he 1950s marked a pivotal era for Rolex, characterized by the brand's unwavering commitment to crafting tool watches for various professional endeavors. Among these iconic creations, the Rolex Submariner for underwater explorers, the GMT-Master for globe-trotting pilots, and the Milgauss for scientists operating near strong electromagnetic fields stood out. However, when reminiscing about Rolex in the 1950s, it's the Submariner series that instantly comes to mind.
Launched in 1953, the Submariner had already undergone nine distinct iterations by the decade's end. Some of the earliest models had incredibly short production runs, lasting less than a year and yielding tiny quantities. This period was marked by relentless testing, evaluation, and incremental refinements, with Rolex's unrelenting pursuit of the perfect dive watch.
By 1959, these formative years had given rise to a Submariner that had truly come of age: the Rolex Submariner 5512. Built upon the foundations of its predecessors, this watch retained the best elements while shedding the less effective ones. It introduced the definitive shape and design language that would define subsequent iterations. Let's delve into what makes the reference 5512 so remarkable.
Although not the first Submariner Rolex ever produced, the reference 5512 marked a significant turning point in the history of this iconic dive watch. Produced from 1959 to around 1979, it brought about notable changes. The case size grew from 38mm to 40mm, and it introduced crown guards for the first time.
Throughout its two-decade production, the reference 5512 underwent subtle variations, making it a captivating model for collectors today. These differences in design and features significantly impact the watch's value.
The most obvious difference that sets the reference 5512 apart from its predecessors is the addition of crown guards. These protective shoulders around the winding crown shield it from shocks and unintentional unscrewing, a practical enhancement for a tool watch designed for underwater adventures.
There are three distinct types of crown guards found on the Submariner ref. 5512, depending on the production year. Initially, square crown guards were used, which somewhat obstructed the crown's operation. They were quickly replaced with a more pointed style. Interestingly, the surplus stock of the original square guards found its way to Tudor's Submariner, the ref. 7928.
About five years later, Rolex again modified the crown guard silhouette, adopting a more rounded shape, which became the standard for the rest of the Submariner ref. 5512's production. Square crown guards are exceedingly rare and, therefore, the most valuable among Submariner ref. 5512 models on the vintage market.
Among Rolex's vintage watches, even minor changes to the dial or bezel can significantly affect their value. Submariner ref. 5512 watches came with black dials, but there are two main versions. Early editions featured glossy black dials with gilt (gold) text until approximately 1967. Rolex then transitioned to matte black dials with white printing. Watches with glossy gilt dials generally command higher prices than those with matte black dials and white printing. The variations in glossy/gilt dials are further divided into those with and without a chapter ring.
The earliest Submariner ref. 5512 models used Rolex's Cal. 1530, a robust movement but not chronometer-certified. To earn the chronometer certification, a movement had to meet stringent COSC (Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute) standards, ensuring accuracy within +4/-6 seconds a day. Thus, two-line Submariner 5512 watches were born, often considered among the most collectible.
The Cal. 1530 was swiftly replaced by the chronometer-certified Cal. 1560 and later the Cal. 1570, leading to the "4-line" Submariner 5512. Some 4-line versions have glossy gilt dials, while others feature matte dials with white printing. Due to their rarity and age, 2-line Submariner ref. 5512 models are usually more expensive than their 4-line counterparts.
Examining the vintage Rolex Submariner ref. 5512's dials reveals changes in the placement of the depth rating. Early editions displayed meters units first, indicating "200m = 660ft" for their depth ratings. Rolex later switched to feet units first, with dials reading "660ft = 200m," a practice that continued until the end of the reference 5512's production.
Meters-first versions, produced for a shorter period, are often more valuable and desirable than later feet-first editions.
Additionally, the placement of the "SUBMARINER" text on the ref. 5512's dial changed during its production. Until the mid-1970s, the SUBMARINER name appeared after the depth rating. However, Rolex shifted it to appear above the depth rating. This alteration became the standard, and even today, the SUBMARINER name is positioned before the depth rating and SCOC chronometer-certification text.
In the mid-1970s, service replacement dials for the reference 5512 began featuring the SUBMARINER name above the depth rating. This sometimes indicates a dial replacement during the watch's history.
Highly cherished among vintage collectors, the ref. 5512 is often seen as one of the last 'pure' Submariner references. This rare gem, with its numerous variants, has become increasingly challenging and costly to acquire. The Rolex Submariner reference 5512 represents a solid investment in the world of horology.
Intriguingly, legendary Hollywood actor Steve McQueen chose the Submariner ref. 5512, despite the erroneous "Steve McQueen" nickname associated with the Explorer II ref. 1655 today. In 2009, McQueen's personal Submariner ref. 5512 was auctioned for $234,000, a sum that would likely pale in comparison to its current value in today's booming vintage Rolex market.
While prices vary based on factors like provenance, condition, and specific variations, Submariner ref. 5512 watches typically range from approximately $17,500 to just under $100,000. In 2023, a rare "Explorer-style" dial variant fetched around $250,000 at auction, further emphasizing the model's allure and investment potential.
It's worth noting that the reference 5512 is notably scarcer than its non-chronometer counterpart, the Submariner ref. 5513. Some estimates suggest Rolex produced five times more Submariner 5513 watches than ref. 5512 models during their respective production years. Consequently, the Submariner ref. 5512's introduction of crown guards and a larger 40mm case size marked a pivotal moment in the brand's iconic dive watch legacy.
Above all, the Rolex Submariner is an enduring symbol of the brand's tool-watch legacy. While not the first Submariner Rolex created, the reference 5512 was the blueprint that defined the modern diver's watch. Its no-date simplicity and minimalist layout embody the essence of Rolex: rugged, honest, and refined. In fact, the Submariner is not only the most copied watch globally, with more fakes in circulation than authentic pieces, but it has also influenced countless other manufacturers. For many collectors, the Rolex Submariner remains the archetype of the modern diver's watch, a timeless icon in the world of horology.
For those captivated by the allure of the Rolex Submariner, exploring the world of vintage watches is a thrilling journey. Whether you're a seasoned collector or a newcomer, the Submariner ref. 5512 holds a special place in the hearts of watch enthusiasts. Its remarkable history, unique variations, and enduring appeal make it a horological treasure worth pursuing.
For more information on buying a Rolex Submariner, check out our comprehensive Used Rolex Submariner Buying Guide. Dive into the world of Rolex and discover more about this iconic brand by visiting our dedicated Rolex page. Additionally, explore other popular Rolex Explorer watches by reading our article on the Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655.
Remember, collecting vintage Rolex watches is not just a hobby; it's an immersion in the history, craftsmanship, and timeless elegance that define these remarkable timepieces. Whether you're an avid collector or simply appreciate fine watches, the Rolex Submariner ref. 5512 continues to be a symbol of excellence in the world of watchmaking.