For a lot of people, the Submariner is the ultimate diver's watch, and it's not hard to see why. It's the watch that everyone else copied. The oyster case was one of the first waterproof cases, meant for extreme use, and the Rolex is really very functionally and clasically laid out - which is why it hasn't changed too much
in the last few decades.
I'll be looking at a few different Subs, though, since the devil is in the details, and you can really tell what's important in a watch by the little changes that are made over the years. All photos used today are courtesy of Antiquorum.com - these are all watches that Antiquorum sold over the last week, in their mega watch auction.
So let's look at this first sub. Black dial? Check. Easy to read, luminescent hour markers and hands? Check. Unidirectional rotating decompression bezel, with luminescent marker and markings every 5 minutes? Check. Easy to turn with gloves on? Check. Water resistant to a reasonable depth? Check. Touch crystal and band? check. So it's a diver's watch.
But let's look at some of the extra features that make this Submariner so special. Crown guards. Nice touch. This way, the screw down crown doesn't get banged up from hits to the side. It also prevents the crown from accidentally getting unscrewed (which would be very bad at 300 metres).
The first 15 minutes of the bezel are ticked off every minute, to make it easier to see exactly where you stand. There is also a subtle, but readable minute chapter ring on the dial. The hands are easy to read - the "mercedes" hour hand, called this because it resembles the mercedes symbol, is unmistakably distinct from the minute or second hands. The second hand is big enough to read easily, but tapers to a fine point for accuracy. It is perfectly aligned with the minute chapter ring. The second hand has a big luminescent dot making it easy to read, but is quite thin for accuracy. Use of a triangle at 12 and sticks of luminescence at 3,6,and 9, with circles of luminescence at the other hour markers, make this watch very easy to read - you always know which way is up. Many, many other watches have copied this style.
The oyster band has also been frequently copied. Nice, big, solid chunks of stainless steel. In earlier models, the band looked pretty much the same, but solid links weren't used - instead, they were thick sheets of metal folded to shape. This was fine, but as the watches got used and got older, the metal would bend out of shape slightly, resulting in band "stretch". Not a big deal, since it really didn't effect the integrity of the band, and actually probably made the band more comfortable to wear, but people didn't like this (made the watch look old) so the solid links (which are also purportedly stronger since the links are solid metal) were adopted. Of course,
the band is only as strong as its weakest link, and the spring bars are the same, but so much of the watch business is perception!
The clasp (which can't be seen in any of the pictures) is also much copied. It folds over itself and never actually separates - another safety feature - it would be hard to lose this watch over your wrist, even if the band somehow got opened.
People have gone on and on about the history of Rolex (to me, looks like a beautifully executed "marketing" play from the start, and not really about watchmaking - for a long time, they had other companies make their movements, under confidentiality). People have gone on and on about the movements (oyster perpetual, has all sorts of refinements, including use of interesting alloys and mechanisms to increase reliability, all are officially certified chronometers, etc., etc., etc.,). But I really don't know enough about Rolexes to add anything of value to those discussions.
Instead, let's look at a couple of "variations on the theme", and see where they get us.
This one is a "sub date". The biggest difference is that it features a date window. Personally, I don't like the date version as much, for a few reasons. First, the date window is magnified by what's called the "cyclops" loupe. There's actually a big piece of glass (or acrylic, depending on the year of manufacture) that sticks OUT of the crystal. If I had one of these, this would get banged up. A lot. I'd end up with lots of scratches on this piece of glass, since it sticks out and just asks to be banged into something. Second, I think the big white aperture window detracts a lot from the symmetric nature of the face. Everything else is black. Your eye just automatically goes to the magnified (and distorted, since magnification will do this) date, rather than to the time. Other watch brands have used an inverted date (with the number in white, on a black background), and I like that a little more. Finally, this is a sports watch. A diving watch. I'm going to wear it diving. Even James Bond didn't wear his all the time - he had a dress watch for dress occasions. So every time you wear it, you have to set the date. No thanks.
The other obvious difference between the two watches is that this one looks to be a bit older. The luminescent markers have yellowed nicely, giving a vintage look.
This next one is called the "Roger Moore" sub. Not sure why, but I suspect it's the model Roger Moore wore in Moonraker, or some such thing.
Even though it's got "Roger Moore" in the name, I quite like it. The luminescent strips have aged quite nicely, and almost look orange.
A "sub" discussion just wouldn't be complete without a look at the watch known as the "James Bond" submariner. This is a much earlier version of the watch, made famous for a close-up shot in one of the very early Bond movies (possibly even Dr. No). Although it's got the submariner rotating bezel, it looks a lot like an Explorer, because there are no crown guards. Also, I think the overall size of the watch was a fair bit smaller than the submariners you see today.
It's got so-called "historic value" because of it's movie fame, but I think I'd rather have a version with crown guards.
If I had my choice, I would get an older one, with a matte dial and as little as possible written on the face (the later Rolexes have more 'stuff' on the face; "superlative chronometer", water resistance in feet and metres, etc. etc. etc.). Nicely yellowed luminescence (radium if I can find it, or if they ever used it - there's something cool about a radioactive dial). Crown guards. And (yes) an acrylic crystal. None of this sapphire crystal stuff - old school. I wouldn't care so much about the stretch on the band, or whether the band had a wetsuit extension clasp (some of the newer ones do). Definitely no date. This is something I really didn't know I felt so strongly about until I wrote this article - so I guess there is a use to this! The more I think about it, the more I think a date window detracts from a divers' watch - at least from THIS diver's watch.
I should note that the bezel comes in different "flavours" too - they came out with a "Rolex Green" bezel for the watch's anniversary a few years back. And I think there might be a few with the first 15 minutes in a different colour. Oh - and I think the new ones are ceramic rather than painted steel - which means they don't scratch or wear out nearly as much. But those features are unnecessary to me - a Sub should be banged up - it's a professional divers' watch. And it should be as black as possible, 'cus that's just the way it should be.