Grails: How The Rolex Explorer 1016 Became My Rite of Passage
I’d worn other stuff before. But never anything like this.
I’ve been writing this column for a few months now, and before I get into this one, I just want to remind y’all that HODINKEE invited me as a style guy … not a watch guy. I’m an enthusiast (that’s for sure), but most of you know way more than I do about this cool world of watches
I say that, because this month I’m diving deep into my favorite watch of all time – which is a Rolex Explorer 1016 – and I know what you’re thinking: “We’ve heard about that one already.” Yes, you have, because it’s the greatest watch ever. For me, at least. I’ve had mine for 20 years and although I love the idea of watches, I really only own a few, and only one of them – the 1016 – brings me this kind of joy.
For a lot of guys, a Rolex is a rite of passage. Maybe others scratch that aspirational itch with a car, a job, a trip, a mate, a degree. I had always admired Rolexes and what they stood for, but couldn’t seem to find the one that was my style.
Before that, I played around with some nice watches. I had a beautiful blue-faced Omega Seamaster, a sleek and right-sized white-faced Heuer Carrera, and the masculine, black-faced Heuer Autavia, all with leather straps. The Autavia’s was a black perforated racing strap, which I thought was cool. And they all had complications. And, when I was younger, I really liked that. I used to time myself doing stuff, holding my breath, walking upstairs … whatever. I’m a sprinter at heart. But as I got older I started wanting more of a pure timepiece, something that just … told … time.
By 2001, I felt like I had kind of earned the Rolex, at least as much as anyone could. Ann and I were living in Wisconsin at the time because I had been hired to lead the design team at Lands’ End. My mandate was to bring “style, but not too much.” Don’t get me wrong. That place is a well-oiled machine and they are not messing around – to date, I have not worked for any other company with such a strong work ethic, commitment to their customers, and a pool on campus. But the office was literally in the middle of cornfields.
We wound up staying out there a good while longer than Ann had planned. By that time, we had five girls and had managed to sock away some shekels for college – let me tell you, the cost of living is pretty amazing in a city without an international airport. I started really wanting the big watch and I think I just thought … why not? What was the use of leaving New York and waking up at 4:30 every morning for work if I couldn’t indulge and get something I had admired for my entire life.
The thing about a purchase like this is that the amount of money you spend can directly influence the value it holds in your mind. One of my life’s regrets is that I waited too long to ask Ann to marry me. I had this stupid formula in my head that her engagement ring should be some percentage of my annual salary – stupid because if I’d asked her, she would have probably accepted a bubble gum cigar band – but a nice ring symbolizes the importance of the sacrifice. A lot is worth a lot. And this Rolex was a lot. I remember Ann opening her eyes really wide when I showed her.
The cost was a factor there, but on top of that, it was 2001 and I was buying it on “the Internet,” from a Texas-based company called Wingate, kind of the original watch marketplace. Buying watches over the internet seemed weird in 2001. Yes, people were shopping online, but they definitely weren’t spending money like this online. We talked it over in our “computer room.” Does anyone call it that anymore? This was the dedicated place that my daughters would play The Sims and we would do our banking and send the occasional email. I pulled up the Wingate page, which probably took about six months to load all the photos, on our turquoise-backed iMac, and we slowly scrolled through.
Anyway, you can guess how the story ends – we have a long history of Ann shrugging her shoulders and just tagging along for the ride while I go down a rabbit hole of something I really, really want. For me, the hunt is as good as the find. Sometimes even better.
The Explorer 1016 was so plain and so practical and so great. I guess I thought of it as the working man’s Rolex. It wasn’t a watch stuck in time; it was a watch basking in time. Of course, it had the stature of the brand, but then the minimalism of the bezel, Arabic numerals, and black dial … it looked downright spartan. Simple, understated, beautifully designed, proportionally balanced. It was, and remains, a utility watch at heart. It rewards a second look, not the first look. You never have to take it off, and I hardly ever do. I genuinely feel like something is missing when I don’t have it on, like my balance is off without that extra 3.4 ounces on my left wrist. I swim in it, I sleep in it, I walked my daughter down the aisle in it, I wore it to both my parents’ funerals and fully intend to keep wearing it until my own.
What do you get when you find your one watch to rule them all? The most precious thing of all. Time. I’m not just talking about all the hours I save when I don’t have to decide which watch to wear. I’m getting that time back. It’s also the time I spent searching for it … thinking about it … showing it to Ann … wondering if I should pull the trigger. That was time well spent. And maybe that’s a ratio thing, too – the longer the hunt, the better the catch. Although would it have been any less awesome if I hadn’t waited until I was 40 years old? Who knows. This watch is so perfect for me, I would have taken it as soon as my wrist was big enough to fit.