There is a certain magic that exists within timepieces that were produced during the golden era of the mechanical wristwatch – models that were designed and created with the general expectation that they would likely be a person’s only method of keeping track of time. However, while I am undeniably enchanted with vintage watches, my absolute favorite timepieces and the ones that get my wrist time are simply the ones that I can actually wear and engage with as a functional part of my everyday, non-fantasy life.
Other than refraining from swimming with an older timepiece that I’m fairly certain isn’t still water resistant, I don’t really treat my vintage watches all that differently than any of my modern ones. However, that may just be due to the fact that I don’t personally own any mega-expensive or ultra-collectible vintage watches. However, I do get to handle plenty of vintage grail watches all the time in my line of work and one of my all-time favorite vintage Rolex models is the “Big Crown” Submariner reference 6538. And as much as I’d like to own one someday, I found myself pondering what owning one would really be like. Would I actually enjoy the experience on a day-to-day basis? Like most horology nerds, I quickly found myself thinking in terms of relativity and came to the conclusion that I’d actually be happier with a Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight.
Even typing that last sentence felt a little strange, but let me explain…
The “Big Crown” Rolex Submariner is a truly fantastic timepiece and it is a halo-level vintage grail watch for most collectors. Only produced for a handful of years during the late 1950s, the ref. 6538 is arguably the single most famous vintage Submariner of all time, and it was even the model that appeared on Sean Connery’s wrist in the original James Bond films. It is often said that the reference 6538 is the watch that made the Rolex Submariner a mainstream icon, and it is easily one of the most famous and desirable vintage timepieces ever created.
With its oversized winding crown, gilt dial accents, red-triangle bezel insert, and a clean case that’s void of crown-guards, the Submariner 6538 offers an inherently classic, clean, and unmistakably ‘50s aesthetic, and it is widely considered to be one of the all-time great vintage Rolex sports watches. They’re stunning watches in-the-metal. Other than potentially having over half of a century’s worth of wear and tear on its components, the only real downside to the Submariner ref. 6538 is that it has become so insanely collectible over the years that you’ll need to pony up six figures (or more) to add one to your collection.
On the other hand, Tudor’s great modern hit the Black Bay Fifty-Eight, offers many of these same core aesthetic features, but benefits from updated materials, a more advanced movement, an improved bracelet, and the ability to easily be serviced without worrying about replacing highly-collectible vintage components or a watchmaker handling a piece of that value. Plus, it can be purchased brand-new from any of Tudor’s authorized retailers for less than $4k!
Of course the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight is not a direct replacement for a vintage Rolex Submariner. At its core, the Black Bay is a modern watch and it includes modern design elements such as a sapphire crystal and solid-link bracelet. And the elephant in the room here is that, yes – it is produced by Tudor rather than Rolex and features Tudor’s signature style touches like “Snowflake” hands. For the collector who truly wants a piece of Rolex’s early dive watch history, a Tudor Black Bay simply isn’t going to scratch that same itch. We can agree on that. However, for the collector who enjoys mid-century dive watch design and wants to make it a part of their everyday life, the Black Bay Fifty-Eight checks a lot of the same aesthetic boxes and comes from Rolex’s historic sibling company – all for less than 5% of what it would cost to buy a vintage Rolex Submariner ref. 6538. In fact, you could buy 10 Black-Bay Fifty-Eights for the cost of a clean bezel insert for a “Big Crown”!
Now, if someone placed both a Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight and a vintage Rolex Submariner 6538 on the table and told me that I could have either one for free, of course I would pick the ref. 6538 every single time. While I would certainly enjoy owning a vintage grail that would drop jaws at RedBar meetups and blow up Instagram with every post, I’d bear the weight of being responsible for a historically important watch. Value as a hyper-collectible watch is one thing, but we’re truly only custodians for these things when we own them and I don’t know that I could live with myself if I somehow damaged a “Big Crown” wearing it casually.
I firmly believe that people should wear their watches and enjoy them to the fullest. However, there are also plenty of timepieces that I would love to own, but ultimately know I would be too afraid to wear on any regular basis due to their monetary value or the risk of damaging irreplaceable vintage components. At that point, you go from watch owner to essentially an art collector, and while there is nothing wrong with that approach to collecting, I am simply not in a financial position where I can have a fortune tied up in watches I can’t really wear. Maybe I’m not as bold as the guy that sports a “Big Crown” or a “Newman” Daytona around town or drives a Ferrari F-40 in traffic, but the psychology of ownership is a huge deal for most of us. As much as I would like to have a watch box full of grails, less expensive timepieces are what bring me the most joy.
It’s hard to separate a watch from its resale value and collectibility, but when trying to decide which timepiece I’d actually prefer between two models at drastically different price points, looking at it through the lens of this one hypothetical question helps me gain a bit of perspective: With an unlimited budget and no ability to ever sell the watch, which one would I rather own and wear for the rest of my life, given the additional condition that I am the only person who can see the watch or know that I have it?
As highly unrealistic as that scenario may seem, it does a remarkable job of helping me separate my actual personal preferences from the monetary value of the two watches and their greater significance within collector culture. I prefer the appearance and history of the vintage Rolex Submariner ref. 6538, but the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight is definitely going to be the more capable sports watch between the two models, which is useful given that I live a relatively active lifestyle. Additionally, even if value is irrelevant because I can’t sell either of the two watches in this hypothetical scenario, I would still be incredibly upset if I flooded the case of my 1950s Submariner while diving or swimming. Hell, I’d be branded a criminal within the watch community!
Collectors are rarely the most rational people and I love them for that. We need obsessives, we need people that are willing to bear the burden of responsibility that comes with owning and maintaining grail watches the right way! But when confronted with similar styling, superior performance, and a completely care-free ownership experience, who wouldn’t take the Tudor?
A big part of the reason I love vintage Rolex Submariner watches is because they weren’t created to be luxury items and they certainly weren’t regarded as such before the market became what it has. They were seen by their owners as rugged timekeeping tools, built to serve a specific purpose. Navy men bought them at post exchanges! They were worn all day, every single day, and throughout a wide variety of different demanding scenarios, without their owners ever worrying once about whether or not they might be ruining a highly collectible dial or bezel insert.
At the end of the day, I want that for myself. I want to be that guy who wears his watches daily and at the end of his life, has stories to tell about my experiences with them and why a couple might look like they’ve been through a blender. I could never be able to comfortably do that with a legitimately rare and collectible grail watch like a “Big Crown” Rolex Submariner, but I’m more than happy to strap a Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight to my wrist and put it through its paces during a proper lifetime adventure.
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