Designed for diving in 1953, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner is supremely classic. The first diving watch to have a depth rating of 330 feet or 100 meters, the company clearly set the bar with this model. It’s safe to say that the Rolex Submariner has become the brand’s quintessential sports watch — and that distinction is thanks in no small part to James Bond.
A world-famous superspy wearing a world-famous high-end watch is, no doubt, the perfect pairing. However, let’s not forget that in the early-1960s, James Bond movies and Rolex Submariners were nascent. 1962 was the year that Dr. No, the very first 007 film, came out; and the Submariner was less than a decade old then. That was 60 years ago, and no one could have predicted the immense success of both the film franchise and the top-tier diving watch. True, James Bond and Rolex are no longer officially friends, but once upon a time, they did have a connection. And by all accounts, it was an accidental and organic union rather than the sort of contrived product placement we’ve all become used to.
This week, in honor of six decades of the bond between 007 and Rolex, we’ve chosen to highlight the Submariner 6538, better known as the “James Bond Rolex”, as our vintage watch of the week. So grab your popcorn and settle in for a little movie magic sprinkled with a touch of horology history.
About the Rolex Submariner 6538
Submariner 6538 Quick Specs
- Approximate Production Years: 1956 – 1959
- Case: 38mm Stainless Steel
- Crown Size: 8mm a.k.a. “Big Crown”
- Bezel: Bidirectional; Black Aluminum Insert, 60 Minute Timing Scale
- Dial: Black; Four Lines of Text or Two Lines of Text
- Luminescence: Radium
- Crystal: Acrylic
- Bracelet: Stainless Steel Oyster
- Water-Resistance: 200 meters
- Caliber: 1030 Automatic Movement
Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Submariner.
Early Submariner References
The very first Submariner was the reference 6204, which was released in 1953. With its 38mm steel case, rotating timing bezel with a black aluminum insert, and black dial with luminous hands and indexes, the Submariner 6204 was the first diving watch water-resistant to 100 meters deep.
Next in line was the Submariner 6205 (launched in 1954) and then the 6200 (launched in 1955). With each new Submariner reference, Rolex made small changes, including crown sizes, water depth ratings, slight tweaks to the dial design, and movements. It’s evident that Rolex was experimenting with various details on these early Submariner references of the 1950s to get the right mix.
Shortly after its introduction, Ref. 6536, produced for just one year in 1955, has become a serious contender as one of the most studied vintage pieces in the series and was reportedly a transitional model for Rolex. Not to be confused with Ref. 6536/1, the 6536 was crafted with a different gasket, crystal, case, and small crown. There were scarcely 100 of these particular models produced, and it is one of the Submariners with no crown guard—otherwise known as “no crown guard Submariners.” The line of 6200 Submariners also began featuring the Mercedes hand set, though not the first Rolex to encompass this trait.
It’s also interesting to note that when the Rolex Submariner 6536 enters the discussion, it usually brings with it Ref. 6536/1. This model was introduced in 1955 and ended in 1959 and along with its predecessor, hosts a small crown (6mm). When surmising these two specific models, collectors often debate whether or not either model included a chronometer movement.
The Rolex Submariner Makes It Into Dr. No
You may notice, too, that when the subject of no crown guard Submariners comes up, so does the name, James Bond. Although “Dr. No” was the first flick shot for the series, Ian Fleming references the Swiss company’s iconic watch twice in the series; once in the second book, Live and Let Die, published in 1954, and again in the 11th book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published in 1963. The second describes the “big luminous numerals” Bond glimpses when taking a lazy midnight glance at his chronometer, “a heavy Rolex Oyster Perpetual on an expanding metal bracelet.” Plus, the author himself famously wore a Rolex Explorer.
But what actually happened tops all of the literary criticism of Fleming and his name-dropping: When filming Dr. No the budget did not allow the team to purchase an actual Rolex for 007, probably because advertising in films wasn’t what it is today (read: Daniel Craig sipping on Heinekens), Rolex was not willing to provide one.
So one of the film’s producers, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, took the Submariner from his wrist and handed it to Sean Connery. What does all of this have to do with the 6536? Many believe the 6536/1 is the watch Connery wore in Dr. No (and as we said, the 6536 and 6536/1 are often discussed together), but in fact, it was a Submariner 6538, which was crafted with a big crown (8mm).
Submariner 6538 “James Bond”
Aptly nicknamed the “James Bond” due to its appearance in Dr. No, Rolex produced the Submariner ref. 6538 from approximately 1956 to 1959. This reference is a “Big Crown” Submariner thanks to its 8mm Brevet crown; as such, the watch was rated to be waterproof to 200 meters.
Generally speaking, there were two main Submariner 6538 “James Bond” variations. There were the chronometer-certified versions that featured four lines of text on the dial to accommodate the “Officially Certified Chronometer” inscription. Then there were the non-chronometer versions of the Submariner 6538, which only included two lines of text on the dial. Rolex produced the chronometer and non-chronometer Submariner 6538 watches around the same time, and both versions had gilt-gloss dials with chapter rings.
There’s also Submariner 6538 with an Explorer-style dial characterized by numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. These were produced for only one year in 1956 and thus, much rarer to find in today’s vintage market.
The version worn by Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No was the Submariner 6538 two-liner. What’s more, the superspy famously wore it not on the customary Oyster bracelet, but on a striped NATO-style strap that looked a little too slim for the watch.
Bond’s Submariner 6538 reappeared in some following 007 films including, From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965).
While James Bond eventually wore other watches in the films, Rolex and otherwise, the now vintage Submariner 6538 will forever be known as the James Bond watch.
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