The Rolex Submariner is one of the most recognized luxury watches in the world. It originally went into production in 1953 and was first presented to the public in 1954 at the Basel watch fair. For this article, I got my hands on one of my friend’s recent acquisitions, a pre-owned 2007 Black Bezel Submariner. This watch is probably the most copied timepiece on the market, with many replica manufacturers copying the design.
Rolex uses 904L stainless steel instead of 316L steel. Most watch brands use 316L surgical grade stainless steel when producing a steel case or watch. The use of 904L actually adds a significant amount to the price, and most companies cannot justify the additional cost for a higher grade of steel. Rolex, however, is not most watch companies, and accordingly, they use the best steel available, even if the more affordable 316L stainless steel is good enough.
The main advantage of 904L over 316L is its resistance to corrosion. Rolex uses 904L steel primarily for marketing purposes, to differentiate their product, but it does technically offer additional corrosion resistance. 904L is has copper added, which greatly improves resistance to strong reducing acids, as well as chloride.
904L is non-magnetic in all conditions and has excellent weldability and formability. The austenitic structure also gives this grade excellent toughness, even down to cryogenic temperatures. 904L does have a very substantial amount of nickel and molybdenum, and this is what really adds to its cost.
As mentioned in a recent, and very rare visit to the Rolex manufacturing facilities, WatchTime magazine got an exclusive look into Rolex, at their Biel/Bienne manufacturing facility. Rolex is notorious for their secrecy, and many times will not meet with media, and almost never lets people tour and photograph their factory. If you got a chance to read July 2010 WatchTime issue, then you know already know about their production facilities.
Much of their processes are automated, unlike Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre or A. Lange & Sohne, much of Rolex production is fully automated. Rolex sold around 800,000 mechanical timepieces last year and has a long-standing position as the #1 seller of Swiss mechanical timepieces. They are of very high quality, just like timepieces made with more traditional methods, however, they are produced in much higher quantities. To accommodate the high demand, Rolex has automated much of their production process.
Regardless of the level of automation, or the number of watches that Rolex produces, they are still of excellent quality, and their use of the very best machines, allows them to create watches with tolerances lower than most of their competitors.
You would think the fact that they outsell all mechanical watchmakers would make their watches less exclusive and less desirable, however, the reality is the exact opposite. By raising prices very often (usually every year), and by spending more money on advertising than any of their competitors, by using robust in-house movements (albeit not handmade, although caliber 3135 which powers the Submariner is arguably one of the most reliable mechanical movements on the market) and by using 904L steel – Rolex SA has been able to maintain a level of resale value on the market, unseen by almost any other watchmaker (except Patek Philippe).
High resale does not necessarily mean it is the best watch, but it does guarantee that you will probably at least break even if you decide to sell your Rolex. That is something that is very hard for most people to ignore. Yes, AP, JLC, and Lange, for the most part, have more luxurious, handmade timepieces, but in many cases, if you go to resale one, you will not get all your money back (which is hard to believe, but true). That said, not everyone is buying a watch with plans for future resale. Most people actually buy wristwatches to wear. Although, in many cases, you can wear a Rolex for 3-5 years, and then sell it for what you paid once you are ready for something else. That is an undeniably attractive added benefit of buying Rolex.
Rolex timepieces are of excellent quality and they have amazing resale value. But they still have faults. The Rolex Submariner (or at least this particular 2007 version I borrowed to review), for example, has little or no anti-reflective treatment on its sapphire crystal. It causes glare and reflections if you are not looking at the dial at exactly the right angle. This is a minor gripe, but something Rolex must just not care about. They could easily add an anti-reflective coating, without adding much to the retail price. When you have a long-term bestseller like the Submariner, though, it is hard to justify making changes, especially the sales are so good. And because of this mentality, Rolex rarely makes changes to the Submariner or any of their timepieces.
Although, Rolex has added a number of upgrades over the past few years. They recently added a “Parachrom” blue hairspring to the movement which powers the current Submariner (this is something a 2007 Submariner lacks). The Parachrom hairspring is almost completely anti-magnetic, as well as high shock and temperature resistant. This makes a famously robust and reliable movement, even more, rugged and reliable. Like the GMT II watches, the current Submariners now feature a CERACRHOM bezel (a ceramic bezel), which is great because it looks more luxurious and is very resistant to scratching.
Previous Submariners, including the one pictured above and the one at this link green bezel anniversary Submariner, were made of aluminum (this is good, but ceramic is far more scratch resistant). The new Glidelock adjustable clasp was recently added and allows easy micro adjustments without any tools (the 2007 model does not feature a Glidelock clasp). It would be hard to argue that the Parachrom blue hairspring, ceramic bezel or Glidelock equipped clasp are not good upgrades to the Submariner.
There are, however, some upgrades that are more controversial. The new Maxi dial, which basically consists of larger markers and hands, is a perfect example. Many hardcore Rolex fans argue that the older, smaller markers and hands look better. In that case, a 2007 Submariner or older version may be a better decision. But for those of us that are not as opinionated about Rolex, the newer hands and markers may not even be that noticeable. Plus, because they are bigger, more luminous Superluminova paint is used, creating a brighter and more effective glow on the dial.
Changes to Rolex watches over the years are usually evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary. This is how they have kept the classic design for over 50 years of production.
Overall, a pre-owned or brand new 2010 Rolex Submariner is a great choice. The Submariner design, heritage, and quality is legendary. You are going to pay a little more for a Rolex, but you know you are getting a rugged wristwatch with excellent resale.