Rolex Watches Discontinued In 2021
For the first time in living memory, this year’s new Rolex releases were announced somewhere other than the annual horology extravaganza that is (or rather, used to be) Baselworld.
Although the majority of the show chosen as a replacement, Watches & Wonders (previously known as SIHH) was forced onto an online platform, it was as successful as could be expected under the difficult circumstances.
Even so, as far as Rolex was concerned, it seemed as if the great watchmaking behemoth was content to sit and wait for better days. Their introductions for 2021 were relatively tame, even by their standards.
And, despite all the usual pre-show predictions which riddled the internet, what the brand decided to discontinue was similarly pretty unremarkable in the great scheme of things.
There is always massive interest in the models Rolex retires in any particular year, because it is typically a sign their value is set to go through the roof on the preowned market. This time around there were only really two major changes (and one of those is really stretching the term ‘major’ to breaking point) but already there is evidence that their prices are increasing across most channels.
Let’s have a closer look below.
The Rolex Explorer ref. 214270
It is hard to tell which was the bigger surprise regarding the venerable Explorer this year; the fact that it was released in its first ever two-tone getup or that it had its case size reduced back down to its time-honored 36mm.
Whichever it was, it meant that the 39mm model, a piece which had only entered the collection in 2010, was no more.
It is a fascinating choice from Rolex and one which is almost unique in the industry at the moment. Other manufacturers have brought out smaller versions of some of their most famous models, but they usually run alongside the bigger pieces. Panerai’s 42mm Submersible is the first which springs to mind, lining up next to the 44mm and 47mm models. Omega and Breitling have gone the same way in recent years too, but all have kept the full-scale pieces in the catalog as well to offer consumers the most choice.
Rolex only has a handful of ranges in their entire portfolio available in more than one size, and none of them are in the Professional Collection, which is where the Explorer lives.
It is too early to tell whether this is a welcomed move by the Crown or not (but I know I’m unhappy about it, so there!) and it now leaves the brand with just one 39mm piece; the Pearlmaster. The Oyster Perpetual used to have one, but it went the opposite way in 2020, swapping its 39mm variant for a new 41mm.
Anyway, there it is and, as you would expect, prices for the ‘old’ Explorer are now thriving on the preowned market. Strangely though, we are seeing more demand for the so-called MKI dials, those issued between 2010 and 2016. The only real distinction between these and the MKII dials is in the length of the hands. Irony of ironies, when Rolex first brought out the 39mm, they kept the same handset as they had been using on the previous 36mm reference, the ref. 114270. As a result, the minute hand didn’t quite reach the track markings around the new, larger dial’s perimeter and the hour hand was likewise just a little ‘off’.
That was all fixed on the second generation, with a longer and fatter pair of hands, along with indexes filled with Rolex’s proprietary Chromalight—including the iconic 3/6/9 markers, where they had been just plain steel before.
Inside all of the ref. 214270 models beat the Cal. 3132, a superb movement and a Rolex Superlative Chronometer (accurate to within -2/+2 seconds a day). However, even though it was only brought out in 2008, it was one of the last of the Cal. 31XX series, with the whole of the brand’s catalog of watches now graduating to the latest Cal. 32XX family.
And as for costing, let’s just say if you were keen on a 39mm Explorer and wanted to add one to the collection, get in quick. We are already seeing prices rising steeply, with the start point hovering around the $10,000 mark currently.
Rolex Explorer II ref. 216570
The Explorer’s younger, tougher sibling, the Explorer II also gained an updated version this year, styled entirely using the ‘Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V’ method of watch design.
The ref. 216570 was launched in 2011 to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of Rolex’s traditionally most underappreciated models. The first of the series to come in a 42mm shell, it was also given a subtle hark back to the past with the reintroduction of the large orange GMT hand—what used to be known as the Freccione on the original 1971 ‘Steve McQueen’ reference.
The new version of the Explorer II, the ref. 226570, released this year to take its place, comes with the latest generation movement, as you would expect. The Cal. 3285 takes over from the former Cal. 3187, and brings the Explorer II back into line, caliber-wise, with its usual stable mate, the GMT-Master II. Those two models have a long history of sharing mechanisms and both, thanks to their ability to set the additional hour hand independently of the main hands, qualify as true dual time zone watches, despite the Explorer II’s fixed bezel.
The outgoing ref. 216570 differs only very marginally, as far as visuals are concerned, from the new version. One very subtle feature missing from the latest model of the black dialed piece is the so-called ‘phantom’ hand. Another carryover from that debut reference from the ‘70s, the bottom of the vivid GMT hand is painted black to blend in with the dial, giving it the impression of floating. On the ref. 226570, it is bright orange from base to tip.
In addition, and taking a leaf out of the brand new Submariner’s book, the incoming Explorer II has had its lugs shaved down a fraction on the inside edges. It not only enlarges the width by 1mm, to fit with the very slightly redesigned Oyster bracelet, it also gives a softer, more graceful overall appearance. It seems to be something Rolex is introducing across their portfolio, taking extremely discreet baby steps backwards to recapture some of the old elegance lost to the Super Case generation.
In all honesty though, you would be very hard pressed to spot any difference between the old and new here. Instagram was awash with prognostications of Rolex’s great warhorse gaining a Cerachrom bezel for 2021, and the resulting mockups were…interesting. However, these things (fortunately) never sway the Crown’s designers and the ref. 226570 still has the same brushed steel surround as before.
Of course, had the new version emerged framed in ceramic, owners of the ref. 216570 would likely have found themselves with a real nest egg on their wrists. The Explorer II has always been one of, if not the, most stubbornly tool-like tool watches Rolex has ever created. Nothing but stainless steel from day one, it has never even gone its older brother’s route of mixing it up with a bit of Rolesor. It is one of those models that doesn’t need anything doing to it beyond keeping its movement up to date. It is just an old fashioned adventurer’s watch, from simpler times.
And because the two references are so similar, it hasn’t translated over to the sort of huge premiums on the preowned market we are used to seeing when a well-loved model is retired. You can still buy one of the very last examples of the ref. 216570 for around $13,000—well above retail, but not to the sort of ludicrous degree as some.
And that was pretty much it for Rolex retirees in 2021. It has come at the end of perhaps the strangest year many of us have experienced and it all had the feel of most sporting events of the last 12 months. I don’t know about you, but the football season here in the U.K., with no fans allowed in the grounds, hasn’t really felt like a football season at all. It just feels like we’re treading water until everything gets underway properly again, and the results this year don’t matter. I get the same feeling about the watches Rolex released and discontinued too.
They had to do something, so they did the bare minimum, and there’s much more to come. So fingers crossed for 2022!
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.