Owner’s Review: The Rolex Explorer 124270 Three Years Later

Owner’s Review: The Rolex Explorer 124270 Three Years Later

Watches & Wonders 2021 represented an important anniversary for Rolex in marking 50 years of the Explorer II, and expectations were high on what we might see the brand do with the collection. Contrary to some of the wilder predictions, Rolex played things relatively conservatively, bringing the new 3285 movement into the line while retaining the model's 42mm case. Ironically, a reversion to classic proportions did come, but it would be in the Explorer collection and a new Reference 124270, which moved back to a 36mm case size for the first time since the 39mm 214270 was introduced in 2010. This was seen as a very un-Rolex move at the time, but today, more than three years later, it’s a watch that makes a lot of sense, not just on its own, but for Rolex as a brand.

Rolex is a brand that generally moves in one direction and, until relatively recently, doesn’t go out of its way to acknowledge its past in any overt way. While Rolex still isn’t making throwback or vintage-inspired watches, the company has taken a slightly different approach in embracing its historic design DNA while transitioning its full range to the 32xx series of movements. Examples of this include the current generation of the Submariner, which has gone back to a thinner, more traditional lug; the Sea-Dweller Reference 126600, which uses a bit of red text on the bottom of the dial; and the most overt of all, the ‘Le Mans" Daytona Reference 126529LN, which utilizes design details of the so-called exotic dials found on some four-digit references, also known as Paul Newman Daytonas.

As surprising as a new 36mm Explorer was in 2021, it’s a move that starts to fit in with a bigger picture that’s been emerging in recent years. Additionally, Rolex released a 40mm Explorer Reference 224270 in 2023, allowing a size for all wrists for its most utilitarian collection. You might be tempted to view these decisions as something of a course correction for the brand, though you’d never hear the company refer to it as such. 

Setting the broader context aside, the 36mm Explorer 124270 hits a sweet spot, and remains one of the brand's most charming references of the modern catalog. If you don’t think of modern Rolex as quite your thing, this specific watch is likely an exception. It wears like an old-school field watch, and the small changes that were made with this reference have a big impact on the end result. Let’s take a look at the 124270 three years on.

Right off the bat, let’s tackle the most uncomfortable part of this watch: its 36mm size. This is not a large watch, and yes, it requires a bit of an adjustment. When I first handled the watch I was taken aback at its diminutive stature, but after just a few days, it quickly became one of my favorite watches to wear throughout the day. Small watches have been having a moment lately, and for good reason: they are exceptionally comfortable. In fact, after a week or two of wearing this Explorer, it’s many of the other watches in my collection that required a recalibration. Because of this effect, the 124270 works best as a daily-wear option, or a watch that gets worn in longer rotations.

When worn sporadically for a day at a time as part of a broader rotation, it’s a watch that can quickly find itself in No Man’s Land, unable to be fully appreciated. It took many months to arrive at this conclusion, and it may represent a breaking point for some collectors that aren’t willing to dedicate so much wrist time to a single watch. On the other hand, if ever there was a watch that would have you selling off the rest of your collection, it’s the 124270. It has a low-key way of lulling you into its comfort zone, and once you’re there, it’s tough to leave. 

The Explorer has always been a 36mm watch, from its inception in 1953 to the introduction of the 214270 in 2010. But the modern 36mm Explorer feels a bit different, and that comes down to one small but important change. The lug span was reduced from 20mm to 19mm in modern form, and this brings the watch into a far more natural territory on the wrist. Older 36mm Explorers have a slightly larger presence on the wrist with a wider footprint at the lug, but appeared, in my opinion, slightly awkward in proportion. The 19mm lug fixes this issue, and tapers beautifully to 14mm at the clasp. This adjustment does wonders for the overall comfort of the watch, and while it makes using a fabric strap a bit trickier, the net result is a benefit for the watch in my mind. 

Another small change can be found on the dial, where the word ‘Explorer’ has been moved back to its original position at the top of the dial, under the Rolex branding. The word itself has also been fit to the width of the brand in a way that feels very intentional. This is, admittedly, an odd thing to fixate on, but if you’ve spent any time studying different dial variations of vintage Submariner references, you’ll know exactly what I’m on about here. There’s a harmony in the way these things come together, and with such a simple dial, these are the details that can have a big impact on the overall vibe of the watch. 

The rest of the dial feels right at home, with the 3, 6, and 9 taking their place amongst the blocks of lume in an unmistakable orientation that’s as easy to read as it is to look at. The presence of these numerals dates back to the beginning, and while they can be seen as polarizing, they embody the personality of the Explorer. In this example, they are rendered atop a glossy black dial, a shift away from the more matte dial of the 39mm reference, which might be the single niggle that I can find here. A matte dial would have truly driven this experience home, but this is personal preference.

In practice, there’s very little to argue about here. The dial as a whole is very legible at a glance; managing to bring a level of personality with very few elements is no easy feat, but that’s exactly the case here. This dial paired with the much more naturally tapered case add up to a very easy watch to get along with day-to-day. Factor in the size and it’s a watch you might find yourself wearing in situations where you’d typically take your watch off. I’m guilty of running, showering, and sleeping in this watch, something I cannot claim for many other watches. 

The biggest overall change with the 124270 is the shift to the 3230 movement, which brings all the modern bells & whistles to the table, over the 3130, which had been in use since the ‘80s. The new movement brings the Chronergy escapement and Paraflex shock absorbers, delivering a greater level of accuracy and 70 hours of power reserve. All are welcome changes, and despite some birthing pains for the 32xx movements, my time with the watch has been drama-free in this regard. In my time with the watch it has been exceptionally accurate to within its stated +/- 2 seconds per day. All the new tech represented here is out of sight and largely out of mind, especially when things just work as they’re supposed to. Owning the watch over time, it's the things like the consistent accuracy across the power reserve that provide tangible benefits. 

All of this folds into the carefree experience of owning this watch. There is no fuss here, and one detail that I truly began to appreciate over my time with it is just how well it flies under the radar. This is a small watch, and with no bezel, it doesn’t really make its presence known. The Explorer falls outside of the realm of hype-driven references that folks are used to seeing appear in their Instagram feeds, so it generally goes unrecognized by most folks when out and about, which is a quality you may or may not enjoy.

While I don’t mind something a little flashier from time to time, I generally prefer to keep things simple and straightforward. That said, even a simple watch should bring some character to the table, something that gets you excited to put it on for the day, even after months and years of ownership. This is a tricky quality to initially identify, and it will be different for every enthusiast, but for me, the Explorer walks right up to that line.

The best watches are the ones we want to wear, and ultimately, it’s these watches that will accumulate the most meaning through the experiences we gain with them. The Explorer is one of those watches that makes you want to wear it, and through use it seems to gather more and more character. In my experience, this is a watch that takes time and use to fully appreciate. 

This Explorer is not without its faults, however. That 19mm lug span, while excellent in use with the bracelet, makes it far less flexible than its predecessors when it comes to other strap options, but it’s not the size that’s the biggest hold-up here: it’s the slots in the case walls between the lugs. This allows for a more confident fitting of the end link to the case, but creates a somewhat unsightly view on something like a NATO strap. Additionally, the bracelet does not have a quick- adjustment system outside of the 5mm comfort-extension link, which I find less than optimal in practice. Finding a good fit here with that link nested is vital to a great long term experience with this watch. Further, the 32xx movements aren’t completely out of the woods yet in terms of sorting their amplitude issues, so the long term viability of the movement remains in question. Because of this, I’d recommend looking for as late a production date as possible. 

Those serious criticisms aside, there’s plenty to enjoy here for fans of the Explorer. If you didn’t care for the watch prior to this reference, you will likely find little to change your mind in the 124270. But for fans of the original formula, this is a near end-game reference. 

The Explorer is a distillation of the Rolex ethos at its best, and represents a simple focus often lacking in modern tool watches writ large. There’s nothing frivolous about this reference, and there’s no pretension as a result. It’s a straightforward tool watch that’s fit for everyday wear and tear that only seems to get better with age. You might not start out thinking of this watch as anything other than a workhorse, but give it some time and experience, and it will take on an entirely new meaning.

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