The Complete History Of
The Rolex Submariner & SEA-DWELLER
Rolex's Conquest Of The Ocean
Part 6: The Birth Of The Rolex Submariner
Breaking The Rolex Design Code
The Rolex Submariner diving watch is the most iconic watch ever made in history. The Rolex Submariner was introduced to the public in the early 1950s and more than a half-century later, it remains Rolexes best-selling watch. In other words, the Rolex Submariner has been Rolexes bread and butter for more than half a century.
Photo Credit: Raydin
So what is the genesis of the Rolex Submariner? What was the name of the first model and when was it introduced? This has always been a bit of a mystery and in this chapter, I will attempt to shed substantial light on answering these questions once and for all.
I will also do my best to accurately chronicle, what is perhaps the most important question surrounding the Rolex Submariner which is, "What makes the Rolex Submariner the most iconic watch in history?"
My Personal Fascination With The Rolex Submariner
In 1984 when I was 16 years old (25 years ago), I wandered into a Rolex Submariner advertisement in a National Geographic magazine and I could not stop staring at the Rolex Ad. I eventually cut it out and put it on my bulletin board at my desk.
Not so long after, I wandered into the local Rolex Authorized Dealer in Mill Valley, California located in the Strawberry Shopping Center and saw the stainless-steel Submariner in person. They had a dateless 5513 which I did not like because I thought it looked low-tech, and I fell head-over-heals-in-love with the Submariner Date [Reference 16800].
The Reference 16800 was very modern and had an unscratchable synthetic sapphire crystal, date feature with the trademark cyclops date lens and COSC certification. It also glowed in the dark. The challenge was that the watch was $1000 at the time and I didn't have the money.
I could not stop thinking about that Submariner. I used to go in the AD and stare at it on my wrist with the bracelet with the extra links being way too big with the COSC medallion dangling from the bracelet, always seemingly in the way.
I remember day-dreaming about the watch and I remember thinking that if I could just get that watch on my wrist, I would become some kind of James-Bond-like-dude. You may my laughing, but this is a true story. I had this idea that if I could just get the super-hero-like bracelet on my wrist, it would somehow make me indestructible like the mini-vault-Submariner itself. I would become impervious and waterproof somehow like the watch.
The interesting thing about being sixteen is that your kind of finish up the identity-crisis you began at 14 and 15 and start becoming who you are–at least that was the case for me. I remember the 16th year of my life very well. Ronald Reagan was the President Of The United States and I remember feeling this sense of pride in the air about the U.S. that did not exist in the prior years under the Jimmy Carter Presidency.
In retrospect, I think Jimmy Carter was probably an excellent President and gentle man in many ways, but he did posses the confidence and all-American cowboy confidence Ronald Reagan did.
Five seminal events occurred when I was 16 in 1984. First I really discovered girls, or should I say I developed an even deeper appreciation for them, which meant I had to work on the outside.
I was on the water-polo team at my high-school named Redwood, and I loved the socialization process and the girls, but I was bored out of my mind with class and I hated homework. I remember thinking to myself, why do I have to get up really early in the morning, go to school all day, and then after school I have to go home and do more school work!?!? I wanted to watch MTV and fool around with my Commodore Vic 64 Computer and talk on the phone to girls til 3 in the morning.
I used to leave school early when I was 16 and cut 6th period and I would go check out cool stuff. Don't ask me how I did it, but when I was 16 I somehow bought a ruby red BMW 320i which was just about the coolest car a high-school student could have in 1984.
On January 24, 1984, I cut 6th period and went to Compuland in Mill Valley and waited for the UPS guy to show up with my Apple Macintosh that was released to the public that day for sale. I had pre-ordered it along with the dot-matrix Apple printer and I remember taking it home and setting it up with Macwrite and Macpaint and some weird Alice-In-Wonderland Chess Game that used to always kick my ass.
So there I was with my BMW 320i and first-generation Apple Macintosh and all I needed to complete the puzzle was that dammed Rolex Submariner!!!
One day, I cut 5th and 6th and went to the local AD to check out the Submariner again. I remember being kind of embarrassed to go in the AD because I thought they must think I am just a looky-lu. The AD asked me when I was planning to buy the way and for some reason, I responded "today."
I remember thinking to myself, I just told the AD I was going to buy the watch that day and I realized if I didn't, he probably would ban me from the store ;-) I left the AD on a mission!!! I called everybody I knew that owed me money and told them they had to pay me today. Don't ask me how I did it, but somehow I walked in the door of the AD 5 minutes before they closed at 6pm with $1000 cash in my hand and bought the watch.
I vividly remember when I was 16 and 17 and 18 being at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe, skiing and I recall how I used to stare at my Submariner on the ski-lift. I remember experiencing a feeling of invincibility when I wore that watch. I also remember how I used to lay in bed and trip on the glow-in-the-dark hands and 5 minute markers. I used to watch the glowing marker as the second-hand would spin around the watch. The glowing watch seemed to have some kind of wonderful magic to it. To this day, I still stare at it in the dark.
Ironically, I sit here a quarter-century later, sitting in front of my all-in-one Apple 27iMac wearing my 50th anniversary LV Submariner which is my favorite Rolex I have ever owned, and I have owned many!!! It is ironic that if I still had my 25 year old Rolex Submariner it would be worth at least 3 times what I paid for it and would look and be just about as functional as my LV, yet my original 128KB Apple Mac would be completely obsolete, useless and worth nothing.
I really like my LV Sub and I owned all kinds of different Rolex models in my life. I had Datejust models, a yellow-gold Day-Date, and a GMT Master, but today, I wear an LV Sub which still inspires me to do crazy things like try and put together all of Rolex's meaningful history in one place on the internet that is free for everybody to enjoy on Jake's Rolex Watch Blog!!!
What is my motivation to keep going like the Energizer Bunny with Jake's Rolex Watch Blog? I have always been fascinated with Rolex design and history and I realized a long time ago, I seem to care more about Rolex history than Rolex does, which I find to be a sad shame. I feel like if I don't accurately chronicle the magnificent history it will be lost–perhaps forever.
Also, many of the old-boys I have completed podcast interviews with are in their 80s and probably won't be around much longer. I don't want to see this rich history go the way of the do-do bird.
So now that you know part of my life story, let's move forward and take a look at one of the most fascinating points of exploration in Rolex land. Let's examine the design ethos and genesis of the Rolex Submariner!!!!
It is important to understand your tour guide on this exploration (me: Jake) is a designer. Really, more than anything I am a design-fanatic and my own design career has been shaped and inspired by timeless Rolex design. Oh yeah, I almost forgot!!! I started my first clothing design company in 1984 and it was named DOTT which stands for Designs Of Tomorrow Today.
The first thing I ever designed and sold were leather bomber jackets like the one Harrison Ford wore in Raider Of The Lost Ark. A pal of mine and I were talking about how cool Indiana Jones' weathered jacket looked and we both decided to buy one, but we couldn't fine one anywhere.
I ended up finding a leather manufacture who was able to custom-make a really cool weathered/stressed brown leather jacket for me and everywhere I went people would compliment me and say they liked my jacket. I ended up selling many of them.
The great influence I believe my Rolex had on my design philosophy was to create products that are timeless. Ever since I was 16 I have been dedicated to creating timeless designs and products. Once again, you are probably asking what all this has to do with the Rolex Submariner? Let's take a close look at its design using my design eyes:
Rolex Submariner Design Ethos
The Birth Of The Tool Watch
We must go back to the beginning of our exploration. If you have not read the first 5 parts of this series, I highly recommend you stop here and go back and start at the beginning of this series.
In 1926 Hans Wildorf, the Founder and Supreme Director of Rolex successfully introduced the first wearable water-proof watch to the marketplace and it he named it The Rolex Oyster.
As I pointed out in the chapter on the Rolex Oyster, today we take water-resistance for granted, but in 1925 it was a HUGE HUGE DEAL!!!! Watches used to literally corrode from the inside out before the Rolex Oyster. Not just from water getting inside the watch and rusting out the movement, but perspiration and precipitation as well would contribute to this early death.
Introducing The Rolex Oyster
In 1926 the Rolex Oyster changed everything as we see this joyous Rolex ad from that year which features some early Rolex Hotness!!! One thing that is crystal clear to me as a Rolex Historian, it that Hans Wilsforf loved and celebrated women and their femininity.
In the following Oyster-Mermaid Rolex ad we literally bear witness to the celebration of the water proof watch. But so what!?! What is so significant about a waterproof watch? As I previously mentioned, we humans, as a species are from the ocean, we are of water. Most of our bodies are water and we came from the ocean, so it is fitting that we want to keep accurate time in an environment that is second nature to us. Don't believe me? Try getting a little kid out of a swimming pool or out of the beach surf in the summer time and this will suddenly all make sense to you.
The introduction of the innovative waterproof watch was quickly improved with the introduction of the Oyster Perpetual, which was another Rolex first. Suddenly your waterproof Rolex could wind itself just from the kinetic energy that was generated from the wearers wrist movements.
World War II slowed Rolex innovation down, because the could not easily sell or even export watches or import the parts or tools or metals they needed.
Rolex did not sit still during World War II. Quite the contrary. They kept innovating and developed their next huge innovation which was the Rolex Oytser Perpetual Datejust. This was the first watch to be sold with a date-wheel complication which again changed everything. The fact that a wrist watch could now keep time and a calendar was amazing.
In the early 1950s under the guidance of the managing director of Rolex Rene-Paul Jeannerete Rolex would again keep innovating. In the early 1950's the world economy started booming and consumers, particularly in the U.S. had much more disposable income.
Rene-Paul Jeannerete realized that there was a limit to the number of Rolex Prince and Oyter Perpetual watches Rolex could sell. Rolex needed something bigger and better. Something innovative. Something different. Something useful.
One day it hit Rene-Pual like a tone of bricks!!!! Why not make took watches that were dedicated to new and novel lifestyles–maybe even throw in some fantasy for good measure!?!?
Rolex had worked for decades supporting the Mount Everest Expeditions and they were all equipped with Rolex wrist watches. Even the first pilots to fly over Mount Everest wore Rolex Chronometers. This of course was long before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Everest on foot.
In 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Mount Everest, they were wearing Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches. Rolex wanted to exploit this fact as much as possible for marketing purposes, but somehow having these amazing Rolex explorer's wearing Rolex Oyster Perpetual models just did not stand out that much, so Rolex decided to try to capitalize on this opportunity by creating an all new model designed to commemorate the conquering of Everest and they decided to name this new model, The Rolex Explorer.
One of the greatest misconceptions regarding Rolex is that Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest wearing Rolex Explorer models. To learn the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and their Rolex watches they wore to conquer Everest, please click here.
Rolex marketing over the years has been like Sun Tzu. In all my research, and it has been pretty extensive, I have NEVER caught Rolex in a lie of any sort. They appear to by Boy Scout Honest, which is a HUGE part of their appeal.
I have however noticed, as Cary Grant's character, John Thornhill who was a Madison Avenue advertising man (read MadMen) referred to in North By Northwest, when he uttered one of the greatest lines in a film "Ah Maggie, in the world of advertising, there's not such thing as a lie, there's only the expedient exaggeration. You ought to know that!!!"
I will give you a few examples of Hans Wilsdorf's adroit marketing skills:
The myth that Mercedes Gleitze was the first women to swim across the English channel and she was wearing a Rolex Oyster on her wrist. This is not true. She wore the watch on a chain around her neck and they had to pull her out of the water three quarters of the way across the channel because she was literally freezing to death.
This "expedient exaggeration" followed with the advertising over the decades of of the Rolex Explorer that perhaps give the impression that Hillary and Tenzing wore Rolex Explorer models which they did not. I am not knocking Rolex in any way for what I refer to as "expedient exaggeration."
I think part of what made Hans Wilsdorf so effective is that he was never satisfied with being good enough. His whole life until he passed away in 1960 he pushed Rolex as few men in history have moved a company.
So let's go back to 1953 and have a look around. Dwight Eisenhower was the President of The United States and he was wearing a Rolex. By the way another example of Rolex "expedient exaggeration" was when they named the bracelet on the Rolex Day-Date which confused everybody who ended up referring to the watch model itself as The Rolex President when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson started wearing one in 1966.
O.k., back to 1953. Rene-Paul Jeanneret, the director of Rolex who only reported to Hans Wilsdorf, was obviously inspired by the creation of the Rolex Explorer to create other dedicated tool watches.
As we examined in the last chapter, Jacques Cousteau successfully popularized SCUBA Diving which became a huge deal. Once again, today it is challenging to understand just how innovative this idea was that a man could suddenly fly through the water like Superman–untethered, but it was amazing. SCUBA and Skin Diving would go onto become a craze in the 1950's and Rene-Paul Jeanerret and Rolex realized it and wanted to be in the game.
This next collage of 1950s SCUBA and Skin diving marketing illustrates the power of suggestive lifestyle marketing an just how popular is was in the mid to late 1950s up through the seventies.
On Top of The World
Many of us have seen the classic National Geographic photo below of Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay near the top of Everest.
There are many unanswered questions surrounding their epic conquest of Everest, like whether they were wearing Rolex watches under their jackets in this photo. In this article I will do my best to shed as much light as I can on this amazing story of human ingenuity, achievment and perseverance, as well as two men reaching the highest highs and the lowest lows.
It Was A Very Good Year
Let's go back in time to 1953 and take a look around. The world was starting to bounce back from World War II and Queen Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England at Buckingham Palace as seen from the Life photo below from the coronation.
Ironically news of the successful conquering of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached Britain on the very day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.
1953 was a time of optimism where anything seemed possible.
In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower was the President of The United States and of course he was wearing his beloved yellow gold Rolex that had been given to him as a gift from Rene-Paul Jeanneret who was the director of Rolex. This Rolex was no ordinary Rolex, it was the 150,000th Officially Certified Swiss Chronometer that Rolex made.
1953 was a very interesting and promising year. Elvis was still in high school and the Space age had arrived–and with it America's love for the automobile culminated in the 1953 Corvette which had beautiful lines like nothing that had ever come before it.
Speaking of beautiful lines, 1953 was the year that Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine which in its debut issue featured this stunningly gorgeous photo of the young Marilyn Monroe–The sexual revolution was also underway.
The Roof Of The World
Half way around the world another revolution was about to take place in a desolate, remote and most unusual place.
Let's examine Mount Everest which is the highest peak on Earth. Mount Everest is 29,029 feet (8,848) meters above sea level. Mount Everest was officially named by the Royal Geographical Society by the British Surveyor General of India in 1865.
Mount Everest is part of the Himalayan mountain range in High Asia and it is located on the border between Sagarmatha Zone, Nepal, and Tibet, China.
After many months and many international emails and phone calls I can report with confidence that Sir Edmunds Hillary's Rolex has been found and properly documented. The watch is in possession of the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum in Zürich, Switzerland. I have been working with folks at the Beyer Clock And Watch Museum on this story and they just confirmed with me that Rolex in Geneva confirmed the watch indeed belonged to Sir Edmund Hillary and was given to the Hunt Expedition.
This first photo is of the the actual watch Sir Edmund Hillary wore when he conquered Everest. The watch is an Officially Certified Chronometer Rolex Oyster Perpetual with a white dial and it is pictured below on top of a Rolex magazine ad which I believe is from between 1953 and late 1958. The irony, of course is Edmund Hillary's Rolex watch was NOT a (as widely believed and reported) a Rolex Explorer model, but a Rolex Oyster Perpetual COSC.
This next Rolex magazine advertisement is from 1953 and it appears to show the exact Rolex Oyster Perpetual that Sir Edmund Hillary wore. It does not show a Rolex Explorer, but the actual model as seen above but on an early Rolex Oyster bracelet. To the best of my recollection this model is very similar to the one Chuck Yeager wore when he broke the speed of sound barrier in 1947.
Also, notice that next to the photo of the watch in the ad below it says:
"The ROLEX OYSTER PERPETUAL that accompanied the victorious British Everest Expedition. Waterproof, self-winding, and a miracle of accuracy, this watch is the 'highest achievement' of the watchmaking industry."
It is interesting to note the use of language in the ad below as well–where Rolex uses the term "Highest Achievement." This is interesting to me because in my mind that is what Rolex has always been about. I think there is something about wearing a Rolex on your wrist that makes people strive higher to achieve. Perhaps, I and Rolex are romanticizing things, but it makes perfect sense to me.
The ad has a letter from Sir Edmund Hillary to Rolex written upon his return from the 1952 British Himalayan Expedition and it reads:
"I received the watch (Rolex) on March 29th an Jaynagar on the Nepalese border, and throughout the whole of the British Cho Oyu Expedition, until we finally reached India again some 14 weeks later, I wore the watch (Rolex) continuously, night and day, and on no occasion did it stop or require winding. In the course of the expedition it experienced considerable extremes of temperature, from the great heat of India to the cold temperature at over 22,000 feet, and seemed unaffected by the knocks it received on rock climbs or the continual jarring on long spells of stop cutting in ice."
"To me an accurate watch is a novelty. I am one of those unfortunate people whose watches, for some some strange reason, always seem to go slow. No adjustment seems to counteract. However this Rolex has been different a different matter altogether. Its accuracy is all one could desire and it has run continuously without winding ever since I put it on some nine months ago...I count your watch amongst my most treasured possessions."
The watch bellow is a Rolex Turn-o-graph [Reference 6202] which Rolex referred to as The watch with a thousand and one uses. This watch was manufactured by Rolex in 1953 and its diameter is 35mm and it is 13mm thick.
I refer to this color combination of a Rolex with a white dial and black bezel as the Oreo Cookie. I really like the design of this watch and in particular, I really like the Dauphine hands.
One Mystery Leads To Another
Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
We have one more mystery to uncover in this chapter and that is the mystery of the Rolex Panerai-case watches that recently sold at auction from the Antiquorm auction house for some really heavy cash.
First a little background. The two following photo are of two different watches sold by the Antiquorum auction house. The first one pictured below was sold [Lot 194] in Switerland on October 14, 2007 for 221,500 Swiss Francs which is around $200,000 U.S. today. The second watch pictured below was sold at an earlier Antiquorum auction in New York on June 14, 2006 [Lot 162] for $86,400. Somehow the price almost tripled in 14 months!!!
The first watch pictured belwo was described by Antiquorum as:
"Military" Rolex "Oyster Precision", Ref 6154, case No. 997572. Made in 1954. Exceptionally rare and fine large, cushion-shaped, water-resistant, stainless steel, military diver's watch with a stainless steel Rolex buckle. Three-body, polished, screwed-down case back, strain lugs, 8mm Rolex screwed-down winding crown, dustprotection cap. D. Black with luminous round and baton indexes, outer minute divisions. Luminous "baton" hands. M. Cal 618 - 15 3/4", signed Rolex, rhodium-plated, "faussses cotes" decoration, 15 jewels, straightline lever escapement, monometalic balance, shock-absorber, self-compensating Breguet balance-spring, index regulator. Dial case and movement signed. Dim. 47 47mm. Thickness 14mm."
Antiquorum continues the description:
"The Ref. 6154 is identical in case and movement to the watches supplied by Rolex to Panerai, under the same reference number. The difference between the watch made by Rolex for Panerai and the present model is in the dial. The Rolex dial is a traditional single plate with luminous coated indexes, whereas the Panerai dial is a two-plate dial, the first plate being coated with luminous material and the second plate pierced through for the indexes and numerals. Rolex Ref. 6154 is mentioned in the combined reference booklet sent by Rolex to their various retailers and workshops in the 1950s. To our knowledge only 6 pieces were made of this model; this is the first one."
The back-story/legend/myth is when Rolex stopped making Panerai watches in or around 1954, they had a bunch of extra 47mm Panerai cases in-stock so they decided to make up these watches. The really interesting thing is the design language of these two watches look like you morphed a 5513 Submariner dial with a small Egiziano Panerai 6154 case. Brilliant!!! Simply brilliant!!!
The lost Rolex Panerai Submariner watches have finally been found and brought to auction in 2007!!! They even let us know in their expertise "To our knowledge only 6 pieces were made of this model: this is the first one." Let's do some simple math. Multiply $200K U.S. times 6 watches and you get $1.2 Million. That is a lot of money–and what a great story!!!
The challenge is that I argue the authenticity of these watches is in controversy!!! The first clue was when one of the most respected Rolex experts on earth tapped me on the shoulder and told me he thought there was a VERY high likelihood they were not authentic.
The other thing is that he has pointed out to me that many other watches sold at auction for heavy-duty cash by the Antiquorum Auction House are highly questionable.
Another obvious question, is how and why did these watches fist come to auction in 2006? To the best of my knowledge, they are previously undocumented, but if they existed, why didn't one sell at auction 10, 20 or 30 years ago? Why do they not appear in any historical books or magazines? Why are there not photos of them published by anybody including Rolex in a catalog? The watches just seem to have appeared from out of the blue!?!?
Oh, and it just happens to be a coincidence the only two examples of this watch ever sold just happened to be sold at the same auction house? This is not the first time we have seen this happen. Just look at the Ferrari red Paul Newman Daytona watches!!! I imagine it is a coincidence that every one ever sold happened to be sold by the same organization!?!
The Silent World & Rolex Submariner Debut in 1954
Though We Are Strangers In Your Silent World
In 1953 Jacques-Yves Cousteau wrote a book named The Silent World: A Story Of Undersea Discovery & Adventure and in late 1953 and early 1954 Jacques Cousteau turned it into a movie named Le Monde Du Silence (The Silent World) which debuted in 1954 and went on to win an Academy Award in 1956 for Best Documentary.
This revolutionary documentary was the first of its kind and was one of the first underwater documentaries to be shot in color. The Silent World was shot in the Mediterranean Sea as well as in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.
This next photo was taken on Calypso's bridge during the shooting of The Silent World with Captain Cousteau peering into the hood of a radar screen to locate a sunken ship located in the Red Sea. Calypso means "Water Nymph" and the ship was originally built in the United States during World War II in 1942 as a Minesweeper J-826 for the British Navy.
After much careful research, I believe the Rolex Submariner Jacques-Yves Cousteau is wearing in the photo above and below could be an early Rolex prototype Submariner [Reference 6204]. Jacques-Yves Cousteau was close friends with Rene-Paul Jeanerrete who in 1953 was the Director of Rolex Geneva.
Rene-Paul Jeanerret was the man at Rolex who came up with the idea of dedicated tool-watches. In 1954 Rolex introduced the Rolex Submariner at Basel Fair, but I believe Jacques-Yves Cousteau was testing an advanced prototype Submariner models aboard the Calypso for Rolex. I would go so far as to say, that in my personal opinion, I think it is likely that Jacques Cousteau's career achievements inspired Rolex to develop the Rolex Submariner diving watch model.
Table Of Contents
• Chapter 9: The First SEA-DWELLER's: Doctor Bond. U.S. Navy Project Genesis and Jacques Cousteau & Project Conshelf.
• Chapter 16: Dr. Robert Ballard: The Ultimate U.S. Navy DEEP-SEA Discovery Of The 20th Century–Finding The Titanic
• Chapter 17: Ralph White [Explorer and National Geographic Cameraman] Discovering and Exploring The Titanic