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The Rolex Explorer is in many ways the quintessential dressy tool watch from Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual collection — less flashy than the GMT-Master, less bulky than the Submariner, while still rooted, like those two models, in a history of adventure and discovery. While it has changed very little since the 1950s, today’s Rolex Explorer is the culmination of many decades of aesthetic and technical evolution, guided by a watchmaker for whom the subtlest details make all the difference in the world to its avid legions of fans.
The Rolex Explorer, like all Oyster Perpetual timepieces in Rolex’s Professional collection, is an expression of two technical milestones that Rolex and its visionary founder Hans Wisdorf contributed to watchmaking history. The first is the so-called Oyster case, developed in 1926, which revolutionized the construction of watch cases with its dustproof, waterproof, hermetically sealed structure, secured by a threaded caseback and a crown that screwed tightly into the case. In 1931, Rolex made history again with the creation of its first “Perpetual” movement (below), whose self-winding mechanism was driven by an oscillating rotor.
The marriage of these two inventions gave rise to the “Oyster Perpetual” line of timepieces that remain at the heart of Rolex’s collection today, beginning with the Datejust in 1945 and coming to full fruition with the tool-oriented, yet still luxurious, Professional models that emerged in the early 1950s: the deep-sea-diving Submariner, the travel-ready GMT-Master, and the watch that is perhaps the most effortlessly stylish in its utilitarian design, the mountaineering-driven Explorer — a watch that has changed in only the subtlest of ways since it came to the world’s attention in 1953 after playing a key role in that year’s historic expedition to Mount Everest.
The Rolex Explorer’s ascension to the top of Everest, and its subsequent mainstream popularity, began in earnest in the 1940s, with the 5020 series of watches. Bearing the Italian nickname “Ovettone,” which roughly translates to “big egg,” these watches’ monobloc Oyster cases were not only larger than usual for the time (36mm, at a time when most men’s watches, including those from Rolex, averaged 32mm to 33mm), but also notable for their largely domed casebacks and crystals. The 6098 series of Ovettones followed and in most respects superseded the 5098 models, adding the newly designed Super Oyster Crown, which didn’t screw down into the case but simply pushed in, as it would in a dress watch; and the automatic (i.e., Perpetual) A296 movement. The movement was chronometer-rated and also quite thick, which necessitated the bulging “bubbleback” case design. It is the 6098 models, and their successors in the 6298 series, with three-part cases replacing the monobloc ones, that are today considered the prototypes for the modern Rolex Explorer.
Fast forward to the seminal year of 1953 — which saw Rolex unveil the first Submariner, the Turn-o-Graph that would one year later evolve into the GMT-Master, and the first generation of the Rolex Explorer. It was also, as alluded to previously, the year of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historical expedition to the summit of Mount Everest on May 29, led by Colonel John Hunt for Great Britain. Rolex, as well as a now-mostly-forgotten British watchmaker called Smiths, provided watches for the expedition. The Rolex model was the “pre-Explorer” Ref. 6098, equipped with the automatic Caliber A296; the watch that Rolex provided to Hillary, which was never produced commercially, now resides in Zurich’s Beyer Watch & Clock Museum. After the historic feat, which was completed just in time for the British media to proudly report it on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on June 2, 1953, Rolex predictably touted it in advertisements for the mountaineering-themed timepiece that it released that year, Ref. 6350, the first Rolex watch with “Explorer” on the dial. (Rolex, in fact, had already established a bit of history in this area: the company had previously provided watches to the pilots who made the first expedition flight over Mount Everest in 1933, and ran contemporary ads calling attention to it.)
The evolution of the Explorer can be traced in a fairly straight line, from the “Ovettone” 5098 and 6098 models, to the 6150, and ultimately to the 6350, widely regarded as the first “official” Explorer, aka Explorer I (below). The 6150 establishes what has come to be known as the “Explorer” dial layout: inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, and bar indexes at the other hour positions. Its steel case measured 36mm, like those of the watches carried on the Everest expedition. The dial featured the now-familiar Mercedes hour hand and pencil-shaped minute hand and, on the majority of models, featured the word “Precision” above 6 o’clock; a relatively small number of models in this series had “Explorer” in this spot instead. The immediate successor to the 6150, the 6350, is distinguished not only by its adoption of this verbiage on the dial but also by the chronometer certification of its movement, which was the same Caliber A296 inside the 6150 mode but finely adjusted to greater precision. The Explorer Ref. 6350 was available with several dial iterations and handsets, including Mercedes, pencil, and syringe-style hands, and the now very rare and collectible “honeycomb” textured dial.
Rolex trotted out a new in-house Perpetual movement, Caliber 1030, in 1956, installing it in the next generation of the Explorer, Ref. 6610. The thinness of the new movement compared to its predecessor allowed for the watch case — still 36mm in diameter — to also be slimmed down, allowing the Explorer to move on from the “bubbleback” look of its antecedents. This reference, which ushered in Mercedes hands and gilt dials (aka black with gold text) more or less permanently to the series, was produced only until 1959, and examples today are quite rare and valuable. The successor to that model, by contrast, proved to be the version of the Explorer with the most longevity — as well as one of the longest-running sports watch models, period.
The Explorer Ref. 1016, launched in 1963 and continuously produced until 1989, is what most Rolexophiles envision today as the classic Explorer I. Like its predecessor, it marked the debut of another new Rolex movement, the automatic Caliber 1650, a chronometer-rated mainstay of that era’s Oyster Perpetual watches. It was also the first iteration of the Explorer to bear the lofty and now familiar inscription “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” on its dial, and was the first one whose Oyster case offered 100 meters of water resistance. As is its wont, Rolex tweaked and updated the Ref. 1016 over its ensuing years in production: Caliber 1560 gave way to the successor Caliber 1570, which added a hacking seconds function, and the radium-based luminous paint on the dials was discontinued in favor of a less-radioactive tritium-based substance (a transition which was, of course, taking place throughout the watchmaking industry as a whole at the time).
The Explorer Ref. 1016 won over many enthusiasts in its decades of uninterrupted production, and is even considered by many purists to be the “real” James Bond watch — rather than the Rolex Submariner worn by Sean Connery in the early Bond movies, which usually bears that distinction. As I explore in some detail here, 007’s creator Ian Fleming (above) wore an Explorer I and somewhat obliquely referred to some of its attributes when describing Bond’s watches in his novels.
[At this point you may be wondering, why refer to this three-handed, chronometer version of the Explorer as the “Explorer I” at all? Quite simply, because Rolex decided to release, in 1971, another version of the watch that included a GMT function. I’ll delve into this watch, which remains in the modern collection as the Explorer II, and certainly merits its own deep dive — or should that be “steep climb?”— in a future article.)
The long run of the Explorer Ref. 1016 finally reached the finish line in 1989, as it was phased out to make way for the new Ref. 14270, still at 36mm in steel, now with a sapphire crystal rather than the acrylic one of previous generations, and with Super-LumiNova eventually displacing tritium on the dial’s hands and markers for illumination (both upgrades were industry-wide trends). Other substantial upgrades included the white gold, applied hour numerals (still in the well-established 3, 6, and 9 layout), which replaced the previous painted ones, and another new automatic, in-house movement, Rolex Caliber 3000, with an optimized frequency of 28,800 vph. (The subsequent and virtually identical Ref. 114270, launched in 2001, differed mainly in its use of Caliber 3130, whose upgrades included a larger balance wheel, a balance bridge replacing a balance cock, and a flat hairspring with a Breguet overcoil.) The glossy black dial replaced the matte versions found on late 1990s models of the Explorer. In some of the earliest 14270 Explorers, Rolex filled the applied numerals with black lacquer rather than luminous paint, before customer dissatisfaction moved the company to discontinue this practice; these “Black Out” Explorer models are among the rarest modern Rolexes out there today.
Rolex is legendary not only for its longstanding capacity to set watch industry trends but also, perhaps even moreso, for its steadfast refusal to follow them. Its watches — the Explorer being a prime example — still look essentially the same in the second decade of the 21st Century as they did in the middle of the 20th. But the industry-wide movement toward “bigger is better” proved to be too widespread for even mighty Rolex to ignore. In 2010, the Explorer, considered a large watch when it debuted at 36mm in 1953, was the dwarf of Rolex’s men’s lineup in 2010. Hence the launch of the Explorer Ref. 214270 at that year’s Baselworld watch fair, which featured an expended 39mm case, a new movement (automatic Caliber 3132, which added a new shock-absorbing system and Rolex’s blue Parachrom hairspring), and initially, no lume on the applied numerals; the latter was rectified in the “Mark 2” models rolled out in 2016, which also had lengthened hands to better fit the wider dial dimensions. This generation of the Explorer I was also the first to incorporate Rolex’s proprietary, blue-glowing Chromalight luminous material on the dial’s hands and markers in place of standard Super-LumiNova.
By 2021, watch-world trends had shifted again, back toward more modest dimensions and a return to vintage looks overall. Rolex didn’t have to look very far to find a watch in its lineup that would fit the bill, and one that wouldn’t even require any major overhauls design-wise. The Explorer I Ref. 124270, released during that year’s virtual Watches & Wonders exhibition, not only returned the Explorer I to its classic 1953 proportions (at the same time upgrading the movement inside yet again, to automatic Caliber 3230, Rolex’s most optimized movement to date in terms of precision, magnetic resistance and power reserve); it also was the first Explorer model to be offered not only in the standard 316L “Oystersteel” but also in a bicolor, steel-and-gold version (above) that Rolex calls “Rolesor.” The 36mm, 100-meter water resistant case is paired with an 18k yellow gold bezel and crown; yellow gold is also used for the center links of the Oyster bracelet, whose outer links are made of steel. The gold numerals and markers are filled with Chromalight and the black dial is now lacquered. The dial’s now-familiar “Superlative Chronometer” claim is backed up by the movement, which has been tested to an industry-leading rate tolerance of +2/-2 seconds per day. (For a comparison of the 36mm and 39mm versions of the Explorer, pictured side by side below, click here.)
Rolex produces only two versions of the Explorer I in its current collection, in addition to two versions of the GMT-equipped Explorer II — the Rolesor model and the all-steel version, both at the “back-to-basics” 36mm case dimensions. With demand for nearly all of its watches at historic levels, expect Rolex to explore additional variations on one of its most storied and long-running model series in the years ahead.
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