Deep Dive

Scuba Diving with Three Vintage Rolex Submariner Watches


April 11, 2020 Watches By Photo by Allen Farmelo
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Welcome to Deep Dive, in which we test dive watches both new and vintage beneath the waves in some of the world’s most beautiful locations. This time, we’re in Grand Cayman in the Caribbean with three vintage Rolex Submariners.

Behold the overpowered and unruly 1977 Porsche 911 Targa SC, now garaged, gathering dust along with market value. Behold the 1957 Fender Stratocaster that once rang like a bell, now condemned to silence under a halogen spotlight in a humidity-controlled man-cave. Behold the perfectly faded 1971 Rolex Submariner Ref. 1680 with its iconic red text, now motionless in a pitch-black safe. Alarms, combination locks, insurance riders, and — more than anything — fear, reduce these masterpieces of human ingenuity to mere investments.

When monetary value skyrockets, we can lose sight of the other values that an object might afford us. There’s aesthetic value, so easily diminished to frivolity when cast in the shadow of profitability. But how sad is the silent Strat? There’s experiential value, that ineffable high of using an exceptional tool, insufferably cut short in the name of preservation. How sad a Porsche whose rear end will never drift again? And then there’s inspirational value, the sway of objects whose purposefulness is a call to action. How sad a Rolex dive watch that will never inspire another underwater adventure?

Aesthetic, experiential, and inspirational value are subjective experiences — joys, if you will — and, as such, those values are impossible to quantify. Yet for some folks the joy of actually using expensive vintage things is the only justification for their high price tags. These folks will happily wear down the frets on that Strat. They’ll grin as they drift the rear end of that vintage Porsche. And they’ll experience something akin to time-travel as they submerge that perfectly faded Rolex Sub.

“Aesthetic, experiential, and inspirational value are subjective experiences — joys, if you will — and, as such, those values are impossible to quantify.”

Joy is exactly what three vintage Rolex Submariners exuded to everyone who got to see them at work under the surface at the East End of Grand Cayman in the Caribbean. The risk of submerging these three watches was that they might leak. Saltwater would destroy their perfectly faded dials and totally screw up their movements, thus diminishing their monetary value many-fold. But the risk of a leak only amplified the joy of diving with these watches. And diving with them, in turn, amplified how perfectly capable they still are after so many decades — provided, of course, that their seals are properly maintained and pressure tested.

We chose this specific trio to help elucidate some of the key differences between vintage Subs. By no means is this an exhaustive look at vintage Rolex Submariners, but these three examples do provide an informative glimpse into the arcane niche of collecting vintage models.

The watches we submerged include two no-date reference 5513s: a rather pristine example from 1968 and another super clean variant from 1989. The 5513 was produced from 1962-1989, and saw a number of small changes over that time. The most notable differences (though not the only ones) between the two examples we dove with are that the 1968 5513 has a matte dial with unadorned lume plots (a dollop of luminescent material) for markers, while the 1989 5513 has a glossy black dial and white gold surround around the markers. For those seeking the look of the older example, look for one made between 1962 and 1981, and for those who prefer the updated look of the newer version, seek out one made between 1982 and 1989. Functionally, the two are identical, and in action at depth the differences were hardly noticeable.

The third watch we dove with is a gorgeously sun-burned 1971 reference 1680 Submariner, dubbed by modern collectors a “Red Sub.” Produced from 1969-1975, and the first to include a date complication, many consider the Red Sub to be the ultimate Rolex dive watch. Why that red line of text sends chills up the spines of otherwise rational men remains a mystery, but other brands endlessly imitate it in a bid for that strange affection. [Editor’s Note: the 1680 “Red Sub” was eventually replaced with a version with all-white text, also a reference 1680.] The smooth patina on the particular example we had in hand, as well as its overall excellent condition, drives its price well north of $30,000.

This 1680’s bezel is now a steely blue, its tritium lume a creamy French vanilla, its dial a soft charcoal gray, its red text bold and bright. It’s price tag may be impressive, but this watch’s aesthetic, experiential, and inspirational values are off the chart. Above water it’s the picture of perfect patina, and below water it exhibits timing capabilities and legibility that make you wonder how far we’ve really come in the 49 years since this watch went home with its first owner in 1971.

Yet, no matter how capable and wonderful these old Subs are, no one is going to forego their digital dive computer in favor of them, and anyone who puts stock in the practical value of these Subs is overlooking the real reason to celebrate these objects: namely, their ability to remind us of the hopeful spirit and ingenuity of the 20th Century. WWII was over, and the world sighed a collective relief and set its sights on the future. In just a few decades, we went on to explore space, fly supersonic jets commercially, and deepen our knowledge of the oceans at an unfathomably fast pace, as pioneers like Jaques Cousteau and Sylvia Earle mastered SCUBA and underwater photography. These accomplishments sprung from utopian aspirations, and the hope embodied in the tools of that era — these old Rolexes included — is palpable and deeply compelling.

“Anyone who puts stock in the practical value of these Subs is overlooking the real reason to celebrate these objects: namely, their ability to remind us of the hopeful spirit and ingenuity of the 20th Century.”

More than one person expressed jittery reservations about our taking these three Submariners underwater, fearing they’d leak, fearing that leaks would ruin them, and fearing that, once ruined, they’d lose their monetary value. “What’s the point?” asked one concerned bystander. What is there to say to such fears when it comes to devices that were built to enable a nascent and dangerous new sport called SCUBA diving? What is there to say to such fear when modern technology has put real buffers between us and real danger? What is there to say, other than that such fears are nothing compared to the joy of having taken the risk and come out the other side with a dry watch, a new story to tell, and a glimmer of hope? That, dear readers, is priceless.

Bob’s Watches provided all three watches for use in this piece. All are for sale at www.bobswatches.com

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Allen Farmelo

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