In 1973’s Live and Let Die, James Bond and the psychic/paramour Solitaire are left to die in classic extravagant-movie-villain-fashion. Kananga, the bad guy, ties Bond and Solitaire to a platform with ropes and begins to lower them into a pit of sharks. It looks like it’s all over for our hero—until he hits a button on his watch, it whirs to life, and Bond uses it as a buzzsaw to cut himself and Solitaire free from the ropes and kill Kananga. The life-saving watch? A Rolex Submariner.
While this was the first time the Sub was called to action, the watch was there from the beginning of the Bond franchise. Sean Connery wore one in 1962’s Dr. No, the very first Bond movie. And then he wore a Sub in From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball, too.
It makes sense that the suavest man in history would wear the Submariner: the Rolex model is one of the most iconic pieces in watch history.
Photo Credit: Rolex
Rolex introduced the Submariner in 1954 as the first commercial watch that could dive 100 meters underwater. Rolex executive Rene-Paul Jeanerret happened to be an amateur diver, and friend of none other than legendary aquatic explorer Jacques Cousteau. Jeanerret convinced Rolex president Hans Wilsdorf it was time to invest seriously in a watch made specifically for divers.
The Submariner accomplished exactly that. The watch is designed for plummeting to the bottom of the sea (or at least 330 feet into it), and not just by being waterproof. Instead of numbers, hour markers come in large easy-to-differentiate shapes—an arrow at 12-o-clock and rectangles every third hour.
The hour markers are also made with a material that lights up, angler fish-style. The rotating bezel lets a diver know how long they’ve been submerged. One sign that Rolex got it all right: the general Submariner design has been the inspiration for basically every diver’s watch that’s come after it.
Photo Credit: Rolex
And all those bells and whistles weren’t just bells and whistles. In 1954, the Institute for Deep Sea Research tested the watch for five months and reported back that it was fully waterproof. “All other previous tests with water-resistant watches from top brands showed water penetration from the first moment of the dive,” the institute wrote.
Certification in hand, Rolex supplied the French deep-diving company Compagnie Maritime d'Expertises, or COMEX, with Submariners to use during expeditions.
Now, thanks to its illustrious history, the Submariner may be one of the most instantly recognizable watches in the world. Starting in the late ‘60s, Rolex introduced color to the Submariner, producing gold versions with deep-blue dials. Today, “Hulk”-green versions of the Sub are driving collectors crazy.
“The new model Submariner 116610 [the latest evolution of the model introduced in 2010] and the Hulk are red hot now,” says Paul Altieri, founder and CEO of Bob’s Watches, which specializes in Rolex.
Altieri says both models are sold out at his boutiques, which has affected the prices in predictable ways: “These watches were selling below retail in the pre-owned market just a few years ago and have now doubled in price.”
If there’s one knock on this iconic model, it’s that it is too popular—or was, at least. Modern-day collectors hunt down the Rolex Daytona, for example, because of its provenance: thanks to an initial lack of popularity, fewer were produced, which makes them more limited.
The Submariner, on the other hand, was produced much more frequently. Now, though, Rolex is fussing with the dials, ratcheting down widespread availability of its iconic watch, and Altieri says he now has over a dozen customers waiting in line for the standard Submariner and “substantially more” for the Hulk edition.
“Rolex defines luxury and nothing drives demand better for a luxury brand than product scarcity,” Altieri says. But strange market forces aside, a watch doesn’t just become this popular by artfully pulling the levers of production.
The Submariner is a genre-defining, proven-to-work watch used by James Bond and real-life divers alike. It's everywhere for a reason.
Words: Cam Wolf