A Comprehensive Collector’s Guide To The Rolex Explorer I
Mapping the ascent of Rolex’s go-anywhere watch.
With its three-hand simplicity and discreetly wearable size, the Rolex Explorer is, more than any of the Crown’s sport watches, the one that skirts the line dividing the tool watch from the dress watch. And yet it’s also a Rolex most plainly made for legibility in adverse conditions and exposure to the elements.
Born for high-altitude Himalayan climbing, the Explorer arrived in 1953, the same year as the Submariner and the Turn-O-Graph. To say it was a major year for Rolex, and for watches more broadly, would be an understatement. It shaped the watch company that Rolex would become, the sport segment as we know it, and the watch-collecting pyramid that Rolex sits atop.
Nineteen fifty-three wasn’t just the year in which Rolex launched the Explorer, it was also the coronation year of Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch still reigning over the United Kingdom some 69 years later.
A Rolex advertisement from the time places the Explorer in this historical context while speaking of special Arctic oils used to lubricate the all-new go-anywhere watch. “The Rolex ‘Explorer’ will function perfectly under water to depths of at least 300 ft. and, in the air, to the fantastic height of 12 miles.” As if that wasn’t enough, the ad further boasts of the watch being up to the task of going to uranium mines and atomic energy plants.
The Explorer has come to embody what many see as the ideal “one nice watch” to own. Its simplicity and classic design allow it to go anywhere, not only far-off mountaintops. And the reference 1016 in particular, which spanned an incredible 29 years of production, from 1960 to 1989, stands as a true vintage hall-of-famer. With its subtle 36mm size, no-date simplicity, and crisp black dial – whether gilt or matte – it’s the sport Rolex that doesn’t turn heads – the anti-hype Rolex, if you will. The “if you know, you know” Rolex.
At auction, quality Explorer examples bring in respectable sums, but nothing like the Submariners or the Daytonas of the world. In fact, if you search online for Explorer records at auction, you’re likely to return many results for Explorer-dial Submariners bearing the 3-6-9 dial. The Explorer is a humble watch for a Rolex professional model launched 69 years ago. And yet it was the Rolex worn by Ian Fleming, and the one he was most likely thinking of when he decided which watch James Bond would wear.
Today, the Explorer is something of an outlier within the modern Rolex sport watch lineup. Its compact dimensions have hewn to the midcentury design of its birth with only occasional detours, such as when it was temporarily beefed up to 39mm in 2010 with the reference 214270. Since then, the Explorer has returned to its 36mm roots, albeit with another unexpected curveball thrown at collectors, the option of a two-tone case and bracelet. As the smallest, simplest, and most consistent of the Rolex professional watches, the Explorer isn’t really here to surprise or wow us – so when it unexpectedly does just that, the effect is phenomenal.
I’ve provided production dates for the references in this article wherever I could. But it is important to understand that the numbers on the inside caseback tell us about case production. Often, watches weren’t assembled until a year later and then sold after that, in some cases many years later. In the mid-’70s, Rolex stopped putting case production dates on the inside casebacks of their watches. Serial numbers printed between the lugs offer the best insight into when those watches were made, but this is also something of an imprecise science.
Origins In Exploration
Just as the Rolex Explorer itself requires no introduction to watch lovers, neither does the story of its genesis. In late May 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first alpinists to conquer the world’s highest peak, and found themselves instantly catapulted into the history books. On their expedition they carried the Rolex chronometer, below, today considered a Pre-Explorer, which now lives in Zurich’s Beyer Museum below a multigenerational family-owned watch shop. You can buy a ticket and see it for yourself.
We look at Rolex’s associations through the years – with commercial aviation, diving, militaries, and the arts and more – and see a deft marketer’s touch, a propensity to be early or first, and very often simply present when great people achieved great things. In supporting Hillary and Norgay as they climbed to history, Rolex established itself as a maker of watches that could go the extra mile and be taken into the world’s most harrowing circumstances with confidence. And they were well-prepared for the watches that would come next. The Crown registered the trademark for the Explorer name in January of that year.
Now, it bears mentioning that while Hillary and Norgay indeed had a watch from Rolex in their kit, they also had another, from the English brand Smiths. Both brands sponsored the bid to reach the peak of Everest. Citing period evidence, an article in Outdoor Journal concluded that it was a Smiths watch, and not a Rolex, that made it all the way to the summit. Regardless of whether a Rolex made it to the top, there can be no doubt that it was Rolex and its Explorer that capitalized most on its association with the expedition.
The same year as Norgay’s and Hillary’s expedition witnessed the introduction of the reference 6350, the first watch to feature the name Explorer on the dial for all examples. In many instances, its predecessor, the 6150, says Precision in place of Explorer, causing many to refer to it as a pre-Explorer, as well. But we happen to have a 6150 Explorer for this edition of Reference Points (it’s also in the video, above, co-starring gentleman-dealer Eric Wind), so we’ll begin our climb through the history of the world’s most famous go-anywhere watch right there.
Reference 6150 (1952-1953)
The Reference 6150 is the immediate predecessor to the reference 6350, the watch that many collectors argue is the first Explorer. Traits that will typify the Explorer through the years are already here. Produced from 1952 / 1953, the Reference 6150 has the same 36mm size we see through all of the rest of the 20th century and much of the 21st, up to and including today’s current Explorer models. The reference 6150 is similar to the 6098 and 6298. While it features the 3-6-9 layout that would go on to be called the Explorer dial, only some feature a line of text above six o’clock reading “Explorer.” The rest, and indeed the majority, say “Precision.” The example we see here is one of the former, and it also features a long hour hand. One thing you will notice is that there is no OCC text on the dial. That’s because this watch is not a chronometer, further separating it from the rest of the Explorers. The fact it is not a chronometer and that not all of this reference say the word “Explorer” on the dial has meant that some collectors do not consider the reference 6150 a true Explorer.
Reference 6350 (1953 to 1955)
The immediate successor to the 6150 is the reference 6350 – which everyone agrees is an Explorer, and that some argue is the first Explorer I. This example has a textured waffle dial, also known as the honeycomb dial, named for its patterned surface. While the waffle dial can be found on other Rolex watches from the period, the 6350 is the only Explorer reference in which it figures. Our example has pencil hands, though there are also 6350s with Mercedes hour hands, sometimes with a syringe minute hand. Most of the examples we see have an inside caseback number that indicates the case was produced in 1953; however, it seems they were assembled over a period of several years after that.
The 6350 is an officially certified chronometer, a worthwhile point of distinction from the 6150, one watch earlier. When one talks about the Rolex Explorer, one is really talking about a chronometer. The Explorer has no complications, it has no fancy bells and whistles. Until just last year, it had only a single metal to its name – stainless steel. It is about as basic as a Rolex professional model gets, and telling time accurately and legibly is the name of the game.
For the most part, the watches we will be looking at today are chronometers: Officially Certified Chronometers in the first grouping, and Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified once we get to our first 1016 in this article. We’ll see a few additional non-chronometers, but those watches aren’t technically Explorers. Read on to learn more.
Reference 6610 (1955 to 1959)
Between 1955 and 1959, Rolex produced the reference 6610, the last of the older batch of Explorers that would eventually give way to the 1016, one of the longest-running Rolex watch references ever. We have four special examples of this reference, which is far rarer than the 1016 as it was made for a dramatically shorter period of time. You’ll notice that the text above 6 o’clock on each of the following four watches reads “Officially Certified Chronometer” like the OCC text of the 6350 before it.
Some of the earliest Explorer reference 6610 examples feature a very subtle red depth rating (50m = 165ft) just below the word Explorer in the upper half of their dial, a style of marking seen in other Rolex sport watches from the period, including the GMT-Master reference. 6542, Datejusts, and even 34mm Oyster Perpetuals, reflecting marketing efforts to share their water-resistant characteristics more broadly during the early days of dive watches for commercial purchase.
Next we have a white, or “Albino,” version of the 6610, one of the rarest and most valuable Explorer variations. There are also GMT-Master reference 6542s with white “Albino” dials from this era, as well as Submariners. Later “Albino” reference 1016s have come to market. This particular Albino 6610 dates to 1957.
This brings us toward the end of the 6610 run. The Explorer has traditionally been a watch made for maximum legibility in low-light conditions, and here we see a large white luminous seconds hand, similar to the lollipop seconds hands on some Submariners with a case production of 1957.
Finally, we have the very last version of the 6610, where the luminous circle is smaller than in the previous version. This version also has a rare “Big Logo” bracelet.
The Rolex Explorer Reference 1016 (1960 to 1989)
The conclusion of the 6610 brings us to the beloved reference 1016, the one most vintage lovers think of when their mind goes to the Explorer I.
With the 1016, we see the introduction of “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” text on the dial, which accompanies the transition from the caliber 1030 to the new caliber 1560 microstella-adjusted movement. Later, in the mid-’60s, Rolex will upgrade to the high-beat-for-its-time caliber 1570, which runs at 19,800 vph compared to the 18,000 vph caliber 1560. In the early 1970s, Rolex added a hacking feature to this movement, which would continue to power the 1016 until the end of its production run in 1989.
After we chart the long and storied course of this fan-favorite reference, we’ll hear from prominent collectors who will tell us why they love the Rolex Explorer reference 1016.
Gilt Dials (1960 to 1967)
All of the black dials we’ve seen up until this point have been gilt-gloss, produced using an expensive galvanic coating process resulting in stark, crisp text set against a black surface. With gilt dials, the text and markers are masked out before a layer of black paint is adhered to the dial. It is then lacquered over to create a glossy sheen surface, which we begin to see with the glossy dials that’ve survived to this point, from 1957 and later. Pre-1957, most, if not all, gilt Rolex dials had more of a flat and less glossy black appearance. We’ll begin our exploration of the 1016 where it picks up from its gilt-dialed forebears and continue our examination of this long-lived reference into the ensuing matte dials. As we are covering both gilt and matte dials, we’ll refer to the gilts with the designation “type” and mattes with the designation “mark” to differentiate 1016 variations. But note that in common parlance, “mark” is also used to refer to gilt dials, as mentioned in the video.
A small number of the earliest 1016s retain the OCC text seen on the reference 6610 (these are known as 1016 gilt Type 0 dials), but soon after, we have examples like the one here, which says Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified, in recognition of the transition to Rolex’s caliber 1560 movement with microstella adjustment. The chapter ring encircling the outer portion of the dial that characterized the reference 6610 is still there, and if we look down at the very bottom of the dial, we see that it is signed Swiss, but there aren’t any exclamation points or underlines. Ian Fleming wore an early gilt-dial 1016 with a case production of 1960 on the inside caseback. It appears to be the watch he referenced in the James Bond books according to research by Dell Deaton, so you could say it is the original Bond watch. This is recognized as a reference 1016 gilt Type 1 dial.
Here, we have reference 1016 with an “exclamation point” in reference to the small dot of lume directly below the 6 o’clock numeral, supposedly to indicate that the lume is not as radioactive as it was in previous generations of the Explorer. Exclamation point dials aren’t exclusive to the Explorer. You see them on Submariners and GMT-Masters from around this time, as well. Another distinguishing feature of this dial is its tall Rolex coronet – this is known as a gilt Type 3 dial with exclamation point.
The original owner of this watch was a cartographer and a member of the Corps of Royal Engineers. It saw more than 30 countries on surveying trips around the world. While in the northernmost continuously inhabited place in the world (Altert, Nunavat), a hit to the hull of an icebreaker left a dent on its left side.
Here’s something a little unusual, a watch with both an exclamation point and an underline, two markings generally understood to indicate a reduction in the radioactivity in lume. This combination of the two dial features is something that you’ll only see in a few examples of the Explorer 1016, and not in GMT-Masters or Submariners. This example came out of Mexico and has a slight tropical tone to it, a chapter ring still encircling the seconds/minutes track, as we saw in the earlier models. This is an example of the gilt Type 2 dial with exclamation point and underline.
Also from 1963 production, with a serial number very close to the two previous models, this watch marks the end of the chapter ring in the gilt 1016. The exclamation point is gone and we now have just the underline on the dial below the SCOC text. This marking was an indication that the lume is tritium. This is known as a gilt Type 2 dial with underline.
Here, we have the first of the open chapter dials in this article, in which there is no circle encompassing the hash-marks for the seconds/minutes. We’re drawing toward the end of the 1016’s gilt dial era, with this gilt Type 5 example. The stylized, almost handwritten nature of the text on these Type 5 dials previously led some to speculate that they had been reprinted. There is also a Type 4, the very first of the open chapters, which is associated with an earlier serial range.
This is a gilt Type 4 that has retained its glossy black dial. Our example has beautiful gold/gilt hands. The Type 4 dial has been placed within a fairly narrow serial range placing examples with a case production of about 1963 to 1964. According to Explorer1016.com., there are two sub variants of this dial type. Early examples say “Swiss” at the bottom and are often seen with underlines. Later examples, like the example we have here, feature T<25 and do not have underlines. In order to spot a Type 4, look for a gilt dial with the absence of a chapter ring. If it has just Swiss written at 6:00, it’s an early Type 4. If it has T<25 appearing on the lower portion of minutes hash marks, it can be identified as a later Type 4.
Here, we have a dark tropical version of the Type 6, where exposure to light and heat has turned its jet-black dial to a rich dark brown. To spot a Type 6, look for the absence of a chapter ring on a gilt dial. Then look for diagonally shaped serifs on the “E” in Rolex. The T<25 writing replaces the upper portion of the minutes hash marks at 6:00.
And closing out the gilt-dial 1016, we have another example of the Type 6, in which the dial has gone completely tropical, its light brown dial likely owing to the fact that it came to us after a life spent in sun-drenched Rwanda.
Right around 1966-1967, we see the transition from gilt-gloss to a new matte type of dial that trades its predecessor’s gilt text for white printing. The matte dial has a textured appearance that seems better-suited to the sport watch aesthetic that Rolex was aiming for with the Explorer. It was also produced in a far simpler, and likely less costly, process that eschewed the complex galvanic process of the gilt dial. We’ll witness an evolution in the matte dial 1016 over the course of more than 20 years, until it is finally retired to make way for the new reference 14270, in 1989.
Collectors have nicknamed the Mark 1 dial the “Frog Foot” because of its odd, widely splayed Rolex coronet, which resembles the animal’s webbed digits. While all Mark 1’s have an amphibian-like logo at 12 o’clock, variations within the Mark 1 are determined mostly by the appearance of the luminous numbers 3, 6, and 9. First up, we have this example with puffy luminous numerals.
Close in serial number to the previous example, we have another Mark 1, only here the numerals are a little bit flatter but also wider.
This is the actual watch awarded to cowboy Gary Leffew for winning the bull riding competition at the 1969 Calgary Stampede. To commemorate his victory, Rolex even made a print ad featuring this very watch. A couple of years later, Leffew left his Explorer in his gear bag at a competition when a bull stepped directly onto it, smashing the crystal. It stayed like that for many years, until it was recently replaced.
I can’t think of another Rolex watch that’s appeared in a print ad and made its way to our office, and it’s definitely the only watch I’ve ever handled to have survived mauling by a bull.
Here’s our third and final Mark 1, only in this case the lume is thinner than the fat ones seen on the earlier Mark 1’s. With these last numerals, we see the Matte dial 1016 settling into a balanced look that will be carried forward into the future, rather than the puffy numerals of the earliest Matte dial examples. The Mark 1 is the first of the matte dials, but it’s also sometimes seen in later cases, though it’s unclear if these are original. This watch has a serial number dating it to 1972.
The Mark 1 had a long run, and is found in watches produced from 1967-1974, and even some later than that, with case production placing them as recently as 1978. It’s unclear whether those are original to the watches, but it reflects the somewhat haphazard way the 1016 had different dial variations appear and then reappear later throughout its production run.
The Mark 2 1016 was produced within a tight serial range in 1969. In the short-lived Mark 2, we see that the coronet has a more balanced and symmetrical look, calling to mind the ones that we saw in late gilt dial examples. Differentiating this version from other matte dials, the T<25 text is above, not below, the minute track. Another way to identify a Mark 2 is looking closely at the top and bottom serifs in the E in Rolex, which have a distinctive outward diagonal slope. There was once some speculation that the Mark 2 was a reprint and not an original dial, but the collecting community has come to the conclusion that it was originally made by Rolex and they are in a fairly tight serial range. If this watch looks familiar, it’s because it was featured in our 2018 Talking Watches with Fred Savage.
The matte Mark 3’s time on the stage is divided into two acts. The first of these watches have production dates of approximately 1974-1976. They then pick back up in about 1984 and continue until the end of the 1016’s production in 1989. While the script and markings on both of these dials are identical, older examples from the first batch tend to have yellower lume than more recent ones, which tend to be whiter. According to Explorer1016.com, the easiest way to identify a Mark 3 dial is by the absence of the discernable “tells” that enable spotting a Mark 1 (frog foot coronet), a Mark 2 (slanted serifs), a Mark 4 (tall coronet), or a Mark 5 Matte dial (E’s in Explorer).
Eric brought a real treat to this edition of Reference Points in the form of a particularly special matte dial Mark 4. The watch we have here was purchased, along with seven others, by the American horticulturist, philanthropist, and art collector Bunny Mellon, for a dinner party she intended to hold. Each of her eight guests was to be gifted a Rolex Explorer 1016 with a Tiffany & Co. stamp on the dial, with six of them bearing personal engravings on the caseback with her initials “R.L.M.” (for her full name, Rachel Lambert Mellon) and two without engravings. When the party was canceled, some say because she was unhappy with the final project the guests were working on, it is said the watches went into a drawer, only to emerge when items from the Mellon estate were sold publicly at Sotheby’s on November 21, 2014, after she passed. All but one of these eight Tiffany-stamped vintage Explorers sold for under $20,000. It was just a little over seven years ago, but it feels like a lifetime ago based on the prices. Sotheby’s also sold a few other Rolex watches with Tiffany & Co. stamps, as part of the Mellon estate auction.
The matte Mark 4 dial is most easily identified by its exaggerated, elongated coronet, which looks oh-so tall and thin compared to the ones on the other matte Explorers. On Explorer1016.com, collector Andrew Hantel calls this one the “Gumby” for a reason. He placed 1016 examples with the Mark 4 dial in the 4 million to 6 million serial range, and also during the final L series in 1989.
The Mark 5, the last version of 1016, is actually not the last dial configuration seen in the 1016. That honor actually goes to the Mark 3, of which examples have been observed in the L series. For the Mark 5, you’ll want to look for watches from the serial ranges correlating with, approximately, 1981 to 1987. The “Explorer” text on Mark 5 variants features E’s with central bars that are not exactly symmetrical. They’re up higher, closer to the top bar.
Let’s take a brief detour on our chronological journey and explore four Rolex watches that play on the Explorer theme. Over the years, Rolex has made watches that look the part of the Explorer and channel its ethos, but within references that aren’t traditionally regarded as belonging to the Explorer. While one of the following watches is in all but its dial an Explorer 1016, the the other three are truly something else.
First, there are a variety of other Rolex models that also say Explorer on the dial – these are most typically from the early 1950s, when Rolex seemingly had not settled on exactly what the Explorer I would be. There are also other models (like the obscure Explorer Date reference 5700 from the 1960s) worth a mention, but which don’t follow the standard design cues of the Explorer I.
First up, we have a reference 5500 Explorer. At first glance, it’s got what you’d expect from a vintage Explorer, such as a mid-’60s reference 1016: The three 3-6-9 gilt dial, the three stacked lines reading Rolex / Oyster Perpetual / Explorer, the Mercedes hour hand and lollipop seconds. But it’s a bit smaller, 34mm to be precise. And the word Precision graces the lower half of the dial as it is not a chronometer.
This is an often-faked Explorer-like variation, owing to the fact that it uses the case of a relatively common and affordable reference, the Air-King reference 5500. All that a would-be faker would need to do is place a fake Explorer dial into the case to create the appearance of something much rarer.
In our video, Eric mentioned that he often receives messages from people who have or want to purchase 34mm Explorers and wonder if they are real. More often than not, he has to deliver bad news. Here’s what a real one looks like. The example we have comes from 1966-67 and has a beautiful gilt glossy dial.
Much like the Blueberry insert for GMT-Master 1675, there is lots of lore surrounding the Rolex Space-Dweller, an otherworldly Explorer-like variation with a fantastic dial that dispenses with the Explorer name altogether.
The Space-Dweller is in every way a Rolex Explorer reference 1016 but for the silvery Space-Dweller text on the gilt dial. While not much is known about the Space-Dweller, one of the stories surrounding it was that it was released in the Japanese market to commemorate the arrival of American astronauts in the 1960s. There is some variation within the serial range of Space-Dwellers, and some have longer or shorter minute hands.
In 2008, Sotheby’s auctioned off four of these dials, and one of them subsequently made it into this very watch.
Rolex filed a trademark for the Space-Dweller name in 1968, which indicates the name’s first use was in 1967. Rolex applied for the trademark in Switzerland in 1966. According to Watchistry, who kindly lent us this watch, the Space-Dweller case numbers he is aware of date from 1963 and 1968. One would have to question the originality of a Space-Dweller dial in a 1963 case, given the dating of the trademark application records.
Chances are, when you think about Abercrombie & Fitch and its mid-20th-century Swiss watch associations, Heuer is the brand that comes to mind. And that’s correct, because Heuer did make a number of Abercrombie & Fitch-branded watches that were sold through the legendary outdoor outfitter. These were the days before the company pivoted to selling graphic tees to teens in a cologne-soaked suburban mallscape.
Rolex, too, sold watches through Abercrombie. The one you see here is the Rolex Commando, an affordable 34mm manual-wind watch with a gilt dial and tritium lume. Note the squared-off handset, used in lieu of the customary Mercedes hand. The one we have here dates from 1969. The Rolex Commando sold for not much more than $100 in its day, reportedly the least expensive Rolex Oyster watch of the time. It was a fun and affordable reference, and collectors today really love these mythical watches. This is another reference that is now commonly faked, with dials put into reference 6426 and 6429 examples, so exercise caution and perform due diligence before pulling the trigger on one of these.
And here we have a 6429 without the Commando name on the dial. Instead, it says simply Rolex Oyster. Interestingly, it’s the previous Rolex Commando that was the civilian model. Concurrent with Abercrombie’s sales of that watch, U.S. military bases reportedly sold the slightly more plain version of the exact same reference, without the Commando branding on the dial, to give it a bit more of a stealthy appearance. This one is within a close serial range to the Commando variation, dating from 1969.
All good things must come to an end, even the reference 1016, a watch that seemed like it could just go on forever as it carried the torch into 1989. Aesthetically, the 14270 is the table on which the modern Explorer is set. Applied metal numerals take up the cardinal positions of 3, 6, and 9 for the first time in the history of the Explorer, and on a gloss black dial that takes the place of the latter 1016’s matte surface. And a new automatic movement is introduced, the high-beat caliber 3000, which ticks at a thoroughly modern 28,800 vph, still the standard rate for Rolex calibers. The size remains a compact 36mm in diameter, smaller than all of the other Rolex sport models. In the 14270, one senses a desire to safeguard the Explorer DNA while acknowledging that this is a watch in need of being brought up to the modern standards of a new era.
We have four representative examples of the 14270 in our Reference Points, which take us from the first and by far most collectible version, the Blackout, up to the Swiss Only, with its LumiNova-filled numerals. There was one final version of the 14270, the “Swiss Made” variant, an outwardly identical bridge to the following reference, the 114270.
Following one of the most eagerly collected watches in the Rolex Pantheon, the 1016 hasn’t made things any easier for the 14270. As my colleague Danny Milton said, it’s “caught somewhere in wristwatch purgatory – not old enough to be vintage, and not new enough to be cool.” And yet, it’s a long-tenured and interesting reference in its own right, with plenty of variation, characterized by minute changes that are well worth reading up on, especially as, with the exception of the Blackout that we’ll discuss next, the cost of ownership is far less than any 1016 you’ve seen so far. If you find yourself wanting to know more about this reference after watching this video and finishing this article, read Danny’s opus on the 14270, which breaks down the minute variations, below, even further.
The applied numeral style associated with this reference is also seen in Air-King and other smaller models that are often considered to have “Explorer” dials.
Here we are with the first 14270, the watch that took up the Explorer mantle upon the retirement of the 1016. The classic 36mm size that has defined the Explorer since its early days remains, as do the 3-6-9 numerals. But whereas the 1016’s numerals were painted on, the 14270 sees the introduction of higher-end applied markers and numerals. The 14270 isn’t shy about the fact that it’s a luxury tool watch with a distinctive modern flair. The Blackout’s namesake attribute is the black lacquer filling its applied numerals, lending a somewhat stealthy vibe to the dial (though the markers are still lume-filled). From the beginning, the Explorer had been viewed as a no-frills, go-anywhere tool watch, but this model came with a design that compromised low-light legibility for the sake of style. As such, it’s something of an outlier. It’s also incredibly collectible, costing much more than the rest of the watches we will be looking at within the reference 14270 range. The blackout is a very rare model by Rolex standards, found only in late-E and early-X serial numbers, giving them a production range of 1989 to 1991.
Immediately following the “Blackout,” we have the T-Swiss, the longest-running variant of 14270. With the exception of some very late U-series models, the T-Swiss has tritium-filled hands and indexes, as the nickname would indicate. Much like the 14270 more broadly, the T-Swiss inhabits a murky middle period in watches. Like all 14270s, the T-Swiss has a crystal of sapphire and its movement is the caliber 3000, but only the first three years of production have fully drilled-through lugs. Starting in 1994, plain, or undrilled lugs became the order of the day. The 14270 is a reference that manifests the process by which Rolex became the modern watchmaker it is today.
After the Swiss Only, in the final two years of the 14270 (1999 to 2001) we will see the Swiss Made, the watch that followed the one here. Its name indicates the use of Super-LumiNova, which would continue into the next Explorer reference, the virtually identical 114270.
Reference 114270 (2001 to 2010)
The 114270 had a near-decade-long run, its subtle improvements over the 14270 having seemingly been enough to make Rolex see fit to leave the Explorer be for a while, though there was the addition of an engraved rehaut late in the production of this model. But after about 21 years of extremely consistent Explorer design, and 57 years of rigid adherence to the 36mm case size, things were about to change. Big time.
In 2010, Rolex did something unexpected. For the first time in the more than 50-year history of the Rolex Explorer, the Crown’s simplest and most discreet stainless steel sport watch, known for bridging tool-watch toughness and dress watch dimensions, tipped the 36mm scale. Looking back, it’s surprising that it took this long.
The 214270 saw its own movement upgrade, this time to the caliber 3132. The movement was based on the 3130 we’ve already seen, but is endowed with Rolex’s in-house shock system and Parachrom hairspring. The first six years of production featured a configuration in which the 3-6-9 Explorer numerals were uncoated white gold, with no white paint to heighten legibility. The handsets seemed short with respect to the dial’s diameter, and were widely panned by the watch-collecting community.
The Current Generation
Last year brought yet another surprise. Actually, two. The Explorer returned with an all-new reference, the 124270. Rolex upgraded its simplest sport watch to the current generation of automatic movements with Chronergy Escapement and 70 hours of power reserve. But that wasn’t a surprise. The first surprise came with a return to the tried and true, and beloved by watch enthusiasts, 36mm case. After an 11-year diversion, the Explorer was back where nerdy watch lovers wanted it. The second surprise, a big one, was a second model. A Rolesor model. AKA the Two-Tone Explorer.
The new Rolesor Explorer is the watch that fully acknowledges that, despite images like this viral one taken by Nims Purja, most of us are never going to climb Everest. Rolex is a luxury brand, and the Explorer is another of the Professional models that have become virtually impossible to find at retail stores. Now that Rolex has taken the Explorer in an unexpected two-tone direction, the real question is whether there will be a fully gold Explorer. It’s a question only time can answer. Our friend and longtime colleague Stephen Pulvirent spent a week with the Rolesor Explorer. You can find his full review here.
From The Collector Community
Now you know the many references for the Explorer I. But before we go, we want to circle back on the quintessential reference: The 1016. It’s so admired, and so important to vintage collecting, that we thought a few additional testimonials were in order. So we asked a handful of prominent 1016 owners why they love the reference. Here’s what they had to say.
The 1016 is what got me interested in vintage watches. I was barely out of college, probably about 22 years old, when I first saw one in person at Wanna Buy A Watch? I left the store that day with an affordable Illinois model, but the 1016 was fixed in my mind. As I learned more about vintage watches and started to buy more of them, the 1016 remained this thing that I could never own. It was too beautiful. It was too perfect. The proportions were too great. When my wife and I got married, she bought me a Bell & Ross 123, which became our workingman’s 1016. I would never have bought a 1016 for myself, but my wife later gifted me one for my 40th birthday. For me, it’s the quintessential Explorer, sitting alongside the GMT-Master reference 1675 and other great Rolex watches. If you’re a sports fan, you know that 56 is Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. It’s a storied number that needs no explanation. For me, in the watch world, the 1016 is a number that doesn’t need a lot of explanation. If you know, you know, and you really appreciate it.
There are almost too many reasons to love the 1016, but “subtlety” is what encapsulates it best for me. It has never been the showstopper of vintage Rolex, but it arrests you with its simplicity, and the deeper you get into it, the more nuance comes out. Details like recessed lume plots on the early versions are easy to miss, and at 36 mm, it doesn’t abide by today’s collecting zeitgeist of the large and colorful. It wasn’t the diving watch, the pilot’s watch, or the racing watch, but it was the watch worn by people from all walks of life with subtle but equally venerable lives. I’ve had 1016s owned by carpenters, doctors, and cartographers who wore them constructing parts of the Smithsonian, developing a surgical technique, and mapping the Arctic circle. They’re not the people you read about in the news, but they’re the people you want to have a beer with and learn from. To me, the 1016 is a reflection of those people. It has an incredible amount to offer the collector. You just need to look.
I’ve always believed that your favorite watch is a reflection of who you are. My favorite is the 1016, because in many ways, it’s just like me: It’s not flashy. It keeps things simple, doing its job without fuss. It was initially under-appreciated, but has grown to capture a considerable reverence, especially from those in the know. It’s elegant, yet also rugged. It’s on the smaller side, but it’s also devastatingly handsome. I’d go as far as to call it a sexy watch. Probably the sexiest of them all. Way sexier than any Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, or any of those other white guy watches. But what I love most about the 1016 is that it’s humble, just like me.
For me, the Rolex Explorer is a perfect watch. It’s everything you need and nothing you don’t, but in a way that still feels special and indulgent. Simple things are the hardest to do well, and Rolex absolutely nailed it with the Explorer.
When I decided to add an Explorer to my collection in 2016, I knew from the get-go that I wanted an early example of the reference 1016. The 1016 is the iconic Explorer reference, produced for almost 30 years with very few changes. Mine is from the early 1960s and has a beautiful gloss dial with an “exclamation point” below the “6,” and the case is in honest, worn condition. It’s a watch that’s in good shape, but not too good to wear. I smile every time I look at this watch and wouldn’t want an example too pristine to enjoy. Also, if you’ve never owned a Rolex with a glossy gilt dial, I can’t recommend it highly enough – these watches have a whole other dimension to them that matte dials can’t touch.
One little detail that sends this watch to the next level for me is actually the bracelet – this is a rare stretch bracelet, though it looks like any other rivet bracelet at first glance. When you’re on a long haul flight and get a little puffy (or, you know, eat too many bowls of ramen or whatever), that bit of give makes the watch so much more comfortable. It’s also a perfect “if you know, you know” thing for collector friends.
And, yes, I know that the hands on this watch are service hands from a few years later, but they match the dial perfectly and don’t bother me one bit. The watch came to me from the original owner, via a dealer friend, and I know it’s honest.
Editor’s Note: We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Eric Wind, without whom this installment of Reference Points would not have been possible. We’d also like to extend a very special thanks to Dr. Andrew Hantel of Explorer1016.com, Nick Federowicz of AdPatina.com, Geoffrey Hess, @watch.me_watch.you, Adam Golden, Jacob Mace, Paul Altieri and Bob’s Watches, James Lamdin and analog/shift, Eric Ku, Ken Jacobs, Rich Fordon, Grady Seale, Erwin Grose, @watchistry, Jeffrey Binstock, Danny Milton, Ian Cox, Charles Curkin, Dr. Joseph Nezgoda, Dr. Won Kim, Justin Vrakas, Fred Savage, Stephen Pulvirent, and Randall Park.
Videography: Will Holloway, Grey Korhonen, David Aujero
Photography: Tiffany Wade
Video editing: Alex Tyson, David Aujero