Going Where No Man – Or Watch – Had Gone Before
Ever wonder about the backstory of your favorite Rolex? Well, stick with us. This is the third in a series of posts featuring histories of significant Rolex models. You’ll find all the reference numbers connected with each model here. In all, Rolex has introduced nearly three dozen models since 1950. Over the next several weeks, we’ll touch on each of them.
So far, we’ve covered the Datejust and the Day-Date. Now let’s turn to a watch that perhaps founded the genre of tool watch – the Explorer.
This is the watch that made its way to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953. It’s seen jungle heat and arctic cold. Even got a little wet on occasion. It’s stood up to the test every time.
The thing is, the Explorer really doesn’t look the part. Sure, it’s got a bold looking dial with 3, 6, and 9 at their respective points, along with a big inverted triangle marking 12. But beyond that, the watch looks more like a dress watch than a tool able to work while warding off extremes of temperature and moisture.
But perhaps that’s the real mark of a tool watch. Pure functionality with zero pretentions about looks. Form follows function to the nth degree.
Rolex launched the Explorer shortly before Sir Edmund and his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay wore theirs on the expedition to the top of the world in late May of 1953. Actually, only Sherpa Tenzing was wearing a Rolex when the two reached the summit of Everest. Both Rolex and Smiths were sponsors of the expedition, and Hillary was wearing a Smiths.
And there have been numerous Rolexes with “Explorer” on the dial, some of which dind’t look the part at all. And fewer still, but quite notable in their own right, a few classic Explorer-looking watches (black dial, 3-6-9-triangle) that didn’t have “Explorer” written there, including one shown in James Dowling’s and Jeffrey Hess’s excellent book, Rolex Wristwatches, that’s signed, “Space-Dweller.” More on that one in a minute.
Indeed, the history of the Explorer is muddier than most Rollies, but that’s what makes its history so fascinating. Alas, we don’t have room here to follow all the twists and turns. The broad facts will have to suffice.
Early versions were bubble backs, needed for the relatively thick xxxx movement. This changed in 1959 with the introduction of the ref. 6610. This brought in the era of the Explorer as we know it today.
The 6610 was only in production for five years. When the movement was upgraded from the calibre 1030 to the 1560 in 1963, the Explorer got a new reference number: 1016. It was also in 1963 that a very few 1016s were introduced in Japan as the Space-Dweller – a nod to a visit from some of the U.S. space program’s Mercury astronauts.
In about 1975, the 1016’s movement was upgraded to the calibre 1570. This was basically the 1560 with a hacking feature. Rolex introduced the new Oyster bracelet with solid stainless steel links at the same time.
This is the version that remained in production, with the minor continuing improvements that are typical of Rolex, until 1989. That’s when the venerable 1016 fell off the radar, deleted from the Rolex catalog without warning.
The 14270, with new everything but name and hands, debuted six months later. The crystal was now sapphire, the case was new, the now-iconic 3, 6, and 9 were now applied white gold and filled with luminous Tritium. And under the hood was Rolex’s new calibre 3000, bringing the Explorer’s engine in line with several other models.
Fans and collectors were not amused. Soon they were paying more for a pre-owned 1016 than the retail price of a new 14270. But Rolex is nothing if not patient. The 14270 and its offspring stayed in the lineup. Indeed, the current reference 214270 is a staple of the Rolex Oyster line.
And soon to come to the stage was the new Explorer II, but that’s a story for another day.