Rolex Submariner 6538, aka « Submariner James Bond »

In our endeavour to produce a variety of differentiating articles on collector's watches, we have tackled entire sections on the history of Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, presenting mythical models from expert, amateur and collector's points of view. Among our hunting trophies you will find our "claim to fame" : the most widely read article on the Rolex Daytona in French a complete retrospective of the Rolex Daytona, , the complete review of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Midsize, , the Legend of the Rolex Comex, the history of the Aquanaut , the Rolex Submariner Red... to name a few of the most famous in the online world.

We always listen to your feedback and comments, and have come to the conclusion that an extensive online bibliography could not be complete without covering the myth of myths, the starting point in Rolex's legendary history, in other words, the James Bond Submariner... Again, since the 6538 model is so rich in anecdotes and developments, this article in no way aspires to be all-inclusive. We just wanted to shed our own light and affirm our affection for this mythical watch, and humbly come to suggest that beyond some "record breakers" at auctions for models 6538 (CHF 1,053,697 at Christie's in New York in June 2018!), we would like to offer our own insights. CHF 371,431 at Antiquorum in Hong Kong in October 2018, ...), there are (still) 6538 models on the market at affordable prices and in very acceptable condition. That is what we'll be talking about in this article. Again, it is necessary to be able to understand all the subtleties between the different 6538s...

James Bond's Rolex

Model number 6538 became legendary after it appeared in the James Bond film "Dr No", as did the Rolex Cosmograph 6239, an exotic dial on Paul Newman's wrist. In both cases there is an abundance of photos available online with the two actors both wearing their "fetish" watches. These two watches are named after their owners' names, which makes them stand out from the crowd and naturally contributes to the legend...

There is however a slight difference, as the "Submariner James Bond" corresponds to a single model, the 6538, whereas the "Daytona Paul Newman" refers to a type of dial, the exotic dial. This gives collectors the opportunity to take advantage of seven models covering nearly 20 years of production. The 6538 in the meanwhile only saw itself produced less than six years (from 55 to end of 59), which explains why it is so appealing.

A rare and legendary watch

You guessed it, it is much less easy to find this model on the market than a Paul Newman, especially in good condition... It's the iconic "Submariner" and also without any doubt the most expensive and the most sought-after Sub collectible.

Over the years and through record sales at auctions, the Submariner quickly distinguished itself from its family of direct descendants, namely the 5512, 5513, and other 1680s...just as it distinguished itself from its predecessors, the 6200 model launched in 1953, and the 6204 model launched in 1954, along with the 6536/1. The "Big Crown", mentioned a little further down in this article, is certainly one of the determining factors...

The watch’s technical aspects

The watch is fitted on a 38 mm case, without a crown shoulder, another factor that makes it a very rare watch. The shoulders around the crown appeared on the model 5512, in 1959, and still do to this day.

The winding crown is considerably large, twice the size of other models (5508 and 6204 equipped with small crowns), which will earn it the name "Big Crown", and giving it a wild look. The crown is stamped with the Rolex logo and the word "Brevet". It doesn't take much more to make headlines and spark the enthusiasm of collectors... However, the Big Crown is certainly not all there is to it...

Several dials have equipped this watch, depending on the years of production, making some models truly "rare birds": Without going into as precise a chronology as some manufacturers, such as Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet, who have kept records to this day, we can distinguish four production series for the 6538 and... a good number of dials.

First Serie
InsertBlack and grey aluminium insert without graduation on the first 15 minutes
HandsGold hands big second hand (lollipop)
DialLacquered dial (nitrocellulose lacquer)
PlatingElectrolytic gold plating for the Submariner, logo and top lines, and red for depth indication.

Second Serie
InsertBlack and grey aluminium insert without graduation on the first 15 minutes
HandsGold hands big second hand (lollipop)
DialLacquered dial (nitrocellulose lacquer)
PlatingFull gold plating (gilt)

Third Serie
InsertBlack and grey aluminium insert without graduation on the first 15 minutes - Black and grey insert, red triangle without graduation on the first 15 minutes - Black and gray insert, red triangle with graduation on the first 15 minutes.
HandsGold hands big second hand (lollipop)
DialLacquered dial (polyurethane lacquer)
PlatingElectrolytic gold plating for the Submariner, logo and top lines and gold surface ink embossing for information.

Fourth Serie
InsertBlack and gray insert, red triangle with graduation on the first 15 minutes.
HandsGold hour and minute hands and white seconds hand.
DialLacquered dial (polyurethane lacquer)
PlatingElectrolytic gold printing for the Submariner, logo and top lines and silver surface embossing for information.

Not to mention...the replacement dials

First Series Replacement

Lacquered " Swiss-t<25 " (Rolex replacement in accordance with federal regulationsfor use of radium)

Second Serie Replacement

Malt " Swiss-t<25 " (Rolex replacement in accordance with federal regulations for use of radium)

Illustration of the various dials

All the above creates an overflow of information that we don't expect to be memorized by amateurs, or even by professionals...

The rarest dials

The rarest (and therefore most expensive) dials remain to this day the special dials called "3-6-9" which were produced for certain series. The rarest being undoubtedly the first series with gold embossing and the depth indication in red.

A good number of collectors and experts have kept so-called observation records concerning the "exact" production timelines of the brand's watch models. Today, there is no actual consensus on the exact production dates for any given dial... just a lot of information that could be cross-checked... and is sometimes contradictory. Needless to say that these numerous observations have not yet been confirmed by the manufacturer and most probably never will be.

Illustration Of a Gilt dial 4 lines "3 Red"

AOn top of that, it was rather difficult for Rolex to keep control over international production and authorized distributors given the number of watches produced and distributed. In reality, it was not uncommon for "dead stock" watches to be recycled after spare parts were sent out. A yellowed dial on a watch produced in 1956 could have been replaced with a second or third generation dial without the watch ever having left the store, and end up being sold in 1960 or later!

For all these reasons, it's important to get the right advice and, most importantly, focus on the watch's condition rather than on uncertified details.

Why do certain dials turn yellow or become “tropical”?

This is likely a question that many collectors ask themselves, and is what gives a collector's watch its charm.

The first lacquer used for dials was a nitrocellulose lacquer. It contained solvents and would therefore dry very quickly after being applied, which allowed dials to be produced more efficiently. However, this type of lacquer did have some drawbacks, the first one being that the product was flammable and required very careful handling. The second, which is more interesting for collectors, is that this product is not very resistant to UV rays, so it yellows quickly and quite noticeably. Last but not least, the third downside is that the solvents contained in nitrocellulose react to changes in temperature and humidity over time. As a result, this produces what is known as "cracking", i.e. cracks. On top of that, you can add the devastating effect of radium on the dial. Also, to the great pleasure (or disappointment) of collectors some dials are more or less appreciable than others, going from the most beautiful tropical dial to the most distressed dial.

Replacement dials

For dated collector's watches, it is very difficult to imagine that all the parts that equip the watch are its original parts. The dial, which is the determining value for a watch in general (whether for a Rolex, a Patek or an Audemars Piguet) doesn't always resist the test of time (see explanation above).

It is important to be able to distinguish between replacement dials provided by Rolex (in the 60s, 70s...) and more recent service dials, which tend to reduce the value of a watch significantly. If the 3-6-9 models or the "four lines" are now worth as much as the Daytona Paul Newman, the Submariner 6538 equipped with one of the two Rolex service dials are still very popular collectors pieces, considering that the service dials from the 60s and 70s have acquired a certain patina themselves and have become collectors of their own (editor's note...): The same is true for the Patek Nautilus model 3700, which, when equipped with "tritium" service dials, retain significant value! ).

So we hope we have convinced you, service dial AND service dial, and perhaps (surely) you should prefer a service dial rather than a deteriorated or, worse, a (badly) restored original dial...


The Submariner 6538's movement is a 1030 clocked at a frequency of 18,000 Alt/h. It is a very reliable and very solid movement. This is proven by the numerous comparisons of these movements over the years ... An enormous advantage for collector's watches that are more than 60 years old.

Models that have survived the ravages of time are very rare nowadays. As a watch with a tool dedicated to diving, few models are still available on the market today. Fortunately, some have been well cared for by their owners.

In conclusion

The Big Crown is definitely that you should quickly get your hands on, before there are no more of them on the market or before several successful auctions turn it into an "untouchable" watch, which is likely to happen at some point in time, as has happened with all of the brand's iconic watches.

Who wore the watch?

Sean Connery remains to this day the most famous personality to have worn this watch. Elvis Presley is also one among the celebrities that appreciate the brand, and it is in "Girls, Girls, Girls" that you will find this watch in the movies, the same year "Dr. No" came out. To fuel the legend, during the shooting, it was agreed to put a Rolex on the actor's wrist, but since Rolex had allegedly refused to sponsor it, the producer Albert Broccoli's Submariner appears on the screen... So says the legend ! Being the watch that equipped the British Navy commandos at the time, the Submariner model number 6538, has since been considered by collectors as THE James Bond watch.

Just like Sean Connery, Elvis, "The King" also wore his watch on a Nylon bracelet. It would seem that the steel wristband was not very fashionable at the time.

On a completely different note, Chuck Yeager, the first American aviator to break the sound barrier and known for the GMT-Master in his name, also wore this iconic watch.

Considerations for knowledgeable amateurs and collectors when purchasing a 6538:

1. Get qualified advice from an expert or a knowledgeable collector
2. As with most things, compare sources and information available to you.
3. Make sure that the main components of the watch are in good condition (case, crown, case back, hands, dial).
4. The condition of the movement must be inspected and tested (hard to find parts).
5. Look at the watch's general condition. A watch in poor condition, no matter how "original" it is (and unless it is really very rare and hard to find) is always a problem. It is better to wager on a watch in good general condition even if the watch has worn part replacements. A 6538 with a replacement dial in excellent condition and with a nice patina will always sell better than a lacquer watch that is illegible, without any indexes or completely cracked.

We hope that these few lines will have fed your passion and quenched your thirst for information. You are more than welcome to contact us to exchange ideas.

Fabrice Guéroux (@FabriceGueroux) & Cyril Derveloy (@CyrilDerveloy_41W)

A few pictures of Rolex Submariner ref. 6538 brought to market by 41Watch

Discover the ref. 6538 by 41Watch

Other Submariner "Early Generation"

41Watch, the guarantee of a professional service, in full transparency