There is always a question, "What is the best watch?" Sure, I get why people ask it and what they're getting at, but it's impossible to say anything is "the best" when you're dealing with something as subjective and personal as wristwatches. What you like aesthetically, the history that's meaningful to you personally, and the idiosyncrasies of how you live your life all impact that answer of that question. However, there's a similar question that we also get asked a lot, for which I do think there are a few good answers: "What is the most important watch of all time?" The Rolex Submariner is a pretty darn good answer. It's not the only answer, but it's one that I find tough to argue with.
Since its introduction in 1953, the Rolex Submariner has in many ways defined not only the dive watch category, but the sport watch category more broadly. When you say "wristwatch" I think a large percentage of people picture something similar to a Rolex Submariner in their heads, whether they know why or not. The Sub has been worn by world luminaries, icons of the silver screen, sports legends, and basically any other set of noteworthy people you can name. The very notion of a black-dialed stainless steel watch with a rotating timing bezel, luminous hands, and a comfortable bracelet was broadly popularized by the Submariner.
Despite all of that though, the Submariner is an often-misunderstood watch. There have been well over a dozen distinct references of the Submariner, with up to a few hundred total variants depending on how thinly you want to start sub-dividing individual references based on dial text, lume plots, and more. We thought it was about time that we break things down and make the whole range of Submariners a little easier to understand. As you'd expect though, we had to set some boundaries for ourselves: We are only covering vintage Submariners here, starting with the first proper 1953 Submariner and working our way up through the last of the classic ref. 5513 Submariner. All of the watches here have four-digit reference numbers and acrylic crystals. Once we get into five-digit reference numbers, sapphire crystals, and other technical innovations, we get into squarely modern watches, which are a tale for another time.
The Genesis Of The Submariner
Understanding The Rolex Sea-Dweller, the Rolex Submariner was among the very first dive watches on the market and it quickly became the most iconic. The Sub represents a sort of inflection point for Rolex as a company and how it would go on to become what it is today. Prior to the 1950s, Rolex was making mostly watches that today we'd describe as dress watches or all-purpose watches of one kind or another. Bubblebacks, two-register chronographs, and Datejusts were the brand's core offerings. Yes, these included important innovations like the waterproof Oyster case and the so-called "perpetual" automatic movements, but they weren't proper sport watches as we'd recognize them today.
All of that started to change as the '40s tuned into the '50s. The earliest Rolex Explorer models made their way to the summit of Everest (you can see the original right here, in fact) and the brand began experimenting with a new kind of design language that would come to dominate its offerings over the next decade. White and silver dials turned to black, lume plots got much bigger and started standing in for applied hour markers, cases started to get a bit beefier, and rotating bezels became the norm. Combinations of these traits would result in the Explorer, the GMT-Master, the Milgauss, and more.
The year 1953 would turn out to be a huge year for Rolex. It was that year that the unusual ref. 6202 Turn-O-Graph, the Explorer (in a few references), and the ref. 6204 Submariner all debuted. The first of those is very closely tied to the Submariner, though a bit smaller and slimmer, with a flat or honeycomb dial and sleek hands, though it still has that now-familiar look and feel. This trio of watches would kick off the era of Rolex design that today we most closely associate with the brand and its iconic status. They were sport watches with refined design elements and a cohesive language that spoke to finding simple solutions to complex problems. They were, in many ways, the very best kind of tool watches from the get-go.