Buyer's Guide

Horological Archetypes: The Rolex Submariner

Although not the first dive watch, The Sub, and especially Reference1680, has eternally secured itself the title of the ultimate dive watch.
By Allen Farmelo
Nov 26, 2022
Buyer's Guide Horological Archetypes: The Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner of 1954 was not the first commercially available dive watch, as both Blancpain's Fifty-Fathoms and Zodiac's Sea Wolf hit the market in 1953. As iconic and historically important as those 1953 dive watches are, it is the Rolex Submariner known as The Sub which has become the unchallenged dive watch archetype. I would wager that The Sub has been imitated, counterfeited, and otherwise flattered more than any other wrist watch, and it wouldn't be an overstatement to claim that The Sub has become the central archetype of the entire tool watch category. 

Specifically, however, it was the Rolex Submariner Reference 1680 of the late 1960s that became the most enduring template for the dive watch phenomenon to follow. Let's back up a bit and look at how Rolex arrived at the classic Submariner Reference 1680 and why that reference is so important.

Dive watches are interesting in that they are aesthetic objects borne of technical specifications. But back in the 1950s there were no official standards beyond the occasional military specifications, such as the French military's specs handed to Blancpain which resulted in the Fifty-Fathoms. Rolex, however, did not follow military specifications when first releasing The Sub, though Rolex did conform to the norms which were quickly establishing themselves: robust waterproofness, screw-down crowns, rotating timing bezels, secure bracelets, luminescent dials, stainless-steel construction, and automatic winding movements with visible seconds-hand (to confirm the watch is running).

It wasn't until 1990, after Scuba diving had become a well established recreational sport, that the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, set up the ISO 2281 standard for waterproof watches. In 1998, the ISO issued the current dive watch standard ISO 6425, which nearly all commercial dive watches follow today. But neither Blancpain, Zodiac, nor Rolex originally followed such a standard.

For this reason, early dive watches, including the Rolex Submariner, used bi-directional rotating friction timing bezels rather than today's unidirectional ratcheted bezels required by ISO 6425. Unidirectional bezels prevent mistakenly extended dives which could result in grave injury and even death from the dreaded bends, also known as decompression sickness. Some who handle early Rolex Submariners, including the Reference 1680, might believe the bezel is broken because it turns in both directions without clicking, but that is normal for early Subs.

Because the original Rolex Submariner (Reference 6204 of 1954) was built to meet the technical demands of Scuba diving, that watch didn't add up to a relevant style statement of any kind. Early dive watches were simply tools, and nearly no one wore them out of the water. That slowly began to change, and by the end of the 1960s, menswear had become casual enough to elevate tool watches as stylish expressions of masculinity. Some have also argued that the relative calm of the post-war era saw war veterans reaching for ways to distinguish themselves as rugged individuals in the absence of military service, which helped elevate military garb of all kinds (e.g. aviator sunglasses, khaki pants, and tool watches). Whatever the historical reading, by the 1970s, dive watches, and especially the Rolex Submariner by then offered in solid gold as the 1680/8 had become very fashionable.

Another indication that dive watches had become fashionable outside the water was the addition of date apertures to the dial, a feature of no use when Scuba diving and not a requirement of ISO 6425. Rolex first introduced the date aperture on the stainless steel Reference 1680 in 1967, and the first solid gold model followed in 1969 (the aforementioned Reference 1680/8). Interestingly, no Submariner without a date has ever been issued in solid gold, which indicates that the 1680 was Rolex's dressier take on the Submariner. Arguably, then, it is the Rolex Submariner Reference 1680 that finalized the dive watch as a fashion statement. For this reason, the 1680 stands as the fully-formed dive watch archetype which persists to this day, and the addition of the date aperture and Rolex's patented magnifying lens (known as a cyclops) have become key to the instant recognizability of the Rolex Submariner as well as countless imitators.

While the original Submariner Reference 6204 of 1954 was just 37mm in diameter, the Reference 1680 measures 40mm across, which many still consider the ideal size for a dive watch. Today's Submariners are larger still, and Rolex only rarely shrinks its watches back down to original size (with the Explorer I of 2021 being a rare exception). So, it appears one must indefinitely seek vintage examples to get a 40mm Submariner. Exceptionally balanced visually at the 40mm, those mid-century models also wear wonderfully.

Though the 1680 predates the IOS 6425 standard by over two decades, the reference meets all those specifications except for the bi-directional friction bezel. As the images I took of a 1972 1680 Red Sub at 90' (30m) underwater prove, these watches can be maintained to perform just as they were intended though many collectors don't dare take their precious and valuable 1680s near water.

Serious collectors are more likely to obsess over tiny details on Submariner 1680 dials. The rarer those details, the more valuable the watch. These details are typically small markings, or varying arrangements of text on the dial. Generally divided into eight Marks (e.g. Mk1, Mk2, etc.) a full analysis of these subtle differences would be beyond the scope of this article, but some examples will help to demonstrate the admittedly nerdy nature of collecting Rolex 1680s.

The most significant and obvious of the Reference 1680 dial variations is known as The Red Sub, as the word SUBMARINER is printed in red. There are six Marks of the Red Sub: those listing "meters first" on the depth rating (Mk1-Mk3, 1967-1970) and those that list "feet first" (Mk4-Mk6, 1971-~1976). What distinguishes a Mk1 from a Mk2, say, are other sundry minute details. Meanwhile, Mk7 and Mk8 round out the production era to 1979 with SUBMARINER printed in white.

FT Rolex 1680

To give you a little taste of what distinguishes the various Marks of Reference 1680, it can be something as small as whether the top of the f in ft arcs up over the top of the t or not. If that sounds ridiculous to you, know that among aficionados of the Rolex Submariner, such things are very serious business because these details help collectors understand everything from the relative rarity of a specific Submariner to whether it has been modified with replacement parts to the exact year of production none of which Rolex documented with any consistency during the 20th century.

Details aside, it is the general visage of the Rolex Submariner Reference 1680 which has persisted as the archetype of the dive watch including all subsequent Submariner references from Rolex itself. Of course there are many styles of dive watches, many of significance, but none as iconic, imitated, revered, recognizable and coveted as the Rolex Submariner 1680. 

I've compared the Rolex Submariner before to the Porsche 911 and the Fender Stratocaster, but the Submariner 1680 specifically is a particularly mature iteration of the iconic design, thus akin to the 911 G-Series of the 1970s, or the refined Stratocasters of the mid-1960s. Like those specific cars and guitars, the Submariner 1680 is the result of refinement and development of the original design, an expression of an evolved ethos from a company that has issued a hit product and has poured abundant time, talent, and treasures into keeping it relevant.

For that reason, many watch collectors (myself included) have come to covet the Rolex Submariner Reference 1680 above all other dive watches and for some collectors, above all watches entirely.