By Paul Altieri
(Be on the look-out for one of these amazing watches in your vintage
jewelry searches. The price they bring will put quite a smile on your
As far as tool watches go, it really doesn’t get much better than the Rolex Submariner, and judging by the way the hit sports watch still sells to this day, it could be said that consumers are certainly aware of this. Since 1954, the Sub has always been representative of quality and precision engineering, and with its innovative Oyster case construction, it has always done well by diving professionals, hobbyists, and even enlisted military men serving in the British forces, when descending into the dark depths of the world’s vast oceans. For dedicated vintage Rolex collectors, the military issued Submariner arguably represents the height of sports Rolex collecting, so today we’re going to take a look at the rich history of these great “Milsubs”, and what exactly makes them so very special.
The story of the military Submariner begins just three short years after the official release of the Submariner, when the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) expressed interest in outfitting their men with durable wristwatches that could be worn while diving. While Rolex could’ve easily supplied them with the standard, current Submariner offering at the time - the Ref. 6538 - they chose to go the tailor-made route, by designing something to suit the specific needs of MOD divers - the Ref. A/6538.
Like the 6538, the A/6538 featured an impressive water resistance rating of 200m, but for increased durability, Rolex fitted the watch with fixed bars, and a bezel crafted from German silver, which would only dent if knocked against a surface, instead of cracking. These minor adjustments to an already terrific watch to begin with made the A/6538 a bona fide tool watch by all means.
In the following years, the MOD would no longer issue the A/6538, in favor of the newer and more capable Omega Seamaster 300’s, though it wouldn’t be long before the British military would return to Rolex, in pursuit of a similarly modified variant of the Ref. 5513. It’s speculated that the decision to switch back to issuing Submariner’s could potentially be attributed to the use of crown guards on the 5513, which made the watch considerably tougher.
This next generation of military Submariner would come in the form of three different references - the Ref. 5513, the Ref. 5517, and what’s referred to as the “double reference”, the Ref. 5513/5517. All produced examples are said to have left the factory looking identically, with a fully graduated rotating bezel, fixed bars, attractive sword hands, and the letter T on the dial, indicating that the luminous compound used in the manufacturing watch is tritium.
While these watches may have been intended to be worn as tools and put through their paces accordingly, a clean military Submariner is now regarded as a “grail-worthy” vintage Rolex in 2016, and likely won’t be found anywhere near the water. Be they crossing the auction block in Switzerland, or on the wrist of a taste-making collector, two things are for sure - the military Submariner is one of the greatest watches ever made by Rolex, and one of the purest tool watches of all time.
About the Author: Paul Altieri is the Founder and CEO of the celebrity-frequented, pre-owned watch site Bob’s Watches. The site has become extremely popular because it allows consumers to see both what a watch will bring through private sale and what it will be resold for in the retail market. This is Paul’s innovative sales philosophy. You can read all about Paul’s unique approach in the July 26, 2016 issue of Forbes in which he explains, “People had no place to find Rolexes and see their real value. They didn’t have a safe place to sell their watches.” - Before Bob’s Watches that is!
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