Rolex’s New Releases for 2021
Under the circumstances which, let’s hope, we’ll all be able to look back on one day and laugh, Rolex can probably be forgiven for not coming up with the most breathtaking collection of new releases for 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic has relegated every horology expo to a strictly online platform for the most part—hardly optimal conditions for such a tactile industry. Brands want to get their watches in front of, and onto the wrists of, potential customers and no amount of heroically lit images or swishy website shenanigans can match a true hands-on experience.
As a result, while Rolex did introduce one or two especially noteworthy additions, a lot of that noteworthiness is going on under the surface.
So 2021 didn’t bring us any all-new watches from the manufacture, something which only happens about once in a generation anyway, but it did unveil a handful of fresh dial options amongst some of its bestsellers and some particularly unexpected adjustments to one of its oldest names.
Below we have laid out the 2021 releases from Rolex.
The Rolex Explorer II
Ironically, the biggest round of freshening up the brand undertook this year was to two of their traditionally most underrepresented models.
2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the Explorer II, a milestone Rolex usually celebrates with some form of unorthodox or unconventional update. It was the half century of the Submariner, for instance, which gave us the Kermit and its green bezel, and the GMT-Master II got a similar treatment on its birthday with the ref. 116718LN, fitted with a green dial.
So all the forecasts pre-Watches and Wonders (now Rolex’s main event for a grand unveiling, having parted ways with Baselworld last year) were for the Explorer II to be given a respray of some description, or even graduating to one of the brand’s proprietary Cerachrom bezels.
In the end, neither happened. What the piece got instead was marginally slimmed down lugs and the latest Oyster bracelet, but its slightly thinner case is the same 42mm as before and still cast, along with the bezel, exclusively in steel. The dial options are likewise still identical, with either black or white (Polar) being the only choices. However, the handset went from glossy to matte and is now filled with Chromalight, as are the indexes, for better visibility in the dark.
The big news centered on what was going on underneath. The Explorer II is back to sharing the same caliber as the GMT-Master II, something the pair have done for the majority of their production runs, with only a short break in their most recent iterations. Now, the new Explorer II, the ref. 226570, receives the Cal. 3285 which has been powering the GMT since 2018, and takes over from the Cal. 3187.
The next generation caliber ups the power reserve to 70-hours over the previous 48, and is the first movement the Explorer II has had with Rolex’s Chronergy escapement—a reworking of the conventional Swiss lever escapement which is reportedly 15% more efficient.
In the end then it was an understated birthday for one of the brand’s most workmanlike creations; an appropriately low-key celebration for perhaps the last of the great Rolex tool watches of old.
The Rolex Explorer
A more substantial reboot was reserved for the original Explorer, even though it doesn’t commemorate a big anniversary for another couple of years, when it turns 70 in 2023.
Less conspicuous even than its sequel, it has now gone the Sea-Dweller route in that it is unexpectedly available in Rolex’s own Rolesor—a two-tone meeting of 18k gold and 904L stainless steel.
It is a huge departure for what is sometimes called the first true sports watch, one which has been an exclusively steel-only model for its entire existence.
And as if that wasn’t a momentous enough move, the brand has taken the near-unprecedented step of actually reducing the Explorer back to its time-honored proportions of 36mm, after just an 11-year run as a 39mm.
I personally find that fascinating. The race for the biggest, most in-your-face watches that dominated the industry in the early years of this century has been slowing down to a virtual stop for a while now, but this reversal of dimensions turns the current trend for all things vintage up to the nth degree.
Rolex are obviously enjoying all the nostalgia of late. The new version of the Submariner they released last year, even though it grew a tiny amount up to 41mm, returned to its formally sleek lines after the broad shouldered Super case models introduced in 2010.
Like its sibling, the newest Explorer, the ref. 124270 (and the ref. 124273 Rolesor version) received an updated movement, in the shape of the Cal. 3230. Only launched in 2020, the caliber also benefits from the Chronergy escapement and its 70-hour reserve, and adheres to Rolex’s own Superlative Chronometer rating of a -2/+2 seconds a day accuracy.
Daytonas, Datejusts, Day-Dates and Dials
All the other ‘new’ releases from Rolex’s showcase at Watches and Wonders this year centered on adding different dial options to some of their most famous creations.
The Daytona got a trio of meteorite dials, one each for the full yellow, Everose and white gold models, the first two on metal-matched Oyster bracelets, the latter on an Oysterflex.
As for the Datejust, the watch with the most exhaustive dial options list in the first place, that gained a further hatful of faces, including a number with a new ‘palm leaf’ design we haven’t seen before (although some wags have already christened them the Rolex Marijuana dials).
The venerable DJ also gets its Wimbledon dial onto the 36mm example for the first time too, having only been available on the 41mm before.
With the Day-Date, sometimes better known as the President, that added to its lineup as well, although you would have to look closely to spot them.
If you had told me the white gold Day-Date 40 didn’t already have a slate grey dial with baton indexes option, or the Everose 36mm didn’t have a white Roman numeral dial and diamond-set bezel, I wouldn’t have believed you. But they didn’t, and now they do.
However, one outlier has been fitted to both sizes of the Everose gold model. Called Eisenkiesel (German for ‘iron pebble’) it is a type of quartz featuring a distinctively unique fractured pattern. The warm red iron oxides streaking across its surface complement the tones of the watch’s case perfectly.
The only other difference introduced this year, isn’t really new at all. You can now have steel GMT-Master IIs on EITHER a Jubilee or Oyster bracelet—whereas they have both been available only on one or the other before.
Similarly, the Sky-Dweller inherits the Jubilee for six of its steel and Rolesor models.
And that’s it for Rolex’s 2021 extravaganza. Like we said, it was a fairly muted collection, for understandable reasons. Hopefully, with the world settling down at long last, we can look forward to some more significant changes next year.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.