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Feature: Should You Buy A Rolex Submariner Or A Tudor Black Bay?

It might seem a tad unfair to throw Tudor into the ring with its older sibling, Rolex.

The latter can be viewed as the slick heavyweight champion who’s been around the block a few times. Still regarded by many as the Greatest of All Time, it’s showing no sign of giving up its titles any time soon.

Tudor, meanwhile, is an ambitious middle-weight, able to rattle Rolex with a few well-aimed jabs and possibly go the full twelve rounds—albeit suffering a broken rib or two. But that’s the best it can hope for.

Ultimately, there’s little doubt that Rolex is the superior brand. But what about pitting individual similar watches against each other?

When it’s the trusty ol’ Rolex Submariner facing off against Tudor’s much-lauded Black Bay, suddenly the playing field—or canvas, if we’re sticking with the boxing analogy—begins to look more level…

Shared History

Let’s start with a brief recap on the history of the brands.

Both Rolex and Tudor were founded by Hans Wilsdorf, the former in 1908, the latter in 1946, by which time Rolex was already a force to be reckoned with.

A 1966 Tudor Oyster Prince Submariner with a very Rolex look. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

A 1966 Tudor Oyster Prince Submariner with a very Rolex look. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Wilsdorf launched Tudor as a more affordable alternative to Rolex, something achieved by using non-Rolex—usually ETA—movements, while using the same materials as Rolex for pretty much everything else.

Therefore Tudor’s bracelets and cases, among other non-mechanical things, were on a par with those of Rolex, while its off-the-shelf calibres fell just a little bit short of the crown’s renowned finesse and precision.

But make no mistake, Tudor’s reputation as a manufacturer of robust tool watches commanded respect. A Rolex may have scaled the heights of Everest in 1953, but Tudor models could take a battering too. They were used by the French and US navies, and accompanied various scientific expeditions in unforgiving terrains all over the world.

As for designs, a look at Tudor watches during its early years shows that it rarely ventured far from the Rolex aesthetic. Indeed, Tudor dive watches of the 60s and 70s were barely distinguishable from Rolex.

It even, ahem, ‘borrowed’ the name of a certain iconic dive model…

Tudor Made A Submariner Too!

Take a look at the Tudor in the image above. Looks familiar, right?

This is the Tudor Prince Submariner Reference 7928, made in the 1960s. The Mercedes hands, Oyster bracelet, dial design and case all point to it being a Rolex Submariner. It’s only the text on the dial that really gives it away as a Tudor—although if you were to unscrew the case you’d find an off-the-shelf automatic movement.

Tudor, a slightly timid creature back then and not the stridently confident beast of today, stuck close to this Rolex aesthetic right up until the late 60s, when it finally broke free of its shackles and decided to make some significant design tweaks—things that were to help define it in later years.

These included offbeat chronograph dials in bold colour combinations, chunky square hour markers and, of course the now signature Tudor hands that have since been christened ‘snowflake’—due to their shape rather than any political left-wing leanings.

Tudor’s Fallow Years

Until recently, Tudor really did live in Rolex’s shadow. Throughout the 80s and 90s Rolex didn’t seem to know what to do with its pesky sibling. In an industry that was going through some seismic changes, Tudor receded into the background.

One thing Rolex did do, however, was allow it to keep the Submariner name.

The reference 124060, a contemporary version of the Rolex Submariner.

The reference 124060, a contemporary version of the Rolex Submariner.

Yes, there were Tudor Submariner models in its catalogues right up until 1999, after which the name quietly disappeared from the Tudor lexicon and the brand appears to have battened down the hatches in order to come up with a strategic plan for a much-needed reboot.

While Tudor was in the doldrums, Rolex’s Submariner was being constantly upgraded, mechanically modified, cosmetically enhanced—all the things Rolex does to ensure it stays at the very top of its game.

So by the time Tudor released its Black Bay—essentially its version of the Submariner – it was up against a watch that had been refined to perfection.

Let Battle Commence

While Tudor was in a state of hibernation, the cost of a Rolex went through the roof, with a Submariner doubling in price over the past two decades. Thankfully part of Tudor’s revival entailed keeping their watches relatively affordable, despite its introduction of in-house calibres.

The Heritage Black Bay is Tudor's answer to the Submariner.

The Heritage Black Bay is Tudor's answer to the Submariner.

And that’s one thing the Black Bay will always have over the Submariner: exceptional value. Not that the Submariner isn’t a great watch, but is it really several thousand pounds greater than the Black Bay? Or would that be down to the ‘Rolex Effect’—ie the very name itself driving up that price tag.

Decide for yourself…

Tudor’s Vintage Appeal

At 41mm the Black Bay is larger than the Submariner’s 40mm, which also makes it larger than the old Tudor dive watches it’s inspired by. But modern dimensions aside, it is a subtly retro piece, evoking an era of Adidas Gazelle trainers, Jensen Interceptor cars and footballers with lambchop sideburns. (There’s always the 39mm Black Bay 58 model to consider if you want to scale down.)

The off-white lume on the snowflake hands and indexes, those rose gold accents, plus the absence of a crown guard really drum home the vintage aesthetic.

In contrast, the Submariner looks slightly austere, a bit of a square. A pair of neatly pressed chinos to the Black Bay’s indigo denim.

Cosmetic Details

Both watches have almost identical-looking bezels, with the Black Bay’s boasting that triangular pop of red at 12 o’clock. Made of aluminium, the Black Bay’s is going to get a little beaten up and faded—which is great if you’re the kind of person who thinks that adds character—while the Submariner’s should remain virtually intact.

This is thanks to its state-of-the-art Cerachrom inserts, which don’t get affected by the sun’s ultraviolet rays and also have platinum inlays.

Rolex doesnt skimp on minutiae when it comes to its dials.

Rolex doesnt skimp on minutiae when it comes to its dials.

Furthermore, the Submariner’s hands are fashioned in white gold and the logo on the Submariner’s crown is in relief, while the rose on the Black Bay’s much larger crown is etched—a much cheaper process.

The Submariner also wins easily on bracelet quality thanks to Rolex’s supremely comfortable Glidelock clasp system, a major development since it purchased Gay Freres, the company that made its bracelets, in the 90s.

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

As for the automatic movements, both are COSC-certified and in-house, now that Tudor’s Black Bays no longer use modified ETA movements.

But, hidden away as they are by their steel casebacks, Rolex’s movements are nevertheless marvels of mechanical perfection, with the 3130 of the Submariner boasting Rolex’s parachrom hairspring, unlike the silicon variety used by Tudor. Add to that sublime finishing and perlage effects, and it’s not a contest the Black Bay could ever win with its plain-looking work-horse movement—reliable as it is.

The Heritage Black Bay's vintage vibe summons up the spirit of Tudor's past.

The Heritage Black Bay's vintage vibe summons up the spirit of Tudor's past.

Also, the Submariner is water resistant to 300 metres compared to the Black Bay’s 200 metres, but that surely won’t be a factor for those who prefer to stay on dry land.

The Verdict

The Submariner outclasses its Black Bay stablemate in several areas and is generally a superior product, but getting a brand-new model is like foraging for truffles on an ice rink. Pre-owned Rolexes are obviously far easier to get hold of. Still, however you manage to get hold of one, you’re unlikely to regret it.

As for the Black Bay, it’s not to be treated as some kind of consolation prize if you can’t afford, or get, a Sub. It’s a great watch in its own right, and even the slightly smaller Black Bay 58s now have waiting lists in some countries.

One thing’s for certain: both these remarkable watches are set to be around for a very long time.

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