Blog: Rolex Submarine?
First published: 25 September 2023, last updated 29 September 2023.Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.
This section is from my page about Wilsdorf's Other Brands.
As always, if you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Wristwatches are worn in a more exposed and vulnerable position than pocket watches, which made it important to improve the sealing of the cases of early wristwatches to prevent moisture getting in and damaging their movements. This was especially important for wristwatches destined for a humid and damp tropical environment.
An elementary, almost brutally simple, way of protecting a watch from moisture was to place it completely inside a larger case with a screw-down bezel, the outer case forming a hermetic encapsulation totally enclosing and protecting the watch within. Watches employing this double case design are usually called “Hermetic”.
It is evident that Hans Wilsdorf, co-founder and managing director of Rolex, saw potential in this design and some watches with this type of hermetic case were made for Rolex. There was evidently some doubt in his mind about the viability of the design, because most, if not all, of them were not sold as Rolex watches but were sold under the name Submarine as a separate brand. Many of these watches appear to have been sold to countries in the middle and far east with tropical climates, where their waterproof characteristics were especially necessary.
Although some people, usually those selling the watch, call anything that has even a hint of a connection with Rolex a “Rolex watch”, the correct test of whether a watch is a Rolex watch is whether Hans Wilsdorf would have called it one himself, and from the markings on the Submarine watches that have been seen it is clear that Wilsdorf and Rolex would not have called them Rolex watches.
It is possible that some watches with hermetic cases might have originally been sold as “Rolex Hermetic” watches. It is difficult to be sure about this because many of the surviving watches have been altered to make them appear to be Rolex watches and one that is convincingly and undoubtedly a Rolex watch, with the correct markings in the case and on the movement, has yet to be seen.
What should these Submarine watches be called? They are not Rolex watches so it is not right to call them “Rolex Submarine” watches, and there is also the earlier Tavannes Submarine, a waterproof wristwatch that has a prior claim to the Submarine name.
Many of these watches have the sponsor's mark of Wilsdorf and Davis in the case, so there is an argument for calling them “W&D Submarine” watches, but by the time these were made Alfred Davis had left the company, although the W&D sponsor's mark was not replaced until 1923 by “R.W.C.Ltd”. The Rolex Watch Company was incorporated as a limited company in London in 1915 and took over the business previously operated as Wilsdorf and Davis. Wilsdorf himself said “It was in 1919 that I finally founded at Geneva, in the offices we still occupy to-day, our present company, the Rolex Watch Co. Ltd., of which I am sole proprietor.” These watches would, therefore, have been wholesaled by the Rolex Watch Company (RWC), and it seems appropriate to call them “RWC Submarine” watches.
If any genuine Rolex watches with hermetic cases do turn up, then of course it would be right to call them “Rolex Hermetic” watches, but none are currently known. If you have one, please get in touch.
A U.S. patent for the hermetic case design was granted to Frederick Gruen on 20 May 1919, patent number U.S. 1,303,888 "Wrist-Watch" with a priority date of May 29, 1918. A Swiss patent for a virtually identical design was granted on 4 January 1921 to Jean Finger, a watch case maker of Longeau, Berne, Switzerland, patent number CH 89276 "Montre a remontoire avec boitier protecteur" (stem winding watch with protective box) with a publication date of 2 May 1921.
The granting of two separate but identical patents like this to Gruen and Finger should have been prevented by international patent law but evidently wasn't. There is no indication that either party tried to register their patent in the other's country or challenged the other's patent so it seems that they simply existed in parallel. The fact that Jean Finger's design is so similar to the Gruen design does not mean that he copied it; it is such a simple and obvious idea that it could have occurred to any watch case maker - so obvious that it is surprising that a patent was granted. To be patented, an invention must be novel and not obvious to someone “skilled in the art to which the invention pertains”.
Wilsdorf evidently bought some rights to the Jean Finger patent, because in 1922 he applied for and was granted a British patent, No. GB 197208 “Improvements in and Relating to Watches”, on 10 May 1923 for exactly the same design, with the priority date 26 May 1922. This patent is also strange in the it does not say that Finger has assigned the rights to the invention to Wilsdorf, and it was not granted under the patent convention existing at the time where Swiss patents would be accepted in Britain. It appears to be a completely separate patent, although the design is exactly the same. No watch case manufactured in Britain under this British patent has ever been seen.
Watches using Jean Finger's patent hermetic case design were produced for Rolex from around 1924. Because the British patent was granted to Wilsdorf, it is sometimes said that he, or Rolex, made the cases of these watches. This is not true, neither Wilsdorf or Rolex made watch cases, they (or rather the suppliers who they bought watches from) bought cases from specialist watch case manufacturers such as the company of Jean Finger. In fact, since Jean Finger owned the Swiss patent on the hermetic case design, all the hermetic cases made in Switzerland must have been made by his company, whether they are marked as such or not.
That many of the cases were made by Jean Finger is evident from the trademark of the initials "JF" for Jean Finger and the words "Double Boitier Brevet 89276" (Double Case Swiss Patent 89276), a reference to the Jean Finger patent. The presence of the initials W&D within a fancy surround does not show that the case was made by Wilsdorf & Davis, or by Rolex, neither of whom actually made watch cases. The W&D stamp is a sponsor's mark that was applied to the cases so that they could be sent to a British assay office to be hallmarked. Despite what many so-called experts say, the sponsor's mark does not show who made an item, and the hallmarks show where an item was hallmarked, which is not necessarily where it was made.
Wilsdorf registered the name “The Submarine” in March 1922, shortly before he applied for a British patent on the Jean Finger case design, which seems far too close in time to be a coincidence. In the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum, Wilsdorf wrote that “To my technical assistants, my constant refrain was, from the earliest days: We must succeed in making a watch case so tight that our movements will be permanently guaranteed against damage caused by dust, perspiration, water, heat and cold. Only then will the perfect accuracy of the Rolex watch be secured.” The Vade Mecum was published in 1946 so it is not proof as to when Wilsdorf had this idea, but I have a wristwatch with a Borgel screw case with Wilsdorf and Davis' sponsor mark that was hallmarked at the London Assay Office in 1910 or 1911 so it is evident that Wilsdorf was investigating waterproof watches well before World War One; indeed, from the “earliest days” as he says.
The presence of the W&D sponsor's mark in the case of hermetic watches causes some people to refer to them as Rolex watches, but there is no evidence that the Wilsdorf or the Rolex Watch Company ever called them Rolex watches. The sponsor's mark was required in order to send a watch case to a British assay office to get the case hallmarked, nothing more than that: on it's own, it is not a sign of a Rolex watch.
Mauro Monti has researched this aspect since 2020 and tells me that he has catalogued 25 different watches of the “Hermetic” type with a Jean Finger patented case, 13 of have the Wilsdorf & Davis sponsor's mark. Of these, the ones with Rolex name on the dial are clearly either refinished dials or dials with the lettering subsequently applied.
The current evidence is that Wilsdorf and Davis, and the Rolex Watch Company, did not refer to these Submarine watches as Rolex watches, so neither should anyone else, although people (usually sellers) often do for obvious reasons. For this reason, and to avoid confusion with the earlier Tavannes Submarine wristwatch, these watches should be called RWC Submarine watches.
Was the hermetic case the solution to Wilsdorf's quest to create as waterproof watch? No.
The hermetic case was not a great design. It achieved the desired result at the cost of considerable inconvenience to the user, who had to unscrew the bezel every day in order to get at the watch to wind it, and then screw the bezel back on, which the fine threads make a tricky operation. It was also not an elegant solution, which is probably why Wilsdorf didn't use if for his prestige Rolex models. He could see that it would have some appeal, particularly in the tropics where high humidity could cause an unprotected watch movement to rust very quickly. He perhaps initially got quite excited by the idea, buying some rights to the Jean Finger patent and ordering some watches to be made, but he seems to have quickly lost enthusiasm and the model was never eagerly adopted and promoted.
It must be noted that these RWC Submarine watches are not related in any way to the earlier 1915 Tavannes “Submarine” wristwatch sold during World War One by Brook & Son of Edinburgh. The fact that Hans Wilsdorf registered the trademark “The Submarine” in March 1922 is a bit strange, given the existence of the earlier watch of essentially the same name. It seems unlikely that Wilsdorf had not heard of the Tavannes Submarine wristwatch since it was heavily advertised by Brook & Son during and after World War One, but neither Brook & Son or Tavannes registered the name as a trademark, so Wilsdorf perhaps thought that he was free to use the name. The fact that he registered the name “The Submarine” rather than simply “Submarine” might possibly have had something to do with this.
An RWC Submarine
The RWC Submarine watch shown in the images here belongs to the family of a correspondent who has kindly given permission for the the images to be used. The minute hand is not original but the hour hand and the numerals retain a lot of their original radioactive radioluminescent paint which continues to emit radiation and radon gas even though the paint no longer glows.
The first image at the top of the page shows the watch with the bezel of the outer case unscrewed, showing the watch inside. There is a joint (hinge) to the left of 9 o'clock and a small tab to be lifted by a finger nail between 4 and 5 o'clock which enable the watch to swung out for winding and setting. Since the watch has to be fairly small to fit inside the outer case, which itself is only 30mm outside diameter, there is no room for an automatic winding mechanism, which also at the time hadn't yet been applied to wristwatches by John Harwood. The absence of automatic winding meant that the bezel had to be unscrewed every day so that the watch could be wound manually. This was the Achilles' heel of the double case design; unscrewing the bezel to wind the watch everyday was a nuisance and the bezel threads were subject to wear from the regular unscrewing and re-screwing.
The outer case has London Assay Office import hallmarks for the hallmarking year from June 1922 to May 1923, which makes this an early example of the hermetic watches produced for Wilsdorf and Davis. It has Jean Finger's trademark JH stamp and reference to the double case patent, and the Wilsdorf and Davis W&D sponsor's mark.
The movement is an A. Schild calibre 345. The fact that it is not an Aegler movement further reinforces the view that Wilsdorf did not regard these as Rolex watches.
Although the enamel dial is badly damaged around 11 and 4 o'clock, the logo of a unicorn and the legend SUBMARINE below it are very clear and undamaged. This shows that they were applied as vitreous ink and permanently fixed into the underlying enamel by being fired during the dial making process, which makes them as indelible and permanent as the rest of the dial.
Rolex and Ingersoll
The dial also has the remains of the name “Ingersoll” above the small seconds. This has partially flaked off, showing that it was applied in enamel paint some time after the dial was made. Enamel paint does not stick well to the smooth surface of an enamel dial and over time it flakes off.
The presence of the Ingersoll name on the dial is striking. Ingersoll began in America as Robert H. Ingersoll & Bros, a catalogue sales and mail order operation known amongst other things for its low prices. In 1896 it introduced a watch called the “Yankee” which was sold at the very low price of one dollar. Ingersoll sold millions of these watches and advertised it as “The Watch that Made the Dollar Famous!”
The Ingersoll company in England was formed in 1901 as Ingersolls Limited at 55 Hatton Garden, London, specifically to sell American watches to the British public. In Britain, the Ingersoll dollar watch was advertised as the Five Shilling Watch, the exchange rate under the gold standard being four US dollars to one pound sterling.
When the American parent company was declared bankrupt in 1921 the English company continued under the name of Ingersoll Ltd.
Why would Wilsdorf & Davis and Rolex, who were trying to make a name for themselves as suppliers of expensive Rolex watches, want to get involved with Ingersoll? I mentioned this to James Dowling, who remarked that the way the Ingersoll name had been applied to the dial of the Submarine watch in enamel paint is the way that watches were customised for British retailers at the time, and that in the 1930s Ingersoll had a shop on Regent Street in London.
This solves the mystery; the British Ingersoll company must have recognised that, in addition to very cheap watches, there was a market for more expensive watches and bought Submarine watches from Rolex, which were customised by painting the Ingersoll name onto the dial. Although Wilsdorf and Rolex would not want to supply Rolex watches to Ingersoll, reserving those for only the top jewellery and watch retailers, it is well known that Wilsdorf developed a number of other brands such as Marconi and Unicorn for sale at lower price points by less exclusive retailers. It is evident that the RWC Submarine watch fell into this category.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated January 1970. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.