The James Bond Submariner, An Unauthorized History

By John E. Brozek
© InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2003
International Wristwatch Magazine, October 2003

The year 1953 marked the birth of two very significant icons in today’s culture: The Rolex Submariner, and Ian Fleming’s British Secret Service Agent James Bond.

While Rolex officially launched the Submariner (model 6204) at the Basel Spring Watch Fair in 1954, the appearance of the first Rolex diving watch is believed to have been in the previous year, as model 6200. This is the same year that the TV adaptation of Ian Fleming’s book Casino Royale was first broadcast on CBS, starring Barry Nelson.

This movie depicted a much different Bond than we are accustomed to seeing today, as did the early Submariners. Both were a bit rough around the edges, but over the years that followed, they were refined into a very sexy symbol of thrill-seeking adventure with an affluent sophisticated flair.

This was, indeed, an exciting time for exploration. With the new sport of skin diving on the horizon, it opened the door to a world full of adventure. Earlier that year, Hillary and Tenzing conquered Mt. Everest, followed by the Piccard’s historic voyage into the abyss with their famed bathyscaphe Trieste. These pioneers were braving new frontiers and Rolex was determined to supply the watch, no matter what the situation. The Explorer (models 6098 & 6150) was released in 1953, as was the Turn-O-Graph (model 6202). Then, along with the Submariner, the Milgauss (model 6541) and the GMT-Master (model 6542) were officially debuted in 1954. Rolex’s catalog was then lined with an impressive collection of new “Professional Series” watches.

Over the subsequent years, the Submariner received numerous changes to the line, as did the screen credits for the Bond films. It took some nine years before Fleming’s British agent made it to the big screen. In 1962, Sean Connery was introduced as James Bond in Dr. No, and a Rolex Submariner was right there on his wrist.

Connery and the Submariner enjoyed a successful bond (no pun intended), as the pair returned a year later in From Russia With Love, and from there the films were released in almost rapid-fire succession: Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967). After an interim appearance by George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Roger Moore then took the reigns in Live And Let Die (1973), followed by The Man With The Golden Gun (1974).

While these first nine films placed Rolex in the spotlight, Q Branch, like others of this time, experimented with hi-tech digital gizmos, thus Bond was issued a Seiko. In the 1980s, Rolex made a brief appearance with Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights (1987) and License To Kill (1989). The British Agent then took some seven years to return to the screen in Goldeneye (1996), which unveiled a new Bond: Pierce Brosnan, and a new watch on his wrist, the Omega.

In the beginning, it appeared as though Rolex would play a similar version of the name game. Early examples of the diving watch lacked the designation “Submariner” on the dial, and the company continued to patent a number of alternate monikers in 1953-54, including Deepsea, Frogman, Diver, Deep-Sea Diver, Skin Diver, Dive-O-Graph, and Swimproof. Fortunately, the name Submariner stuck and it subsequently received numerous evolutions to its appearance, including a new model (the 6205), by late 1954.

In 1955, the 6204 renumbered as the 6538, and the 6205 became the 6536. The 6536 was now fitted with the new 1030 movement and Mercedes hands, an improvement the 6538 didn’t receive until the late 1950s, when a version was released as the 6538A.

In 1956, the 6536 was also available with a chronometer version of the 1030 movement and was designated as the 6536/1. Two years later, in 1958, the 6200 renumbered as the 5510, and the 6536/1 became the 5508, when both were upgraded to the 1530 movement.

It is believed that Connery wore the 6538 in Dr. No. Many collectors therefore regard it as the only true James Bond Submariner, with the possible exception of the 6200, on account of the presence of the larger “Brevet” winding crown and non-crown guard case. Others believe that all Submariners “without crown guards” deserved the same distinction (i.e., to also include the 5508, 5510, 6204, 6205, and 6536 series). Crown guards were not introduced to the line until 1959, when they were featured on a brand new model, the 5512.

With that being said, there is the matter of the 5513 (released in 1962), which Roger Moore donned in Live And Let Die. While it doesn’t fit the aforementioned description, it’s probably the most memorable Submariner to appear in the Bond films. This Q Branch gadget featured an electromagnet powerful enough to divert the path of a bullet, as well as a spinning bezel which acted as a buzz saw and enabled Bond to cut free his ropes, thus saving himself and the heroin Solitaire (played by Jane Seymour), from certain death in a pool of man eating sharks.

The actual movie prop used in Live And Let Die; a “specially adapted Rolex wristwatch, Ref: 5513, case No. 2683776” and modified by Syd Cain (the film’s art director), was auctioned at Christie’s in 2001 (lot 145) for $41,992 (26,523 British pounds). Of related interest, the production drawing for this movie prop (also drawn by Syd Cain), sold at the same auction (lot 144) for $11,453 (7,233 British pounds).

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Submariner (1953-2003), Rolex recently debuted a new model at the Basel Spring Watch Fair. This new, very progressive Maxi Dial version of the Submariner is similar to the current 16610, but features larger hour indexes, a thicker minute hand (which we are accustomed to seeing on the Yacht-Master), and a green bezel.

Unfortunately, Hans Wilsdorf (the founder of Rolex) died in 1960, as did Mr. Fleming in 1964. Therefore, these craftsmen of modern culture icons were unable to enjoy the full success their creations would achieve. However, I believe if they were here today, they would have much to talk about.

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