The Rolex Submariner watch worn in the first of the Bond movies, “Dr. No,” in 1962 as a 6536/1 Submariner without the bracelet, on a black leather strap.
The Rolex Submariner is one of the coolest watches ever produced by the venerable watch company, and it has a lot more going for it than the fact that Sean Connery—as James Bond, Agent 007—wore it in the movie “Dr. No.”
Aside from being one of the toughest Sport Model watches ever produced, it is a technical watershed for the wristwatch genre, and just plain looks great.
Since the Rolex Submariner is irrevocably connected to Bond, James Bond, I will have to intersperse some technical aspects of the watch, along with its history and, of course, James Bond. First, a little history;
Hans Wilsdorf, the president and founder of the Rolex Watch Co., was an innovator and laid claim to hundreds of watch patents and copyrights, but that is another story. In this story, we are mainly concerned with Wilsdorf seeing the wisdom in a waterproof, self-winding wristwatch. With this in mind, he purchased the Oyster Watch Co. and the Perpetual Watch Co., along with all their patents and technical achievements (hence, to this day, the words Oyster Perpetual can be found on nearly all Rolex Sport model wristwatches). And for many decades, it was the best Sport Model wristwatch in the world. I make this statement not because I am a fan of Hans Wilsdorf and his Rolex watch, but because it is simply the truth.
Rolex led the way in the creation of the Sport model wristwatch, and may lay claim to many firsts in this area. While not the first waterproof watch, the Rolex Oyster was certainly the best and most practical waterproof wristwatch. With the advent of practical and effective synthetic rubber for gaskets and Lucite plastic for crystals, the idea for a truly waterproof watch had become a reality, and Rolex made it happen with the first successful Sport Model wrist watch, officially called the Rolex N.A. “Bubbleback” Oyster Perpetual.
The Bubbleback Oyster came into the marketplace in 1931, boasting several firsts: 1. it was a truly waterproof and dustproof case; 2. it was a tough, rugged and shockproof timepiece; 3. it a highly capable timekeeper with chronometer status; 4. it featured the first practical self-winding system in a watch. The Rolex “Bubbleback”—the predecessor to the Submariner—was one of Rolex’s first great achievements and it sold well into the 1950s.
The idea for a diver’s watch came to reality with Rolex’s “Turn-O-Graph,” ref. 6202, around 1952. This would later evolve into the Submariner. The very thin case with no protective shoulders around the screw-down Oyster winding crown was waterproof to 600 feet and housed Rolex cal. A260 self-winding chronometer movement. This watch design paved the way for nearly all divers’ watches to this very day. The production of the Rolex Submariner started in 1953 and was first presented to the public at the Basel Watch Fair in 1954 under reference 6204. This watch is generally considered to be the first modern dive watch, along with Blancpain Watch Co.’s “Fifty Fathoms” dive watch, which was also introduced the very same year.
Sean Connery in action as Bond, wearing the 6536/1 Submariner, with Honey Ryder, played by Ursula Andress.
The next introduction to the Sport Model watch market came about in 1956, when Rolex launched the ref. 6536 and 6538, “James Bond” watches. The watches were worn in the first of the Bond movies, “Dr. No,” in 1962. 007 wore the watch, a 6536/1 Submariner without the bracelet, on a black leather strap. These first James Bond watches were the first fitted with the cal. A260 chronometer movement, soon to be replaced by cal. 1030 chronometer, with its improved bi-directional self-winding mechanism. The maximum depth was 330 feet for ref. 6536—which was renamed 6536/1 with the introduction of cal.1030—and 660 feet for ref. 6538. In 1958, ref. 5508 was introduced with the new movement cal.1530 and was produced up until the early 1960s, when it was replaced by ref. 5512, which had a new case, bezel and protective shoulders around its winding crown. This was the end of the “James Bond Submariner.”
In summation, the powers that be in the vintage and collectibles watch field have so named the 6536, 6536/1, 6538 and the 5508 “no crown guards” Submariners to the James Bond Subs.
A later James Bond—Roger Moore—wore a ref. 5512 in “Live and Let Die” in 1973. This James Bond Rolex had two major functions, when it was switched on—by rotating the bezel—it generated a strong magnetic flux that would pull a gun out of the bad guy’s hands. When it is switched to its other function, the bezel became a spinning saw Bond used to cut off handcuffs. In this movie, the James Bond Submariner was specifically shown eight times on the screen. In a recent auction, an example of this Submariner sold for $300,000. But for some reason, the 5512 is NOT considered a James Bond Submariner. This later ref.5512 Submariner had several improvements that distinguish it from the James Bond Subs: 1. a thicker, heavier, more robust case and Lucite crystal; 2. a better, more robust, fluted stainless steel Bezel; 3. protective shoulders, or crown guards; and finally, 4. a tougher, heavier bracelet with a skin diver extension.
In less than 10 years of production, the “no-crown-guards” James Bond model Subs have transformed the Submariner into an iconic watch; the small winding crown and a relatively thin case give the watch a timeless elegance.
The Rolex “Sawtooth Submariner” (ref. 5513) that Roger Moore wore in the 1973 James Bond movie “Live and Let Die,” sold for $198,00 at Christie’s in 2011.
Some consider this to be the perfect size and thickness, much more comfortable and lighter than its later counterpart. This “tool watch” can become very dressy and stylish if matched with a quality black leather strap. The original Oyster bracelets that came with the watch are very hard to find in good condition, as this part of the watch bore the brunt of abuse, so the bracelets wore out long before the watch itself. Additionally, this watch was designed to be used under extreme abusive conditions; salt water, sand, extreme depth, shocks and bumps of every nature. The Rolex Submariner, with its chronometer movement, was a success from its very incarnation and continues to this day. It is desired by every kind of sportsman, from the backwoods hunter to the captain of a cruise liner, as the watch is a certified chronometer, suitable for a ship’s navigation!
Early versions of the Submariner sold well—unlike the Blankpain Fifty Fathoms—but because they took more than their share of wear and tear, so finding one in good condition is a rarity indeed. When the magic of this great watch was discovered a few very short years ago, the realized prices at auction houses such as Antiquorum, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, etc. were phenomenal! A good example could fetch as much as $35,000 or more. The market has since leveled off, but the watch will still bring $7,500-$15,000,
But originality is the key. The original bracelets are almost non-existent, along with an original dial and hands. An all-original example, with its box and papers, is very hard to find, highly sought after, and would fetch a king’s ransom. The watch came with three different movements—the cal. A-260, cal.1030, and the cal. 1530—and although parts are hard to come by, they are still available.
Because Rolex made such a good case to house its chronometer movements, however, even the most abused examples will have a clean running movement. As a watchmaker, I have had the pleasure of working on many of these fine Rolex creations, and the great condition of the movement in these very tough Submariner watches never ceases to amaze me.
The Rolex Submariner was copied—or more correctly, duplicated—by many watch companies. Some even made a few important improvements and, while they are good watches in their own right, the Rolex Submariner stands supreme and singularly unique. The dial and the “Mercedes” hands on the original ref.6536/1 James Bond have the unique ability to age with a certain grace not found with other watches. The “Tropic” dial turns a slight reddish brown from gloss black. The flat black version attains a slight faded slate greyish tone. Most of the luminescence on these early watches will no longer glow, but it does turn a lovely pale yellow. Pictures simply don’t show the downright coolness of this aging process on the early Rolex Subs. You just have to see it in person.
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David Mycko is a Worthologist and WorthPoint Contributor specializing in antique and vintage watches.