Diving into the past of Rolex’s most iconic watch to date.
The Fascinating History of the Rolex Submariner
When it came to writing this piece, the most difficult part was deciding which Rolex to feature first in the Super Iconic Watches series. There have been Rolexes at the top of Everest, and in the deepest depths of the ocean; different models adorn the wrists of some of the finest sportsmen and women the world has ever seen. So it was not an easy choice. But the Rolex Submariner stands out for several reasons, including its industry-defining history, technical innovation and timeless style. It’s a status symbol of the kind only a few others can relate to: a Rolls-Royce Ghost, perhaps, or an Anderson & Sheppard made-to-measure suit.
Taking the Plunge
We’ll start with its remarkable history. Although the Submariner was first introduced in 1953, Rolex had been working with the burgeoning diving industry since the 1940s, providing scuba divers with waterproof Oyster watches. René-Paul Jeanneret, an executive at Rolex at the time, a keen amateur diver and friend of Jacques Cousteau, saw a gap in the market for a dedicated diver’s watch – reliable underwater timekeeping is a matter of survival, as you need to know how long you’ve been underwater, and are able to correctly time your ascent to the surface.
At the beginning of the 1950s, Rolex began working with diving and submarine pioneers like August Piccard (a contemporary of Albert Einstein and – fun fact – the inspiration for Professor Calculus in Hergé’s Tintin), to create timepieces that could withstand high pressures. Finally, in 1953, the very first Rolex Submariner was launched, waterproof to 100 metres (330 feet). Just a year later, that was increased to 200 metres (660 feet).
To develop it, Rolex worked with French engineer and diver Dimitri Rebikoff to thoroughly test its effectiveness and – most importantly – its waterproofness. Over five months Rebikoff carried out 132 dives, which took him to depths of between 12 and 60 metres. His report was very positive: “We are able to confirm that this watch has not only given entire satisfaction in diving conditions which were extremely tough and particularly dangerous for the material used, but that it has proved an indispensable accessory for all diving with independent equipment.”
The innovation behind this remarkable waterproof watch was many decades in the making. Rolex patented its waterproof Oyster case in 1926; in 1931 it patented the Perpetual movement, a ground-breaking self-winding mechanism. The Rolex Submariner was to combine them, creating a first-of-its-kind user-friendly sports watch. The watch was soon fitted with other technical innovations, such as a luminescent disc on the hour hand to clearly distinguish it from the minute hand, and a crown guard. This groundbreaking design was key to the watch’s success with professional divers: unlike other timepieces of the era, which often had Roman numerals, the Submariner’s simplified face was legible in the most difficult circumstances. The security of the Oyster case was also enhanced thanks to a new screw-down winding crown with the Twinlock system, with two sealed zones.
An Icon is Born
But how did such an ostensibly niche diving watch become the cultural icon it is today? The answer is partly to do with the Submariner’s adoption by the French deep-diving company Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises. Other navies around the world – including the Royal Navy – followed suit, kitting out their troops with first the Rolex Submariner, and then later the Tudor Submariner. Then, in 1963, Sean Connery wore a Rolex Submariner in a film called Dr No, kicking off the inimitable James Bond franchise and boosting the watch to stratospheric new heights (or should that be depths?). Connery wore it again in the following three James Bond films, and George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton and Roger Moore all sported one as Bond. However, from 1995’s GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan onwards, James Bond has worn Omega Seamasters.
The watch’s most recent iteration came in 2020, when the brand relaunched its Oyster Perpetual Submariner with a sleek black dial, a matching Cerachrom rotating bezel and Rolex’s calibre 3230 movement. The Oyster Perpetual Submariner Date, meanwhile, holds the house’s new 3235 movement and comes in a choice of colour combinations. Almost 70 years after the first Rolex Submariner was launched, the model remains best-in-class and a real icon of the horological world.