Ok, so I admit if you have enough money you could buy a MilSub, but it isn’t always that simple. To find a good authentic and original specification model can take years of searching and usually requires either plenty of research, or a very good vintage watch consultant. Unfortunately there are far more fake or simply ‘civilianized’ examples of MilSubs out there with changed parts than correct ones. Perhaps for this reason, original examples of the model have gained something of an iconic status in recent years.
The difference between a civilian version of the Rolex Ref.5513 Submariner and a British military issued version is visually negligible, although financially huge. It’s a watch for true watch connoisseur, because when you wear it, no one, or certainly very few, will ever notice. Which is exactly why it’s one of the most desirable vintage Rolex sports watches available. Only another serious collector will appreciate the time you spent to find an unmolested example and applaud you for it, everyone else will think it’s another civilian model on a NATO strap. The Military Submariner is exactly why people collect vintage watches, each watch tells a story; it went to war, or was at least used by a military trained diver in the real world. They all, without exception, saw action on the wrist of some of the toughest men of their generation, for this reason they each have a history, almost a personality. Yet their greatest appeal is their unbelievable rarity, in original military issued form they are extremely rare to find today yet can still be used daily and appreciated for the ruggedly handsome, masculine sort of appeal they hold.
Some might argue that for similar money a vintage Daytona ‘Paul Newman’ is the better buy, but how many are out there? I can tell you thousands. Besides, unless you are buying Paul Newman’s own exotic dial Ref.6239 (you will get your chance one day) then it’s a watch that cost less than US$1,000 when new and could have been bought from almost any retailer, by anyone. It’s not that I don’t love the Paul Newman Daytona, but it’s a vintage Rolex you wear when you want people to know you are wearing a vintage Rolex. The military Submariner is a far rarer watch and worn by those who want to remain discreet.
As Rolex military issued watches were serviced regularly, worn or damaged parts specific to the military model were often replaced with civilian Submariner Ref.5513 materials and the majority of those found today have had some items changed. The rarity of the military Submariner is in finding an example that remains in the original issued specification. As many collectors today seek ‘unpolished’ examples, the military Submariner is a welcome exception where dents and signs of use are accepted, if not essential; there’s no such thing as an unpolished MilSub.
It’s no coincidence the world’s most famous secret agent, James Bond, wore a Rolex Submariner in the original 007 movies. The British Royal Navy were apparently testing the Submariner model for use by its elite divers as a service-issued watch as early as the 1950’s (Dr No was filmed in 1962). By the early 1970’s the British Royal Navy had ordered their first batch of Rolex Ref.5513 Submariner’s from Geneva, these were then modified by Rolex UK and supplied to the department for engraving. Each watch was engraved on the case back with the department code ‘0552/923-7697’ (referring to a small item of personal use), the military triangular insignia and an issue number with year. On the inside of the case back was the full serial number of the watch to ensure the correct back was returned to the correct head when servicing. In addition, the holes for the spring bars were drilled out and a solid bar fitted so the watch could only be worn on a threaded (NATO) strap, the strap was specifically designed so it could be easily extended to fit over a dive suit, in addition, as it threaded through both bars, should one break the watch wouldn’t fall off as the other bar would still be securing it.
As maintaining synchronization is so important within the military, all of the Cal.1520 movements designated for use by the British military models were modified to feature hacking seconds (the seconds hand stops when the crown is pulled out) and the standard bezel replaced with one featuring indexes for the full 60 minutes. The standard Mercedes hands were replaced with larger and more legible sword hands and the dial stamped with a T within a circle to signify Tritium (not radium) was used as a luminescent.
The British Navy insisted all of it’s equipment be regularly serviced, including the watches, to maintain reliability and it would seem this is when numerous parts were replaced over the years. In addition, once a soldier’s duty was complete and he returned to base he would also return his wristwatch, where it would be serviced and re-issued. The majority of MilSubs found today were ‘lost’ by the servicemen while on duty.
Military items remained the property of the issuing Governments and the watches were no exception. Although only a personal speculation, service personnel that wanted to retain their issued watches but were worried about being caught for theft, arranged to have the case back of their watch featuring the issue number changed. By swapping two case backs the authorities couldn’t identify a watch to the wearer as it no longer matched issue records. (Alas finding examples with exchanged case-backs is frustratingly common today and devalues the watch significantly)