Very Briefly: Rolex Explorer (Vintage, Pricing)By Revolution
This is an essentials-only guide to the Rolex Explorer. More exhaustive coverage is available elsewhere on our site, the link is at the bottom of this page.
*All prices, in the last two years (2018-2019) unless otherwise stated, in USD.
Entry Point: The supermini of the watch world, the Rolex Explorer is a rugged, thoroughly capable watch with very adaptable styling. It is also a relatively accessible entrance into the temple of Rolex.
Sizes: Earlier models are sized smaller (36mm) as it was customary in the past for sport watches to be made smaller to protect the crystal. Later versions are 39mm.
Safety: Sport watches used radium for luminosity up till the 1960s when tritium (safer) was gradually phased into use, before the introduction of Super-Luminova in the late 1990s.
Rolex Explorer Time Chart:
1940s to 1950s: Pre-Explorers (Ref. 6xxx)
1963: Explorer Ref. 1016
1990: Explorer Ref. 14270
2000: Explorer Ref. 114270
2010: Explorer Ref. 214270
1940s to 1950s: Pre-Explorers
From a marketing standpoint, these are important watches because the Explorer didn’t go up Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 per se. Rather, both men wore Oyster case Rolex prototypes – “Pre-Explorers” – that eventually gave rise to the Explorer.
1952: Ref. 6098 [Everest conquest]
• Issued to Everest expedition members including Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
• A296 automatic movement, chronometer-rated
• 36mm. Part of the so-called ‘Bubbleback’ Rolexes, also nicknamed ‘Ovettone’ (‘big egg’) by the Italians, for the bulbous caseback needed to accommodate extra thickness of the automatic movement.
• Monobloc construction (mid-case and bezel being made from one block of steel)
• Fitted with Super Oyster Crown, which didn’t screw down but pushed in like regular dress watches.
• Applied arrow hour markers and coronet
Asking prices range from $5k-$13k, more commonly clustered around $9.5k-$10k, with one model in yellow gold listed at $37k. At auction, two watches sold in 2018 for $9k and $3k respectively; in 2015, two watches sold for $3k. One 18k gold watch with black lacquer dial and star numerals fetched $363k in 2012; a stainless steel model with honeycomb dial and sar numerals hit $72k in 2007 while a double-signed model in gold with star numerals reached $26k in 2010.
1953: Ref. 6298
• A296 automatic movement
• New water-tight three-part case (separate mid-case and bezel), bubbleback
• New screw-down crown replaced the leakage-prone Super Oyster Crown
Current asking prices cluster around $9k-$11k. Auction prices reached in 2008, 2014 and 2016 were $6.2k, $5.6k, $3.8k.
1953: Ref. 6150 and 6350
• These replaced the 6098 and 6298
• A296 automatic movement
• Three-part bubbleback case
• New dial layout: inverted triangle at ‘12’, printed Rolex text and coronet, painted 3-6-9 numerals, mercedes hands added midway
• 6150: designated “Precision”
• 6350: chronometer rated, dial stamped “Officially Certified Chronometer”. First appearance of ‘Explorer’ on the dial.
• Rare: Honeycomb dial
6150: Current asking price is around $10k. In 2018, a model in off-white dial was auctioned for $15k while another with black honeycomb dial hit $50k. One model with black dial auctioned for $11.2k in 2014.
6350: We saw one on sale at time of writing, with rare honeycomb dial, asking for $23k. Black honeycomb dial examples were auctioned for $69k and $38k in 2016 and 2017, respectively. A regular example with matte black dial fetched $6k in 2005.
1956: Ref. 6610
• New cal. 1030 movement. Slimmer movement, caseback is flat.
• Full ‘Explorer’ dial: inverted triangle at ‘12’, 3-6-9 numerals, Mercedes hands now standard.
• ‘Gilt’ dials: glossy black dials with text in gold colour
• Rare: 6610s that had an additional line of text printed on the top of the dial in either red or silver; namely a depth rating (50m = 165ft). Another rare version of the 6610 had a painted white seconds hand.
Asking prices today range from $10+k to $20+k. Auction prices in recent years (2017-2019) have clustered around $23k. In comparison, a watch with box and papers hit $16k in 2007, while another was sold for $6.4k without. A Tiffany dial example sold for $44k in 2017, and one with off-white dial and matching ivory lume hit $172k in 2013.
1963-1989: Explorer ref. 1016 [From Radium to Tritium]
• Long production period till 1989 with minimal changes
• Greater depth rating at 100m
• New movement automatic cal. 1560, chronometer-rated
• Movement upgraded after 10 years to cal. 1570 with hacking feature (stop seconds)
• New luminous material: tritium replaced radium from 1963, indicated by “Swiss T<25” or “T Swiss T” marking on the dial
• New dial: from the late 1960s, the advent of matte dials with printed text (in place of gilt)
Asking prices can range from $9k to nearly $40k, but generally fall towards the high teens to lower $20+k. Auction prices were around $4k-$6k a decade ago, and $7k-$12k in the last 2 years. Those with unusual dials fetched $25k-$30+k during this period.
1989: Explorer ref. 14270 [Sapphire Crystal, White Gold Markers, Super-Luminova]
• Scratch-resistant sapphire crystal
• Painted numerals replaced by white gold numbers filled with luminous material
• Initially tritium was used, then replaced in the late-1990s with Super-LumiNova
• New cal. 3000 movement
• Early examples had drilled lugs
• 1990: version with 3-6-9 numerals filled with black enamel instead of tritium was introduced. Nicknamed “Blackout” by collectors, it wasn’t popular, and Rolex quickly reverted to lume-filling. Probably the rarest modern Rolex watch.
Asking prices mainly in $5k-$5.5k range; ‘Blackout’ models can fall around $15k. Hovering around $3k a decade ago, auction prices rose to $4.5k-$5k in recent years (2015-2019). A Blackout model auctioned for $21k (2008), a Tiffany dial fetched $15k (2014) and a Swiss-only dial fetched $6.7k (2019).
2000: Explorer ref. 114270
• New second generation cal. 3000 series movement, the cal. 3130
Current asking prices mainly within $5k, with a minority in the $6k and upper $4k ranges. In recent years (2017-2018), auction prices have clustered around $5k, up from $3k a decade before.
2010: Explorer ref. 214270 [39mm]
• 39mm case
• ‘Explorer’ text moved to the bottom half of the dial
• Cal. 3121 automatic movement
• Solid white gold numerals without lume; this was not popular so lume was subsequently added. Hands also reworked as they were criticised for being too short.
• Rare: this reference with lume-less, solid white gold hands
Current asking prices mainly between $6k to $7k; at auction, prices ranged from $5k to $6k in 2018.
For more detailed coverage of the story behind the Rolex Explorer, click here:
• Exploring the Rolex Explorer