Today we talk about the most famous submarine in the world: the Rolex Submariner (find our historical Sub overview here). Besides the impressive machinery and all its revolutions through time there are a lot of visual aspects to point out. In this article the focus will be on the naming, dial and typography of this ‘U-boat’.

Wilsdorf the Artist

Being obsessed by visual perfection, the open-minded Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf is quite a hero for many watch collectors.  Myself included. He understood that for optimal marketing, every detail counted. For example, when he invented the name ‘Rolex’. He said:

“I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave me some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.”  (source: Rolex.com)

He wanted to create a name that was easy to pronounce and sounding the same in every language. When we look at the name ‘Submariner’, it also commits to Wilsdorf’s conditions. Strong, adventurous, technical and aquatic are directly bubbling up in our brains when most of us think of the name. Mainly because it is so related to ‘submarine’, of course. Together with the short but strong visual appearance, naming one of the most iconic watches ‘Submariner’ definitely is one of the cornerstones for the enormous success.

Anonymous Start

When you invest in the history of the model you will notice that around 1953 the first batch of Submariners (e.g. reference number 6205) did not have the name ‘Submariner’ on the dial. It was added a little later. Probably to highlight this fantastic name even more and expand the recognition of this name. Smart move Rolex.

Right Timing

Let me clarify why the name ‘Submariner’ is quite smart from another perspective. When the first Submariner was launched it suited its highly ‘exploring’ time period like a perfect tailor-made suit. At that time, many submarines were exploring the deepest and darkest depression points on Earth. On top of it, they were also the glory years of the famous explorer and diver Jacques-Yves Cousteau (his “Calypso-period”), which had a close relation with Rolex. A later Rolex brother (Deep Sea Special) even made it to the deepest depression point on Earth (10,916 meters – 37,800 feet). To give another, non Rolex-related example of right timing when it comes to marketing: As we all know, short after we initiated discovering and exploring the deep seas with subs, we did start to explore the galaxy. As Rolex, Omega also understood the power of right timing and created (after NASA chose them in 1965 as the official watch for EVA) a permanent link between the Omega Speedmaster Professional and moon explorations by NASA.

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Rolex 1680

Rolex Submariner (reference number 1680)

Typography

Let’s zoom in. Obviously the used typeface for ‘ROLEX’ and ‘SUBMARINER’ is a capitalized or, more technically, a Roman Serif style. There have been several (on-line) discussions about the font which is being used on the dial to display the name ‘ROLEX’. Although it may look like an all-caps typeface such as Garamond, Bodoni, or Baskerville Old Face I am sure that a custom font is used. No doubt that Wilsdorf opted for this, since custom typography is king of the hill in terms of alignment, proportions, ligatures, etcetera. Because the name ‘ROLEX’ consists of 5 characters, the trademark crown icon could be perfectly horizontally centered above the name (above the letter ‘L’), which creates an even space next to both sides of the crown. As a result, everything above the center of the dial looks very balanced.

Then there are the other lines below the middle of the dial, which I often call “‘spec lines”. The name ‘Submariner’ for example. Another font is used if we compare it to the brand’s name ‘ROLEX’. For example, pay attention to the serifs of the ‘R’ in both words or compare the stroke contrast per character to notice the difference between the two words. Although they differ, both share the same characteristics: made out of wide strong bodied letters, just like the steel used on a submarine to fight against the pressure:

Rolex Submariner

In general, all the letters on the spec lines are precisely and widely spaced to remain readability, even from a little distance. To create a hierarchy, bigger or smaller font sizes are used for the lines and elements. Sometimes a color is added, but more about that later on.

Specification lines on the dial

Macro of the “spec lines” on the 1680

Error on the dial?

Let’s look at the WR-line. The used units (meter and feet) to indicate the water resistance are printed in an italic version of the font. Quite strange if you follow the strict rules of displaying symbols and units:

“Symbols for physical quantities are printed in italics, while symbols for units are printed in roman type.”

Most of these rules are documented by the American Institute of Physics and generally accepted. I’ve done some research in this document and can only conclude that there is a technical typographical mistake on the dial. Let me clarify that with those rules of the AIP in mind. Following the typographical rules to display units/variables ‘m’ does mean something different then the italic ‘m’ which is printed on Submariner-dials. The Roman ‘m’ stands for ‘meter’ (which is correct), but strictly seen the Italic ‘m’ on the dial stands for ‘mass’ (!?). Of course Rolex doesn’t want to display the WR in mass. By making the font italic Rolex probably just wanted to visually highlight the units when they released the sub in the 1953. Nowadays they still use this font style to keep things authentic, but in my opinion they’re technically wrong.

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Since I’m not a professional chemist or physicist, please feel free to clarify, enforce or debunk this in the comment section below this article. I’d like to hear from you. For more info I would suggest the AIP style manual (see Appendix C), more info about the mass-symbol, or the difference between Roman and Italic.

Mix-up

If you look at the spec lines on the ‘Submariner’ you will notice quite a mix up of the lines and font variations through time. For example, some times the ‘Submariner’ wording is introducing the specification lines and a reference later, the water resistance indication gets the honor to open the specifications on the dial. If we zoom in on the WR-line, we can even find variations at line-level, for example:

  • 660ft = 200m
  • 200m = 660ft

As we can see, lots of variations. What was the motivation for this mix up of lines and words? Visual optimization or A-B testing to see which specification “cocktail” sells best? For the order variation of units on the WR-line it probably can be explained and related to the ‘leading’ unit per region.

5512-dial

Dial of a mid-sixties Rolex Submariner (reference number 5512)

Colorful Submariner variations

Besides this mix-up of lines Rolex also did some experimenting with font colors on the Submariner. A nice example of a color variation is the Rolex Submariner with reference number 1680 (early examples). Rolex altered the color for the ‘Submariner’ tagline to a scarlet red tone on this one. That’s why this ‘submarine’ is also known as ‘Red Submariner’ amongst collectors.

From 0 to 4+ in 50+ years

The Rolex “spec-line-car” accelerated from 0 to 4 lines in roughly 50 years, rare variations like the ‘Comex’ versions, excluded. If we do include them to our range, we could even say 5 lines.  For example, a nice ‘5-liner’ is the ultra rare Rolex Submariner Sea-Dweller 2000 (reference number 1665, a.k.a. Great White or Double Red). This expansion morphed the general ‘Submariner’ face from a utilitarian, minimalistic but highly legible look with subtle luxurious details to a more crowdy and specification exposing spotlight. Later on, stainless steel or (white) gold accents and borders enforced this overall luxurious look on the dial even more. Since I belong to the followers of the ‘less is more’ principle I’m mostly attracted to the early ‘Submariner’ examples, a.k.a. ‘two liners’ (e.g. reference number 5508, 5512 or the newer 14060), but that’s just my taste. I’d like to see the name of the model on the dial, maybe a highly unique or model specific specification or two, but that’s about it. If there is an urgent need for putting more specs on the watch I’d prefer the caseback, to ensure focus on the most distinctive design elements and separate the more “common” technical description.

Bezel 1680

Macro of the 1680-bezel. Note the subtle serifs on the ‘5’.

Questions

To conclude, I would like to leave the stage with a few questions for you to think about. For me watch collecting isn’t only about gathering knowledge and watches but also about forming a rock-solid vision, opinion and taste. So here it goes:

  • Are the spec lines a necessary design element on the dial?
  • Do we still need those lines in 2016 where almost every watch in this price range is running within COSC/Chronometer specifications?
  • The new METAS standards (‘Master Chronometer’) has recently been introduced. What will the effect be?
  • What do you think of the actual position of the spec lines? If we look back, there are rare variations released where ‘Submariner’ even is placed just below the ‘ROLEX’ branding. Is this better? If so, why?
  • What if the COSC certification could be place next to ‘Swiss made’?
  • Would you buy a Rolex Submariner if it did not have ‘Officially Certified’ on the dial?
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Happy thinking and have a safe dive!

p.s. I would like to thank Michael and Bert of the FW-team for providing me the fantastic pictures to beautify this post.

Teun van Heerebeek

Teun van Heerebeek

Contributor at Fratello Watches
Teun van Heerebeek is contributor and visual artist to Fratello Watches. With his Watches & Pencils illustrations and other articles he likes to explore the vast watch-lands in all its diversity. His love for watches mainly originates from his eye for design, but also adores the more technical side of watches. If you want to know more about Teun you can also visit his personal website: http://www.teunvanheerebeek.com
Teun van Heerebeek

Latest posts by Teun van Heerebeek (see all)

  • Boris

    I’m a designer myself and I think sometimes historic relevance trumps aesthetics. An E-type would look better with its wheels not buried under the car (same for a 356 and similar cars of the 50ies/60ies) but it simply would look “wrong” when ‘corrected’. The Submariners relevance originates in its truthfulness over time, much like a classic 911. Imho, modern design “necessities” are irrelevant with those classics.

  • Dimitris Athanasiou

    -Growing up remembering the Air Kings and the Oyster Perpetuals, even the non date Sub, not being COSC and not having a full bridge over the ballance or breguet spiral, the Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified counts for me as the better horological Rolex movement than standard models.

    -Almost every mechanical watch well regulated with a relevant well movement can run within COSC, but how long does it keep this precision, even after shocks or 5+ years without service, or even after 40 years of movement life? Not really, for this you need to go to a triple price to get that quality of movement and still wont be as tough one as a Rolex. So yes, is a positive thing to know is a superlative timekeeper…

    -COSC is old, METAS might push for the tolerance of COSC to be redefined which would be a good thing. METAS focuses too much on Antimagnetic properties of watches which nobody really needs in daily life over a 500 Gauss protected watch.
    It is like making a standard where all watches need to be 1000G shock protected and 200bar water resistant, who needs that? METAS seems to be a Swatch-Group Ω partner…

    -The Submariner is so popular in certain watch fans that would be preferable to even replace the ROLEX with Submariner at the specific model. The legacy of it is so big as the name ROLEX is almost, so putting them one under the other I dont think is a good idea because would overshade it.

    The lines and their position is matter of taste, I would prefer it as a tool-watch with no writing at all at the dial, but would that be a Submariner? Would look more than these copies military issues from cheap brands.

    -The swiss made or the origin of every watch is at 6o’clock almost at all watches, I find it nice there and symmetrical and I would not like to see anything else next to it.

    -Rolex and chronometer wristwatch is almost a synonym, Rolex introduced the first Chronometer Certified wristwatch and I could not think of buying a Rolex not being COSC and not seeing this on the dial, like I could not think of buying a Rolex missing the other to major innovations, Oyster and Perpetual. So for me a Rolex always has to be an Oyster Perpetual, Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified, even if for my taste would prefer to see a total blank dial watch, but that would not remind of anything to a Rolex.

  • Dimitris Athanasiou

    Hi Teun, thanks for replying.

    I don’t say you are not aware of but that is why all that looks for me important to be written on the dial. I personaly say again I would prefer a plain looking watch, but these lines are there to remind everyone what Rolex stands for. Which 5 innovations you mean for the Sub?

    Rolex was the first to introduce a wrist watch with marine chronometer certification, wasnt it? And still is the brand with most COSC certified watches.

    Other brands did, Rolex didn’t, just by some models sometime, nobody knows how they think, I just assume.

    I would like to see less lines and plain dials, but 90% of Rolex buyers are not watch enthusiasts and know almost nothing about even Rolex and its history. So will they be willing to pay 7K for a watch that looks just like a military issue of a Sub copy? Probably not… Just boys with toys.

    With so many watches being packed outside switzerland or inside with foreign parts I think even the swiss made doesnt even stands for what it used to be, what about removing it completely?

    The oyster case is not just a visual property but also a techical one, and high technical. Even the 905L steel used makes it unique. Of course a sport model could not stand without mercedes hand, I think there is not less weight on either one or COSC, everything plays its role. Lets see what BaselWorld 2016 will bring. Hopefuly more models with the 32XX series movement.