: The Rolex Reference 6538 Submariner
Text & Photos Nicholas Biebuyck

The Rolex Submariner represents such a broad subject, that a detailed exploration of every reference and variation would require a series of books stretching to many volumes, so to be able to cover this iconic model in sufficient depth in a few thousand words is rather tricky. With that in mind, the best option is to focus on one particular reference: something with a large enough sample set that some conclusions of substance can be drawn, with enough variations for it to be interesting, but is not so broad that it would require an entire issue of this publication to cover in detail. Taking this into consideration, the 6538 represents something of a Goldilocks reference for the model.

It is of course not the first “Big Crown” Submariner, a nickname bestowed by collectors to Rolex dive watches with the 8mm Brevet signed crown, that honour falls to the reference 6200, so called “King Sub”, which was introduced in 1954 as the brands first professional dive watch with water resistance up to 200 meters. But while the 6200 was only in production for one year, the reference 6538 was made by Rolex from 1956 until 1959, when the first series of the reference 5512 Submariner, the so called “square crown guard”, entered production in late 1959.

Four years might seem like a short period of time, but it was a hugely formative period for Rolex, witnessing the introduction of so many models that have become pillars for the brand today, including the Day-Date, GMT-Master and Milgauss. On a macro level there was clearly a lot taking place in Bienne, but examining the reference 6538, we can witness what was taking place on a micro level regarding dial designs, and the creation of a configuration that exists even today with the reference 114060. Here is a study of one of the most important references in the history of Rolex.

An extremely well preserved first series reference 6538 with red depth rating.

First Series – The Red Depth & Explorer Dial

The best places to start with the references 6538 is the earliest, and rarest variation: those with the depth rating on their dial in red print. Simply referenced to by collectors as ‘red depth’, these watches were produced in the first quarter of 1956, based on the stamping to the inside of their case back, and exist in an extremely tight case number range, the earliest to appear in the market in the range of 140,300 and the last in the range of 140,500, representing a spread of approximately 200 watches (although of course there could be more out there).

Incredibly, there is an additional dial variation within this extremely limited production run, what is among the most coveted of all vintage Rolex sports models for top tier collectors: the ‘Explorer’ dial reference 6538. Similar in configuration to the reference 6200 dial with luminous filled Arabic numerals at 3-6-9, the classic triangle marker at 12 o’clock, and baton markers in between, it is possible that it was simply remaining stock of the later ‘King Sub’ dials with the Submariner name applied, but with the red depth printing added. It would seem that only two original examples have appeared at auction (although a number of others exist in private collections), both featuring consecutive case numbers, as well as one with a service Explorer which is only one number away, leading to the conclusion that these ‘Explorer’ dials were a batch within a batch.

The even rarer, “Explorer dial” variant of the first series reference 6538.

It would seem that both the ‘Explorer’ and standard (if we can use such a word) ‘red depth’ versions from the 140,000 batch were originally fitted with the oversize ‘lollipop’ centre seconds hand, and so called “no hash” insert, that just features a silver triangle, Arabic numerals at the ten minute markers and single dashes for the five minutes (we will see the evolution of the insert design in the later iterations).

A note on the tables containing auction results that are featured in this article: watches that went unsold, or were offered over a decade ago have been excluded as, while the case number data can sometimes be interesting, watches are usually unsold due to a significant compromise in the condition or authenticity, and very old results, although amusing to look at the prices realised, are often without high quality images to be able to assess the condition correctly. Pieces have been benchmarked in Swiss Francs as the majority of watches across all batches were sold in Geneva (plus it is their country of origin), and figures from overseas auctions have been converted using the historic rate on the sale date.

HouseDateLocationCase No.Price CHF
Christie’sDecember 2011New York140’4XXCHF76,814
Christie’sMay 2015Geneva140’4XXCHF155,000
Christie’sJune 2018New York140’4XXCHF1,053,697
AntiquorumOctober 2018Hong Kong140’4XXCHF 371,431
BonhamsDecember 2018London140’4XXCHF227,599

Based on the results above for the five watches that have appeared at auction, it can be seen that there is a huge range in prices achieved for such a specific reference and dial configurations, so they certainly warrant a deeper investigation. There are two standout examples from the list, probably the most obvious being the 1,068,500 USD (1,053,697 CHF) for the watch sold at Christie’s New York in June 2018. The reason for this particular watch becoming the first Submariner to break the 1M USD/CHF was a combination of factors: sold by the original owner with historic photographs and a provenance letter to back it up, the incredible untouched condition of the rare ‘Explorer’ dial, the original handset, and the worn but unpolished case. While the bracelet, bezel and insert were missing, these are components that can be sourced; it was the condition of the dial and case that counted most and multiple collectors spotted the significance of the watch resulting in the exceptional final price.

The million dollar reference 6538 “Explorer dial” from Christie’s New York June 2018 auction in its as-found state.

The less obvious standout was the example offered by Christie’s Geneva in May 2015, a watch nicknamed ‘The Sultan’s Promise’, due to its provenance of having been gifted by the Sultan of Johore, to a Dr G Williams in 1956, with its attractive engraving to the case back and bracelet clasp. It sold for a now relatively inconsequential 155,000 CHF, but is today worth significantly more, thanks to its incredible level of preservation, apparently having been worn sparing and not molested during servicing, thus retaining all of its original components and the wide bevels to the lugs, in addition to featuring a dial that is beautifully aged with the formerly glossy lacquer taking on a mottled, matte finish due to its exposure to the high radium content of the luminous material.

The last three examples to appear from this batch are the two other previously mentioned ‘Explorer’ dials which bracket the case number of the 1M USD/CHF example, one with heavily distressed dial thanks to a hard life at sea, and the other fitted with a Rolex Service ‘Explorer’ dial. Both of these watches achieved results that reflected their compromised condition, although it certainly would be interesting to see the example with service dial come back to market and see what it would achieve in today’s climate. The last watch, sold by Antiquorum in Hong Kong in October 2018, featured a ‘standard’ red depth dial, but suffered due to mixed opinions about the condition of the watch resulting in a realised price which was significantly below the prevailing market expectations. It does go to show the power of the opinions shared by collectors among themselves in advance of the auction, something that all should consider when giving their advice to prospective buyers.

The second series of reference 6538 features with its no-hash silver triangle insert and big lollipop centre second hand.

The Second Series

Following on from the very first watches, we find the second batch of 6538 production, which appear to have been manufactured in the third quarter of 1956, based on the markings to the inside of the case back, which once again appear in an extremely concentrated case number range from around 158’100 through to approximately 158’400.

On the surface, not much has changed from its earlier ‘red depth’ brethren, with the same bezel insert and hands set, but as we look closer something significant has changed on the lower half of the dial. Gone is the ‘200/600’ in red and the ‘Submariner’ in gilt printing, a process that involves gold plating the polished brass dial blank, applying the required text and minute track in a soluble substance, then painting the entire plate black, which once dry, is then cleaned to remove the aforementioned substance to reveal the required dial elements before a final application of lacquer on top.

The gold coloured printing of the second series dial on this four-line example, where unusually the OCC text is placed about the depth rating and Submariner name.

In their place is gold-coloured printing on to the black surfaces of the dial for the depth rating, now refined to ‘200m = 660 ft’, and the name ‘Submariner’. Watches that were destined for markets that preferred the chronometer certification, predominantly the United States based on the watches that have surfaced with these so called ‘4-liner’ dials, had three additional words printed, either above or below the depth rating and model designation: ‘Official Certified Chronometer’.  As these elements were applied with the traditional cliché rather than the more invested ‘gilt’ process described above, it allowed Rolex and their dial supplier to play around with the positioning, and it really feels like this batch of production was a test bed to confirm the preferred format for the text on the lower half of the dial.

HouseDateLocationCase No.Price CHF
Christie’sNovember 2009Geneva158'3XXCHF 87,000
AntiquorumNovember 2012Geneva158'1XXCHF 62,500
Christie’sJune 2014New York158'2XXCHF 155,108
Christie’sNovember 2016Geneva158'3XXCHF 25,000
Christie’sDecember 2018New York158'3XXCHF 86,872
PhillipsNovember 2019Hong Kong158'1XXCHF 382,330

Once again, having sanitised the results to remove unsolds, old results, and service dials, we are left with just six watches. The example that stands head and shoulders above the others is the watch sold by Christie’s New York in June 2014, achieving what was, at the time, a stunning 173,000 USD (155,108 CHF), but with hindsight looks like a savvy purchase. Offered by the great-grandson of the original owner, William ‘Bumpy’ Graham Bell, who had a production company working in underwater filming, the watch was incredibly well preserved with a well defined, if worn case, extremely attractive dial, and original insert still in place. The other results may appear moderate, but this is really a reflection on their condition, with the watches suffering varying degrees of dial degradation, and service components such as bezel inserts and hand sets. This has now been vindicated by the result at Phillips Hong Kong in November 2019 at 3,000,000 HKD (382,330 CHF), which may have been a little disappointing to collectors, but still represents a strong result for the reference and series.

One additional note on this series of production of the reference 6538; it is almost certainly the case that the watch worn by Sean Connery’s James Bond in Dr No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball, is from this batch. While it is impossible to be certain, the Submariner shown on screen is a ‘two-liner’ dial, as seems to be the most common that was sold to the UK market, with the gold-coloured text positioned close to the hour marker at six, and the insert is the same no-hash-silver-triangle variation that appears on examples from this case number range.

The third series of reference 6538 with gilt Submariner and gold-coloured print for depth rating and OCC text when applied.

The Third Series

We now move on to the next iteration of the dial design, which appears to have been fitted to two series of case numbers: 307’000 in the third quarter of 1957, and 383’000 in the first quarter of 1958. Given the two production periods separated by six months, and the size of the batches that ranges from around 307’100 up to 307’600, and the second production period spanning approximately 300 case numbers in the 383’000 range, we have a larger dataset to look at some significant changes that took place during this period.

The first milestone was settling on the configuration of the text for the lower half of the dial, and a return of the gilt printing processing for the Submariner designation. With the depth rating above and the ‘OCC’ text fixed below (when required), both of these elements are now executed in the same gold-coloured print applied to the painted dial surface, as per the previous batch, and this mixture of printing techniques for the model name and other elements provides a wonderful three-dimensional effect to the text.

The inside case back of a third series reference 6538 from a watch with case number 307’XXX, showing the III.57 date code.

This period also saw an evolution for the insert design. The very earliest watches seem to retain the no-hash silver-triangle version from the previous batches, then transitioning to a variation with the signature red triangle, before finally introducing the markers up to 15 minutes that remain on the Submariner even today, while retaining the red triangle. The inclusion of the 15-minute markers almost certainly came about following feedback from the various professional and military divers who were already using the reference 6538 in their daily diving, and required more accurate timing during the critical final minutes of a dive. Perhaps this also explains the big ‘lollipop’ second hand being painted in white for this series of production, perhaps a move to aid legibility.

The most important change for collectors during this series of production is something that is not represented in a hard design detail, but rather the manufacturing process. For all previous batches of the reference 6538, the lacquer coating applied to the dial degrades significantly over time, causing it to take on a matte, mottled appearance. While this distinctive patina is appealing to many collectors, perhaps more desirable to a larger proportion are the deep glossy dials that appear from this series onwards. Although it is difficult to say exactly what causes the different ageing process, the most likely explanation is a move from nitrocellulose lacquers, which suffer significant degradation over time, to acrylic lacquers which are much more stable long term and allow the mirror-like finish to be retained to this day. In addition, there would appear to have been a change in the radioactive mixture used for the luminous material, as early watches produce a very high reading when exposed to a Geiger counter, while later versions exhibit lower numbers, with more aggressive radiation emissions likely to degrade the dial condition further.

HouseDateLocationCase No.Price CHF
Christie’sNovember 2008Geneva307'4XXCHF 62,500
Sotheby’sNovember 2008Geneva307'6XXCHF 55,000
BonhamsJune 2009London383'9XXCHF 36,032
Christie’sNovember 2010Geneva307'2XXCHF 93,000
Christie’sMay 2014Geneva307'1XXCHF 100,000
Christie’sJune 2015New York307'1XXCHF 251,127
Christie’sDecember 2015New York383'8XXCHF 100,001
PhillipsMay 2016Hong Kong383'7XXCHF 86,001
Christie’sJune 2016New York307'4XXCHF 45,892
Christie’sOctober 2017New York307'5XXCHF 316,194
Christie’sNovember 2017Geneva307'3XXCHF 52,500
Christie’sDecember 2017New York307'5XXCHF 485,951
PhillipsDecember 2018New York307'2XXCHF 565,089
PhillipsDecember 2019New York307'2XXCHF 98,520

It is the above 14 results that perhaps best show the maturation of the big crown market most succinctly. While there are a few weak results here and there due to compromised condition, we can pull out a number of strong examples that show how pricing has progressed, from 93,000 CHF in November 2010 for a watch with replaced bezel but beautiful dial and apparently unpolished case, to 260,000 USD (251,127 CHF) in June 2015 for an example which appeared to be all original and untouched, onto another exceptional 6538 selling for 492,500 USD (485,951 CHF) in December 2017, then most recently December 2018 resulting in a price of 567,000 USD (565,089 CHF). While the last result would seem exceptional and perhaps representing the top of the market, there is still clearly room for growth as, although the watch came with its original chronometer certificate, there was some slight dial degradation visible under a loupe, so there is still the opportunity for a reference 6538 to sell for more.

Perhaps the most surprising result was the watch offered by Christie’s New York in an online auction in October 2017. Missing its bezel insert and bracelet, but with its Swiss bureaux de contrôle officiel de la marche des montres certificate, and consigned by the family of the original owner with a low estimate of 150,000 USD, the apparently original crystal was heavily scratched, concealing a spectacular tropical dial. The watch would eventually sell for 324,500 USD (316194 CHF), and was reputedly quickly resold for considerable more once it had a correct insert, bracelet and new crystal fitted.

Much like the previous batch, there is a chance that another famous reference 6538 resides within this case number range. Sporting a red triangle insert with 15-minute markers, white centre seconds hand, and two lines of gold-coloured text on the bottom half of the dial, it is highly probably that legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager’s watch is from this batch.

A beautiful example of the fourth series reference 6538 with a dial that has turned “tropical” at the edges.

The Fourth Series

The final series for the reference 6538 appear to have been produced between the fourth quarter of 1958 with case numbers around 426’000, through to second quarter of 1959, with case numbers ranging from 448’800 to 449’300. The most apparent change made for this iteration is that the depth rating and the OCC text for certified models is applied in a strongly contrasting silver-coloured print, and the centre second hand for the majority of production is a new, smaller ‘lollipop’ style, but still painted white. The bezel originally fitted for the entire run would appear to be the version with red triangle and 15-minute markers.

It should be noted that the batch produced with case numbers around 426’000 could be considered transitional, as there are some pieces that have appeared in this range with the gold-coloured print of the previous series, so was perhaps leftover stock that was being used up. Another interesting feature of this series is that around 449’000, we see a few examples of dials that have naturally aged to a tropical brown colour, which provides a good chance to talk about how these dials were really handmade objects in many ways. How lacquer was applied, the mixture of the luminous material used, its application and how long it had been sitting out for, as well as the particular black paint used for the dial and many other factors all impacted the final appearance of the watch and the way that it aged. This is all in addition to how the watch lived its life in the intervening 60 years; whether it sat in a drawer for all its life or lived on the deck of a ship in the Caribbean all have an impact on the way the watch develops over time, and provides the character that makes vintage watches so interesting, each one unique in its own way.

HouseDateLocationCase No.Price CHF
Sotheby’sOctober 2007New York449'0XXCHF 100,430
Sotheby’sApril 2008New York449'170CHF 211,479
Christie’sMay 2011Geneva449'1XXCHF 105,000
Christie’sMay 2013Geneva449'170CHF 519,750
AntiquorumMay 2014Geneva449'0XXCHF 87,500
Christie’sMay 2016Geneva426'2XXCHF 37,500
PhillipsMay 2016Hong Kong426'4XXCHF 95,852
PhillipsNovember 2016Hong Kong426'4XXCHF 171,568
PhillipsNovember 2016Geneva449'170CHF 562,000
Sotheby’sSeptember 2018London448'9XXCHF 348,627
PhillipsMay 2019Hong Kong426'2XXCHF 771,330

The 11 results shown in the table above present a less clear picture than the figures presented for the previous series and were even more conflicting before watches that had luminous material that had been reapplied were removed from the data set. The overriding factor in the wildly varying prices is the vintage market’s favourite word: condition. Any reference 6538 that has made it to the 21st century is doing extremely well, as the vast majority of these watches were supplied to professional divers and went ‘missing in action’. From bracelets that failed, to crowns that were not screwed down before submersion, or other misadventures, the attrition rate for these instruments was extremely high and is a large contributing factor to their rarity, aside from the limited production runs. Add to that the fact that many led hard lives anyway, being banged against rocks or dropped onto the deck of a boat, and we can understand why so many have crazed dials, missing bezels, and heavily polished cases.

The “stainless steel” engraving that appears on some fourth series reference 6538 models is clearly visible here.

The one watch, whose case number remains in its entirety in the table, that requires further investigation is 449’170. Sold by all three of the top tier auction houses for watches, first Sotheby’s in April 2008 for 211,000 USD (211,479 CHF), then Christie’s in May 2013 for 519,750 CHF, and finally with Phillips in November 2016 for 562,000 CHF, it is notable and extremely distinctive thanks to a beautiful tropical dial and exceptional level of preservation. While it was clearly the first buyer who saw the most dramatic return, the increased level of interest in these glossy tropical ‘big crowns’ in recent years will no doubt mean that the buyer from Phillips has the potential to see a handsome return on their exit.

Another example of the fourth series reference 6538 showing its lustrous glossy finishing to the dial.

Rarities and Oddities

Having now covered all of the ‘common’ variations of the reference 6538, it’s time to take a look at the more obscure variants that have appeared in the market over the years.Perhaps the easiest place to start is with the retailer-signed dials that have surfaced. While there are rumours of other double name dials in existence, the one that has shown up at auction is that of Tiffany. The most unusual version was sold by Christie’s New York in December 2012 for 284,500 USD (265,543 CHF), an incredible result at the time, which removes all Rolex branding, including the coronet, to be replaced by ‘Tiffany & Co./Chronometer/Automatic’ at the top, and the depth rating on the lower half of the dial. How such a watch came to exist is a mystery, but we have seen a more traditionally Tiffany-signed dial at the legendary ‘Sport Times’ thematic auction dedicated to Rolex that took place with Sotheby’s Hong Kong in May 2002. Selling for 94,400 HKD (19,546 CHF) at the time, it is a fun thought exercise to consider what the watch might achieve, were it to return to market today.

Among the more unusual vintage Rolex watches to appear in the market, without the Rolex name on the dial and just that of the famed American jeweller, Tiffany & Co.

Next we go back to the beginning of reference 6538 production, and what has to be the rarest configuration of the model: the ‘Explorer’ dial with red depth rating, which we have already seen, but combined with the three magic words of ‘Officially Certified Chronometer’. Coming from the same batch with case number around 140’000 as the other examples with red depth rating, and the silver-triangle-no-dash bezel insert, if really shows how much Rolex and their dial supplier were playing around with the configuration of text and other elements that we see these situations of a batch within a batch within a batch. Related to this is an alternative design for the ‘Explorer’ dial that surfaces in the last series of reference 6538, which has the depth rating applied with the silvered-coloured print, but the same set of one watch that has surfaced at auction is too small to draw any firm conclusions.

The mythical, if sometimes controversial, A/6538, with so called “Burford” dial, which was refinished by the British Ministry of Defence.

Now is probably a good time to discuss the reference A6538, although it is something that warrants an article of its own at a later date. A special version of the Submariner that was produced for the Royal Navy and their clearance divers, it was originally destined to have its own reference number, 6540, which appears on the inside of the case back only to be crossed out and replaced with ‘A/6538’ plus a date code for the third quarter of 1957. Originally fitted with fixed bars and no case number engraving, instead having an issue number on the outside of the case back, the signature feature of these watches were the German silver bezel, that was larger and taller to make it easier to turn with dive gloves on and would become the prototype for the design used on the reference 5512 and 5513. While some of the dials were left in the standard red depth ‘Explorer’ configuration, a number were refinished by a supplier to the Ministry of Defence based in the town of Burford (that lends the watch their nickname), and while particularly unsightly to many due to their rather rustic qualities, are highly desired by vintage Rolex collectors.

We now address perhaps the most contentious version of the reference 6538, those with the ‘underline’ dial. These watches are distinguished by a small dash under the words ‘Oyster Perpetual’ and are reputed to be from a batch with dials that were specially produced without the highly radioactive radium luminous material, and instead used the safer (but still radioactive) tritium. ‘Underline’ dials are common across all Rolex models around 1963 as the manufacture transitioned from one substance to another, but as we can see, production of the reference 6538 finished in 1959, so whether these are dials that were originally fitted to watches, or represent early service replacements, is hotly debated among collectors, with the information at hand making it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

Final Thoughts

The reference 6538 is a wonderfully contained synopsis of what makes sports model Rolex watches so interesting, from their role as professional instruments in extremely testing conditions where timing really can be a matter of life or death, the famous faces that have sported these signature models in a wide array of circumstances, and to study how the design process evolved during such formative years for Bienne.

Beyond the historical context, these watches allow enthusiasts to gain an understanding of the variability of condition, how to trace, value and audit provenance, as well as the chance for individuals to try and understand what drives collectors emotionally in the current market to spend huge sums of money on old, stainless steel, time-only watches. There is no denying vintage Rolex is a complicated subject, and always something of a rabbit hole with an endless amount to learn, but that is all part of the fun.

SeriesCase Back DateInsertHandsSubmariner TextDepth Rating/OCCLacquer
FirstI.1956No hash, silvered triangleGilt, inc. big lollipop secondsGiltRed printNitrocellulose
SecondIII.1956No hash, silvered triangleGilt, inc. big lollipop secondsGold-coloured printGold-coloured printNitrocellulose
ThirdIII.1957 & I.1958No hash, silvered triangle or red triangle & red triangle 15-minute markersGilt, white big lollipop secondsGiltGold-coloured printAcrylic
FourthIV.1958 & II.1959Red triangle 15-minute markersGilt, white small lollipop secondsGiltSilver-coloured printAcrylic

The engraving on the clasp of the first series 6538 known as the “Sultan’s Promise”, as it was gifted to the original owner by the Sultan of Johor.