Rolex Explorer: 70 Years of an Icon

rolex explorer watch on the wrist

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Rolex, without a doubt, remains one of the leading Swiss watchmakers in the entire horology industry. One of the mainstays in the Rolex catalog, since the early 1950s, is the high-caliber Explorer. This particular collection is its oldest sports watch, yet remains the most understated.

With over a seven-decade history, the Rolex Explorer has undergone some notable modifications and alterations while at the same time retaining its fundamental design traits. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into Rolex Explorer’s origin, including some of its top-tier watch models in the collection.

A Brief History of the Rolex Explorer

A photo of the first climbers to reach Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary (left) and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay (right).
First climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest; Sir Edmund Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay (left) (Source:

After several attempts to climb the summit and incoming snowstorms threatening the expedition, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay finally became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 2, 1953, at exactly 10:30 AM. On their wrists – at an altitude of almost 9km, fighting extreme conditions, low pressure, wind gusts, and temperatures below -45°C – two identical Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches. 

Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, was known to be a marketing genius. His philosophy for the company was: “Only great marketing is needed to make a company successful”. He certainly knew the power of product placement, so he supported the 1953 British expedition to Mt. Everest by equipping the men with Oyster Perpetual watches.

“The Rolex watches, with which members of the British team were equipped, proved their dependability on Everest.” wrote one member of the expedition. “We were delighted that they kept such accurate time. They performed splendidly, and we have indeed come to look upon Rolex Oysters as an important part of high climbing equipment.” 

If ever there was a textbook example of perfect product placement – this is it!

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became renowned around the world, and their achievement would capture the imagination of generation upon generation of future explorers.

That same year, 1953, Rolex released the Explorer Ref. 6350 model. The design was simple, yet sophisticated, with an inverted triangle at the top of the dial, printed Rolex text, and painted 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals indices. Legible, robust, and reliable, the Rolex Explorer is a true definition of a tool watch!

The Evolution of Rolex Explorer 

Rolex Explorer Ref. 6610

front view of the Rolex Explorer Ref. 6610 watch
Rolex Explorer Ref. 6610

In the 1950s, Rolex proudly introduced their new brainchild – the cutting-edge caliber movement 1030. This was Rolex’s first complete in-house movement, both designed and built by the Swiss brand. The newly launched caliber 1030 was a lot slimmer than its predecessors, and, more importantly – was chronometer rated. This new movement was first used with Rolex Explorer Ref. 6610 which saw, for the first time, the use of a flat caseback.

The Rolex Explorer Ref. 6610 features a sleek 36mm stainless steel case and bracelet. It comes with a handsome black dial, which is protected by plexiglass crystal. The dial is furnished with the famous 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals indices and an inverted triangle at 12 o’clock.

Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016

side view of the Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 watch
Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016

In 1963, Rolex released yet another iteration in the Explorer line. This one, the revered Explorer Ref. 1016, would become one of the longest-running sports watch references in the industry. But, not only that. It would also become one of the most sought-after and wanted references of all time. This reference, among other things, managed to survive all throughout the infamous Quartz crisis! 

Like the older watch models, the Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 has the same 36mm case size, which is made of well-polished stainless steel. It is paired with a nice black dial and a stainless steel bracelet. Driving this model is the high-caliber caliber 1570, which is an automatic movement with a 48-hour power reserve. In addition, this timepiece is now equipped with an in-depth 100-meter water resistance rating.

Rolex Explorer Ref. 14270

front view of the Rolex Explorer Ref. 14270 watch
Rolex Explorer Ref. 14270

Production continued until 1989, almost unchanged, except for a couple of small details: movement was upgraded, so Explorer received a hacking mechanism, and, more importantly, Rolex stopped using Radium and switched to Tritium instead. But, big changes were implemented in the late 1980s which saw the introduction of Ref. 14270.

The Rolex Explorer Ref. 14270 was one very different watch. Not so much because of its design features – those remained true to the core Explorer DNA. But a new era was slowly coming, and – Rolex was changing. The beautifully soft, distorting acrylic was replaced with cold, scratch-resistant flat sapphire crystal. A modernistic and cosmetic change, in line with the more and more luxurious nature of Rolex watches. 

The Ref. 14270 is presented in a 36mm stainless steel case and bracelet. These things are paired with a beautiful black dial with the same 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals indices. What powers now this watch is a high-end caliber 3000 movement that delivers a 42-hour power reserve. A whopping 100-meter water resistance is also integrated into the watch.

Rolex Explorer Ref. 214270

front view of the Rolex Explorer Ref. 214720 watch
Rolex Explorer Ref. 214270

New generation of consumers had little use for the utilitarian design features of old Explorer references. The 36mm watch, designed originally to be practical, elegant, and inconspicuous on the wrist, saw the biggest change in 2010 when Rolex supersized it from 36mm to 39mm, in line with modern trends and demands of the market.

But, weirdly enough, the Rolex Explorer Ref. 214270 (or the 39mm Explorer, as many call it today) was arguably the most polarizing Rolex Explorer reference to date. Many purist Explorer enthusiasts were appalled by this new reference, and change in size, claiming that only the 36mm Explorer is the “true” Explorer. Powering this timepiece is a top-notch caliber 3132 movement, delivering a 48-hour power reserve.

After Baselworld 2010, and the release of the 39mm Explorer, I vividly remember having many heated arguments with watch enthusiasts on the matter. I personally liked the new size. I welcomed the change because almost every “vintage” watch that I liked had one fatal flaw, for me at least – the size. 36mm is just too small for my wrist and I always wished those watches were a couple of millimeters larger.

Over the last two decades, Rolex and many other companies went larger and larger with their sports watches, following the trend. At some point, I really thought Rolex would release the Explorer in 41mm. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on the camp you sit in – they didn’t.

Rolex Explorer Ref. 124270

front view of the Rolex Explorer Ref. 124270 watch
Rolex Explorer Ref.124270

In 2021, with the newest and latest Rolex Explorer Ref. 124270, the brand went back to the old 36mm size. I did not expect that! I don’t think anyone in the industry really did. In the era of everything getting bigger and bigger, Rolex downsized its watch! The meaning and message behind it? I don’t know. Rolex works in mysterious ways sometimes. Perhaps the voices of those Rolex purists were finally heard.

The Ref. 124270 is crafted using a stainless steel case and bracelet. It is adorned with a nice black dial, which is protected by a sapphire crystal. Movement-wise, the brand utilized the top-tier caliber 3230 to power the watch. It delivers a superior 70-hour power reserve, with a useful water resistance rating of 100 meters.

Final Thoughts

The Rolex Explorer is a great watch and a true testament to the brand’s unwavering commitment to precision, reliability, and elegance. With its timeless design, exceptional performance, and unrivaled reliability, the Rolex Explorer is truly a masterpiece in the world of horology. It’s a watch that is equally at home on the summit of Everest or in the boardroom, making it the perfect choice for the modern adventurer who demands the best.

All images are courtesy of eBay unless otherwise stated.

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Planning to buy another high-end Rolex watch? Make sure to read our article about the Best Entry-Level Rolex Watches.

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