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Home > News> Big Story > How James Bond turned the Rolex Submariner into an icon

How James Bond turned the Rolex Submariner into an icon

Sean Connery’s James Bond was instrumental in fashioning the perfectly marketable image of the good looking, well-heeled man about town, wearing a Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner reference 6538, in a still from Goldfinger (1964).
The Rolex Submariner reference 6538, in a still from Goldfinger (1964).

The other day, a friend of mine, in a suitably iconoclastic mood, exclaimed, “What’s the big deal about James Bond? It’s all just product placement!” Although I’m a fan of the Bond films, I really couldn’t argue with her on this. The world’s first and probably the most successful movie franchise ever, the Bond films are as memorable for the brands they give a shoutout to as they are for the action, the quips and the women.

But hold on to those Persol shades, hang up that Sunspel polo shirt and take the keys out of that Aston Martin! Because Bond’s biggest brand placement ever has to be the Rolex Submariner. The Sub is literally one of the most iconic, popular and coveted watches in the world. It’s not all down to Bond, of course, because the Sub is the doyen of all dive watches. But it can be argued that Connery turning the Sub into his main ‘Bond watch’ boosted the Submariner’s profile no end.

The Sub that Connery wore in Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) and in You Only Live Twice (1967) was the Submariner reference 6538 no-date, also known as the ‘Big Crown’. This is because of the large handwinding crown at 3’o’clock, which, at 8mm, was a specialty on three Submariner references from the era: 6200 (1955-56), 6538 (1956-59) and 5510 (1959). At a 37mm case size, the 6538 was quite petite for dive watches, especially if you compare it to the outsized 42mm and above cases that you see on modern divers. The Mercedes hour hand that the Sub is so famous for, was already in place, along with a beautiful white lollipop seconds hand.

Sean Connery wearing the Rolex Submariner in a publicity still from Dr. No (1962) (Photo courtesy Everett Collection)
Sean Connery wearing the Rolex Submariner in a publicity still from Dr. No (1962) (Photo courtesy Everett Collection)

The Dive Icon

What you’re looking at is, for most enthusiasts of horology, simply the most important watch ever made. The first Rolex Submariner was released in 1953 (reference 6204) and it caused a splash. It was the first ever wristwatch to be certified at 100m water resistance, and gave birth to the concept of the tool watch. While most sports watches these days have a 100m water resistance, in 1953 this was a revolutionary concept that would spur Omega to release its own iconic dive watch, the Seamaster. The Sub’s water resistance was soon upped to 200m (Subs today are 300m water resistant), and between 1953 and 1960, the watch underwent a series of design changes as well.

By 1954 and the reference 6205, the famous Mercedes hour hand was in place, as well as the lollipop three-quarters of the way down the seconds hand. The crown was 5mm and the case a classic 37mm. A new design icon was born. The 6538 that Connery wore was produced between 1956-1959 and came in two variants: with four lines or two lines of text at the 6’o’clock position. Connery’s was the four-line variant without the hash marks running from 0-15 minutes on the bezel. Needless to say, each of these vintage variants are now a rage with watch collectors.

For the longest time, the Submariner was a huge hit among professional scuba divers who would use the watch’s rotating bezel to keep track of the time elapsed on the dive, an important function when you have a finite amount of oxygen in your tank. And then came the marketing masterstroke of Bond.

Rolex, a marketing icon

But then, Rolex’s founder, the German emigré Hans Wilsdorf was a marketing genius. Registered in 1908, Rolex was a comparative newbie when it came to Swiss watches (both Omega and Patek Phillippe, for example, are far older), and Wilsdorf’s plan to place Rolex on the map was to incorporate practical elements into the wristwatch with great élan. For example, Rolex wasn’t technically the first to create a watch that was water and dust-proof, nor the first to use an automatic self-winding rotor, nor the first to incorporate an automatically changing date on the dial. However, with the Oyster in 1926, the ‘bubbleback’ in 1931 and the Datejust in 1945, it was the first to incorporate these changes in watches of eye-catching design which were successfully marketed to the public.

Wilsdorf was especially brilliant at ensuring that his Rolex watches found its way to people attempting record-setting feats or with exploratory expeditions, so it could use their success to market itself. For example, seven Everest expeditions, leading up to the successful 1953 one, had at least one member wearing a Rolex. In fact, it’s a matter of horological controversy as to whether Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were actually wearing Rolex 6098s or Smith A409s when they summited. Both brands, of course went to town with full page advertisements after the feat. Similarly, in 1960, Wilsdorf ensured that a new prototype water resistant watch, the Rolex Deep Sea special, was attached to the outside of the Trieste, the deep-diving research bathyscape descending into the Marianna Trench. The Trieste reached the ocean floor and cape back up unscathed, as did the Rolex. Although Rolex wouldn’t release an actual dive watch modelled on the prototype till 2008 with the 3,900m water-resistant Sea Dweller Deepsea, in the public mind Rolex and dive watches were forever linked.

James Bond’s watches

The writer of the Bond books, Ian Fleming was a Rolex wearer, the owner of at least one Rolex Explorer. In fact, when it came to his creation’s watch preferences, Fleming wrote in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), “Bond surveyed his weapons. They were only his hands and feet, his Gillette razor and his wrist-watch, a heavy Rolex Oyster Perpetual on an expanding metal bracelet. Used properly, these could be turned into most effective knuckledusters.” He goes on to do just that, later musing about buying a new one (basically getting MI6 to subsidise it). “He would get another one as soon as the shops opened after Boxing Day. Another Rolex? Probably. They were on the heavy side, but they worked. And at least you could see the time in the dark with those big phosphorus numerals.” What Fleming probably had in mind was a black dial Rolex Explorer 1016, his own, with roman numerals at 3, 6 and 9.

Ian Fleming wearing his black dial Rolex Explorer. (Photo: Getty Images)
Ian Fleming wearing his black dial Rolex Explorer. (Photo: Getty Images)

Through some quirk of fate, Connery found himself wearing the Submariner instead, and the watch’s popularity went through the roof. Across his Bond films in the 60s, the Sub is worn in a variety of different settings. Before Bond, no one would ever dream of wearing a dive watch with a tuxedo, for example, while if you’re out for a swim with Honey Rider, well, of course! Connery’s Bond used the Sub to basically tell the time, though later Roger Moore’s Bond would use another Sub, the reference 5513, to both act as a magnet and as a tiny saw in Live and Let Die (1973).

However, the Sub isn’t the only watch that Connery’s Bond wore. In his iconic introductory scene in Dr. No, Bond wears a Gruen Precision 501, a proper dress watch (also in Goldfinger). In Thunderball he is given a Breitling Top Time reference 2002 which supposedly doubles as a Geiger counter. “It’s waterproof, of course,” says Q, MI6’s gadgets guru to Bond. “But of course,” Bond replies. Apart from the Breitling, it’s notable that Connery’s Bond watches weren’t gimmicky.

With Roger Moore, Bond became a dedicated follower of fashion, and with quartz watches all the rage, you see a wide variety of them in the movies. There’s a Hamilton Pulsar LED on Moore’s wrist in Live and Let Die, a Seiko DK001 in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) which printed out ticker-tape messages from MI6, a Seiko Memory-Bank Calendar in Moonraker (1979) that doubled up as a bomb, and a Seiko reference H357 5040 in For Your Eyes Only (voice messages from MI6!), among others.

When the series was rebooted with Pierce Brosnan playing Bond in Goldeneye (1995), the Sub’s mantle was passed to its rival, the Omega Seamaster. The gimmicks didn't cease, though. Brosnan’s Seamaster Professional is also a detonator, while in The World Is Not Enough (1999) it throws a grappling hook. Daniel Craig’s grittier take on Bond has returned the watch to just timekeeping. However, as we see with the Seamaster Professional Planet Ocean and Seamaster Aquaterra in Casino Royale (2006) Quantum Of Solace (2008) and Skyfall (2012) and the classic Seamaster 300 in Spectre (2015), the dive-watch heritage of Bond has remained intact. The Moore and Brosnan era’s watch gimmicks are even alluded to with a nod and a wink these days. In Spectre, Bond holds the Seamaster 300 and asks, “Does it do anything?” “It tells the time,” Q replies.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    05.11.2020 | 09:01 AM IST

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