February 10, 2017
by Paul Altieri
Pre-owned Rolex exchange website Bob’s Watches receives numerous Rolex watches, many of which come with powerful stories. In this series, owner of Bob’s Watches Paul Altieri will share real stories about real Rolex watches and discuss what makes both the watches and their very personal histories so unique and appealing.
One of the most famous Rolex Submariners of all time is the reference 6538. Its oversized crown and lack of crown guards help distinguish it from the myriad of other Submariner references, and give the watch an unmistakably vintage look and feel. The small red triangle placed at the zero marker on the bezel insert adds a splash of color to the overall look of the watch, and help to promote its purpose-driven design.
The Submariner is easily Rolex’s most popular and widely recognizable line of watches. First introduced in 1954, and intended as a watch specifically for SCUBA divers, the Rolex Submariner has become an absolute cornerstone in the world of luxury watches, making it a popular target for first-time buyers and seasoned Rolex collectors alike. Although there are quite a lot of Rolex Submariners in existence, certain vintage references have caught the attention of enthusiasts whenever they surface.
For vintage Rolex sport watches, much of the rarity and collectability stems from the limited number of surviving examples, rather than an inherently small original production number. As high-end tool watches, many Rolex timepieces were actually subjected to the demanding conditions for which they were designed; and consequently, many were lost or destroyed over the course of the decades that they were in use by their owners.
At the heart of the reference 6538 beats Rolex’s 25-jewel, caliber 1030 movement, which operates at a frequency of 18,000vph and pre-dates the hack-seconds feature that can be found on later-era Rolex calibers. Originally introduced in 1950, the caliber 1030 is often credited as being Rolex’s first bi-directional, automatic winding movement. Additionally, it features a “butterfly” shaped rotor that has two slits cut out on either side of it that give the part its name and distinguishing form.
The majority of references 6538 Rolex Submariners were thoroughly worn by their users, through all kinds of demanding conditions, for most of their lives. As a result, most surviving examples have had their dials, hands, and bezel inserts replaced by Rolex service centers when they were sent in for regular maintenance and repairs. Consequently, finding a reference 6538 Rolex Submariner that is complete with all its original parts has become an increasingly difficult task.
Additionally, as it is the very same reference that was worn by Sean Connery in the first James Bond movies, the reference 6538 is considered by many to be the original “Bond Submariner.” While this characteristic really only holds significance to die-hard, James Bond fans; the additional level of collectability has increased the overall awareness of this particular reference, which in turn, has made it even more rare and difficult to find on the open market.
Connections to James Bond notwithstanding, the reference 6538 is a true classic; and the combination of its age, its unique feature set, and the limited number of surviving examples has helped place it among the top Rolex Submariner references – of all time – for collectors to own.
In the late 1950s, a World War II veteran named Mike purchased a reference 6538 Rolex Submariner from a U.S. commissary store in Japan. As a SCUBA diver for the United States Navy, the Rolex Submariner was an obvious choice for Mike; and when he returned home, he took his faithful dive watch with him. Once back at his stateside home in the South, Mike resumed regular life, hunting, fishing, and playing poker every Tuesday evening with his best friend Peter.
Mike wore his reference 6538 Rolex Submariner every day – for the rest of his life, until he passed away just a few years ago, leaving his much-loved, and well-worn watch to his wife. One day, some time after Mike’s death, his wife called up Peter and said, “I know you have always worshiped this watch” and gave Peter the reference 6538 Rolex Submariner that had previously belonged to his best friend.
Peter treasured the watch, and it held a great deal of sentimental value to him. Since the Rolex Submariner had belonged to Mike, Peter had a very hard time parting with it; however, as he had found a better use for the money, he ultimately decided to sell it. Peter flew out to Southern California and spent two days with us at Bob’s Watches, after which he chose to sell us the reference 6538, which I intend to keep in my personal collection.
Despite the years of wear that this Rolex Submariner has seen, it has remained remarkably well-preserved, with all of its original factory parts. The bright sun and hot climate of the South have turned the black, gilt, two-line dial a tropical brown color, with the lume taking on a rich, baked pumpkin shade. Beyond that, the bezel insert is remarkably dark for its age, and the luminous dot inside the red triangle at the zero marker perfectly matches the deep patina on the hour markers of the dial.
Although the watch saw constant use over the years, the case is thick and shows zero signs of over-polishing. Fitted with an era-correct, rivet link, Oyster bracelet, this particular reference 6538 is about as close to its original, 1950s factory-intended condition as you will find anywhere.
A large part of the reason people choose to collect vintage Rolex watches has to do with the various subtle details among the different references, and the wide range of conditions in which surviving examples can be found. However, there is also a certain intangible aspect to vintage watch collecting that is rooted in the watches’ individual histories and the lives that their past owners have lived.
Watches like this reference 6538 represent far more than just rare and collectible vintage timepieces. Over the decades, these watches have accrued a history and provenance unique to them alone, making each one unique from the rest, and giving each its own story to tell. In addition to being a very well-preserved example of one of the most collectible and highly sought-after Submariner references of all time, this particular reference 6538 is representative of the bond of friendship that existed between its two previous owners.Paul Altieri is founder of Bob’s Watches, the leading online destination for used Rolex watches where he created the Pre-owned Rolex Exchange Concept, which allows consumers to see both the buy and sell prices for a pre-owned watches, adding transparency to the market. Paul is also a watch collector and has many rare collectible watches in his collection.