Back in the day, splitting Rolex’s extensive collection into convenient ‘his & hers’ categories was a simple process.
The majority of the brand’s output was very much focused on the male customer, with the occasional model being taken away, shrunk to a more feminine size, renamed the ‘Lady Something or Other’ and offered for sale to a female audience.
Over time however, the tastes of both sexes have veered towards ever larger watches. So, while pieces such as the Lady-Datejust still exist, a 28mm version of the iconic stalwart, and the Lady Yacht-Master has only recently been retired, many of the models that started life generations ago as strictly men’s watches have now crossed over and have a true unisex appeal.
A Different Time
Is there such a thing as a purely ‘men’s’ Rolex anymore? The majority of the biggest names in the professional collection were born in the fifties and, in that era, the occupations the watches were designed to help were almost exclusively male-dominated roles.
Pan Am, for instance, commissioned Rolex to create the GMT-Master for their pilots in 1954—a full 20 years before the first female airline captain. Similarly, it wasn’t until 1975 that a woman stood on Everest’s peak, more than two decades after Hillary and Tensing had conquered the mountain and inspired the Explorer collection.
It was a vastly different time, and one that has been particularly slow to change. Now, however, there are no such barriers to either employment or adventure, and more and more women are wearing watches that would have been unthinkable in the past.
So the Rolex catalog really consists of exclusively ladies watches, and watches that, in a bygone age, used to be exclusively men’s.
Of course, there are a number of models that are still, for whatever reason, more popular with the boys. They tend to be the tougher, more utilitarian offerings; the ones that have stuck closest to the tool watch philosophy that first made Rolex’s name.
Below, we’ve singled out a few of our favorites.
The Rolex Explorer II
If we’re going to talk about all things rugged and manly, there is only one place to start, and that place is Steve McQueen. And if we are going to talk about Steve McQueen, we have to talk about the Explorer II.
Launched in 1971 to complement the original series created to mark the summiting of the highest peak on earth, the Explorer II was similar to its namesake in no way whatsoever.
Where the initial Explorer was the personification of simple, three-hand minimalism, its sequel was a hard-as-nails pioneer, destined for some of the most unforgiving environments imaginable.
The first Rolex Explorer II, the ref. 1655, emerged as the answer to the prayers of the world’s spelunkers; cave divers who spent prolonged periods underground in near total darkness. In such places, losing track of night and day on the surface is pretty much a given, so the watch’s bright orange additional hour hand tracked around the dial at half speed, pointing out the correct time on the 24-hour engraved bezel. Generous lume plots on the hands and at every two-and-a-half minutes on the indexes also gave it a greatly enhanced legibility.
So, it was an especially resilient and useful companion. The only problem was, nobody wanted one.
While it shared the same movement as the aviator’s friend the GMT-Master, the Explorer’s static bezel meant it was not a true dual time zone watch. As essentially an AM/PM indicator, it had a limited marketability, and the workmanlike styling restricted its following even more. Set alongside the multicolored charms of the GMT, and the ref. 1655 came a very poor second.
But where does the King of Cool come in? Well, a contrived and completely unsubstantiated rumor in the mid-seventies suggested it had suddenly become Steve McQueen’s timepiece of choice, based solely on one blurred paparazzi photograph appearing in an Italian magazine of the movie star wearing a vaguely similar looking watch. In reality, it was far more likely to have been the ref. 5512 Submariner he wore extensively throughout his life, but the Sub needed nothing in the way of extra promotion. With Rolex keeping quiet about the probable mistake, the original Explorer II became known as the Steve McQueen Rolex.
The Dark Horse
Yet, unlike the magic McQueen’s contemporary Paul Newman worked on the exotic dial Daytonas, turning them from also-rans into some of the most desirable watches ever made, the spelunker’s watch still lagged a long way behind in the image stakes.
In truth, it is still the outsider’s choice and probably intentionally so. Rolex is by far the most famous watchmaker in history, with a litany of models so recognizable, even those with zero interest in horology can identify one from across a crowded room. That level of populism is fine for one type of collector—those who are comfortable for everyone to know they wear a Rolex.
But the Explorer II has a fierce cult following, made up mainly of those who enjoy the appreciative nods of other, more knowledgeable admirers.
It has been kept stubbornly functional, never succumbing to the allure of precious metals in its construction and so has always lacked the versatility of its stable mates.
It is the dark horse, the understudy, and the purists love it for exactly that reason.
With its no-nonsense reputation and a link, however tenuous, to the poster child for masculinity, the Explorer II may be the ultimate man’s Rolex.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller
The Sea-Dweller shares the same ethos as the Explorer II. It was built for a definite purpose and has stuck to it, as all around much of the sports collection has been softened to appeal to a far wider market.
While Rolex broke new ground with the Submariner, there was always scope to go further with it. A water resistance of 300m met, and exceeded, the needs of recreational divers, but those who made their living working underwater required something extra.
Specifically, they needed a watch that could survive not just the crushing pressures of the descent, but also the trip back to the surface.
The problem professional saturation divers faced was the build up of helium bubbles.
At the great depths commercial crews face, their breathing gases have to be made up of a tightly controlled mix; either oxygen and helium, called Heliox, or oxygen, helium and nitrogen, known as Trimix.
Adding the helium reduces the detrimental effects of the other gases when put under pressure, but the drawback is the size of the bubbles.
Helium has some of the smallest molecules of any gas, easily small enough to find their way inside the cases of the divers’ watches.
When ascending from a prolonged Heliox or Trimix dive, the reduction in pressure caused the bubbles to expand, popping the crystals off the watch.
COMEX, the leading industrial diving company, approached Rolex at the start of the 1960s, much like Pan Am had a decade before, to work out a solution.
The result was the HEV, or Helium Escape Valve. This one-way regulator, initially retrofitted to a ref. 5513 Submariner (to make the utterly grail-like ref. 5514) allowed for the bubbles to seep back out of the watch as they expanded, safeguarding the integrity of the timepiece as a whole.
With the initial tests successful, Rolex put the HEV onto a new, hardier body and the Sea-Dweller was born.
Unlike the Explorer II, it was an immediate success. It may not have sold in quite the same numbers as the ubiquitous Submariner on which it was so clearly based, but the Sea-Dweller’s image of the ultimate version of the ultimate dive watch gained it legions of devoted admirers.
That reputation has only strengthened over the years as it has stuck to its roots, while the Sub is far more likely to be seen worn with a business suit than a wetsuit.
The Sea-Dweller is the big brother, indifferent to unnecessary gold or platinum finery; only forged from the strongest steel and made to cope with conditions way beyond what its predecessor could handle.
Even the dial was kept more down-to-earth, lacking (until its most recent iteration) the controversial Cyclops over its date window that some felt had robbed the Sub of much of its symmetry.
And it only continues to get more robust. Its initial water resistance of 2,000ft was soon doubled to 4,000ft. It was the first of the brand’s watches to be cast in the insanely strong 904L steel now used across the entire range, and the latest model has received a significant upgrade in size, going from the traditional 40mm to 43mm, just a shave below the lunatic Deepsea.
Like the Explorer II, it is the way the Sea-Dweller has remained true to its origins that has kept it relevant in the wake of the rest of Rolex’s professional watches changing tack and becoming more of a status symbol.
It is perhaps the best all round dive watch there is—tougher than anyone could ever need and stylish enough to go anywhere.