The Rolex Explorer is along with the two tone Datejust one of the most easily recognizable of all Rolex watches. Its large black dial, triangular luminous marker at 12 and Arabic numeral quarters give this watch a very distinguished look and is the perfect blend of a sports and a dress watch.
The Origins of this masterpiece are in it’s name. Originally designed for explorers, so it had a high visibility dial, an extra strong case, and upon request it could be lubricated with a special oil so it could withstand temperatures between -20C and +40C without changes in viscosity. Although it was widely acclaimed that this watch had been designed and made in honour of Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay who were the first men to reach the summit of Everest on May 29 1953. Evidence suggests that this watch was indeed used on previous expeditions as Rolex registered the name in 1953.
The look of the Explorer is all about the dial, which is a mixture of a number of previously used styles. The large triangle at ’12’ was first used by the company on the mixed Roman and Arabic dial of the 1940’s. The large Arabic numerals for the quarters and bars for the remainder are seen on many of the very first model cushion Oysters. Despite this some what mixed parentage, the Explorer dial has taken on an identity of its own and created a cult following and can now never be confused with any other. The first Explorers (6350 models) used the “big bubbleback 10-1/2” A296 movement. Most of the 6350 models that have been studied do not have the classic “skelette” (Mercedes) hands. Instead they have heavily luminized versions of the standard parallel hands of that period. While the sweep hand is very strange, it looks similar to the current hand having a large luminous insert.
Most of the early 6350 dials are also unusual in the fact that they are “honeycombed” textured and are signed “Officially certified Chronometer”. As this model was replaced roughly a year after it was released it is difficult to know just how successful it was as in many was its predecessor (model 6150) has over shadowed it. The 6150 was distinguishable from the 6350 by being 2mm larger and was only available as a precision model. The 6150 was made until 1959 when it was replaced by the 6610 which looks identical but can be identified by its flatter back caused by using the new 1030 calibre movement. The dial of the 6610 is signed ” Chronometer” The simplest method of recognizing any of the early Rolex Explorer’s is by looking at the dial for their variations.
During these early years Rolex was unaware of the potential of this model. As a result the name was affixed to a number of watches, not easily recognizable as Explorers. There were two variations on the theme. The first was the “Air King Explorer” this was an Explorer bearing the model ref. 5500 but with an Explorer dial marked “Precision” rather than “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” The second variation are the “dress Explorers.” These are standard Oyster Perpetuals in steel or gold with white or black non-Explorer dials but signed, “Explorer”. Seen both with and without date these watches seem to have been predominately in the North American Market.
In 1963 the Explorer evolved again, with a new 1560 calibre movement it was renamed the 1016 and it became the longest running explorer from 1963 right upto 1989. The second version of the 1016 was really the second version of the 1560 calibre (now called 1570), because the major recognizable difference is the movement. The “hack” feature stops the hand when the winding crown is pulled out to the hand setting position. By stopping the hand at the “12” position, it is possible to synchronize your time with a known source. Simultaneously with the movement change Rolex introduced the New Oyster Bracelet. The bracelet was now machined out of solid stainless steel as opposed to the previously folded steel sheet links. In this revised form the Explorer continued through to 1989, when to the astonishment of Rolex retailers, it was removed from the Rolex catalogue. Six months later the new heavily revised version of the Explorer emerged.
The new Explorer bearing the model designation 14270, sported a new case, dial, movement, and glass. The hands and the name are the only thing carried over from the 1016. Thirteen years after Rolex first introduced the Sapphire crystal glass the Explorer was finally fitted with one. Under this new crystal the dial featured white gold skeleton markers with luminous tritium fillings: these replaced the previously painted markers. Under the dial was the very latest fast beat calibre 3000. These modifications brought the Explorer in line with all the other Rolex models and because the cosmetics of the new watch differed so much from that of the old one the price in the collectors market for the old one spiralled.