Military submariner: a watch made by history

If this is a man’s world where behind each great man there is a powerful woman, then in the world of vintage and rare pieces, behind every great watch there is a powerful history. The best example to showcase this latter undeniable truth, is the history of Rolex Military Submariner, or for the sake of the more engaged readers, the Milsub. Starting this short trip in time, we find ourselves at the very end of WWII and more specifically in the Ministry of Defense in Britain. It was there where the importance of having a new series of watches for their Diver’s Unit was realized, able to endure and sustain the difficulties their divers had to undertake. The collaboration with Rolex was born shortly after, creating a historical milestone for the world of high-end watchmaking. The first reference was created in 1957, by upgrading the civilian 6538 or James Bond Submariner to meet the requirements that the Ministry of Defense needed. The new A/6538 had a bigger bezel than the 6538, being more fitted inside and making it easier to handle for the thick-gloved divers while the material used for it was a metal mix called  “German silver”. Concerning the dial, all parts of luminescent features including the markers, the bezel markers and the hands were featuring radium, whose radioactive dangers were not yet discovered at the time. A few years after, at the beginning of the 1960s this model was reconstructed for safety reasons, replacing radium with tritium therefore the subtle engraved T-circled on the dials right above the depth marking at the 6 o’clock position.

Rolex The British Military Submariner ref 5513. Discover more at Onlyvintage.com

The next chapter of this prominent relationship between the Minister of Defense and Rolex takes us at the beginning of 1970s and the release of a new demand: the references  5513, the double reference 5513/5517 and the 5517. More specifically, the Minister of Defense inquired Rolex to create the new reference 5513 Sumbmariner, after being supplied by Omega for the previous 5 years. All three references were based on the 5513 and the differences among theme were as subtle as distinctive. Starting off, they all shared the following specifications: fixed bars to fit a NATO strap, the encircled T, sword hands, a 60-minute instead of the standard 15-minute found in most commercial submariners and lastly the military engravings in the outer back case with a broad arrow sign, Ministry of Defense issue number and unit number.

Rolex Milsub ref. 5517 delivered in 1978 to the British Royal Navy. Discover more at Onlyvintage.com

Two different types of specimens were delivered, recognizable by a specific number engraved on the back case: 0552 for the Royal Navy whereas W10 for the British army. Historically, the first-born was the 5513 in the early 1970s with the reference stamped between the lugs, followed by the double reference 5513/5517 acquiring also a stamp of 5517 in the back of one of the lugs. Lastly, the much sought 5517 simply replaced the 5513 stamp on the upper lugs with the according reference. What makes the Military Submariner unique is an undeniable, carefully balanced mix of history and distinctive specifications. A watch that is immediately recognizable and carries a piece of the world’s most important history chapters along with the unknown human stories of the people who carried them and guarded them for the next generations to come.

The ultra rare double reference 5513/5517 made for the British Army by Onlyvintage

Author: Luca Balella