Say you walk into a watch shop in 1967 dead set on buying a Rolex. The one you fancy is the dive watch, the one that's casual with the black bezel, simple black dial with no date, and that steel bracelet. Leather straps are so '50s. You spot the watch, it's called the Submariner, and you ask how much it costs. "$225," you hear from the salesperson – no small sum but also not bank account shattering. So you pull the trigger. You don't necessarily know it on this day, but you've just emerged from the store with a ref. 5513, two-line Submariner – a watch that will not only outlive you, but will also serve to be as much a wrist companion as it is a legitimate appreciating investment piece.
We all know that watches have become a currency of their own over the last decade or so, going from objects of fascination or collection to those of trade. For much of the 2010s, steel Rolex got you a better return than the literal stock market. But that wasn't part of the calculus in the 1960s. In fact, it took the better part of four decades for those original steel sport models like the early Submariners to reach their investment potential.
In the early aughts, it was basically only vintage watches – in this case, vintage Rolex – which represented value. They were the sorts of pieces that made you kick yourself for not buying a whole store's worth of Daytonas in the '60s and '70s so you could cash in in 2014. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but surely we'd all get in that time machine.
What's interesting to examine is the last four decades or so, and how the Submariner both vintage and modern has risen in value both new and pre-owned. For example, using the $225 model as a comparison point, a new Rolex Submariner (adjusted for inflation) should cost about $2,000. But it doesn't. In fact, it goes for about $7,000 more than that. But before we go there, let's see how prices have changed over the years.
Even in 1967, that $225 number was not representative of what we consider to be a luxury watch. And that's because a Rolex Submariner was not, in fact, a luxury watch. It was a tool watch in the realest sense of the word – a watch for diving, and swimming, a watch literally issued to various military outfits across the globe. It was a watch to put through its paces – one you could get at a nice discount if you were a service member.
It's also important to remember that, in 1967, there were only mechanical watches. There was nothing digital or quartz at scale. This allowed mechanical timepieces to sit at a relatively low price point as the industry thrived. And then we all know about the Quartz Crisis, when brands like Seiko brought battery-powered, highly accurate, and decidedly less expensive timepieces to market, thus undercutting and effectively destroying the Swiss watch industry.
When the dust settled, mechanical watches morphed from antiquity to something special. You don't need to change the battery – this thing will last forever. You should pay a premium for that, a premium for the luxury that is the mechanical watch – the luxury watch.
It's in the mid-1980s that we see the Submariner jump up to that four-figure $1,000 mark, and then double to $2,000 in the early '90s and then more than double again as we reach the end of the aughts and the end of the aluminum-bezel, stamped-clasp Submariner era. Some of this has to do with a shift in design. The old matte dials with painted markers were replaced with glossy dials and applied markers with white gold surrounds. A Submariner effectively increased 4x in price in a decade and then doubled in price in those that followed. But that's the story of the ref. 5513s and the 14060s – watches we now consider to be vintage or neo-vintage.
Then came 2012, the year that the first no-date ceramic Submariner ref. 114060 was released. This came two years after the Submariner Date got the ceramic treatment. But the no-date is the OG, the real Submariner. Unlike the ref. 5513 and 14060, this watch only came in a four-line configuration whereas vintage Subs could be found in two or four-line options. A watch that was previously priced between $4,000 and $5,000 was suddenly now $7,100.
Much like the shift from tool watch to luxury that we saw in the '80s, so too was this a leveling up of what luxury meant. In this case, it meant a ceramic bezel filled with platinum as opposed to painted aluminum. And it meant a solidly constructed bracelet with a fully milled-out clasp with an unparalleled adjustment system. This was the new foundation for the brand's most iconic watch.
Between 2012 and 2020, the price of a no-date Submariner at retail rose $800, essentially increasing to keep up with inflation. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Rolex ceased raising prices – well sort of.
And I say that because it was in 2020 that Rolex updated the Submariner, releasing the new 41mm ref. 124060 with its bigger case and wider lugs, but ultimately a sleeker design. That watch carried a price tag of $8,100. And the price maintained in 2020, and 2021.
February 2022 marked Rolex's return to the price increase game. Inflation was still very much a thing (as it remains today) and adjustments were needed to meet it. The result was a 10.5 percent hike to $8,950. In less than two years, the Submariner had increased in price more than its predecessor did in eight. Today you can purchase one new for $9,150, so things have thankfully slowed back down to normal a bit.
What's worth noting is that, while Rolex's 10.5% increase seems gargantuan – in the long run the price of a no-date Submariner from 2013 to today is almost completely in-line with inflation – something that could not be said about Rolex pricing from 1975 to, say, 1986.
But the more interesting thing to watch during the period of 2012 to the present day is how the pre-owned market tracked alongside these new watches. Looking back at listings for pre-owned Rolex "no-date" Submariners, it becomes clear that 2013 serves as a pivotal year in modern watch collecting and purchasing. It's when a used watch stopped being a used watch and suddenly became more valuable than one fresh off the lot.
An increase in social media attention and the proliferation of content from outlets such as Hodinkee turned watches from a bit of mechanical esoterica into something far more mainstream. It was no longer just vintage steel Rolex that amounted to investable horology. The modern collection began garnering the same kind of attention.
It was around this time that watches also became much harder to purchase at retail as demand began to soar, hence the price disparity. And we're talking about $4,000 premiums, where a pre-owned modern Submariner ref.114060 might fetch $12,000 in 2013, and upwards of $16,000 between 2015 and 2021 for a ref. 114060 (and $15,000 for the newer model).
In the last year or so, we have certainly seen those prices come down to earth a bit due to economic factors. And we've heard from our friends at the AD level that they've seen an influx of product enter their stores over the last several months than they have in years. Now this doesn't make it that much easier to buy a 124060 Submariner at retail today, but it does explain why prices have come down to around $13.5k (a similar $4k premium that we saw a decade ago).
Then there's Certified Pre-Owned – a phenomenon started by the Crown last year. Now, the new ref. 124060 is not quite old enough to qualify for the CPO program but listings for the ref. 114060 currently sit at around $14, 5000 – which is $5,400 more than the modern model at retail, and $6,600 more than the 114060 was at retail in 2020.
It will be interesting to watch the value on the open market of the Submariner as it compares to CPO prices and to likewise monitor the constant increases of the Submariner at retail. It seems certain that both are on track to meet somewhere near a middle – unless prices on the secondary market skyrocket once more.
Going back to our $225 Rolex Submariner ref. 5513 from 1967 however, you can find those on the market today still going strong at upwards of $20,000, which represents effectively a 1,000 percent increase in value when accounting for inflation. It may take 40 years of context for us to fully realize the value of a modern Submariner, but recent history has shown that it continues to be a safe bet.
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The Hodinkee shop carries a variety of pre-owned Rolex Submariner watches.