In-Depth: Everything You Need To Know About The Rolex Explorer Ref. 14270
And some things you don’t.
The Rolex Explorer 14270 holds an interesting place in horological history. Caught somewhere in wristwatch purgatory – not old enough to be vintage, and not new enough to be cool – it is a vastly under-appreciated timepiece in collecting circles, but one with a serious cult following amongst enthusiasts. It has the rare distinction of being, quite likely, the very first modern Rolex sports watch, ushering in a new era of watchmaking and watch design for the brand. The Rolex Explorer 14270 is a watch that is so simple in its execution that people just don’t talk about it. Well, with the 30th anniversary of its release having just passed, it is time to put the spotlight on this sleeping giant.
The Rolex Explorer, as an entire line, certainly needs no introduction, but let’s give it one anyway. Historically speaking, it embodies the brand’s gift for myth-making and marketing. It was the 1953 Mt. Everest expedition which led to its creation. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay took with them a white Rolex Oyster Perpetual as they ascended Everest’s peak, a notoriously onerous and life-risking undertaking. Of course, the inclusion of a Rolex watch on that trip was not happenstance, but rather a purposeful branding exercise by Rolex to show just what the Oyster case was capable of. The white Rolex Oyster Perpetual Superlative Chronometer not only partook in the adventure, but returned home to tell the tale – which it has done for nearly 70 years since. This masterclass in brand building by Rolex resulted in the creation of a 36mm watch, similar in essence to the watch which summited Everest, but bearing the now-iconic name, “Explorer.”
It was also in 1953 that the Explorer reference 6350 was released. While not technically the first Explorer, it is the first to feature the Explorer name on the dial. Featuring Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9, a 36mm case size, and black dial, this watch was the foundation for the Explorer design language going forward. The 6350 has become known as the “honeycomb” due to the dial pattern which looks – you guessed it – like a honeycomb. This is an exceedingly rare watch, as it was produced for just about one year, and concurrently with its predecessor, the 6150. The 6150, and 6350 were succeeded by the 6610. That watch sported a matte black dial, gilt numerals, and a very familiar dial layout. The 6610 was the precursor to the longstanding 1016 which was then released in 1963. The 1016 lived a long enough production life – 27 years to be exact – to see a host of variations on its overall design. From the Albino dial, to the Space-Dweller, the stretch bracelet, the gilt underline, and the solid link bracelet, each one of these variations represents the elements that make watch collecting so endlessly fascinating.
The 1016 played an integral role in the legend of the Explorer. It gained considerable fame in literary circles, being a watch chosen by such major figures as Ian Fleming, William Gibson, and HODINKEE fan-favorite, Gary Shteyngart. The 1016 expanded the Explorer mythos and provided the foundation for all future Explorers. The 3-6-9 dial configuration, the triangular marker at twelve, the rectangular markers filling out every other hour, the Mercedes handset, and the “Explorer” mark were all 1016 staples that helped the little watch become a horological behemoth. But all things come to an end, and in 1989 (although the exact date is a little fuzzy), the 1016 gave way to the next generation.
Rebirth Of The Explorer
Enter the Rolex Explorer 14270, a watch that at one time was referred to as having “no horological interest whatsoever” by watch writer Walt Odets and the first Rolex ever purchased by Ben Clymer. The 14270 was released at the Basel Fair in 1989 and put Rolex at the cross-section of sport and luxury. The classic iteration of the tool watch was slowly being phased out as Rolex started integrating, little by little, various higher-end manufacturing techniques into their watches. It was at this time as well that other iconic tool watches were seeing design code changes. The Rolex Submariner, long-reigning king of the tool watch, saw its matte dial replaced with a glossy one and its painted markers replaced with applied markers with white-gold surrounds. The 1980s were a time of change in a post-quartz-crisis world, as well as one of reinvention and forward-thinking. The vintage design trend was a long way off, and in any event, Rolex very rarely looks backwards.
So what was the reaction to Rolex taking its most quintessential non-dive sports watch and making so many relatively subtle but fundamental design changes? When Rolex released the 14270, it was received with a certain amount of surprise by Rolex customers. Functionally the new watch was the same as its predecessor, but the dial had been given a pretty dramatic update and, of course, a new movement as well. For the next 11 years, Rolex continued to experiment with and refine various aspects of the design (and you could argue that they’re still doing that today).
But time heals all wounds, and the novelty has more than worn off. So much so that the Rolex Explorer 14270 is often considered to be a boring watch to the casual observer. As such, it is something of a sleeper in the collecting world. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? Wrong. This sly fox of a watch has enough variations within its single reference to make it not only highly interesting, but also potentially quite collectible. There is always another door set to open in the world of horological intrigue. The first-ever modern Rolex, the 14270, might well be poised at the brink of icon status.
So let’s dive into every nook and cranny of this watch and uncover some of its hidden details.
What’s In A Name?
Studying the microscopic details of a single watch can prove a little bit confusing. One way to deal with that confusion is to create naming conventions to simplify the complexities. In the case of the Explorer 14270, it was not hard to come up with names to signify each of the four main variations of the watch which existed throughout its run, from approximately 1989 until 2001. In fact, the first name was already spoken for.
Those are, the “Blackout,” the “T-Swiss,” the “Swiss Only,” and the “Swiss Made.” Each of these variants is named for specific variations on the dials themselves. In 14270 lore, the dial is where you see the most obvious changes to the watch over time, and so it only makes sense to demarcate them in this way.
Understanding Serial Ranges And Production Runs:
Approximate Serial Range:
E series: 1990
X series: 1991
N series: 1991
C series: 1992
S series: 1993
W series: 1994
T series: 1996
U series: 1997
A series: 1998
P series: 2000
In terms of structure, we will first break the watch down into four main categories, representing its production timeline. There are four main variations which carry the 14270 through its production run and, as discussed above, each one will be given a shorthand name to aid in its identification.
From about 1989 – 1991, there was the “Blackout”; from 1991 – 1998, the “T-Swiss”; from 1998 – 99, the transitional “Swiss Only”; and from 1999 until the end of production in 2001, the “Swiss Made” dial variant. There are a few gray areas and some overlap, but for the most part, these represent the main subsets within the 14270 line. We will examine the watch on the basis of its aesthetics, looking at the dial, the case, the bracelet, and the clasp, as well as on its performance – looking, of course, at the movement.
As I said, it is hard to find a way to differentiate between watches that belong to the same general reference. Simply naming the watches doesn’t tell the whole story. The closest thing to an easy solution is to refer to the serial numbers etched into the case of the watch. Each serial begins with a specific identifying letter, and that letter gives us an idea as to which year that watch was produced. While the corresponding years and serial numbers are accurate, and fairly exact, this is not the sort of information which Rolex makes known to the public. Rather, the serial range and year information is the result of collector-compiled data, obtained over the course of many years. With the Explorer 14270, there are 10 serial ranges as indicated above. The E and X series are of the earliest known references of the Explorer 14270 line. It is in the late-E and early-X series that we get the rare and coveted “Blackout” Explorer.
In the N through the S series, we see examples of what has been called the “Frozen” dial Explorer (a type of aging to the black lacquer dial), but more on that later. The W series, produced from 1994-1996, brings the transition from a lug hole case to no lug hole case (around 1994). T and U series, produced from 1996-98 represent the tail end of tritium dial Explorers, this time featuring flip-lock clasps – don’t worry, we will talk more about the clasps.
Around 1998-99 came the introduction of the transitional “Swiss Only” dials in U, and A series. The “Swiss Only” represented the use of LumiNova for the luminous material on the dial and a transition away from the use of tritium. Tritium dials were phased out for LumiNova starting around 1998, and Rolex changed the print at the bottom of the dial from the old “Swiss T>25” to just “Swiss.”
These “Swiss Only” dials were used for only a brief period during late U and A series watches before Rolex adopted Super-LumiNova for their luminous compound, changing the dial text to “Swiss Made.” “A” series variants also bore the “Swiss Made” text at the bottom of the dial signifying the change from LumiNova to Super-LumiNova. The P serial is the final reference 14270 and it, too, bears the “Swiss Made” text on the dial and a Super-LumiNova treatment.
Each variant of the 14270 maintains the classic 36mm sizing. In true modern form, every version of this watch sports a glossy black lacquer dial, with applied markers and numerals with white-gold surrounds. Each dial displays the Explorer wordmark beneath the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Logo, with the Superlative Chronometer text displayed at the bottom portion of the dial. Every watch boasts folded or hollow end-link bracelets, a sapphire crystal, and features a once-modern Rolex Caliber 3000 movement – an upgrade over the 1570 used in the preceding 1016.
The Caliber 3000 movement contains a 48-hour power reserve, 27 jewels, and beats at 4Hz. It is a bi-directional automatic winding movement with a central rotor and hacking seconds. The movement diameter is 28.5mm. It was the last Rolex movement to not feature a Breguet overcoil for the hairspring. Despite the choice of a flat hairspring, the Caliber 3000 achieved chronometer certification, with accuracy of +4/-6 seconds per day. The hairspring does not have a regulator; instead, the balance has Rolex Microstella timing weights.
Rolex utilized a Kif shock protection system in the watch, as this was before the age where they produced (read: acquired) all manufacturing in-house. The Kif system was an alternative to the popular Incabloc shock system. Looking at the movement, the Kif system is recognizable by its golden three-leaf or four-leaf clover-shaped spring clip around a ruby at the top of the balance.
Rolex is nothing if not an innovator. Over the course of its 11-year production run, the 14270 saw a host of changes, improvements, tweaks, and adjustments. Many of these would be utterly imperceptible to the untrained eye, but by looking a little bit more closely, surprises abound.
Blackout: 1989 -1991
The Explorer 14270 “Blackout” is a nickname given for a very obvious and appropriate reason. The numerals on the dial are blacked-out, as opposed to later variants where they were filled with white paint. Of all the 14270 variants produced, this model stands as the most coveted and collectible. The watch itself was produced in very low numbers and only found in late-E and early-X serial numbers. The “Blackout” Explorers are considered some of the rarest Rolexes of the last thirty years (especially E series), and were said to have been received poorly on release. Go figure.
The story goes that the first batches of the 14270 Explorer left the Rolex factory with a gloss dial that had its 3-6-9 Arabic hour numerals filled in with black enamel. This was likely the original design for the new Explorer before Rolex decided that the blacked-out numerals did not provide enough legibility on the dial. Ref. 14270 Explorers with the black enamel-filled 3-6-9 hour markers all seem to have serial numbers corresponding to production years 1990 and 1991. The earliest dials appear to have printing stamped in silver. But, of course, it is not so simple. Throughout the run of the “Blackout,” two different types of silver printing were used: “Flat” and “Metallic.” The flat paint has a more muted tone, while the metallic gives off more of a glimmer effect. As the production of the watch wore on, and as Rolex transitioned into the X series, they began to run out of the silver-print dials, so they switched to using the white-print dials from normal 14270 models, but still with applied blacked-out 3-6-9 indices.
Some of the earliest E series silver-print 14270 “Blackouts” sport a special seconds hand with the lume dot further out than standard production models. Sometime around this X series transition, Rolex stopped production of the special seconds hands and switched to normal 14270 seconds hands with the lume dot in its customary location. The final X series “Blackout” models would only have the black 3-6-9 numerals and none of the special parts from the early “Blackout” variants (silver-print dial, special seconds hand, etc.).
Any “Blackout” Explorers sent back to Rolex for servicing or refurbishing over the years would have likely had their parts replaced with the standard parts, which would explain seeing a silver-print or metallic print dial with a standard 14270 seconds hand. Rarer examples still of this watch can be found stamped Tiffany & Co. on the dial. These “Blackout” Tiffany variants are among the rarest on the market today.
T-Swiss: 1991 -1998
The “T-Swiss” Explorer 14270 is the longest-running variant in the reference. It is marked by tritium lume, white paint-filled numerals, and a gloss black dial, and it has come to represent the very essence of the 14270. This is also the watch with the most variety within its own variant. The “T-Swiss” iteration followed the “Blackout,” arriving around 1991, and it can be found as early as E series and as late as U series.
Like the “Blackout, this watch featured drilled lug holes until about 1994, when the case design was changed to plain lugs (i.e. no lug holes). All versions boast tritium-filled lume on the dial. The T-Swiss 14270 Explorers with tritium lume saw the most changes of any iteration of the watch. These changes occurred in the clasp, dial, and lugs. Let’s take a look at the exact differences.
First, the dial. There is not a clear production timeline for this watch, but it is likely that it was produced concurrently with the “Blackout” model. Hallmarks for this watch are white text, in the typical Rolex serif design, white paint-filled numerals, and the “T < 25” text beneath six o’clock. As with the “Blackout,” there are even some Tiffany-stamped variants.
Next was the case, which for the first four to five years of production bore lug holes which – ask anyone – makes changing a strap far easier. Now, there is a rare iteration of the late U series which bore the “T-Swiss” moniker but had LumiNova-filled numerals. These are referred to as “Tritinova” dials in some circles. Rumor has it that despite discontinuing the use of tritium, Rolex utilized LumiNova filled markers on a dial marked “T < 25” because they had excess stock of those dials. Who knows if this is 100% true, but we do know that such variants do, in fact, exist. As they used to say in the Old West, when the legend becomes the fact, print the legend. In fact, all indications are that a manufacturing faux pas by Rolex caused this rare and unique dial variant.
The E-T series watches featured the single Oyster clasp, before switching to the flip-lock clasp (around 1996). Flip-lock clasps on non-dive Rolex watches were different in that they were smaller due to the absence of the dive extension, but they still provided that extra level of protection.
Note as well that a C series “T-Swiss” dial variant was produced around 1992. This is especially interesting because, while there are records of the production of this variant, these stand as the hardest serial range to find across the entire 14270 line. If you happen to come across a C-Series Explorer, consider your self extremely lucky.
Swiss Only: 1998-99
Now we arrive at what has come to be known as a transitional model in the 14270 saga. Many in the Rolex world recognize that dials bearing the “Swiss” moniker generally represent service dials. In this case, the “Swiss Only” dial represents the shift from the use of Tritium to LumiNova. Granted, there is probably a bit of crossover between this variant and the aforementioned “Tritinova” models, but such is the case in Rolex mythology. The “Swiss Only” model had the shortest run of all 14270 iterations and can be found in U and some A series models. It officially marked the end of the Tritium-dial Explorer and the transition to non-radioactive LumiNova.
This variant is considered to be a transitional model because it overlaps the tritium models and precedes the “Swiss Made” Super-LumiNova models. This watch featured the 78790 flip-lock clasp with no variation to speak of in the clasp department throughout its short run. Unlike prior dial variations, all “Swiss Only ” Explorers featured plain lugs, meaning there were no drilled lug holes – and thus, more challenging strap changes.
All in all, the “Swiss Only” – like the “Blackout” – represents a very short production run compared to other variants produced. The “Swiss Only” dials are not, however, anywhere near as rare, nor do they command anywhere near the prices, that “Blackout” Explorers do at present. But the fact that they were produced for so short a time could mean that could change at any time.
Swiss Made: 1999-2001
The final stop in the ever-evolving train that is the 14270 Explorer is the “Swiss Made” dial variant. All roads lead here, and each evolution of the design, and every tweak of the look and feel, was to get to this place. All future Explorers look back to this singular design as the finished realization for what a modern Rolex Explorer would be and, of course, what it would become. The “Swiss Made” Explorer 14270 exists in the A series and the P series, the last of the reference.
The “Swiss Made” Explorers represent nothing more than Super-LumiNova-filled lume, but in many ways, they are the epitome of a modern Rolex sports watch. It boasts a secure clasp system, a lume treatment that doesn’t patina, and it will look as new 50 years from now as it did on day one.
This variant marked the final run of the 14270 Explorer and had a roughly three-year production span. The watch is effectively identical, in terms of the dial, to its successor, the 114270. (The only difference between them is the movement and the use of solid end-links in the 114270). This variant features the 78790 flip-lock clasp. All “Swiss Made” Explorers feature plain lugs. Be aware that many Explorer references are marked “Swiss Made” but have the older-style Oyster clasp. Don’t be fooled by these: This is because the service dials Rolex used on the 14270 are marked “Swiss Made.”
Font and Typeface Design
I admit I am an absolute sucker for typeface design. Part the allure of watches for me is the style of font on the dial. In the case of Rolex, their pre-millenium offerings do not disappoint. As it pertains to the Explorer 14270, there is just enough variation in fonts from the reference’s inception through its retirement to provide intrigue for a font-o-phile like myself. Let’s look at some of the differences.
Here we have the “Blackout” Explorer with the silver printing. The dial features a thinner typeface for the writing and thin long lines for the individual points of the Rolex coronet with defined circular tops. In the case of the rare Tiffany-stamp “Blackout” Explorer, you can really see the difference and contrast between the white text of the Tiffany stamp and the silver printing on the rest of the dial.
Now we look at a “T-Swiss” dial with white paint-filled numerals. Here you can see a slight variation in the look of the coronet. There are less defined circular tops, shorter lines, and a fatter bottom to the crown itself. We also get a variation on the appearance of the signature serif font style. This dial features a thicker, bolder text, which results in the R and P touching. Some early T-Swiss Models exhibited a slight variation to the letter S in Oyster which can be referred to as the “Slanted S.” The Rolex logo itself is much thicker on this variant.
Moving to the “Swiss Only” dial, there are some changes that make this one stand out as the transitional model that it is. We might go ahead and nickname this the “Skinny Dial” Explorer for its use of thinner letters. Here we see more variation in the coronet, which has a smaller “mouth,” longer points, and a return to defined circular tops. The font remains thick, but everything is a bit more compact in appearance, like the R in Rolex. Some of the main differentiators for the “Swiss Only” dial variant are a skinny “O” in Explorer and a skinny “A” in Perpetual. The S returns to normal on this variant.
The “Swiss Made” sees the return to a thinner typeface and coronet with long thin lines and pronounced circular tops. The thin “O” is gone as is the thin A, with a return to a familiar typesetting. As for the Explorer logo, the serifs are a little less pronounced (see E and R), a typeface design which carries into more modern references such as the 114270 and 214270 Explorers.
There are other type-setting variations which run through each 14270 example, like the Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified text. The “Blackout” has the smallest text size of the litter, with short (in terms of height) typesetting. The others are fairly similar, with the “Swiss Made” having the thickest font of all variants.
Just as there were differences in the appearance of the dial font and typesetting, so too were there differences in the appearance of the Arabic numeral set across the four 14270 dial variants. Let’s dive a bit deeper into exactly what those changes were.
As we know, the “Blackout” numerals are filled with black enamel. This results in the numerals having a fatter appearance due to the absence of white paint. The holes in 6 and 9 are a rectangular shape. The serifs or ends of the numerals all appear to have a sharp angular design to them.
The “T-Swiss” dials saw the introduction of white painted numerals. The white paint brought more definition to the numerals, making them present a bit thinner. Notice the larger openings for the 6 and 9 which are more rounded.
Fitting for its transitional nature – and “Skinny” dial – the “Swiss Only” dial also has the thinnest appearance of the numerals, in terms of white paint. Moreover, the ends of each numeral are shorter and more dramatically angled off than the preceding “T-Swiss” dial. The holes at 6 and 9 return to a more rectangular shape.
The “Swiss Made” variant continues with the shorter more angular ends to the numerals. The most defining characteristic appears to be the white paint. This has the thickest application of the paint-filled numerals of any model and bears greater resemblance to the “Blackout” in that regard, as far as the look of the numerals themselves. This variant maintains rectangular holes at 6 and 9.
Of course, not all variations can be planned. Some occur naturally, with age producing unique effects that can change a watch entirely. Forty years ago, these types of changes might have been referred to as damage, but today, we call them honest. Given that the Explorer 14270 only had tritium applied to the markers and not the numerals, the patination that occurs on these dials results in an interesting contrast whereby the numerals remain a stark white and the markers fade into a light creamy color. Most Explorer 14270 models of the tritium variety do not patina as harshly as, say, a Submariner or GMT-Master. The reason for the phenomenon is that, by the 1990s, Rolex had created a more stable way to apply the tritium lume within the white-gold hour markers, resulting in a far more graceful aging process.
It isn’t only the markers that change with time, but the dial too. The gloss black of the lacquer dial in some cases produced what has come to be known as the “Frozen” dial.
On early “T-Swiss” models, the black gloss lacquer dial would age in such a fashion as to exhibit something of a frozen or cracked look to it. This is different from a spider dial because the combination of the aging and the shine of the gloss dial surface gives the dial an ice-like effect.
Bracelets and Clasps
You know you’re getting deep into a watch when you start zeroing in on clasp differences. Not normally a massive topic of interest, I know, but it is fascinating in a hyper-micro sense to look at how this watch evolved in such a short span of time. The clasp is especially interesting because it serves as one of the best indicators of a particular variant’s age and uniqueness. (For more on the evolution of the Oyster bracelet, check out our 2017 In-Depth story.)
The single Oyster clasp represents a long-standing tradition in Rolex lore. Dating back to the 1960s and earlier, this was a staple of the Explorer line. At the beginning of the 14270’s production run, the watch bore a 78350/60 serial bracelet clasp. Unique identifiers for this bracelet style are the oyster-style links and the single stamped oyster clasp. The clasp is rectangular with the embossed oyster in the center portion. This was the clasp used on the watch for much of its early production from 1989 to 1996.
Here we get the first unique and interesting clasp production in the Explorer 14270, and one that hardly fits the watch on a spiritual or technical level. Certain Explorers are known to have left the factory with 93150 dive-style oyster bracelet clasp configurations. The main identifiers for these bracelets are the longer, thicker clasp, with the oyster bracelet links imprinted on it, with a folding double clasp and a diver’s extension built-in. Some argue the legitimacy of the examples, claiming that they are simply a case of someone putting the wrong bracelet on the watch and re-selling it, but on the contrary, there is evidence to support that certain T series Explorers circa 1995-96 bore this clasp variant.
This just goes to show that anything is possible in the land of Rolex. There are some who figure that this is the result of a few special orders placed for dive-style clasps on their Explorer watches, but the real story is far more pragmatic. 1996 is when we first see the Explorer (along with the Explorer II and GMT-Master II) transitioning to the flip-lock-style clasp. Around 1995 – and as early as 1991, in some cases – Rolex was testing the idea of improving upon the tried and true standard Oyster clasp. The manifestation of this test was shipping some Explorer 14270 models with the 93150-style clasp affixed. Around the same time, you will see similar examples within the Explorer II range as well. There are warranty papers for E and T series Explorers which show that 93150 clasps were fitted to the 14270 by Rolex and shipped that way from the factory.
Beginning in 1996, Rolex began utilizing the 78790A clasp system on the Explorer – the same that can be seen on the Explorer II and GMT-Master II models of the time. These clasps are more akin to the aforementioned dive-style bracelet; however, the clasp is significantly smaller and thinner.
Like the dive-style clasp, the 78790A bore a flip-lock clasp mechanism, making the watch that much more secure on wrist. Moving into present day, the Explorer reference 214270 still uses a flip-lock clasp system, albeit in a far more modern variety. While in practice, the 78790A clasp system is virtually identical to modern Rolex sports models, it is different in almost every other way. Current production models are not only “beefier” in presentation, but also decidedly more robust in fit and finish. Adding to the Rolex tradition of over-engineering, the present-day clasp system also includes a micro-adjustment system built into the clasp itself. Taking 20 years’ worth of steps back, the flip-lock clasp on the Explorer 14270 is yet another example of its status as the first modern Rolex sports watch.
No matter which style of clasp was used on the watch throughout its production, all variants of the Explorer 14270 came equipped with the 558B folded end-link, also known as a “hollow” end-link bracelet. Folded means that the end-links, i.e. the links that affix to the case between the lugs, are quite literally hollow, resulting in a less-than-secure fit to the case. Some say that this produces a sort of jangly rattle to the watch. I actually think it’s more of a metallic tinkering sound, but I digress. While the watch may have seen a variety of clasps attached to the 558B end-link bracelet, the bracelet itself remained ever-consistent – despite the occasional appearance of a jubilee. If you are ever wondering which clasp system you have (aside from merely looking at it), the class serial is engraved into the underside of the bracelet itself. The 558B bracelets are not for everyone, but they certainly are of their time and are a sure indicator that you are holding a 14270 Explorer and not its successor, the 114270.
It has been touched on a little bit to this point, but one cannot overstate the design influence that the Explorer 14270 has had on successive modern incarnations. The 114270 was the last of the 36mm Explorers. As noted, the P series was the final run in the 11-year production of the 14270. The K series was the next evolution, introduced in a brand new reference – the 114270. The extra “1” represented a solid end-link bracelet and a new movement – the Caliber 3130 – while also reading “Swiss Made” at the bottom of the dial.
This gave way to the Explorer 214270, possibly the single greatest evolution of the Explorer in its history. The case was upsized from 36mm to 39mm, and the dial went from gloss back to matte. The watch is now known for having gone through two iterations: Mark I and II. The Mark I dial is known for its solid white-gold applied indices (sans white paint and non-lume-filled) and for having a notoriously short handset. Some say that Rolex merely used the hands from the 36mm models and brought them into the 39mm case. Needless to say, that watch was discontinued, and rumblings of its potential future collectibility ring in the air. The 214270 Mark II is the current offering from Rolex in the Explorer line. It, too, clocks in at 39mm, only now it more closely resembles the 14270. This is because the numerals are now fully lumed – a first for the watch since its modern introduction in 1989. For a seriously deep and comprehensive look at that watch, I highly suggest James Stacey’s A Week on the Wrist with Explorer 214270.
Want to learn more about the current Rolex Explorer?
The 14270 is the standard-bearer when it comes to modern Rolex Explorers. It does not take an expert to see the lineage here and the consistency of design from its introduction through today. In many ways, the 14270 is under-appreciated and undervalued when looking at its position within the secondary market. It has had a profound influence on the Rolex product line. This influence stretches from the simplest Oyster Perpetual with 3-6-9 numerals all the way to the modern Air King. This is all to say that when you look at a modern Explorer today, you have the 14270 to thank.
So does all this minutiae make the Explorer 14270 a hidden gem in the world of collecting? If anybody could predict these things, we would have seen a lot more Daytonas sold at retail in the 1970s and held onto for posterity. One of the hallmarks of vintage Rolex is how much the minutiae matters. This is something that isn’t nearly as true with modern watches, with rare exceptions (I am looking at you, “small hand” Mark I Explorer 214270). The 14270, despite its positioning on the modern end of the Rolex spectrum, fits this mold. As we have seen, there is so much variation within the single reference that it plays more like a vintage than a modern watch. Speaking to the idea of collectibility, I got the chance to speak to a few collectors and dealers – two Erics and a Gary – to gain their perspective on the 14270.
For Eric Ku, renowned collector, dealer, and owner of 10PastTen, the Explorer represents “the most perfect Rolex.” He started collecting and working at a time when the 14270 was in regular production and noted that it was the “first Rolex I ever loved.” Eric said that the 14270 reference is relatively cheap for what it is, but with it, you get a little bit of vintage taste in a modern watch. Another interesting note, referenced earlier in this article but echoed by Eric, is the fact that – for the most part – the tritium on the 14270 just doesn’t age. “A 14270 to a non-enthusiast still looks like a new Rolex,” he says.
Eric Wind, former HODINKEE contributor and owner of Wind Vintage, spoke to the idea of what constitutes a vintage watch, saying, “If you follow the 20-year timeline for what makes a watch vintage, this just hit that mark.” He noted that neo-vintage watches have really appreciated in value, pointing to the market for Polar Explorer II 16570 reference models. Explorer 14270s have gone up 50% in many cases over the last year alone, he said, most notably unpolished examples but, like any Rolex, it is increasingly difficult to find unpolished examples. In looking at the future of the market for the 14270, Eric notes, “I believe the really great 14270s will be $10,000 soon.” Only time will tell.
The Explorer 14270 was famously featured on a Japanese television program called The Love Generation, making the watch, as Ku put it, the watch of the late ’90s and early 2000s in Japan. Crossing a watch with pop culture almost always has an effect on overall collectibility and desirability. Said Wind, “I know a dealer who bought 30 of them from a U.S. retailer in 1996 and flew them to Japan. He sold out in two hours at a watch show.”
It’s not just those in the watch industry with strong opinions about the 14270. HODINKEE’s own Secretary of Seconds or Minister of Minutes (depending on who you ask) Gary Shteyngart weighed in as well. “What if I bought one completely NOS, stickers on, had it pressure tested, and then made it my one and only watch for swimming, adventuring, and tuxedo-ing? The 1016 is prettier, but you spend too much time coddling and burping it like a newborn. The 14270 was meant for a life of mountain climbing and martini spills. It works its ass off without complaint much like Roger Smith who proudly sports one as his daily wearer.” (In his episode of Talking Watches with Jack Forster, Roger Smith speaks about his Explorer, but he says it is roughly 13 or 14 years old at the time of the episode, in which case it might be a 114270).
In truth, the whole idea of collectibility, and what makes a watch desirable, is market dependent. No watch is immune from a market downturn, and the 14270 certainly experienced one of those. When Rolex released its successor, the 114270, it released a lot of them – effectively flooding the market. The result was a collapse in the marketplace of 14270s at the time, as the newer, more modern edition was readily available from ADs everywhere (a concept unheard of today). But it wouldn’t be the watch’s only brush with a fickle market.
The year 2010 saw the release of the next – and most dramatic – evolution to the Rolex Explorer line to date – an upsized 39mm watch, sending a clear signal that 36mm Explorers were a relic of a bygone era. The newly featured full white-gold applied numerals were reminiscent of a certain collectible Explorer of yore. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking about the Blackout, you’re right on. Indisputably the most collectible in the 14270 line, even it fell prey to the market’s whims. With the new 214270 – again – being readily available in ADs at the time, the “Blackout” suffered quite a drop in price.
So what about the 14270 and its collectibility going forward? Well, if we have learned anything, so much of this hobby is – for lack of a better word – random. With the 14270, we have a watch that represents so much to the idea of a modern Rolex, and a watch with enough of that good ole’ minutiae to keep things interesting for years to come.
The Explorer 14270 represents something entirely unique. It truly is the first modern Rolex. White-gold surrounds, gloss dial, sapphire crystal; these are all current staple traits of modern Rolex tool watches which effectively debuted with this very watch back in 1989. It was J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote that “moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.” In this case, the Explorer 14270 may well be out of sight and mind, but it’s simply too bright a star to be ignored. It is a testament to Rolex’s fearlessness in shaking up the design of a core piece in its collection. Moving from the 1016 to 14270, the brand took a risk but also followed the playbook which has kept it on top all of these years.
Just like the Bob Dylan documentary of the same name, they don’t look back, only forward. The 14270 was a test case in many ways, constantly changed, tweaked, and updated through its entire run. For a look at the fully realized and finished product, one need only look to its successor, the 114270, or even its modern counterpart, the 214270. No matter, this watch represents a pivotal time in luxury watchmaking and more than deserves to wear the Explorer name. The next time you dismiss a watch out of hand, or follow the horological hive-mind, dig a little deeper. There is always something to be appreciated – especially when it comes to Rolex.
Photography, Kasia Milton