Today we are going to celebrate one of our absolute favourite vintage watches, the Rolex Submariner reference 5513. Everybody remembers their first vintage watch and everybody loves their first Rolex 5513. It’s a watch that each of us at some point tries and becomes smitten by. Do you have one in your bank box or safe? If you do we hope this piece inspires you do take it out and wear it and love it. If you don’t then we know that you would love it once you buy it. It’s the watch that never gets old, boring or out of favour amongst collectors. And we love them. Not in a fleeting, here today gone tomorrow passing love, but a proper deep rooted “if we could keep only one watch” kind of way. So join us as we share our love of the 5513.
Timeless Time Telling
The 5513 was first introduced in the early 60s and it had an amazing 27-year run – nearly three decades. During this time, the 5513 underwent a number of significant changes; the vast majority on the dial. Sure, the fonts on the bezel inserts went through small incremental changes and the bracelets went from riveted links to solid links, via folded links. However, the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is really true in the case of the 5513. Its arguably perfect. In fact, here’s a challenge. What one thing would you change about the 5513? We’ll wait whilst you think. Finished? Yes, as we expected – you think its perfect as it is. Its dial is beautifully balanced, the case proportions are a delight and the way the watch sits on the wrist is almost magical.
As stated above, the only discernable differences in the development of the 5513 were the dial variations. It would be possible to dedicate an entire series of articles to the development of the 5513 dial, but for now we want to give you a very brief overview of the different dials that were used by Rolex over the 27 years and why we love them. For this overview we will divide them into three types – gilt, matte and glossy.
The 5513 only had a gilt dial for the first four years of its life. The gilt dials had a deep gloss finish, akin to a pool of black oil. The text and outer minute markers on these dials were gold in colour, which leads to the name gilt. The colour is actually the brass dial base showing through, as the dials were printed with the text ‘in relief’. These dials have a habit of aging in unpredictable and unique ways, often turning a shade of brown. This phenomenon is known as a tropical dial and is one of most highly prized of vintage sports watches. Gilt Submariners and Explorers are particularly well-known and coveted by collectors, but any black gilt dial can undergo this change and add real charisma to a watch. Check out our article about charismatic watches here.
In the mid-1960s Rolex began using dials with a matte black finish in the 5513s. The hour markers were painted with tritium and the text was printed in white. These dials are known as the ‘meters first’ due to the fact that the metres reading is the first on the dial.
‘Non-Serif and Serif’
At the end of the 1960s the depth ratings were reversed and the feet-depth was placed first. For the next five or six years Rolex used these matte dials. About half way through this run the quarter hour markers, the oblongs and 3, 6 and 9, appeared with small serifs on the corners – leading to the name serif dials.
The last matte dials before the Maxis has been given the nickname ‘Pre-Comex’ by collectors. A phrase initially used by Rolex collector Ed Delgado on the VRF many years ago, it refers to the matte dials that were used in some of the Comex reference 5514 Submariners; Sub reference that was unique to Comex and not commercially available. Most easily recognised by the ‘smudged’ coronet and abundance of serif on the L of the ROLEX text, these watches appeared in civilian 5513 watches in a similar serial range to the Mk1 Maxi.
In the late-70s the Maxi dials were introduced. Thought of by many collectors as the king of the matte dials, the Maxis have noticeable large hour markers that really make the dial ‘pop’ on the watch. For us, we love the Mk1 maxi (there were five variations) especially the way that often the lume on the dial stays bright white, without much natural aging. The last 5513 dial to eature the word SUBMARINER below the depth rating, we love the dial layout and the cool tall coronet.
‘Glossy or WG Surrounds’
In approximately 1984, following the Mk5 Maxi, Rolex introduced the last version of the 5513 dial. It had a glossy finish, not dissimilar to the early gilt dials but the text was printed in white. The most noticeable difference was the hour markers that were applied to the dial and filled with luminous material. Made out of white gold, the edges surrounded the lume, which led to the collectors’ term ‘wg surrounds’ for this dial type. The hour markers give this dial real depth that can only be achieved through the presence of applied markers and we like this 3D effect.
Domes for Dancing
The 5513 was always fitted with an acrylic crystal, which had the catalogue name Tropic 19 (T19) to signify it was a domed glass without a cyclops date magnifier. Originally these would have been quite tall and deep, what we refer to as a ‘super dome’. Later and service versions of the crystal are much shallower and they don’t quite have the same effect on the dial. In our minds, there are few things more beautiful that an original superdomed T19 crystal on a 5513. The light hits the T19 dome and floods the dial with light and the shape of the crystal can distort the hour plots – making them almost dance on the dial. It’s an incredible optical illusion, but one that the vintage Sub collector can never tire of and something that for us sets the 5513 aprts form so many other watches.
The Versatile Sub
To us the 5513 is the ‘do-all’ Submariner within the modern context of wearing this watch. However, its important to remember that this was a tool when it was first introduced, aimed at divers in both the commercial diving world and also the emerging hobby of recreational scuba diving. If you wanted to survive your dive, whether for work or pleasure, you had to time your submersion and this was the initial point of the dive watch. These watches were worn in extremely dangerous conditions by professional divers in both the military and commercial diving sectors (the commercial divers often worked for oil companies). These divers were regularly risk their lives in combat situations or when repairing pipelines – often operating well below the recommended depth rating of the watch. One such commercial diving company were Comex. They would specially order watches, including early 5513s and their own reference 5514, directly from Rolex. These watches feature the Comex logo on the dial and tended to be worn on the steel Oyster bracelet. This is a seriously cool look.
The Submariners delivered to the military have been given the name MilSubs by collectors. They often had fixed spring bars to meet defence department stipulations and so were worn on fabric nato straps. A simple grey or black nato-style strap is the classic issued look for the iconic MilSubs reference 5513 and 5517. Pure, no nonsense utilitarian military chic in bucket loads! It’s also a look that we love to recreate with a simple, non-issued 5513.
These historical perspectives are so important to us and add to the charm of wearing a vintage Rolex Submariner. Thinking of the adventures on which your cool 5513 may have traveled and by whom it may have been worn. Not all watches were worn in crazy dangerous situations, in fact some were probably worn by executives in their offices. But that doesn’t matter – its still a 5513 and it could have withstood a life in the depths of the north sea or a sub-aqua attack on a submarine in north Africa. However urban cool you are, you can’t help but be taken in by the romance of these stories!
As stated earlier, the 5513 is in our minds such a perfect and timeless sports watch. This was a watch that was designed out of a need for divers to be safe, but its adoption by collectors has transcended it to a whole new level as an important design item of the 20th century. Like another style icon, the M65 jacket, the 5513 can be worn as intended as a sports tool or it is equally comfortable dressed up for a smart occasion. In many ways the 5513 is a fashion icon, something we enjoy celebrating here at Bulang and Sons by pairing it with a vast array of different straps styles and accessorising it with bracelets and cuffs. Honestly, it is virtually impossible to find a strap combination that doesn’t work with the 5513. The metropolitan lives that many of us now live, requires versatility and adaptability in everything that we own and the way in which we operate. This is one of the reasons that we love the 5513 so much, because it really can adapt to fit any wrist in any situation.
Enjoy your 5513s
I have been collecting vintage Rolex for the last 14 years.. and the Rolex 5513 is still one of my favorites. It’s never boring and always relevant. Wearing one of these vintage beauties still feels temporary and stylish. I found the case to have the perfect weight, size and feel on the wrist. The design is just reduced to perfection and they have been daily wearers for me ever since.
I hope you will enjoy yours or will be able to find a great example of these icons. And I am sure it will be a friend for life.