Three of the most popular watch-collector “niches” are dive replica watches (even for those who take their watch off in the shower), military watches (even for those who have never served a day) and Rolex, because… well… Rolex. When these three worlds combine, you know you have something special. That’s why, despite not being the most valuable Rolex at auction, the Rolex Military Submariner, or “Milsub”, remains a grail piece for many collectors.
The relationship between the black dial fake Rolex Submariner and the Ministry Of Defence began in 1957 when Rolex was producing the reference 6538. Not satisfied with the civilian version, the MOD demanded a few changes.
The bezel became larger to offer better grip when wearing diving gloves, and the bezel material was changed from a brittle plated-brass alloy that tended to crack on impact to a “German silver” that would dent instead (this material was then used in subsequent Submariners). Also, to ensure the watch did not get lost in rough conditions – the watch being worn on a nylon “Nato” strap – the spring bars were changed for welded steel replacements. Initially, Rolex planned to give an entirely new reference number to this watch, the 6540, but at the last minute changed to the A/6538, crossing out the engraved model number on the inner case back like a messy schoolboy.
In 1971, after a four-year dalliance with Omega, the MOD were back at Rolex. This time it was the Swiss movement fake Rolex Submariner ref.5513 that was to be ordered but again with a few, ahem, changes: fixed spring bars, naturally; the hands were changed to “sword” shape to allow for a greater area of luminous material; and the bezel was given minute markers not just for the first 15 minutes, as on the civilian Sub, but for the full 60 minutes. This can be seen in our photographs, which come courtesy of Danny Pizzigoni at Mayfair pre-owned watch boutique Watch Club.
To begin with, these watches were delivered as 5513s, but then an additional 5517 reference was added to the underside of one of the lugs. Finally – and most sought-after – 5517 was added between the lugs as a stand-alone reference number.
It is almost unheard of for Rolex to accommodate a client’s wishes to this extent and it is this, combined with the low numbers (approximately 1,200), plus the romance of military issue, that gives this watch such mystique.
On the wrists of servicemen, rather than watch collectors, these were tools to be used and abused. Combined with an MOD servicing regime that put expediency above originality, and the fact that decommissioned watches often had the fixed bars removed and the case backs polished, finding an all-original example in good condition is rare. A well-preserved reference 5517 sold this year at Fellows auctioneers for £165,000, proving that the MOD’s embellishments elevate the classic cheap copy Rolex Submariner to something extraordinary.