This watch is a contradiction — neither tool watch nor dress watch. Yet it continues in production after 50 years, holding a contentious and controversial position as top dog in the Submariner hierarchy.
Only the Submariner Date was made in 18K Gold, starting with the original reference 1680 in 1970. The humble no-date version never received the honor of a gold edition.
This fact has divided collectors of vintage Submariners. Purists shun the asymmetry of the date window and the magnifying cyclops, and this imbalance alone has turned many away from this heavy-hitter. Others will compromise and replace the standard crystal with a Tropic crystal (no cyclops magnifier). While the effect can be pleasing it renders the date unreadable to all but the best eyes.
To a small niche of arguably mad collectors, the gold Submariner holds a very special place in their collections. They argue that even at todays eye-watering valuations they still represent great value. Especially when compared to the equivalent stainless steel models. Even so, they are worn sparingly especially on the Oyster bracelet with many saying, 'the watch enters the room before the wearer'. It's certainly a statement piece and not for the feint of heart.
Beauty and rarity aside, the gold Sub will always have a price floor under pinned by the market price of gold. A market collapse like that of the Bubblebacks (1990's) is a legitimate concern at todays overheated valuations. Particularly in the stainless steel sports versions. These mundane, plebeian versions are now commanding prices equivalent to their patrician, solid gold counterparts. Many collectors point to this as evidence of a market imbalance and irrational exuberance.
With valuations creeping ever higher, the rewards for modern counterfeiters are very attractive. They can fund R&D to produce replicas so accurate and precise they challenge even professionals at the RSCs. As this phenomena grows the stability of the secondary market becomes ever more precarious. To protect themselves, collectors must become familiar with countless nuanced details. This article aims to help you along that journey.
A very rare Tiffany dial on a reference 16808, adding fuel to the claims this watch is a jewelry piece rather than a mens sports watch. Hint: For a closer look at this picture and others, right click the image and select Open image in new tab.
Let's Talk Gold Content
Made of 18 karat gold, these Submariners are 75% pure gold. The remaining 25% is a combination of silver, copper, platinum or palladium (depending on the reference). These additional precious metals were added to form a tougher, more durable gold alloy and the exact composition of the gold alloy has evolved over the half century. Today Rolex operates its own foundry and invests heavily in developing proprietary alloys.
The early vintage Submariner cases (4 and 5-digit references) were made by partners like Genex SA, the case-making department of Gay Frères, the famed bracelet maker. Winding crowns were made by Boninchi and both case and crown would have been hand-finished by Virex et Joli Poli. These companies were acquired in the late 1990's while Patrick Heiniger was at the helm of Rolex.
The exact weight of a gold Submariner varies slightly between references, as dimensions and design details evolved. The gold components include the Oyster mid-case, caseback, winding crown, bezel ring, hands, dial markers, spring bars, bracelet and clasp. The weight of these parts is approximately 185 grams.
So, 185 grams x 75% = 138.75 grams of pure gold.
At the time of writing, the spot price of gold is about US$57 per gram.
So an estimated gold value of 138.75 grams x $57 = $7908.75.
Reference 116618LN (Lunette Noir), discontinued but still thoroughly modern. Maxi-style dial and case, Cerachrom ceramic bezel, Chromalight, engraved rehaut, and a slightly wider minute hand. And that's just what you can see from the outside!
How many models to choose from?
Each of the yellow gold variants were available in a black or blue dial and bezel combination. So, 4 references x 2 color combinations, plus the "Smurf" in white gold, gives us 9 models to choose from.
|1680/8||1969 - 1981||1575, 3035||Nipple dials, acrylic crystals, tritium lume, strong serif fonts, open sixes, hacking movement|
|16808||1977 - 1987||3085||Transitional reference, ending with gold surrounds,sapphire crystals, luminova lume, quickset date.|
|16618||1987 - 2010||3135||Super Luminova and new movement|
|116618||2010 - Present||3135||Cerachrom bezel, maxi dial and case, wider minute hand and Chromalight lume|
|116619||2010 - Present||3135||"The Smurf", white gold, blue dial.|
So how old is Vintage?
There are no hard and fast rules but collectors generally consider only the 1680/8 to be truly vintage. The 1680/8 is 40-50 years old and has a movement that has long been retired. It's the only reference with an acrylic crystal, a slow-set date, and a friction-fit bezel (does not click). For vintage enthusiasts, this is the pinnacle or apex Submariner for being first and unique amongst the gold Subs.
The 16808 is 30-40 years old and while this is indeed pretty old, it has contemporary characteristics like the quick-set date, a sapphire crystal, and a unidirectional clicking bezel. This reference is not considered vintage but is well on its way and is often referred to as being neo-classic or modern-classic. This is the first of the five-digit references and is highly collectable.
The 16618 is also considered a modern-classic. It is the last of the five-digit references and the last to have classic characteristics like tritium lume and a steel bezel insert. Collectors prize the last model of anything, not just watches. For this reason alone this reference is significant and highly collectable.
The six-digit references are thoroughly modern and quite sophisticated by standards of the 1970's when it all began. These are favored amongst newer collectors and remain highly prized; as is any discontinued Submariner. Or any Submariner at all for that matter!
Rare and Illusive
While nine models may seem to offer a lot of choice, they represent less than half the 19 Submariner Date models. Serial number scholars suggest less than one in ten were made in solid gold.
This may be urban legend but seems reasonable given the number offered for sale on the secondary market, compared to stainless steel and two-tone equivalents.
Source: The Vintage Rolex Field Manual
Reference 1680/8 from 1977
A very typical matte black nipple dial in a well worn, unpolished case.
Above: Early meters-first, matte black dial with heavy-serif text.
Below: Later feet-first, tropical (faded) blue dial with open sixes.
The most sought after versions among aficionados are the vintage references featuring the now discontinued nipple dial. These are found in the first 1680/8 (1969 to 1979) and the subsequent 16808.
Nipple dials were offered in either matte black or a sunburst blue. The blue is more sought after and can command a price premium of over $US 10,000
The blue dial is prone to uneven corrosion of the both the surface clear coat lacquer, and the blue pigment. The blue can be seen to fade and corrode to shades of purple, green, brown and even bright orange. Finding original blue dials in good condition is difficult and many have been replaced with later service dials. The matte black dial has aged better and can be found in better original condition.
The earliest dials of the original 1680/8 had depth ratings printed for the European markets in metric measures first. These meters-first dials read, “200m = 660ft”. These are rare and highly prized. As production expanded and became available in N. America imperial measures were used. These are marked “660ft = 200m”.
The 1680 dials feature characteristic typographic cues in the specification text on the lower portion of the dial. These include the “open six” and accentuated font serifs. The capital “S” of Submariner is somewhat more angular, resembling a capital “Z”. These were dropped after the transition through the following reference 16808.
The early 16808 will have the 1680-style dial, but the later serial numbers had a more modern dial style of the 16618 with closed sixes and non-serif specification text. The 16808 is also noted for the enhanced movement introducing the quick-set date. The most obvious visual difference between the late 1680/8 and early 16808 is the sapphire crystal.
Many vintage enthusiasts prefer the acrylic plexi crystal over the sapphire for its 'warmth'. The difference is obvious when compared side by side but is less apparent from photos. Acrylic crystals are prone to scratches and scuffs. These are easily polished out and something you can do at home. Sapphire crystals are scratch resistant but prone to chipping and these marks are not repairable. Both kinds can crack but while the sapphire is harder, a crack is more likely to shatter catastrophically. It is common practice for sellers to shine-up an acrylic crystal to prep it for sale.
The Famed Blue Dials
The original blue nipple dial (not the rare meters-first). Key characteristics are the depth rating '660ft = 200m', and the 'T-SWISS-T' marking in the minute track.
Note the position of the dial feet, which are positioned for the caliber 1575.
This is an early version of the 16808 dial. Key characteristics are the increased depth rating '1000ft = 300m' and the revised 'SWISS-T<25' in the minute track.
Note the position of the dial feet, which are positioned to fit caliber 3035.
This dial may also been seen on late serial numbers of the 16808. Key characteristics are the modern hour markers with gold surrounds. This is the last of the Tritium dials.
The feet are positioned to fit caliber 3135 and 3035.
1680/8 blue, meters-first dial faded to turquoise. Distressed dial with a servcie
Source: Quality Diamonds (C24)
1680/8 blue dial faded to deep bronze. The most desirable of the brown
1680/8 blue dial faded to deep brown.
Source: M & B Watches, Texas USA.
Original Gilt Dials
The primary indicator of a service dial (beyond condition) is the “T SWISS T” marking below the six o’clock hour marker.
On original dials the letter “I” either aligns perfectly, or is integrated with the 30 second marker on the minute track. If it is offset or noticeably separate from the 30 second marker, it is likely a later, or service dial. With the arrival of the 16808, this marking changed to "SWISS - T<25"
Dials are not interchangeable between references without removing the 'dial feet'. These prongs extend from the rear of the dial and insert into holes in the movement. The position of these prongs and holes are movement specific. A watchmaker can remove dial feet and hold a dial in position with sticky 'dial dots'. If you discover these, you have a franken Sub.
SWISS - T<25 Dials
"SWISS" is considered early tritium. "SWISS - T<25" is considered late tritium . The exact dates for these are not clear and a little controversial when it comes to the 1680/8.
All that we can say is that they overlapped and both are acceptable for the 1680/8. Though it's fair to say, the "T<25" style is rare, and may well be a later service style used during the transition to the 16808.
Authentic Service Dials
Authentic service dials for 1680/8's and later references are available from vintage parts specialists and auction sites.
Image Source: Ebay seller firstclassdials
Be sure to verify the position of dial feet match that needed for your caliber. In this example, cal 1575. NOS service parts in original packaging can command a hefty premium.
Service dials most commonly have this later subtext with the "I" not fully integrated in the 30 second marker. These may reduce the value of a vintage Sub but collectors consider these perfectly acceptable. Casual collectors should focus on the overall condition and aesthetic, rather than originality.
The Truth About Tropical Patina
It is true that some signs of age add character to a gold watch but be wary of descriptions used by sellers. What is considered desirable, attractive patina in a steel Submariner, does not translate well to a high-end sold gold Submariner. A heavily distressed gold Sub looks tatty, where equivalent patina on a stainless steel Sub can look cool.
While unpolished gold Subs are desirable, it is not so egregious to polish one provided the work is of a high standard. The line between good and bad can be thin, but the goal is to maintain as much presence (and menace) as it originally had.
Use of the term tropical is especially common with blue dials. Use of the word patina is more commonly used to describe the condition of tritium lume and therefore associated with later dials featuring more tritium lume. Both terms are euphemisms for corrosion, which we should remember is a constant ongoing process. And like rust, will continue unless treated. Corrosion that may be minor (or attractive) today, could be catastrophically ugly in a few years.
Corrosion is a natural phenomena and should not be confused with damage. Unscrupulous sellers may try to conflate the two. Attractive corrosion like the Tropical Dials above can command a price premium based on their aesthetic. Damage never does anything good for long term value.
If you are considering a Tropical dial, aim for overall evenness, uniformity and consistency. Never pay a premium for a damaged dial caused by mishandling. Unless the rest of the watch is compelling (very attractively priced) move on.
This original but tropical dial could one day evolve to become very attractive. How quickly is anybody's guess. If the uneven asymmetry appeals to you that's great but reselling a gold Sub with this dial in the current state, will be challenging.
It has the potential to be highly desirable one day but in the current state is marginal.
This service dial is an attractive color but the ugly damage is not naturally occurring. This is a result of mishandling, probably from being stored loose with other items like the hands.
This is not a valuable dial. A gold Sub with this, will deserve a replacement dial.
This example appears to be a low quality restoration attempt. The original text is obscured, blue paint appears to have been applied, and the tritium markers are badly mismatched.
This is a terrible dial and to be avoided.
Above: 1680/8 domed caseback. This one has been polished and shows no sign of the original concentric rings. And it wears a sticker.
Below: A later stepped-shaped caseback with satin and polished finish.
Casebacks are a standard size and interchangeable between the early models. The exterior of the 1680/8 originally featured a finish of tight concentric circles, giving a uniform matte appearance. With wear these can get polished off leaving a buffed polished appearance. Unlike the GMT caseback, these have a uniform domed shape (rather than stepped). From the 16808 the appearance changed to look more like that of the GMT Master, with contrasting satin and high polish finishes.
Removing the caseback is relatively simple with the correct caseback tool. Provided you're careful not to scratch the gold, it is not a dangerous or risky procedure. The inside of the caseback can reveal useful details to authenticate and verify the watch. It is not unreasonable to ask a seller to open the watch and show the caseback markings.
The Rolex stamp marks have changed over the years but gold hallmarks should always be clear. You may observe other marks left by watchmakers after servicing. These are positive signs rather than damage or vandalism.
This will have a domed profile and older style assay mark. Note the watchmakers marks at 9 o'clock.
This can have either a domed (early) or stepped (later) profile. Note the watchmakers marks at 12 o'clock.
This would have a pronounced stepped profile. Lack of watchmaker marks support claims of never serviced.
While bezel inserts may seem a small thing, they are an integral part of the overall design and strongly influence valuation. Loose bezels in good condition sell for several thousand dollars. Replacing an incorrect, damaged, or fake bezel can be a time consuming and expensive project. Particularly on early references. Bezel color combinations are black-gold, blue-gold, blue-silver, and black-silver on the very earliest 1680's with the meters-first dials.
It is not uncommon to find a blue-silver bezel insert from a Tudor Snowflake Submariner in place of a blue-silver 1680/8 insert. Or a faded black-silver 1680 insert paired with an early 1680/8 meters-first. While purists may argue this is unacceptable, the cosmetic affect can be sympathetic and charming. While it's up to the buyer to decide how much emphasis to put on this small aluminum ring, the details can quickly become deeply technical and overwhelming. Just focus on authenticity and cosmetic consistency with the dial.
Gold 1680/8 Submariner
An early blue-silver insert with missing lume pip.
Steel 1680 Submariner
A black-silver insert that has faded to blue-silver
Tudor Snowflake Submariner
An original blue-silver insert
Which does this belong to?
For sale on C24 claiming to be for a 1680/8
For a forensic-level discussion of bezels inserts consult this post from Xeramic. At the time of writing it is the most detailed and comprehensive analysis on the internet
Missing bezel pearls (pips) can be easily replaced and after market pearls can be found cheaply. The main thing is to find one that is a consistent color that complements the dial hour markets i.e. not too new looking. Bezel pearls on 1680/8 Submariners did not have a gold ring like this example below, though this would not be incorrect for a transitional nipple dial 16808 and would be appropriate for 16618 and later.
Replacement Bezel Pearl Front
An after market bezel pearl with a gold ring. Not tritium. This would be correct for later references, 16808, 16618. The earlier 1680 pearl did not have a gold ring.
Source: Ebay seller wholesaleoutlet990
Replacement Bezel Pearl Rear
The correct replacement pearl will snap into the correct bezel insert and should not require adhesive. Installation is straight forward but parts are small and requires magnification and a steady hand.
This tritium pearl color matches the dial and has a gold ring. Note the saphire crystal and crown gasket.
Source: Philip Ridley
Despite the Oyster case crown guards, the gold winding crown is prone to dents and wear. They're often polished (sometimes badly) during a service. Crowns and crown tubes are considered consumable components and were designed to be replaced. Authentic service replacements can be found but you're advised to search Ebay to get a sense for what they're going for, before asking your watchmaker to source one.
The earliest 1680/8's had the Twinlock crown but from about 1972, the Triplock was introduced. Initially they did not come with the visible external O-ring but these were often fitted at service.
Gold Twinlock Crown
Gold Triplock Crown
Triplock Cross Section
A typical and well worn 7mm gold crown of a 1680/8.
Exterior Crown Gasket
Black rubber gasket of later Triplocks or installed at service. This example is very sharp and crisp compared to the crown guards.
11618 Service Crown
Original blister package with part number 204-703-8
Source: Ebay seller jjjw2838watches
11618 Service Crown
7mm solid gold with Triplock markings.
Source: Ebay seller jjjw2838watches
11618 Service Crown Tube
P/N 204-703-8 includes a crown tube which can also be found under its own P/N.
Source: Ebay seller jjjw2838watches
Reference 16618, last of the tritium dials. Note the very precise alignment of the 'SWISS - T<25' with the minute track. Also gold hour marker surrounds and the matching gold bezel pip are cosmetically complimentary.
Oyster Case Hallmarks
Hallmarks should be present on all Rolex made of precious metals. They appear on mid-cases (underside of lugs), casebacks, bracelets, and clasp blades. The absence of hallmarks indicates gold cap, gold fill or gold plate. Mismatched hallmarks suggest a Frankenwatch assembled from various parts.
Hallmarks are defined by an official Swiss government assay office and applied under license by the manufacturer (Rolex or Genex). There are seven assay offices in Switzerland and Rolex uses the Geneva office exclusively. The symbol for the Geneva assay office is a capital G, which will form part of a larger hallmark.
A Swiss assay hallmark is exceptionally detailed, which makes it very difficult to copy. It must be consistent and flawless with each stamping. The assay office controls the quality and if not perfect, the item will be scrapped and cannot be sold. The crispness and detail of a hallmark are essential in establishing authenticity.
Solid 18K (750) gold Submariners will have the Helvetia Bust (lady’s head) with a capital “G” below her neck
Current Swiss law (post-1995) has reduced the number of hallmarks to a single mark, the head of a St. Bernard dog. The Office of Precious Metal Control refers to this St. Bernard dog as “Barry”. It appears near the Maker’s Responsibility Mark and their indication of purity
Rolex watches imported into other countries are subject to local assay or customs office inspection and may carry hallmarks in addition to the Swiss ones. For example, watches imported for sale into France and England would have additional, but different hallmarks.
Manufacturers 18K gold purity mark.
Helvetia mark from Swiss Assay Office, Geneva.
Assay gold purity. The number "750" between a set of scales.
Optional importing country customs assay mark. "C" indicating South America.
Movements & Calibers
The caliber 1576 (1965–1974) has become one of the most highly regarded Rolex movements and is a feature of some of the most desirable vintage Submariner references. A date function was added to become the 1575. These appear in the early 1680's.
The caliber 3035 (1977–Present) was the first to be fitted with a quickset date wheel, making its debut in a Datejust. These appear in the transitional 16808's. Time is set by turning the crown counter clockwise.
The caliber 3135 arrived in 1988 as a modest engineering evolution of the 3035. Apart from a few deep-technical updates the main marketable changes were an increased power reserve (50hrs). The time is set by turning the crown clockwise.
Source: The Vintage Rolex Field Guide
Modern classic watches with sapphire crystals used the caliber 3035 and 3135 throughout the 1990s.
The cal. 3135 has been used more broadly in more references than any other movement. It is highly finished compared to its predecessors and quite large at 28.5mm diameter and 6mm height. It also has a high frequency (28.8 Hz) and jewel count (31), making it consistently accurate.
Industry observers and commentators consider cal. 3135 one of the most commercially successful and highest-performing calibers produced by Rolex.
Caliber 1575, but not in a Submariner
Caliber 3035, in a 16808
Caliber 3135, de-cased.
Accessories & Ephemera
Inner and outer boxes, warranty paper and holder, Submariner brochure and translation booklet.Source: Bulang & Sons
A discussion of the accessories that accompany the gold Submariner warrants their own book and the cursory description here does not do justice to the topic. Accessories were assembled by the dealer at the point of sale and there was considerable variation between dealers and sales territories over the years. It wasn't until the 21st Century that things became more standardized. So when looking at a vintage gold Submariner there is no exactly correct combination of accessories. It depended on what the dealer had on hand at the time and whether references were transitioning.
The right accessories can command a considerable premium on the value of a gold Sub, and are aggressively counterfeited, even for vintage examples. The full set typically includes,
- Inner and outer boxes
- Warranty papers
- Wallets & holders
- Various Booklets & Cards
- Hang Tags
- A gold anchor
An import thing to remember about booklets, brochures, and pamphlets, is that they are printed with a printing press and ink (offset printing) which requires large industrial scale equipment. This is beyond the reach of most counterfeiters who use cheaper photocopiers and digital printing. The difference in print quality is obvious under the magnification of a loupe.
The most obvious difference is in the vibrance of the color. The secondary indicators are signs of pixelation or 'compression artifacts' (blurring). The effect is most apparent in printed text. It is important not to confuse dotted pixelation with the textured backgrounds which are printed as small dots. Take your time and examine booklets carefully with a 20x loupe in good natural light.
The most striking accessory to accompany the gold Submariner is the gold anchor trinket. It is unclear whether these were gold plated or simply painted. Or whether they transitioned from gold paint to gold plate. It's not beyond a counterfeiter to spray paint a silver anchor to complete a collectors set. If you're curious to test, know that gold plate turns black when exposed to vinegar.
Gold anchors accompanied the 1680/8, 16808, and early 16618. They were stopped around year 2000. The early gold anchors for the 1680/8 came on a gold twine (string). At some point this was replaced with a gold colored chain and a pocket lapel hook. This chain and hook became standard on the 16808 and later.
Early 1680/8 Anchor
Note the 660 ft depth rating and the chipped paint.Source: C24, Rich-People-Toys.
Rare Copper Anchor
Acknowledged to be authentic but otherwise not much known about this rare curiosity.Source: Ebay, texasfinetime
16808 & 16618 Anchor
Note the 1000 ft depth rating.Source: Ebay, antiqueaddiction
Now on a gold chain with lapel hook.Source: Ebay, starrgirl555.
Offset Print versus Photocopy Print
Can you detect the photocopied version?
Hint: Right click and "Open Image In New Tab" to get a better look.
Pictures inside feature the 1680/8 and a gold anchor.
Pictures inside feature the transitional 16808 with nipple dials.
Pictures inside feature the 16618.
A gold Submariner will come with both a red COSC hang tag and a green dealers tag, on which they would have noted a price and stock or serial number.
The design of both types of tag evolved over the decades. This pair is from the early 1980's
Earliest COSC tags would come on a burgundy and gold twine and would have a marbled, waxy appearance. These may appear on the earliest 1680's only.
Later COSC tags adopted a laser hologram in the 1980's. There are two known types of hologram image. These are the same era as the green "Swimpruf" dealer tag.
There are several variations of the green dealers tag. This one is known as the "Big Crown" and used in the 1970's before the "Swimpruf" style.
The term ephemera refers to other Rolex items. These are popular items to collect and to match with a watch. They are a good reflection of the spirit of the era. Print advertisements are a good example, along with brochures and dealers window dressing props.
Interestingly, very few examples exist of print advertisements for the solid gold Submariner. Especially for the original 1680/8 in the 1970's. It is much more common in this period to see print ads for the solid gold GMT-Master as this was a golden era of commercial jet aviation with the Boeing 747 and Concord.
Rolex appear to have done only minimal advertising for the original 1680/0. This reinforces the notion that production and sales volume was low compared to the gold GMT-Master. Hence the gold Sub is rarer and commands a higher price than the equivalent gold GMT-Master.