The Story Of Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Rolex 5517 ‘MilSub’ Submariner

Fragment Design founder and streetwear god Hiroshi Fujiwara set #watchfam Instagram ablaze the other day with a pic of a Rolex Submariner. Of course, it wasn’t just any Sub, it was a 5517, the fabled military-issued Submariner that Her Majesty’s armed forces gave to its military divers. Questions abound: Why a military Submariner? What is a military Rolex? What made the military Submariner different from other Rolexes? And why is it so special?

The first (and very obvious) answer to the last question is simple; it’s special because it is rare. Rolex collectors are famously picky and observant when it comes to little variations in watch designs, and the rarer the watch, the better. And what could be more rare than a watch hand-modified by the most famous of Swiss watch companies for use by soldiers? It’s estimated that the original production run of ref. no. 5517 Submariners was around 1200 pieces at most.

As these were government property, only a tiny fraction of these watches ever made it out of the barracks. Most were destroyed by the government after a few years of use, and there’s even stories about how others were later ‘converted’ back into civilian-style watches by watchmakers. If they only knew now what they (didn’t) know then! A ‘Mil-Sub’ that’s been properly authenticated can go for about $150,000 to $200,000 in the current market.

Yep, seriously.

So why a military Rolex? Well, back then of course diving watches were tools, and soldiers needed to measure elapsed time. The regular Rolex Submariners of the day (known as 5512s and 5513s) did this quite well, but the British Ministry of Defense had some extra-special requests for their gear.

The first modification was very practical; the steel watchband was ditched in favor of a nylon strap. While a ‘NATO’ is currently more of a fashion accessory, back then it was more about deleting the glare and ‘bling’ that naturally occurs when wearing a stainless-steel bracelet around your arm.

Image courtesy Phillips.

Understandably, soldiers have a vested interest in remaining incognito while on the battlefield, so the Oyster bracelet had to go. To underline this fact, the springbars between the watch-case lugs were also removed. Thicker ‘fixed bars’ were then directly welded to the case. Less stuff to break, basically. Plus, the MOD-spec bars actually strengthened the case.

The military Rollie also had a few other changes; instead of Rolex’s famous ‘Mercedes’ hands, the British forces had a set of ‘sword’ or ‘arrow’ hands swapped in for more glow. The dial was similar to the civilian version, except that tritium was used instead of radium to make the paint around the dial indices glow in the dark. This swap is of course designated by the famous ‘T’ in a circle underneath the Rolex name on the dial. The bezel is also different; the has marks go all the way around the watch instead of stopping at the 15-minute mark.

Military Rolexes are sort of a specialty of Mr. Fujiwara; he owns an early Rolex ‘Commando’ field watch, a Tudor ‘Big Crown’ Submariner, and a ‘Paul Newman.’ Most notably, he also owns an example of the first British military Submariner; one of only 21 to be created. This watch is the famous A/6538, also known as the ‘Red Triangle’ Submariner with a ‘3–6–9’ dial.

Fragment x Kentex: Hard to find, but cool!

Not that he wears only Rolex; he designed a series of watches for Tag Heuer, and did a couple different watches with Bamford. He’s of course also a fan of complicated Pateks. The list goes on! One of his most interesting watch collaborations was done with the Japanese company Kentex; originally for sale at $149, an EBay seller currently has one listed at a little over $1,000. The watch has a lot of Mil-Sub design cues, so if you don’t have $200k for an original it might be a bargain.