As commented earlier in our introduction, good watches are abundant, LEGENDARY watches are, however, not something that could be churned out as frequently. The combination of these two factors could create confusions for people who are relatively new to the world of watches, especially when deciding which watch is more worthy of one's money. As such, Lengbeau has felt the obligation to serve our wider audiences by handpicking a dozen of, in our view, the most iconic and important watch bloodlines/ families. And for the sake of diversity, we've on purpose chosen only one family of watches from each of the 12 manufacturers, so that by the time you've finished reading the entire series, you'd be familiar with a broad plate of quintessential (not necessarily the most expensive) watch faces in the business.
But one particular model has withstood the test of time and found its way to the wrists of some of the most influential figures as well as the general public across geographical locations and cultures. It was adored by a 4-star US Army General/ former CIA Chief as much as the great Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. Its ubiquity has essentially established it as the de facto face of the brand. It was so popular and ingrained in our mind that whenever we talk about watches, it is this watch that we see. It was designed and built as an underwater tool watch, but nonetheless feels as at home in any other occasions in life you could possibly encounter. As a daily office work companion? No problem. Going to a wedding? Appropriate. Donning it at a first date? You're 99% guaranteed a second date. Wearing it to yum cha with your parents on a Sunday? Totally awesome.
It is the Rolex Submariner. The first watch making to our Legend 12 list.
Rolex - A Brief History
Before beginning all those storytelling about the Sub that Lengbeau has in store, let's first spend a little time understanding the brand that created it, and the backdrop against which the world saw the Sub's birth. Let's go back in time to 1881, the year when the founder of Rolex, a gentleman called Hans Wilsdorf, was born.
In 1903, Wilsdorf has settled himself in London and had a stint with another watch-making firm. Several years later, he has become sufficiently confident that he would call it time to set up his own venture. With the financial support from a Mr. Alfred Davis, his brother-in-law, "Wilsdorf & Davis" was created in 1905, dealing and manufacturing watches in partnership with Aegler, a movement manufacturer for wristwatches in Bienne. 3 years later, in an attempt to create a stronger link between its products and its trade name, the now famous name Rolex was coined. The word "Rolex" has no apparent meaning but is easy and consistent to pronounce (whichever European language you're using) and remember. By 1920, Wilsdorf had moved Rolex's production to Geneve and Montres Rolex S.A. was founded.
Quality and Brand
Two factors have stood out in separating Rolex from the rest of the pack at that time.
Firstly, Rolex has set out to make wristwatches as dependable as pocket watches (remember, wristwatches were not as popular back that as pocket watches and were deemed not masculine enough - nobody expected them to be more than a cool gadget to have and their accuracy was hardly a top priority, compared to traditional pocket watches). To showcase the quality of its watches, Rolex was the first ever wristwatch manufacturer to have its products submitted to the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne (a top certification body for mechanical watches) in 1910. The timepieces submitted passed all rigorous tests. Four years later, in 1914, Kew Observatory in Great Britain awarded a Rolex wristwatch a class “A” precision certificate, a distinction which until that point in time had been reserved exclusively for marine chronometers. From that date forward, the Rolex wristwatch was synonymous with precision.
In the next three decades or so, Rolex has grown into an immensely successful organization and seen its highly innovative timepieces witnessed several impressive feats. Some of its key achievements during the period are as below:
Late 1920s: The first waterproof and dustproof model was created, coined "Oyster", featuring airtight sealing. The watch was eventually worn by English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze and remained perfectly functional after some 10 hours of water time.
1930s: The first perpetual (automatic) movement was invented by Rolex. Rolex also become the watch of choice for a number of daring expedition including the flight over the Everest. It was equally popular in the sport of racing.
1940s: The first Datejust was born - the first watch displaying the date of the month on a watch dial.
Marching into the 50s, Rolex has not for a second stopped its footsteps in innovation. In 1953, Rolex gave the world two very important references, the Explorer and the Submariner. The Explorer was designed as the "adventurer's watch", gaining wide popularity in the climbing community.
The Submariner on the other hand, was set out to be used in the opposite end of the altitude, to accompany its owner to great depth under the sea. Mr. Wilsdorf was known for his willingness to adopt novel ideas by his subordinates and the very idea of manufacturing a dedicated diving watch was suggested by a Mr. René-Paul Jeanneret, an experienced diver and a member of Rolex's board of directors. Being a diving enthusiast, Mr. Jeanneret quickly pointed out to Mr. Wilsdorf what needs to be in a watch in order to be relied upon by a professional diver:
1. Strong luminous markers and hands for visibility in potential total darkness;
2. Rotatable bezel to indicate lapsed dive time (the bezel was made unidirectionally rotatable in more modern models so that the bezel would not be jacked to the other direction by error, understating dive time passed);
3. Super strong watertight case to withstand harsh undersea environment.
We also owe our thanks to Mr. Jeanneret for remembering to have the watch designed as an elegant daily timepiece too. Wilsdorf quickly jumped on the idea and the very first Submariner saw the day in 1953, boasting everything Jeanneret had wished for. That Submariner (ref. 6204) was water resistant to 100m.
To add credibility to the effectiveness of the Sub, Rolex has submitted its prototypes to The Institute for Deep Sea Research in Cannes for examination before the submariner hit the market. Unsurprisingly, the prototypes passed all rigorous field tests (again!). Below was the verdict from the Institute:
“Despite the extremely high salt content of the Mediterranean waters, and the tropical temperature and humidity to which the watch was exposed between the individual dives, it showed no corrosion at all. …Likewise, no moisture was detected within the watch. All other previous tests with water-resistant watches from top brands showed water penetration from the first moment of the dive, indicated by the condensation that formed on the inner surface of the crystal. The watch was worn multiple times during dives with an extended crown (i.e., the crown was pulled out to the position for setting the hands). To conclude these tests, the watch was attached to a thin cord and dropped to a depth of 120 meters – twice as deep as 60 meters, the maximum depth achievable with self-contained compressed air equipment. No leaks were detected even after a one-hour period at this depth.”
It goes without saying that the Sub was a massive success upon its release. It also cemented Rolex as a leading manufacturer of reliable diving watches from that point on (another pioneer in this area was Blancpain who came up with the renowned Fifty Fathoms, coincidentally in the year of 1953).
In the later part of the 50s, the Sub has undertaken a number of high-profile underwater adventures, most notably the expedition to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. To perfect the diving technology of its Subs, Rolex has also partnered with French company Compagnie Maritime d’Expertise (Comex), a company specializing in engineering and deep diving operations to resolve a big issue troubling professional divers at the time.
With the introduction of a new breathing gas mixing oxygen and helium that allowed for longer dive duration, a diver's watch was also under the risk of being penetrated by helium molecules and had its crystal popped out due to the internal pressure build-up. To tackle this very issue, Rolex patented a valve that provided a means of escape, avoiding accumulation of helium molecules in 1967. It bore the Comex name on the dial and a special identification number on the back (this special subset of the Sub family has gone on and become a collector favorite due to its rarity, here is an excellent blog detailing the Rolex-Comex collaboration).
Rolex hasn't really made any significant change to the overall aesthetics of its later Sub models, a totally sensible move given how attractive its appearance has been since its ref.6204 day. This is not to say Rollie hasn't introduced progressive and welcoming advancements along the way (such as higher water resistance, incorporation of a crown guard, models fitted with cyclops/ made in gold etc.). The experience of manufacturing the Subs has proven to be immensely valuable for Rolex in developing the Sea-Dweller (water resistant to 600 meters for its first model in 1966, think of it as a thicker, chunkier super Sub that might be a little too ostentatious as a daily wearer). As a Sub lover and owner myself, I can't be happier with its development.
So here it is, your definitive guide to the history of the Rolex Submariner and the story of the brand and the people behind that made it a legendary icon as it is. In Lengbeau's completely honest opinion, if you are looking for your first Rolex - heck, first ANYTHING watch - and you happen to be able to afford a Sub, go get it. I'm loving my green Sub and if someone asks me what watch I would keep as the my only watch ever, I know exactly what to answer. And hey, if such Gods of Coolness as Steve Mcqueen and James Bond found it cool to own a Sub, you better agree.
To learn more about the Subs available these days, go here. We'll see you in the next installment of Legend 12 series.