It’s a new year and time for a new series of lists. For each article in this new series, we decided to focus on one famous watch and pick our five favorite references ever produced. Four of these references will be based on the historical importance of the specific watch in the grand scheme of things. Though there may be some overlap, it’s not a question of which references are the most collectible or of the highest value on the market. The fifth pick is our Fratello favorite that takes the current market price and collectability into account, potentially making it a sleeper reference. As such, the last pick could be described as our wild card. We’ll kick the series off with the Rolex Submariner. What are the top five references for the most famous luxury watch out there?

When we started considering the topic of the list within the Fratello team, it sparked a lively debate. As you will understand, a subject like this leads to a difference in personal opinions on the true watch icons. After much back-and-forth, we decided that this would be the list of the best Rolex Submariner references ever produced. The question is, can you really pick just five out of the multitude produced since 1953? It seems like an impossible job if you look at the history of the Rolex Submariner. Ultimately, though, we made some tough choices and compiled our list. So without further ado, let’s kick off our new series with the best Rolex Submariner references ever produced.

Rolex Submariner ref. 6204

Image courtesy of Bob’s Watches

1. Rolex Submariner ref. 6204

When discussing the most important dive watch in history, it only makes sense to include the very first reference. The Submariner ref. 6204 started the legacy of the Submariner in style. Many of you will know that the first Submariner was officially presented in 1954. Still, some early models’ stamps on the inside of their case backs revealed that the Geneva brand started production of the Submariner in 1953. In the Submariner’s first year on the market, Rolex also produced the ref. 6200 “King Sub” with its “Explorer” dial and the ref. 6205. The first ref. 6204 models, however, were characterized by a modest 37mm case that was water resistant to 100 meters and featured a small 5.3mm winding crown and pencil hands.

Image courtesy of Bob’s Watches

The ref. 6204 models featured honeycomb and non-honeycomb gilt dials that collectors usually split up into two different variations. The first is the “split logo” that was used for the earlier models. It has the words “Oyster” and “Perpetual” placed apart from each other. The more common dial is the version that has the two words placed closer together. Inside the cases of the early Submariners, Rolex used the automatic A260 and A296 movements. These calibers resulted in case backs with rounded shapes, and this is why they are referred to as “Bubble Back Subs.” Completing the look of the first Submariner is the famous dive bezel with its black insert with a diving scale without hash marks. It gives the first Submariner its typical dive-watch presence that would sweep the watch industry in the decades that followed.

Rolex Submariner ref. 5512

2. Rolex Submariner ref. 5512

The second reference on our list is the famous Rolex Submariner ref. 5512. This model was first introduced in 1959 and saw a new design for the Submariner that looks like the Sub we know today. The case was updated to 40mm in diameter and featured a bigger 7mm crown with crown guards, beveled lugs, and a bezel insert with hash marks for the first 15 minutes. Additionally, the dial features text at 12 and 6 o’clock. And as most of you will know, the ref. 5512 is known as the chronometer-certified version, whereas its ref. 5513 was the non-chronometer-certified version. This is why Rolex introduced the famous text “Superlative Chronometer / Officially Certified” on the dial at 6 o’clock. However, some early models do not feature this text.

The Rolex Submariner 5512 was produced until 1980, so there is a string of different versions of this reference out there. Visible differences can be found in the shape of the crown guards, the different dial executions, and the different text on the dial. Regarding movements, Rolex used its calibers 1530, 1560, and 1570 for the Submariner ref. 5512. Overall, it’s safe to say that this is the Submariner reference that paved the way for how we look at the design of dive watches today. This is why it’s widely regarded as one of the most important references out there. Getting your hands on one could easily see you paying prices from €15K to €25K. For one in great condition, the price goes up even more, but it buys you an absolute icon.

Rolex Submariner ref. 1680 Red

Image courtesy of Xupes

3. Rolex Submariner ref. 1680

Our third pick for the list is the Submariner ref. 1680. This version of the Submariner is important for several reasons. First, it was the first Submariner reference that featured a date window with the famous Rolex Cyclops. Second, a few series of the ref. 1680 were produced with the “Submariner” text in red from 1969 until 1973, leading enthusiasts to nickname it the “Red Sub.” Rolex also introduced a full-gold version in 1969, making it the first Submariner reference in precious metal. The brand produced the gold version with a black dial and bezel or a blue dial and bezel for some extra color. And lastly, COMEX divers also used the ref. 1680 with the company’s famous logo on the dial. It makes this reference a no-brainer for this list of classics.

Rolex Submariner ref. 1680

Image courtesy of Xupes

Inside the 40mm case, Rolex used its caliber 1575. The same movement and four-hand variant of it powered the Datejusts and GMT-Masters from the same era, so it was logical for Rolex to use it for the first Submariner Date. When it comes to different dials, the ref. 1680 does not have the many variations as the different gilt-dial models that came before it. The stainless steel ref. 1680 featured a matte black dial that came with either all-white text or, as mentioned, with the “Submariner” text in red. A detail that collectors look at is the printing on the date disc. Early models feature “open” 6 and 9 numerals, whereas later models have “closed” versions of the same numbers. It’s a small detail about a monumental reference in the history of the Submariner. Therefore, it seems like another no-brainer for this list.

Rolex Submariner 16610LV Green

4. Rolex Submariner ref. 16610LV

The fourth pick for the list is the Submariner ref. 16610LV. The Submariner ref. 16610 was produced from 1988 until 2010. When it comes to the ref. 16610, visually, nothing major changed compared to its predecessors, the ref. 16800(0) models. The main update came in the form of a new movement, the famous caliber 3135. The combination of the established looks and the new movement proved to be a great success for over two decades. As Mike explained in his article about the Submariner ref. 16610 and Sea-Dweller ref. 16600, the ref. 16610 saw several small updates during its production run. The design remained unchanged, but Rolex updated the lume from tritium to Luminova in 1999 and Super-LumiNova a year later. Early bracelets with stamped end links gave way to bracelets with solid end links, and the case lost its drilled lugs in the early 2000s.

Rolex Submariner 16610LV Green

While all this is relevant for this generation of the Submariner, it’s the ref. 16610LV that earned it a spot on this list. The 50th-anniversary model introduced the modern “Maxi Dial” and a green bezel insert to the Submariner. Despite being a nod to the dial designs of the past, the new Maxi Dial introduced an updated look with larger framed indices that we associate with the modern Submariner. It’s also a look that divided Rolex fans when it first came out in 2003. Over time, however, the watch became a hit among the same crowd. During its seven-year production run until 2010, Rolex used five different bezel and dial designs, all with very small differences. But overall, the combination of the new bezel color and the modern dial design makes the 16610LV a very important reference in the history of the Sub.

Image courtesy of Xupes

5. Our pick — Rolex Submariner ref. 168000

The last watch on every list in the upcoming weeks will be a reference that you might not think about immediately. On top of that, the price at which you can get one also plays an important part. For the Rolex Submariner, we picked the ref. 168000, also known as the “Triple Zero.” This transitional reference was in production for only about nine months in 1988–1989 as the successor to the ref. 16800. The main update was the change to 904L stainless steel that Rolex still uses today. The previous references used the more conventional 316L stainless steel. Besides that, it still used the same caliber 3035, and it looked the same as the ref. 16800 that came before.

Image courtesy of Xupes

So you might ask why we chose this reference if it does not stand out from the ref. 16800, except for the update in stainless steel. On top of that, you can get the ref. 16610 with an updated movement. That’s all true, but as you will probably also know, the world of pre-owned Rolex watches places value on production quirks and oddball references, making them great collector’s items. And the ref. 168000 is exactly that — an oddball reference that was only produced for roughly nine months. Despite that, prices for them have remained on par with the ref. 16800 that came before and the ref. 16610 that came after. But it takes no genius to predict that the ref.168000 might become the more desirable collector’s item over time. And until that day comes, you can get your hands on one of these briefly produced pieces for roughly between €9K and €18K, depending on its condition. It buys you the perfect oddball Submariner model.

Image courtesy of The Watch Club

Final thoughts

We realize that you might not agree with all the picks for this list. That’s why we would love this to be the start of a bigger discussion. Let us know your picks for the most relevant references in the development of the Rolex Submariner. We will see you next week for another Top 5 list of references for a different classic watch.