A Week On The Wrist: The Two-Tone Rolex Explorer Ref. 124273
One week, two tones.
Two-Tone Rolex Explorer. That is a combination of four words that I would not at all have expected to say six months ago. And when I first saw them back in April, when Rolex dropped the unexpected ref. 124273, I’ll admit I was caught off-guard. An Explorer with gold? Isn’t that antithetical to the Explorer’s no-nonsense spirit and disrespectful to the legacy of Rolex’s least-changed sport watch? It might very well be, but it’s also the recipe for a watch that I immediately knew I needed to get on my wrist and test for myself.
It’s easy to get jaded in the watch world today. There’s so much “us too” design happening – something becomes successful and then everyone else makes their version of it. There’s so much “heritage” and “DNA” floating around that prevents watchmakers from experimenting. To see Rolex, as storied and conservative a brand as you’ll find anywhere, in any industry, go out on a limb and get weird like this was genuinely inspiring to me. That they could keep me on my toes and show me a watch that put me at a loss for words got me seriously excited.
So how does the watch stand up? I’m a longtime lover of the Rolex Explorer and the proud owner of a vintage (all-steel) Explorer that I wear all the time, and I can truly say that the two-tone Explorer ref. 124273 delivers on its promise of being something familiar and something surprising all at the same time.
The Explorer has one of the more straightforward histories when it comes to Rolex sport watches. There are only a handful of references, very few wacky variations, and the design has remained mostly unchanged since the watch debuted in 1953 with the reference 6350. At that point, the watch already had most of its defining characteristics. It used a 36mm stainless steel Oyster case as the foundation and featured a black dial with 3-6-9 numerals, framed by a polished steel bezel. Those characteristics would remain largely unchanged for 57 years, with the reference 1016 itself being produced for nearly half of that span.
The big shake-up came in 2010 with the introduction of the ref. 214270, which upsized the case to 39mm for the first time. To call this controversial amongst Explorer enthusiasts would be an understatement. Die-hards like myself find it hard to consider any watch that isn’t 36mm a true Explorer, as the more reserved size and understated personality are key parts of what make this watch unique within the Rolex catalog. But, Rolex is going to do what Rolex is going to do, and this certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt sales or diminished general interest in the Explorer. Just ask anyone who’s tried to buy a ref. 214270 and they’ll tell you just how hot they are.
As anyone who lived through the 1980s can attest, the new Explorer draws from a lineage of two-tone Rolex sport watches. Still, there was a not-insignificant amount of outrage when Rolex first dropped this watch back in April 2021. The punters couldn’t stomach a pure tool watch like the Explorer being pushed into two-tone territory. But there’s a ton of precedent for this. It’s nothing new, and, honestly, shouldn’t come as any surprise.
Historically, Rolex has been making two-tone versions of the GMT-Master and the Submariner for over half a century. They’re extremely collectable and part of the general watch landscape. You wouldn’t bat an eye at someone rocking a two-tone Sub with an inky blue dial or a killer root beer GMT on a Jubilee bracelet, would you?
And, if we want to go even more hardcore, do you remember the Deepsea Special? This is the most toolish of Rolex tool watches, created to brave the Mariana Trench on the outside of the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960. It’s a dive watch that’s massive, rugged, and only borderline describable as a wristwatch at all. But it was two-tone. You can see Deepsea Special 1 in Talking Watches with Reza Ali Rashidian in all of its steel-and-gold glory. Now, go ahead and tell me with a straight face that bimetallic construction makes this watch any less hearty or tough. I’ll wait.
If historical precedent isn’t enough for you, then just look at what Rolex has been doing over the last few years with the Professional watches. The Explorer verging into precious metal territory shouldn’t come as any surprise. We’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of gold Daytona models available, the Submariner revamp included two-tone, yellow gold, and white gold variants, and we’ve seen GMT-Masters in everything from white gold with meteorite dial to Everose-and-steel two-tone configurations. Rolex wants you to think of their sport watches as more than just steel tool watches, and the Explorer is just the latest to join the party. And if you just can’t handle it, don’t worry, the watch is still available in an all-stainless-steel configuration.
What a two-tone Explorer means in concrete terms is that the bezel, crown, hands, applied dial markers, and center bracelet links are made of 18k yellow gold. The case and outer bracelet links are steel. The Oysterlock clasp is mostly steel, with a yellow gold “stripe” running down the center to visually match the bracelet links. This is all right in line with how Rolex typically executes two-tone watches, from Subs to Datejusts. Nothing crazy here.
The other big design tweak, and, in my estimation, the more important one, is the return to a 36mm case size for both the reference 124273 you see here and the all-steel ref. 124270. The new proportions are spot-on. Side-by-side with a vintage Explorer – like my own beloved 1016 – the lineage is clear and the watches look completely of-a-kind. The case profile has been tweaked from earlier 36mm Explorer models, and while it’s tough to pinpoint exact changes and their effects, the overall impact is a clean shape that wears well on the wrist.
To augment the case change, Rolex has totally redesigned the watch’s bracelet in a similar way to how they changed the Submariner’s bracelet last year. The end-links integrate more tightly with the case design, giving better visual continuity (the bracelet looks almost like it flows through the case) and the bracelet itself tapers more dramatically toward the clasp. The result is a watch that wears lighter on the wrist, with better balance and no extra heft.
While the dial is still a classic 3-6-9 Explorer dial with a glossy black lacquer finish, the recent downsizing did impact a few little elements, here and there. The “Explorer” text has moved back up to 12 o’clock from six o’clock and the “Superlative Chronometer / Officially Certified” signature is a bit more spaced out to fill that bottom half. It might be some weird optical illusion thing, but to my eye the new dial looks cleaner and less cramped than the dial on the 214270, despite packing the same info into less space. On the two-tone version of the watch, the gold hands and markers add a ton of visual warmth, reminding me of the gilt dials of the early 1960s.
The last major update is the movement. The caliber 3230 brings the latest generation Rolex technology to the Explorer (some might add a “finally” somewhere in that sentence). It has a Chronergy escapement with a Parachrom hairspring, it has hacking seconds, it’s precise to +2/-2 seconds per day, it’s COSC certified, and it brings a 70-hour power reserve to the table. If you’re looking for a solid workhorse movement that can stand up to whatever you throw its way, the caliber 3230 is tough to beat and a very appropriate engine for a contemporary Explorer.
As a longtime Explorer fan and vintage Explorer owner, I’ll admit I was a bit flummoxed when pictures of the two-tone Explorer landed in my inbox around 2:00 AM Pacific Time, back in April. Maybe I hadn’t made a strong enough cup of tea and my eyes were playing tricks on me? The big question I kept asking myself was “Why?” What did this watch bring to the table that justified its existence? When would anyone want to wear this thing over an all-steel Explorer or a chunkier two-tone sport watch like the GMT or Sub? Could this be an everyday watch if you wanted it to be?
Answering those questions would require spending some serious time with this watch, which, due to the overwhelming popularity of all Rolex sport watches these days, was going to be difficult. Rolex didn’t have samples to loan and getting a retailer to lend me one was out of the question. Luckily, a friend of mine took delivery of a piece from Polachecks in Calabasas pretty quickly and was kind enough to send it my way for a week.
Closing the Oysterlock clasp, my first impressions were mostly more questions. Do I really like this? Do I look like an idiot wearing this? Am I just buying into the hype machine here? But those faded faster than I’d expected and I quickly settled into wearing the watch. Once I got used to it, it felt almost as at-home as my beat-up 1016.
As far as two-tone watches go, this one is pretty low-key. The two-tone doesn’t shout at you. It’s there when you want to enjoy it, but you don’t look like a henchman in a bad ‘80s flick. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely see the gold, but it’s a soft yellow gold that feels right for our current moment. I love that Rolex didn’t succumb to the temptation to go Everose here. I think that watch would have looked like a caricature of a two-tone Explorer, while this piece feels real and worthy of respect.
The best thing about the watch hands-down is how comfortable it is. If you’ve never worn a 36mm sport watch – an Explorer, and Oyster Perpetual, etc. – go try one on ASAP. For someone with wrists in the sub-seven-inch range, it’s basically perfect. The new profile and new bracelet really shine and I sometimes found myself with that “wait, am I even wearing a watch right now?” feeling. For something that has a not-insubstantial amount of gold in it, that’s rare. I also think the smaller size helps for those who, like myself, are two-tone shy. It’s not that much gold and the black dial still dominates, so you can dip your toe into the two-tone waters without too much risk.
On a more personal note, I moved from New York to Los Angeles last fall, and this watch weirdly hits me as a perfect watch for this moment of transition in my life. It’s got a little bit of flashiness without going overboard; it’s still a slightly austere tool watch at heart; it looks absolutely fantastic in the Malibu sunshine. It basically ticks all the boxes. Also, as the world starts to look like it’s opening up again after more than a year in isolation (recent events aside), this is the kind of watch I want to be wearing. It’s fun, it starts conversations, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a watch you want to be seen wearing, but it’s not a watch that rubs anything in anyone’s face. I’m hard-pressed to think of a watch that better suits that mood and moment.
Before we get into the other watches you might want to buy instead of this one, I want to call out the two-tone ref. 124273 as a real value proposition. The watch retails for $10,800. That’s obviously still a nice chunk of change and just over the line into the five-figure mark, but when you think about what you’re getting for that money I think it’s quite a lot. You get to wade into the world of gold Rolex watches for just a hair over $10,000, in a world where a gold Submariner will set you back more than $35,000. Sure, it’s not a one-to-one comparison, but I think you catch my drift.
As for other watches that you might want to consider if you’re reading this review and thinking about which AD’s wait list might be the shortest, here are a few ideas.
Rolex Explorer Ref. 124270
This is the all-steel version of the ref. 124273 and it’s an absolute stunner. If two-tone is your only problem with the 124273, just go for this version and wash all your woes away. It’s the closest thing we’ve had on the market to an old-school ref. 1016 in years and it might be the best all-around value in Rolex’s collection today at $6,450 (a little bit less than its 39mm predecessor). It’s an Explorer. It’s 36mm. It’s fantastic.
Tudor Black Bay 36 S&G
The Black Bay 36 S&G is simultaneously the ref. 124273’s predecessor and younger sibling, having launched a few years ago, but at a fraction of the price. You get a Jubilee-style bracelet, the same dial/bezel/crown/links situation when it comes to the steel-and-gold combo, and a similar 36mm profile (though it’s a bit chunkier than the Explorer). If you like two-tone, but you’re not sure you want to plonk down more than ten grand on a bi-color Explorer, this is your move.
Oris Divers Sixty-Five In Bronze And Stainless Steel
If you want to go even more affordable, but with a similar overall vibe, look to Oris and the steel-and-bronze Divers Sixty-Five models. I think this version with the “sunset brown” dial is the most handsome, but there are a few variations. The only bummer here is that Oris doesn’t make these in the 36mm size – at that case size you can only get the bronze bezel (no bronze bracelet links). This is a two-tone look at a very reasonable price point, making it a fun summer watch if you’re looking to shake things up.
You’ll notice here that there are no real one-to-one comparisons for the new two-tone Explorer. Nothing at a similar price point that offers a similar look or construction or quality. Considering how influential Rolex is in the broader watch industry, I don’t expect it to stay that way for very long. Be on the lookout for two-tone sport watches under 40mm in the $8,000-12,000 price range over the next year or two. I have a funny feeling this section will need to be updated sooner rather than later …
Despite coming to the watch with a healthy dose of skepticism, I really fell in love with the ref. 124273 – and it didn’t even take all week. Within a day or two I was smitten. I’d find myself staring at it in the sunshine or hiking my sleeve up at brunch, hoping a friend would ask me about it. It’s a flat-out fun watch that inspires even the most jaded of watch reviewers to get excited and to want to share that excitement with others.
I have worn a vintage Explorer more than any other watch over the last four or five years. It’s a watch I know forward and backward, inside and out. But the 124273 made me think about it in a new way. It got me thinking about what makes the Explorer so special, what has allowed its relatively simple design to endure for two-thirds of a century, mostly unchanged. It even got me thinking about what it even means to “Explore” today.
After a year locked mostly indoors, not seeing friends, not meeting new people, not experiencing new things, the idea of exploration and adventure has taken on new meaning. Simple things like a drive up the coast for lunch or grabbing a cup of tea with someone I haven’t seen in 18 months are invigorating. Likewise, it’s so exciting to experience a watch that I thought I knew like an old friend in a totally new way.