Rolex introduced the Submariner at the 1954 Basel Watch Fair. The first production model, available to the public that same year, was Ref. 6204. This was originally promoted at the Basel Fair as a scuba diving watch, without the word “Submariner” on the dial.
Ref. 6204 was water-resistant to 600 feet and used the Rolex caliber A260 movement. It differed considerably from Ref. 6200, having a slimmer case, small crown and parallel hands with a dot at the end of the seconds hand.
1959 brought the introduction of a distinctive protective crown guard, later to become a prominent feature in various Rolex sport models. In early 1960, Rolex performed its most astonishing feat when a second bathyscape, the Trieste, reached a new world record depth of 11,000 meters (35,798 feet) with the Piccard watch (model 7205/0) attached to its exterior. The watch survived a pressure of almost seven tons per square inch.
Shortly thereafter, on July 6, 1960, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf passed away and Andre Heiniger took over the company. He would be the driving force behind the company’s success for the next thirty years. Under Heiniger’s leadership, Rolex continued to invent and innovate throughout the second half of the century.
In 1967, the Sea-Dweller (model 1665) was created with a helium gas escape valve, making it the first commercially available watch for use by saturation divers. It solidified Rolex as the choice for professional divers (a point that was quickly adopted in advertising the model). In addition, the same year, Rolex introduced a model of the Submariner (model 1680) that featured a date through a window in the dial.
Use by the Royal Navy
The reference 5513 became the first Rolex for many years to become an official British Military issue watch when it was issued to the divers of the Royal Navy in 1965.
The military wanted certain modifications; in this case the modifications were so major as to almost be a new watch. First they wanted a new dial featuring a large T in a circle under the center post. The high visibility hands were much larger and of a completely different shape. The hour hand was diamond shaped, while the minute hand was much wider than on a conventional Submariner and the seconds had had a unique diamond luminous indicator at the tip.
Even the case was different from a standard Submariner. On the military models the spring bars were replaced with solid steel bars welded into the spring bar holes. The case was then polished so the hole was hardly visible. The rear of the case was then engraved with all the military specifications and issued numbers, which enabled the quartermaster to identify the watch. At the end of the 1960s, another branch of the British Military, the Royal Marines, ordered Submariners for their frogmen. These were even more immediately identifiable than the more prevalent Royal Navy models because they had even more alterations.
The Bezel was a completely new watch, with minute markers all the way around its circumference, rather than just for the first fifteen minutes. These models were satin finished on the sides, to avoid the reflectivity produced by the usual mirror finish.
The watches were delivered from Rolex Geneva to the Bexley Kent, headquarters of Rolex UK; they then went from Bexley to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, run by the Admiralty, where they were tested for both timekeeping and waterproofing. Only once they had passed these tests was Rolex paid for the watches. They then were returned to Bexley, who were responsible for their shipment to the various naval store depots around the UK.
Interestingly, the movement was also special. These watches were still non-chronometer, plastic glass ref. 5513, yet they had the hacking seconds feature, something that was only introduced on the chronometer models there years later.