There is a difference between a legitimate company modifying and selling a watch to intentionally and transparently resemble a specific model, and a backroom tinkerer cobbling together an iconic piece from multiple watches to turn a profit through deception. The former demonstrates a deferential respect, paying homage to the status and beauty of the original; the latter is an act of fraud that disrespects a piece of history. The watches created by Project X Designs fall into the former category. While the brand has focused more on modification (such as red dial Daytonas and blacked-out Datejusts) than on recreating classics, it has delivered some exquisite modified pieces that recreate iconic Rolexes. Among them is the Project X Designs Milspec 1 Submariner, the spitting image of one of the rarest Submariners ever made.
There are two parts to this watch’s history: watch modification and the original Rolex Military Submariner. Legitimate modification of luxury timepieces is connected most clearly to Bamford Watch Department, a British company that classifies its work as the “personalization of the world’s most iconic watches.” Brands like Artisans de Geneve offer customization on commission, working on pieces supplied by their customers. Project X Designs is a hybrid of the two: only working on pieces they source (all of which are no more than 3-years old), the company crafts a number of fixed designs, sometimes allowing customization, all in extremely limited numbers. The Project X Designs Mil Spec 1, for instance, was limited to just 17 pieces.
The Rolex Military Submariner, or “Milsub,” was the result of the British Ministry of Defense contracting with Rolex in 1971 after a four-year engagement with Omega. The MOD worked with Rolex to modify the existing 5513: fixed spring bars and a nylon strap for a secure fit, sword hands for greater legibility, and a 60-minute bezel instead of the typical 15-minute markings. The military further modified the dial, replacing the radium luminescent material with safer tritium. The “Milsub” moniker applies to three references: the original 5513, the “double-stamped” 5513/5517, and the military-only 5517. Produced from 1971 to 1979, about 1,200 were delivered to military personnel, of which 180 or so remain.
In today’s market, brands are revisiting old models and releasing them with modern features, so it’s not entirely inaccurate think of the Project X Designs Mil Spec 1 as a high-craft reissue of the Milsub. The only difference is Rolex would never reissue a model, so the designers at Project X had to take it upon themselves. Based on the Submariner 114060, the Mil Spec 1 features a 40mm brushed case made of 904L stainless steel (which is more corrosion resistant and allows for greater polishing than other steels) with a thickness of 12.5mm and a lug-to-lug length of 48mm. The 114060 was released during the Maxi case period, so it also features the wider lugs. In being true to the original, the Mil Spec 1 features fixed 20mm spring bars, and comes with four NATO-style straps (all original parts, including the bracelet, are included with the watch). Rolex’s polished crown guards protect the 3 o’clock screwdown crown, which features Rolex’s patented Triplock system ensuring 300m water resistance. The screwdown caseback is engraved with the model name (the original’s had various military designations and serial numbers).
The black dial of the Project X Designs Mil Spec 1 is identical to that of the original Milsub. White minute hashes accompany bold circle and baton hour markers, printed in vintage lume. The sword-style handset features the same lume application (the sword hands were chosen by the MOD because they provide more surface area for lume application, meaning greater legibility in the field). While there’s no indication that tritium was used for the Mil Spec 1, it certainly was on the originals, and Project X Designs has modified the dial text accordingly: the circled T below the center and the ‘Swiss – T<25’ are both indicators of the use of tritium lume. Aside from that, you have the typical Rolex branding, including the polished rehaut with ‘Rolex’ engraving. Rounding out the watch is the modified bezel, replacing the modern ceramic bezel with aluminum (in lieu of the original German silver). The bezel features the same 60-minute markings as the Milsub and is adorned with a vintage-toned lume pip, matching the handset and hour plots.
Having a modern base watch, the Project X Designs Mil Spec 1 precludes the owner’s worry about vintage movement servicing and reliability. Instead of the Rolex caliber 1520 found in the Milsub, the Mil Spec 1 features the 3130 found in its base Submariner 114060. Introduced in 1999, the 3130 is the dateless version of the 3135. The movement beats at 28,800 vibrations per hour and provides a 48-hour power reserve aided by Rolex’s patented Chronergy escapement, which is significantly more efficient than the traditional lever escapement used in most Swiss timepieces.
The 31-jewel movement is protected by the older Kif shock absorbers instead of Rolex’s proprietary Paraflex system, and the balance features Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring with a Breguet overcoil, secured to a Glucydur balance wheel. As with all Rolex movements, the caliber 3130 is COSC certified and certified by Rolex as Superlative Chronometer, keeping time at +2/-2 seconds per day. Rolex may never win any awards for movement finishing, but they are nearly unparalleled in quality and reliability. And while the modifications almost certainly invalidated Rolex’s warranty, Project X Designs assumes the warranty with its in-house team of watchmakers; any service is guaranteed for a year after completion.
Versus the Competition
If one is sitting on a free $100k-$200k, the easiest alternative is the genuine article: an original Rolex Milsub. Failing that, there are some excellent reissues of vintage divers available on the market right now. Perhaps no other brand has capitalized on its classic dive catalog than Blancpain has, specifically with the Fifty Fathoms. The Tribute to Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec and its more faithful sibling the Fifty Fathoms Milspec Limited for HODINKEE recreate another vintage military diver for the modern consumer. Another great option would be one of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Tribute dive models, including the Memovox Tribute to Deep Sea. Of course, one could always commission a one-off recreation of the Milsub.
While most customized Rolexes are the fodder of those simply wanting something unique, the Project X Designs Mil Spec 1 is aimed at those seeking the trappings of a new Rolex with the look of an old Rolex, all while still being a Rolex. This watch will be best suited to those who appreciate both the historical significance of Rolex’s most important pieces and the craftmanship demonstrated in Project X Designs’ faithful recreation of one such piece.
The original Rolex Milsub combines legitimate military heritage and the allure of Rolex, making it one of the most sought-after Submariners ever made. The Project X Designs Milspec 1 Submariner seeks to capture that allure, using a modern watch as a base, and eliminating the concerns inherent to spending six figures on an old watch. What one gets is a storied design with modern reliability.