Say “MilSub” to a watch nerd and you just might see a man go weak in the knees, possibly go temporarily monosyllabic. The Rolex MilSub, or military Submariner, was produced in the 1970s in such small quantities (something just over 1000) that only about 180 or so are known to still exist. No wonder they’re such a grail timepiece for so many – and so expensive. A MilSub in good condition with proper provenance is well into six figures.
And what’s the backstory on these rare Rollies? Well, even though they were produced in the 1970s, the MilSub’s origins go back to WW II, and the underwater offensive warfare that was waged back then. The Italians were one of the first at that game, with their Panerais, and Great Britain responded with their own tactics, commissioning custom watches that would perform under water for the several hours each mission took to execute.
After the war, this led to regular underwater operations by the divers of the British Ministry of Defense (MoD). And thus, to further need of watches to augment said operations. By 1957, the MoD had come calling on Rolex for such a watch. Rolex responded well to the MoD’s requests for fixed bars, a larger bezel to facilitate operation by gloved hands, and dials relumed with Tritium (denoted by an encircled T) rather than the more dangerous radium.
However, the wheels of government turn slowly, while private industry moves quickly to chase profits. By the time the MoD was ready to write the first purchase order over a decade later, the Rolex Submariner had gone through several evolutionary improvements. The then-current model for the job was the ref. 5513.
The 5513 was duly modified with the bars, bezel – which included hash marks for all 60 minutes, and dial mentioned above. Through the 1970s, these watches went through further subtle evolutionary changes. The first were marked ‘5513’ between the lugs. The second series were marked ‘5513’ between the lugs with a ‘5517’ on one of the lugs. The last series, the most sought-after, was marked simply ‘5517’ between the lugs.
If you’re hunting for one, it’s time to break the piggy bank again. And do your homework. A lot of these watches have been modified/ updated with newer bezel inserts, dials, etc. and some have been cobbled together as frankenwatches for sale to the unsuspecting.
But if you’re still so-inclined, and are able to pick up the genuine article, you achieve membership in one of the more excusive clubs in the world – one with only about 180 members.