The Rolex Submariner is one of the most easily recognisable watches of all time. Much copied, this simple watch with black dial and white markers, in stainless steel, on a bracelet, is an icon whose appearance is almost completely purpose-driven. The story of each Rolex model begins with the Oyster case. First released in 1926, the Oyster watch represented a triumph in its waterproofness. This was quickly followed by the company’s automatic or ‘Perpetual’ movement as it is known, in 1931. The Oyster case and Perpetual movement form the basis of every mechanical watch available today from the company.
The 1950s and 1960s saw Rolex release many of the watches that have since become iconic, those with specific activities in mind that we call sports or tool watches. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s Oyster Perpetual models reached the summit of Everest in 1953. These were standard pieces, with white dials and black numerals. Rolex released the Explorer wristwatch soon after this ascent. This watch, with its black dial and white numerals, is very legible in lower light levels. In addition, it can withstand high temperatures and altitudes and is of course, waterproof.
Also released in 1953 was the Submariner. A watch designed as a tool for those going to great depths, rather than great heights, this one responded to the popularity of diving as a recreational sport and professional activity. The perpetual movement is key to its fitness for purpose too. A preceding manual wind watch would have required the wearer to unscrew the crown, wind the watch, and then screw the crown back in. Even if the diver resurfaced to do so, it would compromise the waterproofness of the watch, allowing water in through the space around the crown (winder) and causing damage. In addition, the watch running out would put the diver’s life at risk, if they were relying on it to measure the time elapsed underwater.
Rolex states on their site that the Submariner was the first watch to remain waterproof up to a depth of 100m. At that time, that was a significant depth. We should note here that Rolex (along with many other brands) have persisted with developing the resilience of their dive watches and the most recent Submariner can go to depths of 300m. The bezel (metal ring around the outside of the dial) features a count-up scale; numbered from 0-60, allowing the diver to keep track of the amount of time that has passed underwater, as mentioned. The diver would know, prior to setting out, how long their oxygen would last, thus the Submariner was not only a tool but a life-saver. Divers were not the only users of the Submariner of course. This count-up scale is useful in a variety of contexts, as well as the other features of the Submariner already mentioned. Many army personnel across the world, and particularly sea-farers, have used the model since its initial release.
One such individual owned an early Submariner, presented in our Select Watches auction on 11th October 2022. It is being sold by his daughter. The Edinburgh Evening News said this of the man in question, Ronnie Leask, in his obituary dated 23rd February 2017, “To many in Edinburgh and beyond, Ronnie Leask was known as the knowledgeable captain of the MV Gardyloo, the famous tanker that took people on pleasure trips around the Forth, while discreetly relieving itself of the waste it was transporting from the capital's sewers.” (It should be noted that the Gardyloo was not a pleasure vessel at all, rather alongside its primary function, local residents were offered trips that varied depending on the time of year.)
It seems that Ronnie was always destined for a seafaring life, with many other family members before him having chosen that path. Sadly, Ronnie’s mother passed away soon after he was born. His father worked at sea and was often away for long periods, meaning Ronnie was raised by his aunt and uncle. His uncle was a trawlerman and Ronnie often helped out on his boat, growing his ambition to join the Merchant Navy and so upon leaving school he studied at Leith Nautical College.
Ronnie soon became apprenticed within shipping company Runciman’s on the MV Fernmoor, a ship built in 1936 in Scotstoun, Glasgow. Misfortune struck the ship however and on only his second voyage between Japan and Australia, the ship came into trouble on a reef and sank in uncharted waters in the South China Sea. He said of the event, “She struck the reef ripping holes in the hull shortly after 0720 (I was painting the port alleyway) & we took to the boats around 1000.” Thankfully, the whole crew was rescued but it was after a long, hot day on unfit lifeboats which Ronnie described as a “bloody mess.” Due to many difficulties with aircraft, it took days for the crew to land back in the UK. Ronnie returned to Edinburgh to a very relieved aunt; sadly his uncle had passed away a few years prior. He enjoyed two weeks' leave and then set sail again, this time departing from the Tyne on the brand new MV Hazelmoor, also built in 1954.
Over the next 20 years, Ronnie worked on board ships internationally, returning periodically to Leith Nautical College to advance his qualifications. Perhaps most memorable, are those voyages from the time he worked on the Currie Line. One such journey, lasting over a year, saw him as the second mate on the MV Highland. The ship went from the UK to the USA through the Panama Canal and then on to Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, and back to the USA. They docked at Boston on the day of the assassination of JFK and his reflections on this, along with many other significant experiences, are outlined in his letters to his aunt back in Edinburgh. It was during this voyage that he purchased his Rolex Submariner from Lanes in Hong Kong. His daughter said, “the watch was a real treat and reward for himself. He always was an Ian Fleming fan, and read the books on his trip so I do wonder if that inspired his choice.” An early and now rarer example, it is quickly recognisable due to its lack of crown guards; sections of metal that flank the crown on later models.
Ronnie spent a few years on dry land after the Currie Line went into administration in 1969. He met his wife to be during this time and had two children. He was not away from the water for too long however and in the mid to late 1970s, Ronnie was made First Mate on the MV Gardyloo, a vessel owned by Lothian Regional Council. Ronnie was soon appointed as captain and also enjoyed acting as a tour guide and wildlife expert on board, all while proudly wearing his Submariner. At some point, the bezel was lost, but even without this, it is still an incredibly fine Submariner example. His daughter further recalls his adventurous spirit on dry land. He loved to hike and climb the Scottish mountains, including the many Munros, all while wearing his beloved watch. He continued to wear it daily until around the mid-1980s when he bought a digital watch; the Submariner only being worn on special occasions.
As humble an object as a watch may be, its coming to auction allows us to acknowledge an almost symbiotic relationship between it and its owner. The story of its very appropriate, seafaring journey imbues financial value on the watch. In turn, the biography of this owner is brought to light once again by its sale.
Lyon & Turnbull’s Watch Auctions department is a dynamic one with significant expertise, hosting diverse watch auctions across the U.K. featuring fine, rare, modern and vintage timepieces. Highlights from recent auctions include a rare Rolex Daytona 6263 that sold for £62,500 in October 2021 and an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak that achieved £106,250 (incl premium).
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