This thing is improved in just about every way. What’s everyone complaining about?
Rolex doesn’t do homage, and you certainly can’t categorize any of their watches as heritage pieces. That sort of thing is left to Tudor. Instead, the Crown subtly nods to history while maintaining a deliberate forward motion, like a monarch in a motorcade acknowledging her subjects as she glides past.
And in turn, we, the public, often find ourselves disappointed when the brand doesn’t address each and every one of our personal needs. We howl when conservative Rolex designers don’t reach for the stars – or even when they literally do. The new meteorite Daytonas have dials made from a material from outer space, and somehow that’s still not ambitious enough.
This brings us to the surprise release of 2021, the one none of us saw coming: The new 36mm Explorer, one model in steel and the other in two-tone Rolesor, a combination of steel and yellow gold.
Since its release in 1953, the Explorer (known in some circles as the Explorer 1) has been a single-watch collection for Rolex. Conversely, the Submariners, GMT-Masters, and Explorer IIs of the world come in any number of bezel, dial, and material configurations. With the Explorer, it was one choice, take it or leave it. Most people took it.
In fact, though Submariner stans would disagree, some collectors cite Explorer as the banner Rolex steel sports watch. Gary Shteyngart once quoted author William Gibson as calling the Explorer “the platonic ideal of a watch.” In so many ways, the Explorer has really represented – for some 70 years – the art of changing without changing.
Until now the most drastic Explorer evolution came in 2010 when Rolex retired its well-loved 36mm sizing in favor of a larger (and more in-vogue) 39mm case size. With that change came some aesthetic updates. First, the gloss black dial was benched in favor of a “satin” dial (which is just another way of saying matte). Next were the 3,6,9 markers, done in solid white gold and with no luminous application. The Explorer wordmark relocated from the top to the bottom of the dial.
The 214270 was updated in 2016 with what’s become known as the 214270 Mk. 2. It featured two notable changes from the Mk.1: The hands were enlarged and the applied numerals filled with luminous Chromalight. This was the watch we knew as the Explorer for the past five years. As each year rolled by, there were whispers about ways Rolex could potentially update it again.
Rumors swirled about a white dial, blacked-out numerals, and, of course, a new case size. But if anything – in a world where the Submariner grew to 41mm and the Sea-Dweller to 43, we’d expected the size to go up, not back down to 36. And one thing absolutely nobody expected was for it to come in two-tone.
So what happened here? And what does it all mean?
The Part Where I Abandon Objectivity
The shrunken size is a big deal, but let’s be honest: It’s nothing compared to the biggest news of the day, which is that Rolex made one of these 36mm Explorers in two-tone metal, steel and gold. You simply could not have drawn up a watch more in line with my horological sensibilities. When the news broke yesterday morning, and I saw the first image of the two-tone, I let out an audible gasp. This was at 6:00 AM, and I may or may not have awakened both my wife and my dog.
It’s been well over 24 hours since this news hit the presses, and fans like me have had some time to formulate opinions. The feedback has not been entirely kind. “HARD pass on the two-tone,” wrote one commenter on this very website. “Heinous,” wrote another. I’m actually a little surprised at the negative discourse surrounding this watch. Okay, not surprised, but definitely disappointed.
I suspect the negative reactions are coming from a few different places. One is from those who believe two-tone betrays the Explorer’s core identity. To them, the Explorer is a watch born out of a mountain-climbing spirit – a true tool that must maintain brushed and polished steel with no extraneous elements.
In all honesty, Rolex watches haven’t been serious tool watches for decades. These are luxury items, and they are expensive. To put it in perspective, the price of one steel Explorer today is the equivalent of buying SIX in 1953 (the year the watch was released). The watches are marvels of engineering, using the absolute best in watchmaking materials, but they are no longer tools. They’re more like symbols, and the best way to see the new Rolesor Explorer is as a precious-metal monument to itself. In my book, it’s earned the right.
Another criticism comes from those who just flat-out hate two-tone. I, on the other hand, flat-out love it. The bezel is 18k yellow gold, as are the center links on the bracelet. On the dial, all of the applied markers are surrounded in yellow gold (where normally you’d find white gold), and hands, too, glimmer with yellow-gold goodness. It’s hot! No one’s forcing us to buy this stuff, and it’s wonderful to see the Explorer now available to a broader range of tastes.
According to Rolex, this is the first time the brand has ever created a Rolesor time-only professional watch. All others had (and have) one complication or another. So that’s another reason to appreciate the new Explorer.
While the two-tone treatment is shocking, it’s also reminiscent of a much, much older Rolex watch and one never produced at the consumer level: The Deep Sea Special. Yes, the one with the skyscraper crystal. That watch, too, was two-tone – and featured a very similar bracelet. Sure, it’s a stretch (like the Deep Sea’s bracelet) to compare these two watches, but the Explorer’s origins date back to the same era, so this crossover in design has some tiny level of historical commonality.
Now, if you’re asking yourself why Rolex took a watch so tied to steel and gold-ified it, the answer is simple: Because it can. We can either be okay with that, or not.
Over the past near-decade, Rolex has released a logjam of no-date, smooth-bezel, stainless-steel sport watches between 39 and 41mm: The Explorer 39, the 40mm Milgauss, the OP 39 (RIP), the 40mm Air King, and the OP 41. In the middle of all that, the Explorer lost a key point of differentiation.
The new 36 may revert to a previous size, but it’s now in an all-new shape. Rolex has been making a steady effort over the past few years to improve its cases. These aren’t mammoth changes, but rather tweaks akin to what we saw last year on the Submariner 124060. The new Explorer’s surfaces are optimized for light reflection, showing off the case finishing. Moreover, the general profile of the case (including the lugs) has slimmed down. Rolex spent the better part of the last decade inflating its cases, and now it’s letting the air out.
Then there’s the bracelet. With this redesign, the Oyster bracelet now flows into the case so seamlessly that it almost looks integrated. And lastly, it appears as if the bezel has returned to its pre-39mm form, meaning it’s more compact and therefore less prone to scratches and dings.
The Rolex Explorer has seen a good number of dial variations throughout its history, from honeycomb to matte to gloss to satin. The 39mm Explorer dressed in satin, but prior to that, the Explorer spent more than 20 years with a dial almost piano-key glossy.
The new Explorer brings back the gloss and now features what Rolex calls a black lacquer dial. This is effectively the same deep (like, so deep you’ll get lost in it) black found on the Submariner or GMT-Master II.
I am personally a fan of the modern matte dial Rolex uses on the Milgauss, Explorer II, and Sea-Dweller. Having said that, I also own an Explorer 14270 (if there’s anything you want to know about that, please click here) with a gloss dial, and find that the lacquer finish really fits the Explorer aesthetic.
Each of the new Explorer’s applied markers is coated with Rolex’s proprietary luminescent material called Chromalight, which glows in a blue hue. This year, with both the new 36mm Explorer line and the Explorer II watches, Rolex says it has applied a new and improved Chromalight that lasts longer and shines brighter. As of now, this fancy new lume will exclusively be found within the Explorer collection, yet another – another! – reason the new model is notable.
When the new in-house caliber 3230 was introduced last year inside the Submariner, OP 36, and OP 41, we had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from this movement. Our intuition proved to be right on the money, as the 36mm Explorer now gets the 3230 treatment. That movement is pretty well-documented at this point, but it does bring basically every trick Rolex has in the horological playbook. We’ve got the blue Parachrom antimagnetic balance spring, the Chronergy escapement for increased efficiency, 70 hours of power reserve, and Paraflex shock absorbers. This is a movement that doesn’t mess around, and it’s right at home inside the adventure-seeking Explorer.
Some in the past have called the Explorer boring – well, haters can’t say that anymore. The heightened emotions and strong opinions circulating about this watch only reinforce that it’s as relevant as ever. For me, the sheer surprise has yet to wear off. The fact that a two-tone Rolex Explorer even exists leads me to believe I’m in some sort of bizarre lucid dream. Please don’t wake me unless you’ve got one of these bad boys waiting on a satin pillow for me to try on.