The Rolex Submariner is one of, if not the, most recognizable watches in existence. It is iconic, classic and steeped in the history of 20th century watches. They were first debuted in 1954, and while having been consistently evolved over the years, they have largely stayed true to their original design
(here is a history of the origins of the watch).
This is simply because they got it so right the first time. (Pictured on the left is a very early model ref. 6200, with an atypical dial) From the bezel to the dial to the hands, this watch has set numerous design standards for dive watches. Furthermore, as perhaps the centerpiece of the Rolex line of luxury watches, both new and vintage models of the Submariner are very sought after by watch-nerds and normal consumers.
Naturally, given their general pricing of thousands to tens-of-thousands (vintage) the Submariner is also frequently copied. Most people are familiar with the expression “Fauxlex”, which is to say a knock-off Rolex, sold for cheap, that is passed off as a genuine Rolex. These are horrible creations that do no justice to the originals, watch making or the unfortunate consumers that buy them (here’s a comparison chart of real to fake). But as someone who does not spend thousands of dollars on watches, and still wants a Submariner, there are many options out there by reputable brands.
These options range from “inspired by”, taking significant design cues from the original, but not being a 1:1 look a-like, to “homage”, nearly exact details replicated, but not hiding that they are made by a different brand. What’s great about the “inspired bys” is that you can get a lot of the style of the Sub without feeling like you are wearing a copy. What’s great about the “homages” is that they are often based on specific vintage styles that are very rare and very expensive, making them the only way to get that exact look. I’m not going to weigh in on which is better, because I am slightly torn on the matter myself. As a designer, I hate the idea of being copied. As a consumer and watch-lover, I want to be able to get what I want. Regardless, there are many different brands out there with Sub-esque watches, and here are a few models that I find very appealing.
The Seiko 5 SNZF series (SNZF15 pictured) at $150 gets the ball rolling. This 41mm watch features a 23 jewel auto with day/date function, push/pull crown and hardlex crystal. It is definitely in the “inspired by” camp as there are similarities to a Sub, but almost nothing identical. Having mentioned Seiko 5’s on this site many times now, I feel that I can skip the how-great-they-are part and just say that this watch will serve you well. I like the applied dial markers and sword hands of this model, as well as the 1/3 “Pepsi” style bezel. I don’t love the flared markers on the bezel, however. Not recommended for diving as the watch does not have a screw-down crown.
The Ollechs & Wajs M4 Diver for $350 is closer to a homage, but still has many differences from most Subs. It features a 39.5mm case, an ETA 2824-2 25 jewel auto movement, screw-down crown and sapphire crystal. The bezel of the O&W is almost exact to the Subs, perhaps with slightly different proportions to the markers. The primary dial markers are similar, but once again have different proportions. Namely, the triangle at 12 is larger and equilateral. The dial also features a secondary 13-24 military index in small red numerals, which as far I as know was not featured on any Subs. The M4 also has the signature Mercedes hour-hand. I like this one for a couple of reasons, but the primary one is that it is a very affordable 2824-2 powered watch by a brand that people love. It stays true to the fundamentals of the Sub, but when it differs, it does so tastefully.
The $420 Steinhart Ocean Military is a thorough homage to the Sub ref. 5517, which is referred to as a “milsub” for its military design. The Ocean has a 42mm case with and ETA 2824-2 movement, screw-down crown and a domed sapphire crystal with AR coating. The Ocean is pretty spot-on to the original, featuring the oversized markers of the “maxi-dial”, roman sword hands and bezel with more markings. The larger markings and lack of a date give this style a graphic intensity that I find very appealing. Steinhart also used “old radium” lume to give it a vintage look, which pulls the whole thing together. This is one of those specific watches that I love, that I know I wont own an original of, so the homage is very tempting. It is also a great deal on a Swiss made watch with an ETA movement. And if the looks and price are not enough, the 5517 is one of the specific models that James Bond wore.
The C. Ward C60 Trident Auto (w/ khaki bezel) runs $499 and is a nice twist on the Sub style. The C60 has a 42mm case, either an ETA 2824-2 or Sellita SW200, screw-down crown and sapphire crystal. While on the C. Ward site, they say the watch takes its cues from the 1954 Rolex GMT Master, since it is not a GMT, and has a diving bezel, it is much closer to a Sub (they do also make a GMT model). Regardless, they used the Rolex as a framework for their design, changing most of the details to create a very tasteful unique watch. The dial has similar markings, though they are proportionally different, and the double strike at 12 is all C. Ward. The background of the dial has a subtle wave texture, which is a beautiful detail. The hour and minute hands too are different, feeling more 30’s or 40’s than the Subs hands and the seconds hand sports a very cool little trident at the back end. It comes in 3 varieties of bezel color, but I find I am very drawn to the “khaki” as the military green adds a nice warmth.
Topping this list is the MKII Kingston, which is sold out, but retailed for around $1500. The Kingston has a 39mm case, an ETA 2836-2 Elaboré grade movement, screw-down crown and double-domed sapphire crystal. This limited edition MKII is a pure homage to the Sub Ref. 6538 with a gilt dial and big crown. The 6538 is the watch that Sean Connery wore in the first 4 bonds films, making it the most famous of the Bond watches. The gilt dial and gold plated hands really make this model sing. The restrained application (which should naturally be credited to Rolex) of the gold really elevates the watch…it is easy to see why it was the choice for Connery’s Bond. Though the Kingston is much more than the other models on here, it is still far less than a new Rolex, and epically less than a vintage 6538, making it a good deal in its own right. This is a watch I’d keep an eye out for on the forums in the coming years.
If you have another Sub homage or “inspired-by” that you love, let us know! Thanks for reading