Too clever? Well, bear with me. The Rolex Submariner ref. 6538 “Big Crown” is THE James Bond watch to a generation of watch nerds. And purists will argue, it needs to be worn on a very specific burgundy, olive, and black nylon strap – that’s about 4mm too narrow. There are those who say the burgundy color seen in screen grabs from Goldfinger and Dr. No is the result of modern Blu-Ray rendering of the old prints. I can’t comment on that – I suppose it’s plausible – but what a bummer if it turned out to be true!
Anyway, how did the 6538 come to be on Sean Connery’s wrist for the first few Bond movies? We know from the books, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be specific, that a generic Rolex Oyster Perpetual was Bond creator Ian Fleming’s choice for the operative. But “Rolex Oyster Perpetual” was indeed a generic term. Numerous Rolex models carry the moniker as part of their overall model name. It could have meant any of several watches, including the Explorer, which was the watch Fleming himself wore. One legend has it that the movie watch actually belonged to producer Cubby Broccoli. When it came time to film the scenes where the watch was visible, it came off Broccoli’s wrist and went on Connery’s. That makes for a great bit of movie-making lore, but I could never verify the tale. And what of the history of the reference? The watch that was to become the Submariner, ref. 6204, made its debut at the Basel Watch Fair in 1954. In 1956, two new references took up the mantle – the 6536 and 6538. The 6536 was endowed with a small crown and was water resistant to 100 meters (330 feet). The 6538 doubled down on those numbers, being good to 200m/660ft.
The 6538 received an upgrade to the new calibre 1030, along with additional bezel markings and the now ubiquitous, then unnamed Triplock crown, and four lines of dial printing confirming its chronometer status in 1958. This later version is the watch most aficionados say is the real Bond Submariner. It was produced until 1961 when it was effectively replaced by the 5510, which had been introduced in 1959. With such a short production history, the 6538 is a relatively rare Rolex. And the association with James Bond makes it infinitely more collectable than its mere age and rarity. When examples appear at auction, they tend to go for stratospheric prices. One nice example sold at Christie’s in 2012 for $92,000. Another, a very crisp four-liner with a deep tropical dial, sold at Christie’s a year later for nearly $545,000. If you’ve got a jones for one of these, grab your piggy bank and a big hammer. Make that, grab your hammer and a BIG piggy bank.
- Ed Estlow