Please note the below is the result of personal research and represent my understanding of the history of one of the most sought after and copied watches of all time. Though I believe it to be accurate, no guarantee is made, either expressed or implied, to its accuracy.
1953 – Ref. 6204
The first Rolex Submariner was introduced at Baselworld in 1953, the reference 6204.
It is characterized by a 37mm case, bi-directional bezel, caliber A260 movement, water resistant to 100 meters, a small crown at only 5.3 mm, and a black dial with gilt printing (though variations exist with a “honeycomb” finish.) The “Mercedes” handset had not yet been introduced, with the 6204 carrying pencil hour and minute hands and a “lollypop” second hand.
The word “Submariner” may appear at the 12 o’clock position below Rolex or, as would later become the standard, at the 6 o’clock position though the depth rating was not yet stated on the dial.
1954 – Ref. 6205
Here we see the introduction of the “Mercedes” handset that would become the staple for the next 6+ decades. Though not yet a “big crown”, the crown has been increased in diameter to 6.0 mm.
The ref. 6205 continues with the cal. A260 movement and a waterproof rating of 100 meters.
1954 – Ref. 6200
Perhaps the rarest of the standard production Submariner references, the 6200 carries the “Explorer” dial with Arabic numerals at the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions and introduced the red triangle at the 12 o’clock position on the bezel. The waterproof rating has been increased to 200 meters, the crown to 8.0 mm, and it carries the larger A296 caliber.
1954 – Ref. 6538
“Bond, James Bond.” The ref. 6538 is the watch made famous by Sean Connery beginning in 1962 with the first 007 movie, “Dr. No”.
Replacing the 6204, it carries many of the features of the ref. 6200, including a 200 m / 660 ft depth rating (that may or may not be indicated on the dial at the 6 o’clock position depending on dial variant), a red triangle at the 12 o’clock position on the bezel, an 8.0 mm crown, and the “Mercedes” handset, though the diameter has been increased to 38 mm to accommodate the larger cal. 1030 movement.
There is also a ref. 6538 A variant, commonly believed to be a special version intended for military use. Extremely rare, it is distinguished by neither “Submariner” nor depth rating indicated on the dial, and a stronger Group 19 “Tropic” plexiglass crystal.
1955 – Ref. 6536
In 1955 Rolex replaced the ref. 6205 with the ref. 6536. While 38 mm in diameter to accommodate the larger cal. 1030 movement, it maintains the “small crown” at 6.0 mm, a 100 meter depth rating, and the “Mercedes” handset, though it has not yet received the red triangle at the 12 o’clock position on the bezel.
The ref. 6536/1 variant is more common though virtually identical to the ref. 6536 with the exception of a slightly thinner case. With the ref. 6536/1 we see some examples of a “tropical” dial, faded from the original black to a soft medium brown.
1957 – Ref. 5508
Following the ref. 6536, the ref. 5508 is the last Submariner guaranteed to a depth rating of 100 m / 330 ft. Like the ref. 6536, it maintains a 38 mm case, 6.0 mm crown, and the “Mercedes” handset. The movement has been upgraded to the cal. 1530.
The ref. 5508 has multiple dial variants including an underline at the 6 o’clock position under “Submariner” and an “Exclamation” radium dot above the word “Swiss” at the 30 minute mark on the minute track.
1958 – Ref. 5510
A continuation of the ref. 6538, the ref. 5508 is characterized by a 38 mm case, 200 m / 660 ft depth rating (that may only be visible under magnification with the “Ghost” dial variant), an 8.0 mm crown, and the “Mercedes” handset, though some examples have lost the red triangle at the 12 o’clock position on the bezel and the movement has been upgraded to the cal. 1530.