Stainless steel sports watches are among the most sought-after Rolex models on the secondary market, with the Submariner at the top of many collectors’ lists. It seems to have withstood the test of time, keeping a similar design set for nearly seventy years. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that some of the most influential public figures, such as A-list celebrities, world dignitaries, and even James Bond himself, have been known to wear the Rolex Submariner on their wrists.
Rolex Submariner Stainless Steel Buying Guide
With numerous options currently available on the pre-owned market, choosing which Rolex Submariner to invest in can seem like a daunting task. This guide will cover some of the most popular stainless steel Submariner watches, what makes them so desirable, and where you can buy them.
While the Submariner has undergone numerous changes since first coming to market in 1953, its core design remains the same: a luminous display on the dial, a 60-minute rotating bezel, a waterproof case, and an automatic movement.
Bezel: One of the Submariner’s staple features is the 60-minute timing bezel, which Rolex developed to measure immersion times. The bezel was initially bi-directional, until the 1980s when Rolex redesigned it to be unidirectional. With the unidirectional bezel, any accidental movement will only ever over-estimate immersion time, rather than underestimating it – a particularly important feature when keeping time underwater.
Oyster Case: Rolex invented the Oyster case in 1926. Today, almost every model in the brand’s catalog utilizes the impressive waterproof case, offering various levels of water-resistance. The Submariner initially hit the market with a 100-meter depth rating, which eventually increased to 200 meters, before increasing again to 300 meters, where it remains today.
Perpetual Movement: The Perpetual movement is a mainstay of the Rolex brand, powering the vast majority of the brand’s watches since it was first developed in the 1930s. The automatic movement powers itself from the movement of the wearer’s wrist, eliminating the need to manually wind it each day like a traditional mechanical watch.
Dial: Part of the Submariner’s signature design set is the luminous display on its dial. Depending on the year of production, the hands are either of the straight “Pencil” variety or more commonly, “Mercedes” style hands like the ones used today. First introduced on the ref. 16610LV “Kermit” Submariner, the subsequent 6-digit series received the upgraded “Maxi” dial, which features larger hour markers and broader hands for increased legibility.
Popular Stainless Steel Submariner References
For the sake of brevity, we will skip most of the earlier model Submariners. They are extremely rare and often command anywhere from $20k to well over $100k on the secondary market. Instead, we’ll focus on the steel Sub’s most beloved and collectable references.
Rolex 5512 & Rolex 5513
The reference 5512 was the first Submariner to include crown guards, a feature that is now a staple of the Submariner collection. It was produced alongside reference 5513 for several years, with the main difference between the two being that ref. 5512 was chronometer-rated and ref. 5513 was not. Because the ref. 5513 did not feature a COSC-certified movement, it was less expensive to produce and was the more affordable option between the two references.
Rolex produced ref. 5513 until the end of the 1980s, while the ref. 5512 ceased production around the late 1970s. Its lower price point and higher availability on the secondary market make ref. 5513 an attractive option for many collectors. However, if you have the budget for a rarer vintage Rolex Submariner, ref. 5512 might also catch your eye.
A time-only movement initially powered the Submariner. It wasn’t until Rolex developed ref. 1680 in the late 1960s that the date would finally make an appearance on the dial, complete with a Cyclops magnification lens on the crystal. Early editions are famously referred to as “Red Sub” watches because the Submariner name is printed in bright red font. Rolex produced several other dial variations under the reference 1680, each referred to as Mark I through Mark VI. Variants include differences in the font, the order of the wording (such as meters first vs. feet first), and even slight variations in the font color.
Rolex enthusiasts refer to the ref. 16800 as the transitional Submariner because it brought numerous firsts to the series, including a sapphire crystal, the Caliber 3035 movement (upgraded from Cal. 1570), water-resistance up to 300 meters, and a unidirectional timing bezel. Its feature set is both modern and vintage, making it an intriguing option for many collectors. Additionally, the ref. 168000 is another transitional model that came after the ref. 16800 and was only produced for about one year. Virtually identical to the ref. 16800, the key difference is that the ref. 168000 uses 904L stainless steel, rather than 316L like its predecessors.
The date became a mainstay of the Submariner series after Rolex developed the ref. 1680. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Rolex would again release an updated no-date variation of the Submariner in the form of the ref. 14060. With collectors still split between the Submariner Date and the “No Date” Submariner, the reference 14060 has since become somewhat of a cult favorite on the secondary market. Part of its immense appeal also lies in its modern feature set compared to the original date-free Submariner models, with lume plots in white gold surrounds, a unidirectional bezel, a sapphire crystal, and a water resistance rating of 300 meters, rather than 200 meters like earlier No-Date Submariner references.
When it comes to entry-level Submariner watches, the reference 16610 is hard to beat with its modern feature set and high-beat movement. It’s a relatively new addition to the Rolex catalog, running from approximately 1988 until 2010, and it is readily available on the secondary market for around $10k. It’s also notably the last edition of the Submariner Date to feature an aluminum bezel before the subsequent generation updated the bezel insert to Rolex’s proprietary Cerachrom ceramic material. Variations include the black bezel ref. 16610 and the green anniversary ref. 16610V dubbed the “Kermit” that also features a black “Maxi” dial.
Rolex’s professional series, including the stainless steel Submariner, took on a more contemporary aesthetic with the release of the 6-digit generation. The dial was swapped for the “Maxi” dial with a larger luminous display. Although it retained the same 40mm diameter as its predecessors, the case appeared larger with bigger crown guards and significantly thicker lugs. However, the most notable upgrade came in the form of the Cerachrom bezel, which traded the aluminium insert for more resilient ceramic that is virtually impervious to scratching and fading. References from the first generation of stainless steel 6-digit Submariner Date watches include the black ref. 116610LN and the green ref. 116610LV (aka the “Hulk”), which features a green ceramic bezel and matching bright green dial.
The Submariner No-Date continued production in Cerachrom and Oystersteel in the form of the ref. 114060 in 2012. Just like the edition with a date display on the dial, the ref. 114060 includes a newer-style case (dubbed the “Super Case”), a ceramic bezel, and a Maxi dial. Averaging $10k on the pre-owned market, the ref. 114060 is an affordable option for anyone shopping for a ceramic bezel Rolex Submariner dive watch.
The current iteration of the stainless steel Submariner hit the market in 2020. For the first time in the brand’s history, the Submariner features a 41mm case. It also marks the integration of the new-generation Caliber 3235 movement within the Submariner series. As one can imagine, the ref. 126610 is easily one of the hottest watches on the market, with options on the retail level in incredibly short supply. Luckily, numerous handsome options are making their way onto the pre-owned market with both a black bezel (ref. 126610LN) and a green bezel (ref. 126610LV).
Rounding out our guide is the current edition of the stainless steel 2020 Rolex Submariner No-Date. It also features a 41mm case and is powered by the next-generation Caliber 3230 movement – the dateless counterpart of the Cal. 3235. It is every bit the quintessential dive watch, mirroring the date-free dial of vintage Rolex Submariner watches, while simultaneously offering the brand’s latest and greatest in-house movements.
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