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Update with some more pictures, taken during the “Issued Rolex Meeting” in London which you find over here….

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Above, 2 x A6538, of which the left one is having the reprinted Burford dial and a 5513 also with later serviced dial. Below the obligatory group shot during the Issued meeting of 26 x full spec Rolex Military Submariner’s…

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The story about the so far Unique Rolex Ref. A6538 U.K. Military Big Crown Submariner…

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I would like to present to you the only “still all original” Rolex Submariner A/6538 ever discovered so far which is still in exactly the configuration Rolex delivered it to the British MoD, Ministery of Defense! Enjoy this rarity in all it’s glory from my pictures below.

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  • The A/6538 Big Crown UK Military Submariner is perhaps the most important Rolex Military Submariner that can be discovered. From a batch of some 21 to 50 examples only, the legendary A/6538 Submariner had the prototype bezel, required fixed spring bars and military case back engravings by the MoD. The original owner of this giant Big Crown was at the Royal Navy in Plymouth, U.K.

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  • Rolex Ref 6540 was crossed out, III’57 making it third quarter 1957 and re engraved A/6538 to become the final reference. Many asked me and yes indeed it’s having the H.S. 10 – CD case back engravings and the serial number is 49.09x, making it the earliest known of the 3 existing Ref A/6538 which are in original condition. The movement no. is just 1 number next to the one John Goldberger published in his 100 Superlative Rolex book

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  • Directly from the son, who contacted me, is this extremely rare Ref. A/6538 Rolex Big Crown U.K. Military Submariner from 1957 I just picked up at Portsmouth. Below picture is from the moment I had it in my hands in the sun outside. You clearly see the scratches on the crystal but then you also notice how fresh the red triangle on the bezel and the red on the dial still is. The radium luminous is having a warm patina and it seems the dial surface is undamaged.

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  • This A/6538 is untouched, unfiltered and 100 % original as delivered! Something we have not seen before. So far we know of 2 examples still having the original radium 3-6-9 dial with red depth rating 200/660. One has swapped dial that got relumed and the other one is missing its fixed bars, making this one the first and only known fully original A/6538 Military Big Crown! While in the UK I received many requests to post a better picture so I quickly hand polished the crystal with toothpaste to unveil its real beauty underneath the scratches of the crystal…

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  • After many hours of hand polishing the crystal from both sides and gentle cleaning the prototype bezel after I removed it carefully and after I rcleaned the dial even more carefully with a soft brush, while wearing a cover over my mouth to keep the radium dust out, here is the final result for you. With it’s original crystal, that got “iced” by the radium dust which you can only notice when looking from the sides..

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  • Side-view of the original “iced” crystal due to the radium dust that came to the inside of the plexi you get a unique transformation..

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  • It’s almost art to me, that perfectly the lines are shaped. Note the sharp chamfer on the bevel!..

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  • Here  a very unusual picture without the crystal and after I cleaned the dial very very carefully. Needless to say, I’m extremely happy with the outcome!

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  • This specially by the SBS ordered Ref A/6538 is most probably the most important Submariner Rolex delivered. It’s the first UK Military having the prototype ‘German Silver’ bezel for better handling, that became later so iconically on every Submariner sold by Rolex. The condition is really exceptional good as you can see from this picture. Note also that this rare prototype bezel is much higher so the 8 mm Brevet Crown can still be closed to the case and become 200 meter waterproof!

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  • On below picture you really see how thick the A/6538 really is, just amazing! For those that have handled a Big Crown, they know it’s thick but this A/6538 also due to the bigger bezel is really huge in dimensions.

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It al most looks like a spaceship strapped on my wrist 😉

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  • Clearly visible still how fresh the german silver prototype bigger and higher rotating bezel is and the A/6538 stamp between the fixed bars…

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  • Here is a close up of the 8 mm Big Brevet Crown and the crisp prototype bezel. This unique bezel, which has specially made for the A/6538, is wider then we previously see on regular 6538’s. It’s also clearly visible how much higher it is to make winding of the crown still possible…

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  • And from the other side as well. Note the greenish corrosion between the case and the german silver bezel, typical patina – reaction we see with silver…

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  • The typical engraving, H.S.10 CD, Military sign and its serial number: 49.09X. The H.S stands for “Hydrographic Survey”; the department of the U.K. Admiralty responsible for map & chart making.  It was the Hydrographic Survey who was responsible for procuring and servicing all Royal Navy timepieces! The CD meaning it was issued to a “clearance diver”. A clearance diver was originally a specialist naval diver who used explosives underwater to remove obstructions to make harbours and shipping channels safe to navigate, but later the term “clearance diver” was used to include other naval underwater work. Units of clearance divers were first formed during and after the Second World War to clear ports and harbours in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe of unexploded ordnance and shipwrecks and booby traps laid by the Germans..

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  • The movement number is precisely 1 number next to the one published in Goldberger’s Rolex book I found out. It’s missing  3x little teeth missing from one of the main winding gears, blocking the movement from running freely. It clearly needs a well deserved service but then, I just keep it as it is for now. Thinking out loud how this A/6538 had miraculeus escaped from being reprinted to “Burford” dial and reissued early 1960, I remember the son told me “that his father served in Submarines during his naval career and had a spell out in the Far East in the 1960’s”. So he must have took it with him to the Far East.

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Here’s a interesting part from an article written by James Dowling:

When the first series of watches were issued to the divers of the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Squadron (later to become the Special Boat Service), they noted one problem with the watch; it was difficult to rotate the bezel when wearing diving gloves. They also wanted the watch to have solid strap bars; so Rolex decided to make a special model just for the SBS, they initially gave it the unique reference 6540. This number would have made sense as the 6541 was the antimagnetic Mk1 Milgauss, the 6542 was the Mk1 GMT- Master and the 6543 was the amagnetic Mk1 Milgauss.

But as the quantity needed was so small, the initial order was for only 21 watches, it was decided to make these watches as a ‘spin-off’ from the 6538 and they were called the A/6538; however this decision came rather late as the case backs had already been made with the original model number stamped inside. So, all the A/6538 watches bear two references, the original 6540 neatly crossed out by three horizontal lines and their new number next to it. Such a small run of watches were obviously all made together, this can be seen as they all bear the manufacturing date of the final quarter of 1957; no closer dating estimate can be made as all the A/6538 watches have one other common feature; in fact, it would be more correct to say that they all LACK a common feature; unlike all other Rolex Oyster watches, the A/6538s are devoid of a serial number.

None were numbered or ever showed signs of ever having a number between their lower lugs. I mentioned above that the SBS wanted a more usable bezel design, the one chosen had much more pronounced ridges and extended beyond the perimeter of the case, two design features that made it easier to grip whilst wearing diving gloves. Unlike the normal 6538 bezels, which were made of a brass/zinc alloy which was then rhodium plated, these new bezels were made of German Silver (an alloy of Nickel, Copper & Zinc) the great advantage of the German Silver over the previous alloy was that when struck it tended to dent rather than break. This style of bezel proved to be such a success that it became the prototype for the bezels used on the 5512/3 models which followed soon after the A/6538s and has been used on all subsequent Submariners.

The dials of the A/6538 followed exactly the first dials from the civil 6538, which is they were of the ‘Explorer’ configuration with large 3/6/9 in radium numerals on a glossy black dial. There was one touch that Rolex added, instead of the usual ‘200m=660ft’ printed in silver on the dial, these watches (and these watches alone) bore the legend ‘200/660’ in red above the name ‘Submariner’ and there were no units printed after each number. This was the first time that Rolex had used red print on the dial of a sports watch. Unfortunately this unique dial did not survive for very long, the problem was that it used radium as the exciter for the luminous material, and radium was a problem; both in nuclear submarines (where the users of these watches could be expected to travel) and as a hazardous substance in its own right.In 1960 the MoD began to withdraw all watches with radium dials; they were sent to a specialist facility where the dial face with its radium contaminated paint was brushed off under running water. The dials were then polished and reprinted by MoD contractors who produced a reasonable facsimile of the original dials, however, these reprints had none of the delicacy and subtlety of the originals.” Read the whole article over here… 

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I like to add some notes I got during a recent conversation with Jed McCormack, who also handled the A/6538 and many U.K Military Submariners and has a great interest in MoD watches in general. As there are always different approaches or stories been told, I like to share that information which is important to understand the early U.K. military. When we compare the lowest number and the highest number of the HS-10 CD and 0552/923-7897 we come to the conclusion, if the total numbers where reserved by Rolex for the A/6538 reference , that some 50 examples could have been made. Off these 50 examples some 30 where used for the regular big crown Ref 6538 and the other 20 for the A/6538. Then it is also been said that CD could mean “civilian division”.

  • This picture below taken during last Rolex Passion Meeting. 2 x  A/6538’s with later reprinted, non Rolex “Burford” dials and a later Military Submariner.

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The H.S. get in Ref 6150 Explorers in 1953/4 . Next in line is the Ref 6538 in 1956 with red depths and then in 1957 is the improved A/6538 with prototype bezel. For the Ref 6538 they used serial number as stores number. In 1961/’62 we then get the Ref 5512. In 1962/3 all watches are recalled and as in the navy nothing gets thrown away, the Rolex where refreshed. The radium got removed, the dial got reprinted into so called “Burfort” and the dial got luminated with by new standard using tritium instead of radium. If you look closely on those having the military code 0552/923-7897, in most cases you will see the old hs10 engraving underneath! So the navy importantly reissued them to New NATO stores.

  • Up close a ultra rare 3-6-9 Red Depth 200/66o dial made by “Stern”. Picture courtesy of Marcello Pisani. We see the typical aging of the radium dust that has eaten the top layer of the glossy finish of the dial. It’s impossible NOT to have these signs of aging process as even the slightest dust coming from the richly luminated indexes and handset is enough to slowly vanish the lacquer, clearly visible below…

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  • Here’s the second known A/6538 with original dial but unfortunately it’s missing the MoD requested “fixed spring bars”. If these have been removed because the later owner wanted to wear it on a steel Rolex rivet bracelet is unknown but possible. Sadly he destroyed the important military configuration by removing them for his benefit. It’s published in Goldberger’s Rolex Book, having the later 49.119 serial and also having the H.S.10 CD engraving.

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  • Note the corrosion of the upper part of the special prototype “german silver” bezel. Note also the octagonal shaped lug holes missing the fixed spring bars. This Rolex invention has been added on every Submariner since then sold by Rolex and became one of the typical Rolex design features next to the “mercedes hands”…

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  • And below the 3rd known original dialed Ref A/6538, apparently found on the beach with a metal detector. Although it’s still having it’s original fixed spring bars, I heard that the previous owner, who got it after it was found, swapped in a 3-6-9 red depth dial you see below in there. Besides the missing correct bezel insert this means it’s not in the original condition as delivered we collectors aim for….

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  • More difficult readable is the text on the dial of this survivor, that got swapped in there. Lost during action and after many years in the breakers of the sea before it got discovered with a metal detector as the story goes. Nevertheless it’s a wonder that it got found, missing the original inlay and judging from the different tone of the handset luminous and the index on the dial, the dial has sadly been relumed and is not original anymore.

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  • Here it’s published with an unoriginal black insert. The movement number of this particular A/6538 says N573.818 and the serial is also later, 49.131

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Then Rolex also made a Ref 6540 or A/6538 for the UK military of which the most got a new tritium dial reprint. Mike Wood wrote: “As the real danger of radium became apparent, the watches were recalled to the Ministry of Defence in the early 1960’s, where the watchmakers at the observatory at Herstmonceaux Castle in southern England fitted dials with tritium luminous markers, tritium hands, and bezel inserts with tritium markers dots.

The dials were printed for the Ministry of Defence with a very clear and legible 3-6-9 lay-out, with a very tall Rolex coronet, and the T-circle signifying tritium luminous compound. The dials are also referred to as the “Burford dials”. The bezel on the watch is unique to the A/6538, being much deeper than that fitted to the civilian Submariner watch (possibly for better grip when wearing thick diving gloves?), and is made from a metal alloy referred to as German silver. The extra height of the bezel necessitates a “double height” glass retaining ring, but the bezel does not clip very securely and invariably these watches lose their original bezels (replacements are unobtainable)”

  • Here’s the A/6538 – 6540with Burford dial I found in Germany on a flee market, without the german silver bezel Mike describe up here, probably lost in combat instead it had a ring of a door closure mounted! I then add this Seadweller bezel which was the closest to the original prototype bezel. It’s having the MoD military code 0552/923-7897 engraved on the case back.

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  • The reprinted Burford dial, which also got patinated over the years to a warm yellow…

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  • And yet another A/6538 crossed 6540 case back..

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  • The 1030 caliber, best working under any condition and most accurate movement Rolex has made…

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  • Up close, the reference numbers that was engraved by Rolex between the lugs…

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  • And on the other sides, nothing! The serial number was added on the case back instead it was as usual between the lugs..

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The MoD military code 0552/923-7897 with the serial number below… The H.S engraving was before added on this case back.

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  • Below, a later diving board that was used by Clearance Divers and Military around the globe. Next to the compass and the depth meter, the actual watch was strapped to this board for precise navigation. Hence the fixed spring bars making it impossible to loose the timepiece…

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  • And another rare A/6538, ex – Mike Wood, which has the silver german bezel and fixed bars but also with reprinted unoriginal “Burford” dial and later bezel insert…

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  • Well documented and pictured, this A/6538 gives us a good reference to understand this unique project Rolex did for the SBS.

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  • As these watches where in some situations attached to a military diving board with depth meter and compass, the scarves seen on this particular model makes sense as it’s damaged from the sides and underneath, which is hardly possible while wearing on the wrist…

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  • The “Clearance Divers” where taking care of cleaning up mines etc. which obviously was a very hard and rough job…

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  • See above the A/6538 engraving on one side and no serial number on the other side, which was engraved on the case back. As it has been written earlier, Rolex had given the impression the special “Ministry of Defence” order would be much bigger then the 2 handful of Big Crowns Rolex finally delivered. The production of this special BC started already and was designed to be named Ref 6540 but as orders stayed behind, Rolex decided to make the spin off A/6538 reference instead. The case nevertheless was already produced and engraved between the lugs and stamped in the case back, waiting to get the initial serial number between the lugs when official delivery started. Fact this serial number is only on the case back telling us there was some disagreement, making the A/6538 the smallest Submariner batch ever delivered buy Rolex….

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  • Same case back batch again, crossed 6540, restamped A/6538 from 3rd quarter 1957…

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  • Then we also saw the regular bezel 6538 with later “Burford dial” found with the H.S. 10 CD & MoD military code: 0552/923-7697. My personal belief is that not many of these regular big crowns have been used due to the different bezel which was very hard to use while wearing gloves. I think that those that are around are made by service parts that where found with ex watchmakers…

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Check out this little box with Ref 6538 service dials for instance and then you understand why I think we see normal engraved 6538 with these service dials. Question is if the circled T hasn’t been added later to make these dials give more purpose. Only 2-3 of the 55 dials where reprinted “Burford”.

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  • In front on the right side leaning against the box you see a loose “Burford” dial and last one in the box seem to have a 3.

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  • Regular Big Crown H.S. 10 CD engravings…

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  • Then also known to have been found with the MoD military code 0552/923-7897, here with early 49.0.xx serial on a normal bezeled Big Crown…

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  • Some even with much late serial number, 145.xxx instead of the 49.xxx batch.

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  • Different Military case back gravures…

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  • To end this episode of rareness, here’s another slightly later Ref 6538 with red depth, explorer type 3-6-9 dial and OCC

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  • Found in South America and you can clearly see it has hardly been used. When I got it, you really needed to force the clasp to get it open this unworn it was. The extra chronometer rating (OCC – Official Certified Chronometer) is making this example almost unique. Just 1 other example is known to be published in a Japanese magazine but that one is having a relumed dial. Here another look of the evaluation of the Big Crown with the Ref 6538. This 140.xxx serial is using the same dial as in the A/6538 but most probably as it was sold oversees, maybe to U.S. or South American Army, it got the OCC stamp on the dial.

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  • Find below on the OCC Ref 6538 red 369 the “Star Dial” effect as I like to call it as it looks like the dial is covered with little stars when you turn the light in there.

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  • Exactly the same “Star Dial” effect you see above is also on the Military Submariner Ref A/6538…

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  • I was wearing a later 3-6-9 Submariner during the pick up of the A/6538 which also sold exclusively in the UK only…

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  • For most people these 2 iconic Rolex Submariner below are the same, for us collectors there’s a huge difference! Both have a turning bezel, both have 3-6-9 explorer type of dials but thats about it, evolution wise there’s a difference of 6-7 years, which is a lot when you see that very year Rolex updated their models. The early high radium, 1 color print only on the left is totally different then the new generation tritium glossy 2 color print without hardly any radiation on the right.

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I do hope you enjoyed my write up. If you come across anything that looks like you have seen in this report, feel free to contact me. I think there are still many great vintage Rolex to discover and wonderful stories to be told. It’s my privilege to be able to do this for you. I would like to thank the family for making the deal with me and my lovely wife for the patience she has when i’m hooked on again 😉

Cheers,

Philipp

 

Update March 01 – 2016

  • I noticed that something really interesting is happening with my Rolex A/6538 Submariner recently. The following what happened I’ve never experienced before and therefor I like to share it with you. Now If you look at below picture, please focus on the left part of the dial….somehow there was a lighter part on the left of the dial, it was not a stain when I looped it but instead it almost seemed that the lacquer was more rough / dry. Not that I really cared as I was already over the moon so happy with the authenticity of it but I spotted it anyways after looking at it regularly. While checking my earlier pictures, I noticed it was there from the beginning when I took off the crystal from the front and brushed away all little dirt parts that where on the dial…
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  • To make it easier visible and comparable, I marketed the rough area below on the picture that I uploaded for my report….

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  • While I was wearing it in my pocket all the time, enjoying it by looking at it several times a day, I noticed that the rough area is getting smaller! Maybe due to the warmth in my pocket, fresh air the dial had or because the dial surface needed to calm down after I gently cleaned it, honestly I don’t know why but the area became smaller. So I started making pictures and went comparing them with the ones I made from beginning… Below you see that the area has become already much smaller, making the depth rate and submarine print pop out again. You can imagine I was happy to see this!

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  • Then yet another week later, again the area as you see below, had become even smaller… so before I left for Parma I hoped when I came back, it would be nicer then we see below…
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  • From a different angle, now only between 6 & 7 o’clock is some roughness visible…
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  • But when I had a look it today, it was completely gone!
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  • Also from different angle you don’t see it anymore….
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  • Next to each other for easy comparison you see what happened in the last weeks after I got it, left was from day 1 when I came back from the U.K. and just after I cleaned the dial and right is from today 😉
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  • Just amazing, I mean the whole watch is a miracle but that this is happened, I never thought was possible!
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Only serious vintage Rolex collectors understand the importance of below picture. Meet the 2 rarest Submariners made…
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Cheers,
Philipp
Rolex Passion Report