Revisiting a Divers’ Classic: The Rolex Submariner

In 1966 Rolex developed the Sea-Dweller, at first marketed as a particularly water-resistant version of the Submariner. (It is now a separate collection.) The first Sea-Dweller (Ref. 1665) was water-resistant to 600 meters. In 1978, Rolex introduced the new Ref. 16600 with a sapphire crystal and an improved helium valve. (These days, Sea-Dweller models have helium-release valves, Submariners don’t.) This watch withstood depths to 1,220 meters. The 1665 existed for several more years, but after 1981, the company produced only the heftiest version of the Sea-Dweller, the 16600.

Fidel Castro wearing a Rolex
Cuban leader Fidel Castro sporting a Rolex Submariner in 1967.
Steve McQueen in Papillon w/Rolex
Steve McQueen wearing a Submariner during the filming of “Papillon” in 1973

It was not until 1981 that the Submariner was equipped with a unidirectional bezel. It took so long because starting in 1952, Blancpain held a patent for a ratcheting rotating bezel, which it used on its Fifty Fathoms watch. This kept Rolex and other watch companies from using the bezel.
In 2008 Rolex brought out its Deepsea Sea-Dweller, which withstands water pressure to a very impressive 3,900 meters thanks to a new case design that incorporates what Rolex calls a “Ringlock System.” It consists of an interior support ring, a 5-mm-thick domed sapphire crystal and a titanium caseback. It’s a far cry from the Oyster case of 1926, but in its unprecedented impermeability, a direct descendant.

Rolex Submariner with green bezel
This 2002 Submariner Ref. 16610LV with green bezel, which marked the Submariner’s 50th anniversary, was sold by Antiquorum in 2010 for SF5,750 (then about $5,400).

Check out our watch test of the Rolex Submariner Date, along with a detailed portfolio of the various models available in the series, in our March-April 2012 issue, on sale as an iPad or iPhone edition!

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