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The Vintage Corner

My Quest for The Truth… Did this 1962 Rolex Submariner 5508 Really see Action in the Field?

Hunting down the truth about a peculiar 1962 Rolex Submariner 5508... And the sad reality of how things got messed up!

| By Alistair Gibbons | 6 min read |

In 1962, British military forces were pretty busy as post-war Britain became a post-colonial power and many of the former British colonies, previously known as the British Empire, sought independence. The Suez Crisis was followed by the Brunei Revolt, the Dhofar Rebellion and the Malaysian Confrontation regarding Indonesia, all starting in 1962. The same year that this very pretty Rolex Submariner 5508 had its serial number “struck” on the non-crown-guards, early-style dive case.

The 5508 became the last reference for this type of Submariner following a decision by Rolex to consolidate its complicated string of case numbers, changing it to the ref. 5513 until the early 1990s. This particular version is very attractive with its glossy dial and gilt printing, its excellent condition and lovely bracelet, not too big on the wrist and very comfortable to wear.

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This watch is a true design classic but it has seen a lot of wear with a number of services recorded since 1962. Rolex up until fairly recently would give a full service to your Submariner when it was sent to them, this meant that they would return your watch in the operational condition in which it was purchased. Meaning, replacing the hands if the luminous material had faded, replacing the bezel if it was missing (which happened with this watch) and replacing the crown and tube with an updated crown to keep water out of the watch. So essentially removing all of the groovy aged style, which inadvertently created a market for old hands and dials, just like the “box and papers” obsession created a market for boxes and “punched hole” papers. Beware what you wish for…

This watch has polished silver hands that would have originally had a gilt finish with the seconds hand possibly painted white, the crown, which now has a dash below the coronet signifying “double-lock” or “service replacement” crown, would have just had the Rolex crown as the “double-lock” and then “triple-lock” crowns became standard after the manufacture of this Submariner. The bezel has been replaced as the original would have been brassed around the edges with wear, so again another service replacement. 

The reason why I mention the British Colonial troubles earlier is because of what is engraved on the back of this watch… This particular Rolex Submariner 5508 was not issued by the Royal Navy but was a personal watch, which was engraved with the owner’s name and service number, as per military regulations. How do we know that this was worn by a member of the Royal Navy and not the Army or the RAF? Well, because that number is the service number of a Navy Clearance Diver known as “matelots” – from an early French translation of sailor.

To research this watch a call was made to the UK National Archives at Kew, London but the conversation was brief, as the original service number owner was still alive and apparently no details were available. However, the attendant spoken to did happen to have details of the service number of the man who was stationed in Portsmouth, which is one of the homes of the Royal Navy going back 500 years. A further call was made to a retired Royal Navy Clearance Diver who was involved in the Falklands Conflict and he confirmed the man would have had to have the watch engraved with his details and that his number ID’d him as a “MATELOT” or a Clearance Diver. More details on this specific topic here.

Tony Groom (Bottom, middle), former clearance diver helped with the research. He is now an author, writing about his experiences in his book “Diver” here.

These watches are very beautiful but this peculiar Submariner 5508 adds something special, as it obviously had an interesting life – and I doubt many of these watches ever saw any kind of service. This specific watch is also noticeable as it has an anomalous dial, with an extra luminous dot at 6 o’clock, which is not common for these watches and was known among collectors as the “exclamation mark” dial. It was fitted with the well-known calibre 1530, an automatic movement that can still be serviced at any Rolex centre today, which isn’t bad for a 60-year watch making it a perfect vintage daily beater. 

Below, the Rolex Submariner 5508 next to a slightly more recent (circa 1967) reference 5513, the watch that followed the reference 5512 and became the classic no-date Submariner for several decades. As you can see, the 5508 is not a small watch. It just looks smaller on the wrist. All of the Rolex watches I have owned, it is one of the watches I massively regret letting go on its merry way.

This Submariner 5508 was purchased through my watchmaker and while I liked it, I was still not smart enough to understand its true appeal… so I contacted Auction House Antiquorum and visited their offices in Bond Street, London. They were stocking for a Rolex Sports Models retrospective auction as they had previously done for Patek and Omega and were looking for interesting pieces. We talked about the watch’s historical importance and I gave it over to them on consignment for their next auction. A few weeks passed and a large package arrived at my door, which contained the auction catalogue. I opened the catalogue and found the page for this Submariner 5508… But there, to my horror, I found the write-up blabbing on about “Mr Bond” and “Sean Connery”, and that just froze me. The collector’s world had since identified that the watch worn by Sean Connery as 007 was not a 5508 but a 6358. This is an easy mistake to make but not if you are guaranteeing authenticity and trust.

The Submariner 5508 was also listed online and I started Google searching “military 5508”. There, I found a conversation about the watch on a well-known military watch Forum. The auction house had stated the watch was issued by the Navy and did not show the caseback… Which, to collectors, looks like some kind of a con, they had all of this information about the watch and yet they still tried to oversell the watch. The conversation I read described the watch as “sucker bait” and they had taken extracts from the nonsense catalogue write up which said, ‘a Commander in the British Royal Navy would have been issued just such a watch’ – completely untrue… They had ignored all of my real research and essentially killed the value of the watch just like that -Snap! 

What was really sad was I recognized the collectors discussing the watch but I could not say anything as it would look like I had agreed to the write-up, which I most certainly had not. Well, as you’ve already guessed, the watch did not sell, there was not even a single bid, even though everything about the watch was known. It was eventually shipped back to me from Switzerland – and I was asked to pay about £3,000 in import duty. For my own watch? I don’t think so, do you? It was eventually returned to me and I sadly had to pass the watch on to another collector who I hope cherished it and still has it… So there lies a cautionary tale warning you to be truly “Careful What You Wish For”.

7 responses

  1. Tony Groom is wrong clearance divers did not have their name or number engraved on the Rolex, The Rolexea where owned by each team / unit and issued to indevidual divers for the duration of their time in the team / unit. My own 1956 Rolex Submariner, had my name engraved on it and is now in a museum. Mick Fellows MBE DSC BEM* MSM. ex Clearance Diver.

  2. Hi Mick, Alistair here who owned the watch and wrote the article. My father wore his ‘own watch non issued’ in the Guards and he had to have his number engraved on the back. When I had a quick chat with Tony about the number he said he thought it looked like a Diver number and I asked if a non issued watch worn on duty would have to have some kind of designation on the back just like my father’s. He agreed with my thoughts. That’s all… the story is essentially about the auction history of a watch I owned more than 10 years ago… The watch was real and had the number engraved on the back at some stage as you can see…. thanks for the comment, Alistair

  3. Great story and write-up which shows that for watches, and specifically Rolex, the devil is in the details.

  4. I’d stay clear of that auctioneer for life!

  5. Cuando querés subastar un producto de calidad la presentación debe ser igual

  6. Quick question …Michael G Fellows ….
    Do you recall anyone with the initials JPD as a clearance diver in the team/unit. I have a 1962 Submariner 5508 Rolex watchband with the initials JPD and I’m trying to research it and came upon this article. Thank you!

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