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 5 minutes

Five things you need to know about the Rolex Explorer before buying one

By Jorg Weppelink

The Rolex Explorer is an icon that every watch enthusiast knows. New to the watch universe? Don’t worry, you’ll get to know the Rolex Explorer soon enough. The watch is instantly recognizable with its famous 3, 6, 9 dial layout. Ever since its introduction in 1953, Rolex has produced a number of new references that all feature modern updates. But what has remained is that unique character and design that will stand out anywhere. If you’re not yet familiar with the Rolex Explorer, or you’re thinking about buying one, we’ve put together a list of five things about the Rolex Explorer that should help you. Even you know your stuff, this still a fun read about the famous timepiece.

1. The Rolex Explorer Was Not the First Watch on Mount Everest

The Rolex Explorer was introduced in 1953, the same year that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Mount Everest. The Explorer, however, was actually launched in the summer of 1953 after the historical ascent on May 29, 1953. Although both Hillary and Norgay did in fact own Rolex watches that were given to them a year before, it has been the topic of much debate over the years about what watches the men were actually wearing on Everest.

It is generally believed that Hillary was wearing his Smiths Deluxe A409, leaving his Rolex ref. 6098 “Bubbleback” at base camp. And while Norgay owned a gold Rolex Datejust, he didn’t appear to wear it on the day of reaching the summit. In pictures, he can be seen wearing a stainless steel watch, not his gold Rolex. Both men also never claimed to be wearing their Rolexes at the top of Mount Everest. But thanks to clever Rolex marketing, the Rolex name and the Explorer are forever tied to the mountain and Hillary and Norgay’s accomplishment. The Explorer ads that Rolex ran in the summer after the first ascent upon the release of the watch were amazing ads to see, even though we know now that it was definitely not a Rolex Explorer at the peak of Everest.

2. The Rolex Explorer Was Not the First Rolex Watch With the Iconic 3, 6, 9 Explorer Dial

The Rolex Explorer is known for its iconic 3, 6, 9 dial, known of course as the “Explorer” dial. But the first Rolex Explorer ref. 6350 introduced in 1953 was actually not the first Rolex with this layout. That honor goes to the Rolex Pre-Explorer ref. 6150, even though the only difference between the ref. 6150 and ref. 6350 was the difference in name on the dial.

The ref. 6150 has the word “Precision” on the lower part of the dial, whereas the ref. 6350 had “Explorer.” As such, the Explorer 3, 6, 9 dial was introduced before there was even a Rolex Explorer in existence. Additionally, the movement used for the ref. 6150 was not chronometer-certified, something that all Explorers from 1953 onwards have been. It’s why many collectors consider the ref. 6150 not to be a true Explorer, even though it has the same 36-mm case, characteristic looks, and standout dial design.

Rolex 6150 Pre-Explorer
Rolex 6150 Pre-Explorer

3. The Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 Was Not the Longest-Produced Rolex Reference Ever

Some Rolex model references have been in production for a very long time, mostly models from the late 50s and early 60s, some of were manufactured for more than two decades. Famous examples here include the Rolex Submariner ref. 5512 and GMT-Master ref. 1675, both of which were in the brand’s portfolio from 1959 until 1980. The Rolex Explorer ref. 1016, however, tops both of those production runs, and spanned 1963 to 1989. Over this 26-year period, Rolex made updates to the luminous material on the dial, but other than that, the watch stayed pretty much the same.

Although quite a few people think that the Explorer ref. 1016 is the Rolex reference that was in production the longest, that honor in fact goes to the Rolex Air-King ref. 5500. This reference was manufactured for a whopping 32 years, first introduced in 1957, and staying in Rolex’s lineup until 1989 when it was finally discontinued. During this time, Rolex actually offered the ref. 5500 with an Explorer dial. In essence, these ref. 5500 Air-Kings are identical to the ref. 1016, except for a smaller 34-mm case size compared to the 36-mm ref. 1016. So you could say that, while the Explorer is very much connected to the ref. 5500, it’s the Air-King that holds the bragging rights of having the longest production run out of all Rolex models.

Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016
Rolex Explorer ref. 1016

4. The Rolex Explorer 39-mm Ref. 214270 Comes in Two Different Versions

Most Rolex fans will know this, but if you are new to the Rolex universe, you might be surprised to learn that there are two distinctly different versions of the Rolex Explorer ref. 214270. The new 39-mm Explorer was introduced in 2010, increasing in size by a substantial 3 mm compared to prior Explorers. With it also came a Rolex Explorer that was not as visually balanced as what we are used to from the brand. With the new, bigger version, Rolex missed the mark. The two things that were wrong with it were the lack of luminous material in the 3, 6, and 9 on the dial, and a hand set that was too small and too slim for the size of this bigger version.

Collectors now define this dial as the Mark 1 dial. Rolex updated the watch with a new dial that then featured luminous inserts for the numerals, as well as a bigger hand set that felt a lot more balanced. While it is obvious that the second option is the better one, we also know that Rolex fans love production quirks and mistakes; these watches have been shown to increase in value over time. The Explorer ref. 214270 Mark 1 could perhaps continue this tradition.

The Rolex Explorer ref. 214270
The Rolex Explorer ref. 214270 Mark 1

5. The Explorer Ref. 124273 Is the First Explorer Reference in Gold and Steel

For the latest generation Rolex Explorer, the brand decided to go back to the trusted 36-mm size with the ref. 124270. Many fans were incredibly happy to see this return. Rolex also decided to introduce a gold and steel version of the model, the first time ever that we saw Rolex use precious metals for the Explorer. While gold and the combination of gold and steel are no strangers to Rolex sports models, both the Explorer and the Explorer II were previously only available in stainless steel.

For many fans, the two-tone version was something that took some getting used to. Seeing the ultra-functional Explorer in a luxury version presented a new aesthetic that is definitely not for everyone. I am sure that over time, the ref. 124273 will get the appreciation it deserves. For now, however, you will be able to buy the two-tone Explorer on Chrono24 under its current list price, something quite remarkable for the market we’re in right now. It’s a great time to take a closer look at the latest member in the long Rolex Explorer lineage.

The Rolex Explorer ref. 124273: the first two-tone Explorer
The Rolex Explorer ref. 124273: The first two-tone Explorer.

About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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