The Grail Series: Explorers—of Earth and Beyond

For this post in our grail watch series, we’re going to take a look at two examples from Rolex’s perpetually underappreciated Explorer range.

‘Two examples’ may be a slight overstatement however. These are, in every other respect bar the name, the exact same watch. One represents possibly the longest continuous production run of any Rolex reference. The other was little more than a taste test, launched and quickly abandoned, sold in just one country, and created to commemorate a feat of unprecedented human achievement.

With scarcity value making up a great deal of what turns a merely desirable watch into a grail piece, it is the latter of the pair that can lay claim to the distinction. An outlier so rare that even battle-hardened collectors can go their entire lives without laying eyes on one in the wild, it holds an intriguing place in the Rolex archive.

Yet, the model of which it was such a fleeting variant has a fascinating history of its own. Considered one of the last to stick to the undiluted essence of what Rolex stands for, it has garnered a cult following that grows by the day, as does its price on the vintage market.

So we’re left with one true holy grail piece, another most certainly heading in that direction, and beyond their relative quantities, the only physical difference is a single line of text on the dial.

These are the Rolex Explorer ref. 1016 and the Rolex Space-Dweller.

Rolex Explorer ref. 1016

Rolex Mens Explorer Stainless Steel 1016

There is an argument for calling the Rolex Explorer, its life lived eternally in the shadows or not, the most important watch the company ever produced. Not so much for its functionality or any great revolution in its design, but because it changed the way Rolex itself was perceived as an entity by the public.

It marked the start of the brand’s link with the world’s mavericks, the nonconformists who achieved feats many believed impossible and who pushed themselves to the extreme at the literal ends of the earth.

The first Explorer was born on the summit of Everest, its foundation the Oyster Perpetual watches worn by Hillary and Norgay on their triumphant summiting of the world’s highest peak in 1953. It was Rolex who sponsored the expedition, as they had eight previously unsuccessful attempts.

They had supplied the mountaineering team’s watches not as gifts but as research material, on the understanding they would be returned to Geneva for testing when, or if, the men made it back to civilization.

While exploiting their relationships with champions of human endeavor was nothing new to Rolex, going back to Mercedes Gleitze’s Channel swim and Sir Malcolm Campbell’s armfuls of land speed records, the Explorer was the first time an individual model had been created specifically around such a groundbreaking achievement.

The Explorer Progresses

By the time the ref. 1016 appeared in 1963, the Explorer was into its third iteration in just 10 years. It carried over the traditionally pragmatic 3/6/9 dial from the previous two incarnations, summing up the model’s place as the undiluted tool watch in the range. With a catalog that now contained names such as Submariner, GMT-Master and Daytona, so-called professional pieces far more likely to be worn as statements, it was the Explorer that maintained the bond between the brand and the genuine adventurer.

Rolex Mens Explorer Stainless Steel 6610

Taking over the short-lived career of its predecessor, the ref. 6610, the new Explorer brought a number of upgrades to the range. Rolex’s constant refining of their Oyster technology saw it double its water resistance to 100m and, with the hazards of using radioactive lume on the hands and indexes becoming evermore apparent, the radium was replaced with the (somewhat) safer Tritium.

Inside the 36mm case, one that was shared with the Datejust ref. 1603 of the same era, beat first the Cal. 1560 and then, post-1972, the updated Cal. 1570—practically identical save for a slightly higher frequency and the introduction of a hacking feature.

And that was it. The ref. 1016 was the Explorer for 25 years, left to fend for itself for a quarter of a century, while all around it, gemstones and precious metals enhanced the many different flavors of every other sports watch in the Rolex stable. Where pilots, racers and divers were spoiled for choice with pieces that went through an unending succession of tweaked movements and lavish color schemes, the Explorer shunned the limelight, and quietly found itself a following among those happy to do the same.

The Understudy

There are some that criticize Rolex for neglecting the Explorer range, particularly in the light of the many advances they subjected the rest of their output to. Perhaps another way of looking at it is that there was simply nothing for them to do with a watch they got right from the beginning. They are obviously a manufacturer not afraid to make changes where they think changes are needed, but they have never introduced a new element to any of their products just for the sake of it.

The Explorer was made to tell the time, in the most legible form, in the harshest of environments. And that’s what it did. Customers were even given the option to have the watch supplied with low viscosity lubricants to withstand extreme sub zero temperatures.

It is a tool watch in its purist form, and the fact that it is one of the most austerely handsome of Rolex’s offerings is merely a bonus.

Buying a Vintage ref. 1016

It was a certain type of person who bought the Explorer ref. 1016 during its exhaustive production run, and they are responsible for the biggest problem in securing one on the modern pre-owned market.

Rolex Mens Explorer Stainless Steel 1016

With its functional, utilitarian aesthetic, its customer base was comprised almost entirely of those looking for that one good watch that would last them a lifetime. Not necessarily even Rolex fans, just those who appreciated the efficiency of the dial and the robust unfussiness of the construction.

People who walk past Daytonas and GMT-Masters to secure themselves an Explorer are people who hang on to their watches and use them for their intended purpose, rather than snapping them up as potential investments to sell on at some future date.

For that reason, as well as its underdog status meaning it was never manufactured in quite the same quantities as its stable mates, has led to a surprisingly low number of ref. 1016s on offer considering its protracted lifespan.

Rarity equals high prices, and the perennial underachiever now commands some unexpected premiums, especially early gilt dial versions or those which have aged with a tropical patina.

So, is it likely to make the leap to grail status? If I was a betting man, which I’m not, I would certainly be tempted by the Explorer. The range as a whole is experiencing something of a renaissance and the ref. 1016 is the most famous and well-loved of them all. The fact that it is in uncommonly short supply, all things considered, only adds plus points in its favor.

One thing that is certain is that, as simple, enduring, three-hand watches go, there is very little can compete with it.

The Rolex Space-Dweller

A watch whose grail status is not in any doubt is the ref. 1016 Space-Dweller. Launched as a trial in 1963 in an attempt to draw on some of the public’s fascination with the space race, it was only ever made commercially available in Japan, where the US’s Project Mercury astronauts had been given a reception that bordered on frenzy.

The battle between America and Russia to dominate the exploration of outer space was at its most ferocious during the 60s. The soviets had scored a major early victory when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth in 1961. Trailing in their wake, the newly formed NASA agency brought together seven test pilots from the Navy and Air Force to try and redress the balance.

Known collectively as the Mercury 7, they counted among them Alan Shepard, who would go on to become the first American in space as well as the first man to play golf on the moon, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth.

After some early humiliating and very public failures, the Mercury Project’s achievements started to capture the popular imagination. While it may not have won the space race, it did pave the way for Project Gemini, and subsequently the Apollo program, which landed an American crew on the lunar surface.

The Right Stuff

As a group around which to base their rebranded Explorer, Rolex could not have wished for a more fitting collection of intrepid voyagers than the Mercury 7 astronauts. Upon returning from the cold nothingness of space, they set out on a global goodwill tour where at every stop they were lauded as conquering champions, standing tall and taking the fight to the Russian hordes.

Incredibly, the time between the first ascent of Everest and those initial tentative steps into the great beyond was a mere 10 years—two astounding achievements separated by the blink of an eye. But where the Explorer had exemplified the spirit of Hillary and Norgay’s era, by the 1960s its no-nonsense simplicity was at odds with the high tech miracles of the space age.

The Space-Dweller, a regular ref. 1016 with the Explorer label replaced, barely made a ripple in the collective consciousness, even in Japan where the worship for the returning heroes was at its most vociferous. Only a tiny handful were ever made, a morsel to test the waters before rolling out around the rest of the world. With sales practically non-existent, it was relegated to the history books, filed under the section marked ‘Space Oddity’.

Buying a Vintage Space-Dweller

Today, it’s a toss up over which is more difficult; finding a Space-Dweller or affording one. The dictionary definition of the word rare, they are so seldom available to buy on the vintage market that each one becomes something of an event.

The prices, you won’t be surprised to learn, are astronomical (Ha!) If you are considering treating yourself to a Space-Dweller, count out the amount of money you would need to buy the exact same watch with the ‘Explorer’ name on it, and multiply it by a factor of at least five.

While it may seem illogical, this is vintage Rolex we’re talking about. It is not based on logic, but rather emotions. Mr. Spock, we can assume, was not a watch collector.

Is it worth the money? That is between you and your bank manager. It is undoubtedly a grail piece; an ultra rare example of an historically important watch from the most successful manufacturer ever, and one created to celebrate the limits of human accomplishment.

One thing is certain; the few lucky owners of genuine Space-Dwellers are the envy of every Rolex aficionado on this little planet.