There is no vintage Rolex watch more iconic than the Submariner. Its versatile styling, timeless design and tool watch roots make it the natural choice for lovers of vintage timepieces. Since its introduction in the early 1950s the Sub (for short…never ‘Subby’ please!) has been through a plethora of versions and variations of said versions. The earliest watches are some of the most desirable and it is one such watch we are focusing on today – the Rolex Submariner Reference 5508…
The very earliest Submariners were produced without the shoulders on either side of the winding crown. These shoulders acted as guards against knocks underwater to the vulnerable winding crown. Collectors refer to these pieces as no-crown-guard Subs or NCG Subs. The earliest NCG watch was the reference 6200, which featured a very large, almost oversized 8mm ‘BREVET’ winding crown. This watch was the first of three NCG watches with the oversize winder – the 6200, then the 6538 and finally the 5510. These three watches have the nickname Big Crowns or BC.
Small But Beautiful
Interspersed with the Big Crowns were watches with a much smaller crown; smaller even than the more modern sized 7mm that Rolex finally settled on with the birth of the 5512 and which is still in use in modern Subs (albeit with some modifications). These Small Crown (or SC) watches featured shoulderless cases that were relatively slim with a delicate sized 6mm crown. The first such piece was the reference 6204, which was followed by the 6205 and the 6536 and finished with the reference 5508 – the star of this show!
As mentioned above, the 5508 was the last of the NCG SC (got that?) watches. Featuring the newly introduced 1530 movement, it was a watch that featured the most beautiful gilt dial and fat font bezel insert. The bi-directional bezel was still an important safety feature for both recreational and professional divers who relied on it to measure elapsed time – this was an era long before the now essential wrist mounted dive computers. The dial shown here has an awesome two colour text, with the depth rating in silver font against the rest of the dial’s classic gilt lettering. Rolex were firmly set on using the more legible mercedes hands as opposed to the so-called pencil hands that had been experimented with on the 6204 and 6205.
The Original Bond
In the early 2000s, when I first became obsessed with the world of vintage Rolex and Tudor, it was in fact the small crown Subs that people referred to as the James Bond Submariners. Research has now led to the fact that it was a Big Crown watch that Sean Connery wore in the classic Bond flick Dr No, but the 6538 and 5508 were always originally given the nickname inspired by Ian Fleming’s greatest creation.
One of the reasons we love these watches so much is the proportions and aesthetic of the case. Much slimmer than its BC cousins and later iterations of the Submariner, the 5508 has more in common with a classic Ovettone than any other sports watch…although with the addition of the moving bezel. On its stretch rivet Oyster bracelet it is stunning and an almost hybrid sports/dress watch like no other. These watches were worn by divers before the introduction of the flip-lock bracelet, with its in-built wetsuit extension clasp and so finding the very early bracelets intact, like with this present example, is rare.
On leather the watch can be whatever you want it to be. Racing car style – easy on the rally strap. Classic dress watch – nothing better than the vintagae black or a Classy Cognac. Rugged cool weekend wear – pop it on a patina heavy vintage brown leather strap. This really is a watch that can dress up or down for dinner!