The 2020 Rolex Submariner ref. 126610 might be the benchmark against which all dive watches need to be considered but how does it do against its predecessor, the ref. 116610?
Rolex. Submariner. These are words which, for years, have not only defined the dive watch segment but also the time a man or woman was prepared to wait for their new timepiece. Last year was released potentially the most comprehensive reform of this diving icon across the whole range in a single sweep. Even so, this updated watch retains more than a passing resemblance to its direct predecessor. With this in mind, I would like to answer a very important question for Rolex and for a potential buyer: should you buy the 2020 Rolex Submariner or not?
At this point, I should make a confession: I have never felt the slightest desire to buy a Submariner. I can certainly see the appeal of such a timepiece yet it has always been the spirit of adventure embodied by the Sea-Dweller and overwhelming technical prowess of the DeepSea which have caught my imagination. To my eye, the Submariner has always been a base to which Rolex could anchor its most innovative endeavours. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that it remains the benchmark for a dive watch by delivering every standard diving feature whilst bearing the weight of a history of consistently normalising new technologies since its inception in the early-’50s.
For most customers, is is the former reason which seems most pertinent when the Rolex Submariner’s specifications read as the formula for an ideal (if unimaginative) dive watch. Balancing diving and casual wear, a 300-metre water resistance is paired with a tough but slim case in 904L steel whilst an eminently reliable and serviceable movement provides peace of mind.
Even so, the latter reason for greatness might be more important still as, whilst proving itself universally appealing, it was modernity and quiet innovation which kept the Submariner an industry leader. This leaves us with a question: is the new 2020 Rolex Submariner ref. 126610 innovative enough to replace the outgoing ref. 116610?
In the majority of respects, it would be a reasonable analysis to view the new Submariner as an incremental update rather than a revolutionary release. It retains the same design for the bezel, dial, crystal and hands and, unlike the previous ref. 116610, doesn’t update the outline of indispensable features in any competitor. Instead, I present you the watch which the 2010 Rolex Submariner probably always should have been. As such, this is a review resolved by details rather than headlines.
The most major and debated change is the fractionally-enlarged case which grows from 40mm to 41mm in diameter. If ever there were a textbook example for the truth that measurements of a watch pale into insignificance besides the quality of the design – this would be it. When we look at a watch, we see proportions and not dimensions and, with this in mind, this rendition could be mistaken for a smaller piece than its predecessor.
On the wrist a similar theme can be observed as a sense of slightly enhanced stability comes courtesy of thinner lugs – thus ending the tenure of Rolex’s ‘Super Case’ – as a partial consequence of a greater lug width of 21mm. Similarly, the mid-case has suffered a diet whilst the crown guards have receded as an approximation of the elegant, industry-leading format reached back in the early-1960s. Note the fact that I use the word ‘approximation’ as, whilst reduced, the guards retain the widely-appreciated arch-shape of the 2010 edition.
Of course, being widely publicised and even more widely speculated about, I’m sure that you have already heard of the aforementioned changes to the overall design of this subaquatic icon. In reality, the more interesting changes appear on the dial where Rolex haven’t replaced the undeniably-elegant, glossy, lacquered surface they have become known for but have instead fixed a few key oddities of the range.
First and foremost, Rolex have worked on the hands. The second hand is now better balanced, the minute hand reaches the markers more successfully and, most importantly for me, the hour hand now has a wider, stubbier demeanour which returns to the pre-ceramic proportions and that seen on the Rolex GMT-Master II with an emphasis on the circular element. Of course, these hands, like the markers, remain white gold.
Whilst the most subtle of changes, the typographical differences between new and old Rolex Submariners may be the easiest way to differentiate the two. The most obvious is a coronet now printed within the ‘Swiss Made’ designation which, incidentally, has also been relocated to below the second track – the correct place in my opinion. This is matched by a beefed-up Submariner designation to produce a brand-new watch which, for anyone but the most anal enthusiast, will look exactly the same from any distance greater than about a foot and a half.
Of course, I appreciate that I am being facetious about a matter which, for both financial and stylistic reasons, will raise questions in the minds of current owners of the previous generation as well as potential buyers. Consequently, the question remains: should you buy the new Rolex Submariner?
The first hurdle to jump is just what that deceptively-simple question actually means. Should you buy it as your only dive watch? Should you buy it instead of similarly-priced alternatives? Should you replace your previous generation Submariner with it? These are all valid questions but the most important, I suspect, is the last.
Empirically speaking, the Rolex ref. 126610 represents the next generation for the Submariner as within it is the new cal. 3235 with a new architecture, 70-hour power reserve and Rolex’s high-efficiency Chronergy escapement. It replaces the cal. 3135 – released back in 1988 – which has become the standard movement for all of Rolex’s dive watch over the years. As such, this watch is an important stage as, initially released in less popular models, the placement of this movement in the Submariner shows that Rolex deems it ready to become the brunt of the brand’s defence against competitors for, perhaps, the next 30 years.
Even so, there remain plenty of reasons to shy away from the new model aside from the somewhat higher prices currently commanded by them. Firstly, the most recent Submariner marks the end of Rolex keeping a standard lug width with 21mm being an irritating choice for most straps. Secondly, there remains a concern in mind: the movement. Whilst trying both of these watches out, I had the distinct feeling that the newer piece wasn’t quite ready yet. It was clearly well put together and ran flawlessly throughout the time I held the watch but I also observed some weak points.
Less problematically, the automatic rotor was considerably more audible than that of the venerable cal. 3135 and, whilst mechanically irrelevant, I have heard complaints from previous Submariner wearers. This alone would have gone unnoticed if not joined by a hacking mechanism which, rather like a tired, old ETA 2824, failed to engage 10% of the time. Whilst I can be sure that Rolex will have the movement running flawlessly in time, I can see the appeal of the good-old, mechanically perfect cal. 3135 for the less innovation-conscious.
So, what does this all mean? Well, the new version of the Submariner is better balanced, a more polished design, and probably what the ceramic Submariner always should have been. Objectively, it is the better of the two watches. However, it’s also a watch which you have to approach with a few provisos: the lug width may be an annoyance and the new movement might, at first, yield some teething problems.
By the same token, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the old one. In fact, I think that its wide-lugged stance might become a Rolex classic because it was produced when Rolex tried and, for some, failed to keep the classic Submariner size and still make it fit modern expectations. In any case, if you like the older, 40mm Rolex Submariner, don’t think that the new one should stop you from buying it – it absolutely shouldn’t. Nevertheless, if you can justify the cost and you prefer the appearance of the 2020 Rolex Submariner ref. 126610, it’s a stunningly made watch and may age more gracefully than the last version.
Whilst my opinion may sound unimaginative, of the two, I would choose the new watch for its elegance, technical innovation and, perversely, its more traditional demeanour.