Built to do a basic job, it turned into a global icon.

Diving became a big deal in the 50’s and 60’s as dreams of discovering lost cities on the seabed and the on-screen exploits of the legendary Jacque Cousteau fuelled the interest of would-be underwater explorers. As the sport grew Rolex identified an opportunity and launched their very first divers watch. Apparently, the product wasn’t really that good, but the marketing certainly was.

Although there weren’t too many actual divers around the number of “wannabes” was huge and Rolex had the reach and heft to get watches into the hands of more of these buyers than their competition. Other brands may have targeted divers specifically but Rolex, especially with their ‘If you were diving here tomorrow’ campaign appealed to all those who wanted to be part of the diving craze.

At the risk of stating the obvious, getting water inside a watch is bad news. At best you could be looking at an expensive service, at worst, the movement may become a rusted write-off. Interestingly Rolex’s watch wasn’t the most watertight out there at the time, but what mattered was public perception and the brand had already captured the imagination with their Oyster-cased watch which Mercedes Gleitze wore during her 1927 swim across the English Channel.

We shouldn’t dismiss the Bond effect when reviewing the history of dive watches produced by Rolex. Ian Fleming wore a Rolex Explorer and wrote that Bond wore one too, both as a watch and knuckleduster. Hollywood heavyweight Sean Connery wore a 6538 ‘Big Crown’ Submariner in his first 4 outings as Bond and despite the fact that a Breitling Top Time became the first ‘gadget watch’ and star of the show in Thunderball, Rolex turned a still from the same film into an extremely successful ad for the Sub.

Sean Connery Rolex Submariner

The first Rolex to enjoy the “Q” treatment was Roger Moore’s 5513 Submariner which came with the obligatory buzzsaw and magnet. This is widely regarded as the Rolex performance that did the most to push the Submariner out to a wider audience. The suggestion that a dive watch could be a daily wearer and a dress watch was revolutionary for the time and one that Rolex themselves cheekily referred to in their advertising.

As we left the 70’s and moved into the 80s, quartz came along, and the watch world descended into a suicidal race to the bottom, in terms of price. Design ebbed and flowed to follow fashion, with some hits but more misses. While all this was going on Rolex stuck to its roots and kept on doing its thing. They did produce the Oysterquartz, but it never found a home inside the brand hero that is the Submariner. Fast forward to the start of the ‘90s and mechanical, once again, became cool. With its distinct brand recognition, Rolex easily claimed the top spot, even if 007 had changed allegiance to Omega.

And where are we today? Well, the Rolex Submariner stands out as the most recognised and probably the most copied watch in the world, which is ridiculously difficult to obtain. Its simple but effective design packed full of incremental improvements to the case, bracelet, dial, and movement sees it steal the show some 70 years after the company put its toe in the water.

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