The Beckertime Rivalry Series: The Rolex Explorer Versus the Tudor Black Bay 36
In the recognition stakes, both the Rolex Explorer and the Tudor Black Bay 36 occupy a sort of ‘also ran’ position in their respective brand lineups.
Not for them the glamorous worlds of the undersea buccaneer, the globetrotting voyager or the racetrack guru. Both marques have plenty of models more than capable of fulfilling those responsibilities.
What the Black Bay and the Explorer do is tell you the time in the most elegantly austere way possible, and keep on telling the time when they have been inherited by children and grandchildren.
Rather than being ‘another luxury watch to add to the collection’, these two are generally the ‘one good watch’ bought by those who recognize that spending a little extra on a truly quality product is an investment and one that repays its buyer many times over. They are, in other words, class acts.
Below, we take a look at the history of these outstanding models and what their latest iterations have to offer.
The Rolex Explorer Versus the Tudor Black Bay 36: History
The Rolex Explorer
Of the two, it is the Rolex which has the most history behind it. The Explorer emerged in 1953 and can stake a claim to being the brand’s very first tool watch. Not that there was anything extra added to the piece to aid in some great endeavor, as there was with the Submariner or GMT-Master (released over the following two years). But the origins of the Explorer left it with the sort of romantic backstory which is the stuff of dreams to the average marketing exec, and one designed to appeal to any armchair adventurer.
The watch came about as a result of man reaching the highest point on earth. Rolex, perhaps the brand with the most profound understanding of the power of advertising, had been sponsoring attempts on Everest’s summit since 1933. Norgay and Hillary’s successful summiting two decades later was actually the ninth expedition the watchmaker had backed, and the two men did it while wearing Rolex Bubbleback Oyster Perpetuals.
These watches were not gifts however (unlike the gold Datejust Sherpa Tensing had been given the year before when he was forced to turn back just 300m from the top). The OPs the pair wore were more research materials, lent to the team on the instruction they be sent back to Geneva for analysis when, or if, they returned home.
The timepieces were then scrutinized by Rolex and the data gleaned went into creating a new watch, one which would commemorate the incredible feat. In reality though, there wasn’t much for the brand’s engineers to do. The Oyster Perpetuals had performed faultlessly, thanks to both their build quality and a low viscosity oil which kept them running in the sub zero temperatures.
By far the most advantageous outcome of the Everest expeditions, as far as Rolex was concerned, was the publicity. Ordinary civilians could now wear the watch inspired by perhaps mankind’s most momentous achievement, and just maybe some of that spirit would rub off on them too.
Even the name spoke of adventure and excitement—the Explorer.
The debut reference, the ref. 6298, laid the foundation for the look the model would follow pretty much up until the present day. A steel, 36mm case, black dial and clearly readable 3/6/9 Arabic numerals for the hour markers.
Those fundamentals carried over onto a handful of other Explorer references released in quick succession, while Rolex set about updating the internal movements to the very latest technology until, in 1963, the ref. 1016 emerged. With seemingly nothing left to do, this model stuck around practically unchanged right up until 1989.
Even its successor, the ref. 14270, was more or less a carbon copy, visually speaking; a little beefier, with a gloss dial instead of matte, and with another new caliber. The biggest shakeup in the life of the Explorer happened in 2010 when Rolex brought out the ref. 214270. Still identical in most other ways, this piece increased in size to 39mm, but was only in production until 2021 when the brand went scurrying back to the 36mm case.
Today, for the first time in nearly 70-years, there are two Explorers to choose from; the ref. 124270 in steel and the 124273 in two-tone Rolesor.
But even the introduction of gold accents can’t shake the pure tool watch status. Described alternately as the ‘thinking man’s Rolex’ and ‘the Rolex for people who don’t like Rolex’, the Explorer remains a cult legend.
The Black Bay 36
In comparison, Tudor’s own unsung hero is a relative newborn. It arrived in 2016 and was originally named the Heritage Black Bay 36, before dropping the ‘Heritage’ bit, as did the rest of the Black Bay range.
However, it was fooling no one as to its ancestry and was quickly nicknamed Tudor’s Explorer.
The similarities between it and the Rolex older brother are striking. Both are unwaveringly simple, each one seemingly prizing legibility above all else. Both came in at the same size (36mm), both were made in steel and were content to be time-only machines.
But there were also some important differences, aesthetically and mechanically. Firstly, the Explorer’s characteristic 3/6/9 indexes were missing, replaced with some very Rolex-esque dots and batons. The handset was Tudor’s love-it-or-hate-it Snowflake type rather than the Mercedes style. And inside beat an ETA movement instead of an in-house caliber, even at a time when Tudor was beginning to roll out its own homegrown engines among its more popular models.
Nevertheless, many gallons of watch journalist ink was splashed about extolling the virtues of the brand’s latest everyday watch, much of it dedicated to terms such as ‘value for money’ and ‘a Rolex for less than half the price’. Some, truly enamored of this latest release, described it as ‘the best watch you can buy right now’.
In many ways, the BB36 is also mirroring the Explorer’s reputation. Here again is a superb under-the-radar piece, one which doesn’t try to compete with the limelight-hogging divers or chronographs of the world and is content being the one ‘good’ watch in a collection.
That debut model has since been joined by a wide assortment of others, with a selection of sizes now available, and a choice in dial colors. Most recently, a two-tone version has surfaced known as the Black Bay S&G. The combination of gold and steel, and especially the top end variants with diamond-set bezels, are taking the BB36 down more of a Datejust route, minus the date function (yes, I know that would make it more an Oyster Perpetual type thing, but the OP range doesn’t have diamonds!)
These latest watches benefit also from Tudor manufacture movements as well, making it more or less a certainty the rest of the series will follow suit at some point.
Whichever way you slice it, the Black Bay 36 is a gem of a timepiece, but is it as good as the Rolex?
The Rolex Explorer Versus the Tudor Black Bay 36: Basic Details
Let’s take a quick look at the stats first of all:
The Rolex Explorer
|Smooth. Steel/Yellow Gold
|Rolex Manufacture Cal. 3230
The Tudor Black Bay 36
|Steel/Steel and Gold
|Tudor Manufacture MT5400. Caliber T600 (ETA 2824-2)
|Steel/Steel and Gold Bracelet. Leather/Fabric Strap
As you can see, it is the Tudor with the most variety. Also, its most expensive model comes in at more or less the same price as the least expensive Rolex. Can the Explorer justify the extra expense?
The Rolex Explorer Versus the Tudor Black Bay 36: Looks
Obviously your approval or otherwise of a watch’s looks are completely personal to you. So I’m gonna give you my opinion, to take or leave as you see fit.
I happen to think the Explorer is the best looking model Rolex makes at the moment (I didn’t say it was going to be a popular opinion!)
I am by no means a complicated person, and the simplicity of the watch speaks to my sensibilities perfectly. It has the ideal mixture of dial details to cope with any situation; the Mercedes handset make it look somewhat sporty, while the batons between the 3, 6 and 9 are slightly more formal than the round dots on the majority of the Professional Collection. The starkness of the white on black also appeals to me greatly, and Rolex’s 904L Oystersteel gleams like no other steel used in the industry.
The one downside to the current version, for me, is the size. 36mm doesn’t quite work on my wrist, thanks to my steam shovel hands and gibbon-esque arms. The previous generation 39mm, however, works just fine, and that’s the one I’m wearing now as I write this.
The Tudor Black Bay, on the other hand, gets almost everything right. Its dial markers are a bit more laidback, but I feel I would really miss those Arabic numerals at the cardinal points giving the watch its USP. In addition, while I have nothing against the Snowflake hands, I think they work better on the 41mm version of the BB. On the 36, the hour hand seems too big.
That being said, I do like a watch that smiles at me! The ETA-powered iteration of the Black Bay comes with two lines of text—‘Rotor’ and ‘Self Winding’—above the six o’clock, with the lower script curved upwards like a grin. On the newest S&G pieces, with their in-house engines, that has been replaced with ‘Chronometer Officially certified’ in two straight lines. It takes away a bit of the personality to my mind, even as it raises the value proposition.
But, like I said, it’s all just my opinion.
The Rolex Explorer Versus the Tudor Black Bay 36: Options
This is where the Tudor definitely claws back some ground. There may only be three dial color options for the Black Bay 36, but that is still two more than the Rolex has.
Additionally, each one comes with a choice of four different bands; a steel bracelet, one fabric and two leather straps. And, of course, the latest two-tone pieces can be had with or without diamond-set bezels and sit on their own exclusive bracelet; a five-link, Jubilee-type affair.
In fairness though, the Explorer now has a second model in the collection, doubling what it has had for the last 70-years.
All in all though, I think the Tudor takes this one.
The Rolex Explorer Versus the Tudor Black Bay 36: Movements
Both the Explorer models run on in-house engines, just as with the rest of Rolex’s output. What’s more, that engine is one of the brand’s latest generation mechanisms, and the Explorer was actually among the last of the portfolio to receive the upgrade—in case you needed more evidence of how overlooked the watch has traditionally been.
The Cal. 3230 replaces around 90% of the components that went into its predecessor, the Cal. 3130. Most significantly, the new caliber comes with the Chronergy escapement, a stripped down, skeletonized version of the traditional arrangement, with a geometrically offset palette fork which increases efficiency by 15% while simultaneously reducing friction.
There is also a longer mainspring, housed in a barrel with walls half the thickness of before, the upshot being a power reserve bumped to 70-hours over the previous 48.
And, as with all of Rolex’s movements, it is a Superlative Chronometer, accurate to within -2/+2 seconds a day, and with a 10-year recommended service schedule.
As for the Tudor, the older models run on the Caliber T600, a modified ETA 2824-2, one of the most widely used third-party engines ever made. It might not be able to match the Rolex for precision, but it is as robust as they come and wholly reliable.
With the new S&G generation however, we get the in-house MT5400. This is much closer to the Cal. 3230 in its numbers. It too has a 70-hour reserve, but also benefits from a silicon balance spring, helping to stay within Tudor’s own chronometer standards of -2/+4 seconds a day after being cased up.
The Rolex Explorer Versus the Tudor Black Bay 36: Price
This was always going to be a bit of a no-contest. The whole reason for Tudor’s existence in the first place was to offer a lower price alternative to Rolex. And while the brand has sought to distance itself from that fact in recent years, the point remains that their catalog is far cheaper across the board than the equivalent model in the parent company’s lineup.
So it is here, too. The Explorer comes in at $6,550 for the steel piece and $8,350 for the Rolesor.
The Tudor Black Bay 36 range starts at $3,050, with the diamond-studded two-tone models going for $6,700.
That’s already a significant difference, but (of course) we have to take availability into account.
You can walk into a Tudor AD with a fair amount of confidence they will have the watch you want ready to be sold. If there is a wait, it will be a matter of weeks at the most.
The same can’t be said for Rolex. Even a traditionally less sought-after piece like the Explorer is going to be a rare find at the authorized dealer, and chances are the waiting list will stretch on for months or even years. That is likely to send you dashing over to the preowned market, where you are going to be in for a shock. This year’s models will set you back a minimum of $10,000 for the steel and about $15,000 for the Rolesor.
Another easy win for the Tudor.
The battle between the Black Bay and the Explorer is a hard fought and close one. That is to be expected of course, with them both being made by essentially the same company.
I know my choice, and for me the Explorer will always be my favorite Rolex. Not just for its wonderful styling but its heritage and backstory as well.
The Tudor does brilliantly, but can’t quite match the legacy.
Whether that matters to you is a personal thing, but it is one good looking watch nonetheless.
Either one will do you proud and last a lifetime, and you can’t really ask for much more than that.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.