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Review: Rolex Submariner 126610 LN

One millimetre. That’s all it takes. One. Lousy. Millimetre. With the announcement of the new Rolex Submariner, questions have been raised. What does the word “new” even mean anymore, for example. Let’s find out.

Who remembers 1953? I’m sure there are a few here who do, if only through the eyes of a child. There was a lot back then that was similar, and even more that was different. The nuclear family, international travel, the American dream—but perhaps not the Rolex Submariner. That … that was pretty much the same.

So picture the scene, 1953, and here was Rolex making a move it had set itself up for over the past half-century that was to change its fortunes forever. We all know how the Submariner dominated the dive watch industry, beat out Omega, beloved by COMEX, evolved into the Sea-Dweller, but its success was as much to do with a cultural shift as it was professional acclaim.

The goal of Rolex had been since pretty much day one to leverage industry, to furnish professionals—and that’s not in the modern sense where watchmakers pay companies to “use”—in inverted commas—their watches, but actually where a product becomes ingratiated into the daily use of a workforce, like any tool or instrument might.

That may sound glamorous, but when you think about it more logically you realise that companies don’t want fancy, shiny, expensive products, they want cheap, reliable, rugged stuff instead. Industrial equipment, basically. And since Rolex wasn’t in the game of making fancy, shiny stuff, it put all its chips on red and focussed its sights on business instead of people.

The Rolex Submariner was officially first introduced in 1953

The Rolex Submariner was officially first introduced in 1953

It worked, as we all know, but there was a secondary effect that no one had anticipated—the rise and rise of Rolex as a fashion statement. Because a Rolex Submariner was cheap, ordinary people like you and me were buying them too, and not just to go diving with, but to wear when they went swimming, did the gardening—or in the case of Steve McQueen, leant on walls and whatnot looking cool.

It’s the dream for any brand, landing that organic celebrity endorsement to popularise your product, with the irony being that it was Rolex’s no-nonsense approach to building timepieces that brought it out from under the stuffy old brands worn by the generation prior.

There’s just one problem: when you create an icon, how do you iterate? You take a leaf out of the books of Apple, Porsche, Leica—you do it carefully. Success isn’t the end goal—for many, many people, businesses, whatever, success is just the first step to returning right back down the bottom. Just ask any winner of any televised talent show ever.

So, sixty-seven years later, at a time when everything is fragile, Rolex is making its next move. There haven’t been many moves since that 1953 original, and describing them as incremental may overstate just how much has actually changed—and this change just might be the most incremental yet.

Even the late Steve McQueen wore a Rolex Submariner

Even the late Steve McQueen wore a Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner hasn’t always been 40mm in diameter. It has for much of its life, but when it was born it was a little smaller at 37mm and later grew into its big boy case. When the case was upsized again all the way into 2010, it didn’t actually get any wider across, just gained a generally chunkier demeanour. Added to that the introduction of the ceramic bezel and that was probably Rolex’s biggest deviation since the Submariner’s beginning.

This, though … this might be one of the smallest. There was the swap to white gold surrounds on the markers with the 5513, the sapphire crystal on the very short production 16800, things you’d probably notice pretty easily sat side-by-side with a previous iteration.

The new 126610 LN, however, takes the biscuit for spot the difference, because although the case has been plumped up a notch by a millimetre, the proportions remain largely the same. And why wouldn’t they—this is a watch that’s harder to get hold of than a greased pig let loose in Takeshi’s Castle; it makes no sense to ruin that hugely successful formula.

There are some small tweaks, however, ones that probably need pointing out to notice. The crown guards have been reprofiled, the lugs too, with the bracelet widened to accommodate the change. If there were ever complaints about the prior 116610 LN, it was those, and very minor complaints they were, and so very minor fixes result.

The 2020 Rolex Submariner has a case size of 41mm, 1mm bigger than the previous model

The 2020 Rolex Submariner has a case size of 41mm, 1mm bigger than the previous model

There’s the new calibre 3235 as well, with power reserve raised to 70 hours and the escapement the latest Chronergy setup, not that many people would really notice the difference, but at least that brings it up to speed with the other watches in the range that have already been updated. I’m sure it’s all very clever, but it’s probably really as relevant as Rolex’s inclination to show it—which it still doesn’t.

So, is this watch a disappointment? It’s not a surprise, that’s for sure. Rolex knows people are wearing larger watches; it’s been trialling that theory with the Explorer, the Datejust and much of its junior company, Tudor. The increase was always going to happen, it was just a matter of when. And in true Rolex style, that “when” was ten years after everyone else.

But there’s also something very interesting here, something we’ve not seen from Rolex before. This is a company, certainly throughout this millennium so far at least, that doesn’t pander to, well, anyone. People wanted a Pepsi ceramic bezel, they got blue and black. When the Pepsi did come out, it was precious metal only.

What Rolex has never done before is listen to criticism and respond to it. Yet here, with the 126610 LN, it has. We said the lugs were too thick, it shrank them. We said the crown guard was too chunky, it slimmed it out. So although these changes may seem diminutive and even lazy, they’re actually exactly what everyone’s been asking for: the same, but different, if at least just a little bit.

It seems that Rolex’s run of success is a long way off stalling, and there’s a reason for that. It doesn’t stab wildly in the dark, creating model after model with no cohesion or focus—I’m looking at you, Omega—it sits and thinks and it thinks and it sits, and after all hope of anything ever happening, years after anyone expected anything to happen, it does. The end result may not blow our socks off, but that’s because the end result is a long way down the path of diminishing returns towards perfection—and to be honest, it’s not far off.

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