Have Rolex Watches Gotten Better Over Time?

Have Rolex Watches Gotten Better Over Time?

“Rolex really screwed up this time! The new Submariner is a step in the wrong direction. It's nowhere near as good as the last one,”.

Have you seen a post like this on the internet before? Ever noticed that the keyboard watch warriors seem to hate anything that’s new? It seems like enthusiasts are largely unhappy with new Rolexes from the past 3-5 years. I figured I would tip my toe into this discussion and see where it takes me. Let the keyboard warriors fire up their electronic chariots and see what happens in the comment section!

Submariner modern vs. vintage

Image Source: Crown and Caliber

Before we begin, let me give a brief bio on myself. First off, I am the originator of the Everest Band, an aftermarket watch strap designed specifically for Rolex owners, those who want a rubber or leather strap whose quality is on par with their Rolex watch (or Tudor or Panerai). Our curved-end design perfectly hugs the cases and lugs of particular models. Everest came up with this design twelve years ago and we’ve been improving on it ever since. Second, I am a partner in a watch brand called MONTA. Our watches’ designs are very tool-oriented. Third, I am a watch guy. I’m the founder of this blog and I cover and love the watch industry. I am the judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to watches.

Rolex Submariner on Everest Band

Now that you know a little bit about me, let's talk about Rolex. Unequivocally, Rolex makes the highest quality massed-produced watch in the world. From the Oyster Perpetual to the Skydweller, Rolex’s quality and attention to detail on a million plus watches per year is simply unparallelled. I have friends who work at Rolex that have told me about their relentless goal to improve the quality of their watches or the production of a single part. I have spoken with independent watchmakers who service Rolex watches; they all marvel at the brand’s movement technology. What I am getting at is that Rolex constantly strives for improvement. As the adage goes, they’re out evolution, not revolution. Their decades-long marketing language about quality are not empty words, they constantly put their money where their mouth is.

Rolex Submariner 5512

Image Source: The Watch Club

For a moment, let’s talk about a specific model, focusing on its evolution. I’d like to talk specifically about the Submariner (what some might call the no-date Submariner). From the time I got into watches (2007) until now, I have seen multiple generations of change under the Submariner line. To note, when I was looking at a Submariner to purchase in 2007, the general sentiment on Rolex Forums was that the reference 5512/5513 Submariners were “better” than the then-current reference 14060. People complained about how, unlike a plexi crystal, sapphire crystal could shatter. Many said that the 14060’s caliber 3000 just “wasn’t the same” as the Caliber 1520, the beating heart of the Submariner 5512/5513 models. To be honest, I was so new to the watch world that I had no idea what to do – I bought a Tudor instead! I could not make up my mind; the watch forums seemed to strongly dislike the 14060, so much so that I felt I should not buy it. Boy that feels stupid in retrospect!

Rolex Submariner 14060

Now, watching the evolution of this model and having owned most generations, starting with the ref. 5512 all of the way up to the current ref. 124060, I can conclude without a doubt that the new guy is better. However, it may not be “better” in the way that you think. The current-production Submariner is made to last infinitely. It is made to withstand magnetic fields, significant depths that I will never sink to, and has multiple surfaces that are literally impossible to scratch or patina, even in extreme conditions. The watch is made to achieve levels of precision and quality that seem almost unattainable. It is far better than any watch made in the late 1980’s from a production and materials standpoint. 

From a design standpoint, purely on a cosmetic level, things get tricky. I suspect this is like talking about religion or politics at a family event. Perhaps an internet based platform where watch guys hang out isn’t the best place to bring it up. But for this watch guy, the current model wins over past models. I say this because from a mass appeal standpoint, Rolex watches, especially the sports models, are better than ever. If we discuss the Submariner for a moment more, I’d call the latest version a perfect mix of past and current design in the watch world. The lugs feel proportionally perfect. The legibility of the dial and hands is excellent. The smoothness  and ease of the Glidelock clasp mechanism is an absolute knock-out. It’s just awesome. 

Rolex Glidelocl clasp

Image Source: Rolex

Many will say the nostalgia and beauty of a vintage Submariner’s aged look can never be replicated with the current versions. They are 100% right! Chromalight will not patina, Cerachrom will not fade (or scratch), the tolerances are tighter than ever, and the materials are categorically superior. This is why vintage watches are increasingly tough to service. The dials are literally disintegrating, the lume is either replaced or on the brink of falling off, and the movement gets older and older by the day. Don’t get me wrong – as I sit here and physically compare a 5513 and a new 124060, I love them both. That said, I just can’t shake the fact that, from a wearability standpoint, the newer one is far and away the winner. Maybe that’s just me – I like to wear my watches.

Of course, certain evolutions of the Submariner can be seen as categorical improvements. A balance bridge is more robust than a balance cock. 904L steel is more resistant to corrosion than 316L. These changes are hard to knock because they’re quantitative improvements. Qualitative differences complicate the debate. Some people prefer a crystal (or bezel) that won’t shatter but will scratch, and others the opposite. Some people prefer smaller cases, and others Super Cases. These are individual preferences, not to be viewed as "better" or "worse", but just to be viewed and discussed. Ultimately, whether you favor the charm of a vintage Submariner or the cutting-edge technology of the latest model, the choice is deeply personal, and need not be agreed upon, nor will it ever be.

Where do you stand in this conversation? Do you lean vintage or modern when it comes to the Submariner? Let us know in the comments below.

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