bidirectionally via friction because Blancpain owned the patent on unidirectional bezels — this was eventually changed to a unidirectional system in the 1980s so that one couldn’t accidentally miscalculate bottom/decompression time.)

Crown: Rolex adapted its water-resistant, screw-down crown design from the 1920s — which used a gasket and a receiving tube housed within the watch case — for use on the Submariner. The Twinlock system made use of two O-rings for a water-resistant seal, while the more modern Triplock system from the 1970s uses an additional O-ring. Water resistance in the Sub thus increased from 100m in the 1950s to 300m today.

Movement: Rolex has produced both Chronometer-certified and non-Chronometer certified Submariners, the former featuring movements that have been approved by COSC as ultra-precise calibers. Most famously, the reference 5512 was (mostly) a chronometer-certified watch, whereas the famed reference 5513 was not. All contemporary Rolex watches are chronometers.

Super Case: This slightly beefier case design was introduced in the ref. 114060 in 2012. Still measuring 40mm in diameter, it features thicker lugs and crown guards that give it a heftier feel.

The References

As we said earlier, we are not going to get into the minutiae of every single variant of every single reference — this is the sort of work that one bearded old Swiss man toiling away beneath a museum in Bern would undertake for 40 years straight, only to die of radium poisoning halfway through. (If you’re specifically looking for the military Submariners, or Mil-Subs, check out this dedicated piece.)

What we’re going to do is try to give you the highlights of each Sub reference so that you can understand the model’s evolution. Should you wish to read further, we recommend resources on Gear Patrol, Hodinkee, and Bob’s Watches, just to name a few good starting places.

rolex submariner
The Rolex Submariner is one of the most practically and stylistically versatile watches you can get.
Rolex

The Early Years: 1953-1959

This was the time during which Rolex was experimenting heavily, releasing iteration after iteration of Submariner, some of which were available concurrently. Clearly, it took some time before the Crown found its footing — from there, however, it was off to the races.

Ref. 6204 (1953)

rolex submariner ref 6204 1953
Christie's

The OG. This is the very first official Sub reference ever produced — with “Submariner” appearing on the dial — and it already featured many of the hallmarks present in the current models. It was announced by the brand in 1954 (even though the earliest examples are dated to late the prior year) and featured a glossy gilt or honeycomb dial.

  • Diameter: 37mm
  • Bracelet: Oyster
  • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
  • Rehaut: Not engraved
  • Lume: Radium
  • Movement: Cal. A260 automatic
  • Chronometer-Certified: No
  • Water Resistance: 100m

    Ref. 6205 (1954)

    rolex submariner ref 6205 1954
    iCollector

    This slight riff on the ref. 6204 came in more than one configuration: one did away with “Submariner” on the dial, while another featured it above 6 o’clock and also had — for the first time — the famed Mercedes handset. Its case is also slightly thicker than that of the ref. 6204, and the crown is upsized from 5.3mm to 6mm.

    • Diameter: 37mm
    • Bracelet: Oyster
    • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
    • Rehaut: Not engraved
    • Lume: Radium
    • Movement: Cal. A260 automatic
    • Chronometer-Certified: No
    • Water Resistance: 100m

      Ref. 6200 (1955-1956)

      rolex submariner ref 6200
      Antiquorum

      Now we see a more significant change — this time to an 8mm “brevet” crown as well as a thicker case, giving the ref. 6200 200m of water resistance. Variants with small (no “Submariner” text) and large (with “Submariner” text) logos exist, as well as a special variant with an “Explorer” 3-6-9 dial.

      • Diameter: 37mm
      • Bracelet: Oyster
      • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
      • Rehaut: Not engraved
      • Lume: Radium
      • Movement: Cal. A296 automatic
      • Chronometer-Certified: No
      • Water Resistance: 200m

        Ref. 6536/1 (1956-1958)

        rolex submariner ref 6536
        Second Time

        This is an interesting reference in that it went through several iterations, some of which seem to go “backward” with respect to feature set: The crown was downsized from 8mm to 6mm and the case is the thinner version from the ref. 6205, resulting in a watch with only 100m of water resistance. However this, combined with a slightly evolved Mercedes handset and a thinner, chronometer-certified movement (the Cal. 1030), resulted in a watch that took on more of the physical character of a modern Sub, as the caseback no longer featured the slight bulge of a “bubbleback” model from the earlier references. This is also the first reference to feature the famed “red triangle” marker on the bezel.

        • Diameter: 37mm
        • Bracelet: Oyster
        • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
        • Rehaut: Not engraved
        • Lume: Radium
        • Movement: Cal. 1030 automatic
        • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
        • Water Resistance: 100m

          Ref. 6538 (1956-1959)

          rolex submariner ref 6538
          Sotheby's

          This is the “Bond” Sub — i.e., the one worn by Connery as 007 in Dr. No. Confusingly produced alongside the “small-crown” ref. 6536/1, it featured an 8mm “big crown” and was the first model to feature the chronometer certification on the dial. Produced in both two- and four-line versions — we’re referring to the text on the dial, here — it also had a red triangle and was water resistant to 200m. Later examples received the now-ubiquitous individual minute hash marks to 15 minutes on the bezel.

          • Diameter: 37mm
          • Bracelet: Oyster
          • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
          • Rehaut: Not engraved
          • Lume: Radium
          • Movement: Cal. 1030 automatic
          • Chronometer-Certified: Yes (4-line); No (2-line)
          • Water Resistance: 200m

            Ref. 5510 (1958)

            rolex submariner ref 5510
            Christie's

            This was largely a ref. 6538 — it still featured the 200m of water resistance, graduated bezel, red triangle and big crown of that model — but with the updated Caliber 1530 movement, which went through several iterations during its lifespan. It was, notably, the last Submariner to use the 8mm “big crown.”

            • Diameter: 37mm
            • Bracelet: Oyster
            • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
            • Rehaut: Not engraved
            • Lume: Radium
            • Movement: Cal. 1530 automatic
            • Chronometer-Certified: No
            • Water Resistance: 200m

              Ref. 5508 (1958-1962)

              rolex submariner ref 5508
              Christie's

              A sort of spiritual successor to the ref. 6536/1, the ref. 5508 featured a slimmer case water resistant to just 100m and a small, 6mm crown. A graduated bezel is a consistent feature across iterations — however, the red triangle eventually gave way to a silver one. Rolex also slowly reduced the amount of radium used in their luminous compound in the early 1960s, fully transitioning to tritium in 1963. (Different examples of the ref. 5508 thus show slightly different lume colors on the dial.) This was the last Sub with a case that didn’t feature crown guards.

              • Diameter: 37mm
              • Bracelet: Oyster
              • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
              • Rehaut: Not engraved
              • Lume: Radium
              • Movement: Cal. 1530 automatic
              • Chronometer-Certified: Yes (4-line); No (2-line)
              • Water Resistance: 200m

                The Classic References

                A bit of an arbitrary classification, to be sure, but these are the references that many aficionados think of when they call to mind a prototypical Submariner, with or without date.

                Ref. 5512 (1959-1980)

                rolex submariner ref 5512
                Analog / Shift

                This is where we see the Submariner coming into its own and becoming the dive watch legend we know today. This is the first reference in the modern-sized 40mm steel case with crown guards and 7mm crown, and it also continued the theme of hashed bezel, beveled lugs, and Mercedes handset. There are more 5512 variations than you can shake a stick at, but the main differentiator between this reference and the ref. 5513 is this: Most 5512s, beginning in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, featured four lines of text, including a chronometer certification — the 5513s are two-line watches without the certification. In roughly 1967, Rolex transitioned from “gilt” dials to “matte” dials; later generations of matte dials featured the “maxi” configuration of larger lume plots and hour markers for increased visibility.

                • Diameter: 40mm
                • Bracelet: Oyster
                • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
                • Rehaut: Not engraved
                • Lume: Radium (early); Tritium (later)
                • Movement: Cal. 1530 automatic ; Cal. 1560 automatic; Cal. 1570 automatic
                • Chronometer-Certified: Yes (4-line); No (2-line)
                • Water Resistance: 200m

                  Ref. 5513 (1962-1989)

                  rolex submariner ref 5513
                  Analog / Shift

                  Produced concurrently with the ref. 5512 for many years, the ref. 5513 was essentially a non-chronometer certified version of the same watch. Early versions were powered by the Cal. 1530 movement — much like the non-chronometer ref. 5512s. (Later versions featured the Cal. 1520, which, curiously, was a somewhat simplified version of the 1530.) Certain versions in the early-1960s featured Explorer dials — and were the last Subs to do so — while later versions (1982-’89) featured the white gold surrounds and glossy dials common to modern Subs. Given its long production run, there are myriad small variations.

                  • Diameter: 40mm
                  • Bracelet: Oyster
                  • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
                  • Rehaut: Not engraved
                  • Lume: Tritium
                  • Movement: Cal. 1530 automatic; Cal. 1520 automatic
                  • Chronometer-Certified: No
                  • Water Resistance: 200m

                    Ref. 1680 (1967-1979)

                    rolex submariner ref 1680
                    Christie's

                    The 1680 is a pivotal reference, as it’s the first Submariner Date. Equipped initially with the Caliber 1575, it went through several iterations, including “Red” versions in which “Submariner” is printed in red (1969-1975); all-gold versions (1969-1979); yellow gold with blue dial (1971-1979); and “white” versions in which all four lines of dial text are white (1976-1979). (There was also a special version made for COMEX, the Compagnie de Maritime Expertise, which conducted underwater engineering operations.)

                    • Diameter: 40mm
                    • Bracelet: Oyster
                    • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
                    • Rehaut: Not engraved
                    • Lume: Tritium
                    • Movement: Cal. 1575 automatic
                    • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                    • Water Resistance: 200m

                      The Neo-Vintage References

                      These Subs marry characteristics of classic references with more modern watches — some are distinctly transitional watches that were available for less than a year.

                      Ref. 16800 (1979-1987)

                      rolex submariner ref 16800
                      Christie's

                      This successor to the ref. 1680 is the second-generation Submariner Date. It was the first Sub Date to be equipped with a sapphire crystal and a unidirectional rotating bezel, as well as a 300m depth rating. The then-new Cal. 3035 offered a quickset date wheel, though the reference is considered a “transitional” watch for the following reason: Early examples still featured a matte dial with painted tritium plots, while about halfway through the watch’s lifecycle, Rolex switched to modern glossy dials with white gold surrounds.

                      • Diameter: 40mm
                      • Bracelet: Oyster
                      • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
                      • Rehaut: Not engraved
                      • Lume: Tritium
                      • Movement: Cal. 3035 automatic
                      • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                      • Water Resistance: 300m

                        Ref. 168000 (1987)

                        rolex submariner ref 168000
                        Christie's

                        Produced for roughly nine months in 1987, this is a rare bird, indeed. The only real difference between a late-production ref. 16800 and a ref. 168000 is the switch to 904L stainless steel from 316L.

                        • Diameter: 40mm
                        • Bracelet: Oyster
                        • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled)
                        • Rehaut: Not engraved
                        • Lume: Tritium
                        • Movement: Cal. 3035 automatic
                        • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                        • Water Resistance: 300m

                          Ref. 14060 and 14060M (1989-2009)

                          rolex submariner ref 14060
                          Christie's

                          In production from roughly 1989-1999 and then from roughly 1999-2009 in its "M" version, the 14060 is the successor to the long-lived ref. 5513. Early versions featured two lines of text, while (later) “M” versions featured four lines. The ref. 14060 also added sapphire crystal and an increased depth rating of 300m (vs. the ref. 5513’s 200m).

                          • Diameter: 40mm
                          • Bracelet: Oyster
                          • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled); No (phased out in early 2000s)
                          • Rehaut: Not engraved; Engraved (later “M” versions)
                          • Lume: Tritium (most 14060s); LumiNova; Super-LumiNova (most "M" versions)
                          • Movement: Cal. 3000 automatic; Cal. 3130 automatic (later "M" versions)
                          • Chronometer-Certified: No; Yes (later “M” versions)
                          • Water Resistance: 300m

                            Ref. 16610 (1987-2010)

                            rolex submariner ref 16610
                            Christie's

                            This successor to the ref. 168000 is the Submariner Date that lived alongside the no-date ref. 14060 and 14060M. It initially featured a glossy dial with tritium, then later switched to LumiNova and then Super-LumiNova lume. Lug holes were phased out circa 2003, while an engraved rehaut — the space between the dial and the crystal — was added circa 2008 to deter counterfeiting.

                            • Diameter: 40mm
                            • Bracelet: Oyster
                            • Lug Holes: Yes (drilled); No (phased out in early 2000s)
                            • Rehaut: Not engraved; Engraved (later versions)
                            • Lume: Tritium (early); Lumi-Nova; Super-LumiNova (later)
                            • Movement: Cal. 3135 automatic
                            • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                            • Water Resistance: 300m

                              The Modern References

                              These are distinctly modern Subs — case proportions have been upsized, movements feature advanced technology, and counterfeiting measures have been put in place.

                              Ref. 114060 (2012-2020)

                              rolex submariner ref 114060
                              Tourneau

                              The 11460 replaced the no-date 14060 in 2012, upsizing its case proportions — though keeping the same diameter — and introducing new materials, such as a Cerachrom bezel and Chromalight lume. It was replaced by the 124060 in 2020.

                              • Diameter: 40mm (“Super” case with thicker lugs/crown guards)
                              • Bracelet: Oyster
                              • Lug Holes: No
                              • Rehaut: Engraved
                              • Lume: Chromalight
                              • Movement: Cal. 3130 automatic
                              • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                              • Water Resistance: 300m

                                Ref. 116610 (2010-2020)

                                rolex submariner ref 116610
                                1stDibs

                                Introduced in 2010, the 116610 replaced the ref. 16610 as the date-equipped Sub in Rolex's lineup, featuring a “Super” case and all the modern fixings, such as the updated Cal. 3135 movement with Parachrom hairspring. It was replaced by the 126610 in 2020.

                                • Diameter: 40mm (“Super” case with thicker lugs/crown guards)
                                • Bracelet: Oyster
                                • Lug Holes: No
                                • Rehaut: Engraved
                                • Lume: Chromalight
                                • Movement: Cal. 3135 automatic
                                • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                                • Water Resistance: 300m

                                  The Current Crop

                                  These are the Subs in the current Rolex catalog.

                                  Ref. 124060 (2020-)

                                  rolex submariner ref 124060
                                  Rolex

                                  The ref. 124060 replaced the ref. 114060, upping the case size to 41mm for the first time and adding a new movement. Despite the larger case size, Rolex slimmed down the lugs from those of the “Super” case, making for a watch that wears more like a 40mm model. The Rolex crown is now featured at 6 o’clock, while the Cal. 3230 features 70 hours of power reserve. This is the basic "No Date" model.

                                  • Diameter: 41mm
                                  • Bracelet: Oyster
                                  • Lug Holes: No
                                  • Rehaut: Engraved
                                  • Lume: Chromalight
                                  • Movement: Cal. 3230 automatic
                                  • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                                  • Water Resistance: 300m

                                    Ref. 126610 (2020-)

                                    rolex submariner ref 126610
                                    Rolex

                                    The Sumariner Date. In 2020, the ref. 126610 replaced the ref. 116610 and upped the case size to 41mm. It's available in seven different iterations. Similarly to the ref. 124060, the 41mm case features thinner lugs than that of the previous-gen ref. 116610, while an updated movement features a 70-hour power reserve. This reference comes in two variants: one with a monochromatic look and black bezel and the other with a green bezel nicknamed the "Kermit."

                                    • Diameter: 41mm
                                    • Bracelet: Oyster
                                    • Lug Holes: No
                                    • Rehaut: Engraved
                                    • Lume: Chromalight
                                    • Movement: Cal. 3235 automatic
                                    • Chronometer-Certified: Yes
                                    • Water Resistance: 300m