as promised , sorry for delay , and to wait until i was on holiday with half decent internet connection to have another go at taming photo.bucket.
The Early British Military Rolex Submariner
I have been lucky enough to own quite a few British Military Rolex, and over the years spoken directly with dozens of ex clearance divers , helicopter pilots, quartermasters and even a few of the very guarded special forces members and whilst I know quite a lot about them , like most other collectors I know, consider myself to still be learning about them every single day , these are not cold hard facts …like almost everything in our hobby of vintage Rolex, anyone who thinks they are dealing in absolute fact is deluding themselves, there are no fast rules ….only educated summation and we add more bits of information every few years.
Here we are discussing the very early Rolex military submariners from the 1950’s and early 1960’s issued through the hydrographic service and early clearance divers of the Rpyal Navy, , these pre date the later issued Omega Seamaster 300 and Rolex ‘Milsub’ model 5513/7 derivative. ….if you want to find fault with it, and see conspiracy theories at every turn , I am sure you can if you are bloody minded enough , but generally I find that if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and acts like a duck ……………its a duck.
It is important to note in writing that this is but a summary of where I believe our knowledge as a collective group stands today in 2017. Like almost every aspect of our hobby, in the absence of definitive information from Rolex themselves,. is a collective consensus of the information we have pieced together over the last 20 years plus
Thanks go out to the following people whose efforts over the years have added to our knowledge ;
Much of what we know about these watches stems from the hours and hours of conversations held with original owners from the armed forces, long serving members of staff in the Rolex watch company UK and specialist watchmakers formerly of the MOD Hurstmonceux Chronometer division, who for several decades had the responsibility of maintaining the watches - to all of these people our thanks goes out. Its important to note that many of the owners of these watches have had them for many, many years and conducted this research 15+ years ago in a much less ‘high value ’or money driven era , where information was exchanged freely, without prejudice nor agenda, and when many of the older guys ‘there on the day’ were still active in the watch industry.
My most important thanks must go out to the one and only Mr Henry Hudson , formerly of Rolex UK, an individual who as a junior in the Rolex watch company headed out on to rainy motorways to hand deliver watches to many of the Military bases the length and breadth of the UK and who even though he ended up running the place, managed put up with us very annoying and obsessive collectors and who managed to retain an interest , and spread a wealth of information in these watches that he was gracious enough to share right the way up to his well earned retirement from the company in 2011/2
A British Military Rolex is one that was OWNED by (purchased by or given to) the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) and was supplied free of charge to its employees , predominantly members of the armed forces, for use in their assigned roles.
It is important to note that there were also many, many, watches which were ‘personal purchase’ and were used by members of the UK armed services across the globe but these whilst many having exciting and colorful histories these are NOT considered military submariners in this current context.
6538 Big Crown Submariner …the First ……..
Somewhere early in the life of the new diving model ‘’Submariner’’ someone inside the Rolex Watch Company saw the chance to place some of its recently introduced and refined ‘Submariner’ watches inside one of the best freely available testing grounds for its product, the British Royal Navy. This clever placement would lead on to several good marketing opportunities but more importantly real world extreme feedback on how the watches performed, and this feedback would help hone the design of one of the most iconic timepieces of the 20th century, a model that is still going strong today and is right up there with the profile of the Coca Cola bottle and the shape of the Porsche 911, the Rolex Submariner.
In 1954/5 it is ‘estimated’ using the serial number we know of,, that as many as 50 pieces of model 6538 were supplied to the Royal Navy Stores for onward supply to the Hydrographic service division (HS.10) for use in the field , and in effect, field trial evaluation and testing.
The watches supplied were in exactly the same specification as the equivalent civilian model available from the high street, except that upon delivery to Navy stores the watch back was engraved, as with most military equipment , with a stores number and a unique identifier number in the form of the mid case serial number being repeated on the outside of the back as the stores number . As you can imagine, that makes it very difficult to spot a 6538 military submariner , a bit of polishing to the back and in effect it is civilian again !!
The Navy used these watches for the next 3-4 years in active service and fed back to Rolex its findings. We can deduce and anecdotally support the conclusions that must have been reached. The watch it seems was well received and was felt to perform admirably with a couple of possible improvements identified.
The first and most significant problem to address was the design of the coin edge bezel as used on the 6538. For anyone who has ever owned or examined one of these watches, be it a big or small crown, the issue will be apparent, it is actually quite difficult to turn and set even when fresh from service in a dry office, once it has the slightest amount of real world detritus inside it, even when doing it in a well lit room, with dry bare hands it is difficult , but with gloved , wet hands and in poor light as most divers would find themselves on the boat , or even in the water, a diver would have no chance of rotating the bezel to set decompression times, remember this was not for weekend scuba divers in warm water out for a daylight dive.
The second issue that seemed to arise was the reliance on the standard spring bars to strap the watch, which unsupported by end links must have proven a point of weakness, as the next design for the military swapped to the more robust fixed bar design , even if it was quite crude application that was done by the MOD themselves.
To date I know of possibly 3-4 examples of these watches that have surfaced in various states of repair, and it must be assumed these were pieces that possibly escaped some of the later upgrades described below.
A/6538 – The Missing link in Submariner evolution
Around the beginning of 1958 it is believed that the MOD first received a prototype replacement case and bezel assembly from Rolex to ‘upgrade’ the previously supplied 6538 model and address the issue of the bezel being difficult to turn .
The dial, hands and movements from the original model 6538 watches were fitted into the new A6538 case, which featured a new bezel profile, and a slight change in case profile to accommodate the new bezel. The known A/6538 pieces ,all share closely numbered movements from 1955, which is one of the factors to check for when looking for authenticity.
As the new cases were special production for a prototype purpose they were not assigned serial numbers between the lugs, only the unique model reference of A/6538 between the lugs on one side.
On supply to the Navy stores system it would have been impossible for the quartermaster to number the watches in the same way as previously done on the 6538 - as the watches had no serial number !!, so instead the A/6538’s were numbered on the back using the serial number of the individual 6538 watch it replaced and that standard 6538 case decommissioned and taken out of service. If you research the serial number on the back of an A/6538 against the records held at Rolex , it relates back to that original 6538.
The good looking but hard to use coin edge bezel was replaced by a larger, easier to grip serrated bezel design, one that we are all now familiar with. The bezel is a bespoke design created to solve a specific problem and was hand made in a small batch of casting using what is believed to be German silvered nickel, designed to overhang the case sides to give grip. Logically though, the overhanging design ran into a problem of how to clear the enlarged (and also designed to be easy to use) large winding 8mm crown ...the designers took care of it and both tapered the bezel in below the serrated edge and elevated the height of the bezel using a special higher glass retaining ring profile , a nifty bit of thinking.
The A/6538 takes a tropic 19 glass rather than a tropic 17 on the standard case, and the bezel therefore is the same inner diameter as a 1680/5512/5513 or even 1665, and often the 1665 bezel is used to restore a missing bezel on a A/6538, however this will always leave a gap between case and underside of the bezel as the thickness is different.. When comparing the manufacture of a stainless bezel from general production, both the different composition, weight and hand made nature of the German silvered nickel bezel is obvious
The second issue identified in the real world was the weakness of relying on spring bars when used with a canvas divers strap, this was addressed by the fitting of the solid fixed case bars which formed an incredibly strong fixing point for the commonly used continuous loop divers straps , this allowed the watch to be worn normally on the wrist or elongated to fit over a wetsuit without the need to change the strap..
One of the first things people notice when looking at the A/6538 is the crossed out reference to a model 6540 inside the case back, there are many speculations on this but the common feeling is that this was the next refinement model Rolex had intended to release at and ‘’borrowed’’ the back from these watches to complete the A/6538 before abandoning the 6540 idea, (possibly after receiving the feedback from the Navy divers of what needed to be looked at ) , as we would see in also the 6242 and the Tudor. 7528.
The majority of A/6538 would have been originally fitted in 1958 with a gilt gloss dial , most likely though not exclusively , as with the civilian model, in a 369 quarter Arabic design with red depth rating as seen below
This simple but effective new design principal and bezel of the A/6538 seem to have been met with approval and in 1959 Rolex introduced the model 5512 into its general catalogue featuring an overhanging serrated edge bezel constructed on masse from stainless steel , although the design was refined further by reducing the size of the winding crown to allow the bezel to sit lower and remove the need for the unique high glass retaining ring used on the A6538, and by introducing crown guards to protect the smaller crown.
At the start of the 1960s the MOD augmented its supply of watches by securing two further batches of the recently introduced model 5512, one circa 1960 , one 1961 , as it now featured most of the design elements it had already helped develop , these watches again differed very little from the civilian model except that they were again fitted with fixed case bars when received by the MOD watchmakers and carried a stores code on the rear, again using the system of taking the serial number from between the lugs and using it to provide an external unique identifying code for the individual piece.
The 5512 models supplied were initially fitted with gilt gloss standard dials appropriate to the serial number of the batch they were supplied from, such as the Singer dials from 1961.
When talking about the early watches the biggest conversation always turns to the so called ‘Burford’ dial. And how it came about.
WE know that at the start of the end of the 1950’s s the world was starting to realize that radium, the radioactive material used in the manufacturing of luminous material, and applied to both dials and hands across the watch and clock industry, could have long term health implications to anyone exposed to it either in high does or for a prolonged period of time.
Much legislation was written in different global territories, outlawing or restricting the use of radium, and somewhere around 1962/3 the Navy stores must have decided to address the issue on its issued equipment. The A/6538’s and the 5512 issued watches were in the most part re-called and stripped of the their dials, hands and even bezel inserts, for a makeover.
It is important to note that several rare and highly coveted A/6538 examples ‘escaped’ the recall and remain in tact with their gilt gloss red depth dials and these are highly highly coveted.
The original gilt dials appear to have stripped of their radium in controlled conditions and were either sent out to the Burford company,, or were re-printed in house by the MOD using a dial tampon made by the Burford company , a subcontractor company that manufactured both cockpit and ships instrument dials for the MOD.
Remembering that this was done by engineers, not watch enthusiast obsessed with detail, the Burford company reprinted (over the now stripped of luminous dials) a ‘’similar’ dial and they were re-luminised using the safer tritium material.
The dial retains the same general principal quarter Arabic layout, an interpretation of the Rolex markings and logo, and now importantly a circle T symbol to denote that the watch was luminised by using the much safer tritium material. This is of course not an operation carried out by Rolex themselves , but it is however OVER a genuine dial , and performed by the MOD/Navy . Much like a classic car that has had a re-spray colour change, some don’t settle well with the idea, some love it as part of the story … each individual collector must decide how they interpret it, but of course a Burford dial watch will never be the same as an unmodified red depth dial….but beauty remains in the eye of the beholder.
For many years it was wondered if the Burford dial were total replacement dials manufactured from scratch or reprinted over the original, and of course looking at it at first glance this allowed a lot of room for naysayers to condemn the dial as fake. A photo that surfaced some years ago of a water damaged dial gave us the first clue when you could make out the presence of the original gilt layout and put some of these concerns to bed.
HOW could there be doubt if underneath the Burford dial lay a genuine Rolex gilt dial ……I am pretty sure no one has been running around the world taking hugely coveted loose big crown dials and over printng them with a Burford style dial and reducing the value of the dial by 80%.
A few years ago I began attempting to see if this theory held true, and bought some dials as they came up , my first attempt used to harsh a chemical, my second probably the right amount but for too long …but my third attempt last year went rather well.… If you strip the top layer of paint off a genuine Burford dial you can, if lucky, reveal a pleasant surprise underneath, be warned …success rate about 1 in 3 !!!!
Most likely at around the time of this recall , the MOD also began updating the stores numbering system to the new NATO standard system and the A6538 watches that previously carried H.S.10 ( hydrographic service ) stores identifiers were polished out and re engraved over with the now familiar 0552 Naval stores code. You can on some examples faintly make out the previous HS10 engraving underneath the 0552 engraving which again is another good little tell for authenticity. Though nit seems the HS.10 division in the far east was maybe a little too far from home and it seems several of the examples that track back to there retain their hs.10 markings.
To date there are approximately 12-14 A/6538 known of , 4 complete examples with Red depth gilt dials, 5 complete examples with Burford dials, and 4-6 examples not complete or fairly heavily restored. MOST examples reside with long term owners who have had them in their collections for many years, and who like myself prize them highly.
Back in 2010 /11 a box of spare dials appeared in the market with a UK dealer.: It seem that in the early 1970’s Rolex supplied to the MOD its second interpretation of a service dial for 653, the matte dialed white print service dial, also using tritium and badged with the new Swiss <25t identification and therefore by default a dial that could fit the A/6538 and possibly the MOD crudely also applied a circle t to this dial…it is important to note however that as YET an original owner watch has NEVER to date been unearthed fitted with this dial, and that all other watches found have had only the Burford dial fitted or retained their original gilt dial ,it is felt that these dials were probably never used on the A/6538 and arrived too late to be put to good use.. Interestingly the box of services dials that surfaced a few years ago carried a label for circa 55 pieces of dial, which would tie into the rough number of watches though to have existed and is probably the most useful bit of information to come from the find. The box which was claimed to have come from MOD disposal was seen to contain 3-4 loose Burford dials, most likely dials taken from damaged or decommissioned watches. I guess 3 of them I have removed from circulation !!
Personally , I am very fond of these watches , and was for a long time before I actually became lucky enough to own one , the first one I saw belonged to Rick Odder , and back in early 2000 in the early days of forums it was something that caught my eye and imagination , it was, and remains a hard watch to learn about , which is I guess part of the fun.
Luckily in the early 2000’s Mr Hudson was still happy to receive guest in his office and discuss face to face watches like this, there are several owners who have been fortunate enough to have the conversation, and even a few correspondence documented about their existence. These days Rolex neither have the personnel or the interest and expertise to be involved.
Writing such articles generally goes against the grain a little bit for some of us military collectors, and there is a very fine line between sharing information and giving a head start to a faker , so of course forgive me if there are a few details that are held back,.
For anyone who thinks being a military diver is anything like being a recreational diver and would like a sense of the conditions that military divers were using their watches in, I can highly recommend a couple of good reads ;
Diver by Toney Groom
First into action by Duncan Faulkner