10 BEST Rolex Submariner Models of All Time (2023 Updated)
Timeless and iconic design. Rugged reliability and comfort on the wrist. The pursuit of timekeeping excellence and a marketing machine spanning fields as varied as scientific research, film, and sport. These are the hallmarks of the Rolex brand and the foundation for which its product remains the premier Swiss luxury watchmaker.
In its over 100 years of history since its founding by Hans Wilsdorf in the early 20th century (comparatively young by watchmaker standards), Rolex as a brand has become the market-leading powerhouse with many innovations, historic firsts, and iconic model lines under its belt.
From the first water and dustproof “oyster” case in 1926 to the “perpetual” self-winding rotor patented in 1931, the focus on rugged timepieces which could withstand the rigor of everyday life set them on course to standardizing what would eventually become today’s “sport watch” genre. In 1953, the “Oyster Perpetual Submariner” is revealed.
About the Rolex Submariner
2023 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Rolex Submariner. Debuting in 1953, though not the first of its kind (Blancpain released their Fifty Fathoms diver watch nearly 10 months prior), the reference 6204 “Submariner” was a true tool watch intended for a specific purpose: scuba diving.
In the Post World War II era of the early 1950s, thanks to technological advancements made in the years during the war, recreational diving was experiencing a boom. Yet divers needed a way to time their dives to ensure a safe ascent. Ascend too fast, and you face the risk of decompression sickness (which could result in death).
Stay down too long, and you might not have enough air to ensure a timely ascent. However, technology was limited at the time, and the recreational diver relied on simple tools such as depth gauges and decompression tables. The dive watch was then the perfect solution for measuring time.
Rolex Submariner Characteristics
So what makes a Rolex Submariner? As a dive watch, there are three important factors for utility (Note: we won’t touch ISO 6425 dive watch standards here): Water resistance, a rotating bezel, and legibility.
Water resistance is self-explanatory (you don’t want water to flood your watch when diving), and even the ref. 6204 featured 100m of water resistance back in 1953 (300m being the standard for modern Submariners today).
A rotating bezel, operated by aligning the bezel pip to the minute hand upon the start of your timing interval, allows for accurate timing of your dive. The Submariner’s bezel displays 60 minutes along the full circumference, with hashed-out individual minute marks from 0 to 15, post-1957 (ref. 6536/1).
And finally, legibility, through luminous dial markers, hands, and lume pip, ensures the user can clearly see the watch underwater in various lighting conditions.
The Submariner’s now iconic lume plots (rectangular indices at 3, 6, and 9; inverted triangle at 12, and circular indices at each remaining hour mark), along with the emblematic Mercedes hands (beginning 1954, ref. 6205), have become the defining characteristics of not only the Submariner line but arguably the design traits and personality of the brand’s sports models overall.
Through The Years
In the decades since, the design language and function of the Submariner line have evolved in accordance with the new technologies and materials of the day. And yet, from a design standpoint, the Submariner remains evergreen: rotating bezel, luminous indices, Mercedes hands, etc.
For example, an owner of an original Submariner from the 1950s would still recognize a modern Submariner to be the same watch, much in the way that the Porsche 911 has evolved over the years while maintaining its core DNA.
Crown guards were added in 1959; depth ratings got deeper (from 100 and 200m to the current 300m); dials went matte to glossy; indices got bigger (“maxi” dials of the ref. 5512 and modern); corrosion-resistant 904L steel was introduced (1985); and even a date wheel version was added (ref. 1680 in 1969, along with the iconic “cyclops” window), among countless other advancements.
Today, while the many vintage variants now command their own literary dictionaries and secondary market values (“Bart Simpson”, “Swiss Exclamation Point”, “Double Swiss Underline”, “Meters first”; try explaining that to your non-watch friends), the latest generation of the Submariner maintains similar design identity.
In a newly upsized 41mm diameter case (40.6mm in actual measurement), in what was the most significant change to the model line since the jump to the “Super Case” in 2008, with “Cerachrom” ceramic bezel, maxi dial, and updated bracelet with new Glidelock clasp.
Modern Submariners are beefy, solid, and bold in the most luxurious sense. While arguably still “tool” watches capable of true diving and built to diving spec, there is a definite sense of luxury and bling factor not attributable to pre-ceramic iterations of the past (18k Yellow Gold ref. 1680, etc. notwithstanding).
No matter how you decide to wear them, there are eight current models available today, varying from 904L Oystersteel (with and without date) to two-tone Oystersteel and yellow gold (black and blue variants available), to full-on solid white gold (with blue bezel) or yellow gold (with black bezel).
All models now feature the 3235 base movements using the patented Chronergy escapement, combining high energy efficiency and dependability with a 70-hour power reserve. Let’s jump into it!
The icon itself. Though the Submariner didn’t gain a date window until the ref. 1680 in 1969, it’s truly the Submariner Date that has defined the dive watch genre in the years since. In fact, its date and cyclops window has become synonymous with the Rolex brand itself.
With the introduction of the 126610LN in 2020, we have a return to form despite a jump to 41mm. Compared to the previous generation’s use of controversially thick lugs on the Super Case, we’re now presented with slimmer lugs producing a more balanced case shape down to the bracelet, achieved by widening the lug width to 21mm.
In all other dimensions, the 126610LN wears nearly identical to the last generation (importantly, 48mm lug to lug; 12.3mm thickness). However, the wider bracelet is noticeable on the wrist to the astute or those with experience wearing the 116610LN.
The clasp is now a bit larger and longer and provides 20mm of Glide Lock adjustment in 2mm increments, useful for aiding comfort throughout the day as one’s wrist swells and contracts. Finally, Anti-Reflective coating is now applied to the underside of the sapphire crystal, providing increased legibility at various angles. Available in a standard black bezel and dial configuration, the Submariner Date currently retails for $10,250.
Colloquially known as the “No Date” Submariner, the current generation 124060, which also debuted in 2020 alongside its “Submariner Date” brethren, is the true “Submariner”. Though receiving the same upgrades as the 126610LN mentioned prior, the No Date offers collectors a few important traits that make it a favorite for the truly initiated (Read: “watch nerds”).
Heritage: The No Date is a direct descendant of the very first Submariners of the 1950s, with its lack of date and hyper specificity. After all, who needs to know the date underwater?
Aesthetic Balance: The date and cyclops window is “love or hate”. If you prefer a balanced look, the No Date is your only option. Arguably, without the cyclops, the no date is also a bit more under the radar.
Rarity: Though production numbers are not made publicly known by Rolex, we can infer from available models on the secondary market that the No Date is rarer, in a near 2:1 ratio in favor of the No Date. Current retail price: $9,100
Rolex debuted the first two-tone Submariner in 1984 (ref. 16803) in both black and blue variants featuring a combination of steel and yellow gold. That line continues through to the latest generation, via the blue bezel and dial 126613LB “Bluesy” and the black bezel and dial 126613LN.
With a yellow gold bezel, crown, and polished center links, the two-tone Submariner variants offer a step up in luxury for those wanting to add a bit more bling against the typical full steel models typically seen. Of note, the 126613 models now feature white dial text instead of gold text seen on the previous 116613 generations. Current retail price: $15,600
For a brand as vertically integrated as Rolex, it should come as no surprise that it even makes its own gold. With an in-house foundry, Rolex can ensure strict quality assurance and material integrity. Truly, Rolex gold (in yellow, white, or Everose) is a site to behold AND hold (it’s heavy). For the ultimate in exuberance, look no further than the 126618 (black and blue variants available, 126618LN and 126618LB, respectively). Current retail price; $39,000
From its debut in 2010 to its discontinuation in 2020, the 116610LV (often referred to as the “Hulk”) was the first and only Submariner with a green bezel, and dial, whose popularity and demand continue to this day on the secondary market.
Though the use of a green bezel was first applied on the 11610V “Kermit” to mark the Submariner’s 50th anniversary in 2003, the combination of the brilliant “green gold” dial along with the increased lug mass of the super case earned the 116610LV the now infamous moniker.
A darling of the secondary watch market boom in recent years, the Hulk now commands prices well above its original retail price if you’re lucky enough to find one. Hulk Smash! Last MSRP: $9,350
With the discontinuation of the 116610LV “Hulk” in 2020, Rolex released a new green bezel Submariner in the 126610LV. Gone was the “green gold” dial, replaced with a standard black Submariner Date dial. Collectors still debate over which version they prefer, as well as what to actually name the watch. In 2023, two names have stuck most: “Cermit” (as in, Cerachrom bezel ‘Kermit’) and “Starbucks” (based on the popular coffee retailer’s logo).
Whichever name you decide to call it, the 126610LV features all of the technical updates of the latest 41mm Submariner generation, including a new case and calibre 3235 movement with a 70-hour power reserve. The green Cerachrom bezel remains a pleasant differentiator from the standard Oystersteel models; at the very least, “bragging rights!”. Current Retail Price: $10,800
In 2008, Rolex released the first Submariner to feature a full 18k white gold case and bracelet to mark the brand’s 100-year anniversary. Contrasting with the white gold was a bright blue dial and Cerachrom bezel, which was quickly named the “Smurf” based on the popular cartoon (collectors love nicknames). When that super case model was discontinued, Rolex replaced it with the current 41mm diameter size 126619LB in 2020, albeit with a standard black Submariner Date dial applied instead.
Decidedly stealth wealth, the white gold could be mistaken for plain old steel from the less discerning. A true “ if you know, you know” watch, though we should really call it the “Sub Zero” now (for the Mortal Kombat fans; what did I say, we really love nicknames). Current Retail Price: $42,000
The first true “Submariner”, produced in 1953. Though a few standard hallmarks of current-generation Submariners are missing, all of the initial design elements were in place from the get-go, starting with the black rotating bezel and dial layout.
Relatively smaller in comparison to today’s standards with a 37mm diameter case and 5.3mm crown, the 6204 still was a serious tool watch rated to 100m water resistance. At its heart, the watch was powered by the caliber A260, Rolex’s most robust automatic movement available at the time. The gilt dial and pencil-like hands were inevitably removed upon later iterations.
The year is 1962. Actor Sean Connery plays the role of James Bond in the film Dr. No. A film legend and saga is born. On Connery’s wrist: A Rolex Submariner, reference 6538. The rest is history. Today, the 6538, with its oversized 8mm crown, is perhaps the most iconic and coveted of vintage Rolex sport watches due to its association with the film and character.
One particular example even sold for $492,500 at auction in Christie’s New York in December 2017. Two main variants exist; The “two-line” with two lines of text at the six o’clock position and the “four-line” with four lines of text in the same position, albeit denoting chronometer certification (the first Submariner to feature such).
The legend of the Submariner is propped up by its association of use in the field by the military and deep-diving research teams. COMEX (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises), a leading French diving company in the 1960s and 70s, worked with Rolex to create the reference 5514 for personal use. As a watch specifically made for COMEX, the 5514 was never sold in public retail, ultimately making it among the rarest of all Submariner models ever produced.
Based on the existing ref. 5513 of the day, the 5514 features a Helium Escape Valve flanked on its left-hand case side (the only Submariner model to ever feature one), with the COMEX logo emblazoned in white just below the center of the dial. A truly rare and sought-after vintage model, examples have sold for over $100,000 in today’s market.
From humble tool watch beginnings to becoming the definitive and most identifiable Swiss luxury watch today, the Rolex Submariner has stood the test of time by maintaining a laser-like focus in its aesthetic design and pursuit of technical excellence.
Few other products in any category can claim such history or success, and the Rolex Submariner has earned its place alongside such undeniable icons. Which Submariner do you choose?
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