The Greatest of the Tool Watches: The Rolex ExplorerBy Ross Povey
If you’re going to christen a watch with such a name as ‘Explorer’, then the timepiece really does need to put its money where its mouth is and prove that it has what it takes to live up to its moniker. And that is exactly what Rolex did with their adventurers’ sports watch when they were testing the prototypes in the early 1950s – they sent those watches into the unknown!
The Explorer saga began in 1952, at a time when the world’s leading explorers were on the cusp of reaching the highest point on the planet – the peak of Mount Everest. Many attempts had been made and many lives lost, but the British mountaineers of the early 1950s were ultimately the men that would conquer the mighty mountain.
Rolex were adamant that they wanted their watches on the summit and so in 1952 they equipped the British climbers with large size Oyster watches. These watches were what collectors now refer to as Pre-Explorers (references 6092 and 6298) that were essentially prototypes of what would ultimately become the Explorer.
In 1953, Rolex officially rolled out the black 3-6-9 dial Explorer with references 6150 and 6350. These references utilized the A296 ‘big bubbleback’ movement, as used in the Pre-Explorers, and the three-piece large size Oyster cases.
This iteration was the true origin of what we see today on the Explorer – the inverted triangle at the top of the dial and painted 3-6-9 numerals. The mercedes hands were fitted to the majority of reference 6150 and 6350, although there were some early reference 6150s that were fitted with ‘pencil’ hands, like those seen on the early 6204/5 Submariner.
The 6350 was actually the first reference to wear the text – EXPLORER! To many collectors this watch is the first Explorer proper. Collectors particularly look for the very rare version with a honeycomb dial; it is truly stunning!
In 1963 Rolex unveiled what would become one of the longest running sports watch references, the Explorer reference 1016. Production continued until the end 1980s when Rolex introduced the next generation of Explorer, the reference 14270.
This was a new era for Rolex sports watches, but as is the Rolex way, the core DNA was still very much intact. The acrylic crystal was replaced with a scratch-resistant sapphire glass, which gave the watch a more ‘modern’ aesthetic. The dial, whilst maintaining the iconic 3-6-9 layout replaced the painted numerals with white gold numbers that were filled with luminous material; initially tritium and then in the late 1990s Rolex moved to using luminova.
The watch was powered by the newly introduced caliber 3000. The 14270 ran for almost a decade until it was superseded by the reference 114270 in 2000; a watch with a second generation 3000 series movement, the 3130.