Yesterday, Rolex launched its new collection for 2021, with a strong focus on exploration watches, a collection named “Explorer” and comprising two models, the classic Explorer and the rugged Explorer II. Both watches are updated this year, with minor changes on the Explorer II – mostly concerning the movement, details on the dial and proportions of the case – and a more important evolution of the Explorer. At first sight, it still feels familiar… But there’s a bold move from Rolex behind this 2021 Explorer. And it has to do with the diameter of its case, which comes back to the historical size used for over 55 years. Here are our first impressions with the Rolex Explorer 36mm Oystersteel 124270 and Rolesor 124273.
The Rolex Explorer – which will be unofficially named Explorer 1 after 1971, when the Crown launched the Explorer II – was born in 1953, following the brand’s involvement in several expeditions since the 1930s. In 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. It is now well-known that watches were involved in this expedition, from Smith and, of course, Rolex – with an Oyster Perpetual reference 6098, worn by Norgay (back then still not a proper Explorer, as not fitted with the 3-6-9 dial). An in-depth history/timeline of the Explorer can be found here.
From the very first editions of this watch to 2010 and the introduction of the reference 214270, the Explorer will be fitted with its iconic black dial, Mercedes hands and 3-6-9 indexes, and housed in an Oyster case measuring 36mm in diameter. As of 2010, Rolex increased the size to 39mm… And we clearly thought that this would remain the norm for the years to come.
The new 36mm case
Yesterday, Rolex introduced new editions of its classic Explorer watch. While the brand mostly emphasized its communication on the Rolesor edition (ref. 124273), there’s also a classic stainless steel model joining the collection (ref. 124270). But the most important move isn’t in this choice of material. It has to do with the diameter of the watch. Indeed, gone is the 39mm edition, as the 214270 is now discontinued. It will soon be replaced by the 124270 and 124273 watches, and both are 36mm in diameter. As such, Rolex comes back to the historic size of the watch.
To me, this is a very bold move from Rolex. While I certainly applaud the idea of the 36mm diameter – I am the owner of the 14270 you see at the beginning of the article and I love this reduced diameter – I am surprised to see that only this downsized version is now available. I could have seen Rolex bring both a 36mm and a 39mm or 41mm edition – as we predicted here. But making it only available in a reduced diameter is, without doubt, a strong decision that will create discussions.
On a personal basis, I’m very pleased to see a comeback of the 36mm diameter, as I think this is the best size possible for a simple time-only watch as the Explorer. The balance between the size of the bezel and the elements of the dial is perfect and makes these references Oystersteel 124270 and Rolesor 124273 both extremely sleek and clean, without this feeling of emptiness I had with the previous reference 214270.
In addition to that, the case is basically the same as used on the new Oyster Perpetual 36mm “Stella-inspired” of 2020. It means a thin polished bezel combined with tapered lugs that somehow brings back the feeling of 1990s watches. The execution of the entire habillage is, as you’d expect from a modern Rolex, extremely neat.
The Surprising Rolesor 124273
We can’t talk about the 2021 Rolex Explorer 36mm without discussing the addition of this Rolesor edition, mixing Oystersteel and 18k yellow gold – found classically on the bezel, the crown and centre links of the bracelet, all with a polished finishing. From 1953 to 2020, the Explorer has always been available only in stainless steel with a black dial. Period. But, if you search quickly on the web, you can find examples of ref. 5501 (among others) with Explorer stamped dials, executed in two-tone. Enough to justify this new Rolesor Explorer 124273…? Maybe not.
Let me put it this way: is this Rolesor edition making sense? Strictly speaking, not really. The Explorer is, after all, a professional watch made for mountaineers and explorers. Stainless steel is, without doubt, the material of choice. But let’s consider things differently. Is a Rolex Explorer, in 2021, still an instrument watch, worn by Alpinists? No. It’s a luxury watch with a sporty feeling, capable of enduring rough conditions. Most of these watches will certainly never see proper exploration. Just like the Rolesor Sea-Dweller doesn’t really make sense, this Rolesor Explorer 124273 is not historically relevant.
But… If you remove this idea from the equation, and once you handle this new Rolesor edition, you end up with a truly handsome and cool watch. Yes, I must confess that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this watch when seeing it in the metal. The combination of this clean 3-6-9 dial, with its lacquered surface, and the warm and slightly vintage look of the two-tone case simply works. It is oddly attractive and, in my books, this Rolesor Explorer Rolesor 36mm 124273 is just cool. The good point is that, if you don’t like it, there’s of course the option for the classic full-Oystersteel version.
As you can see above, the classic look of the Explorer is still available with the 36mm reference 124270, a watch that, apart from its reduced diameter, still bears all the distinctive elements of an Explorer watch. In this version, the lacquered black dial is punctuated by white gold hands and applied indexes – with the 3-6-9 numerals, like the rest of the markers – filled with Chromalight material. The case and the bracelet are fully brushed on flat surfaces, with polished accents on the sides. The bezel is, traditionally, polished too.
For the rest, no major evolutions. The 2021 Rolex Explorer (both versions) is still a no-date watch, with 100m water-resistance, Twinlock screw-down crown and the bracelet is equipped with a folding Oysterlock safety clasp and Easylink 5mm comfort extension link. One evolution regarding the sapphire crystal, which now features anti-reflective coating (something Rolex has started to use since 2020 on new models).
The calibre 3230
Following the evolution of its collections, Rolex incorporates the calibre 3230 inside the Explorer 124270 and 124273, a movement that we’ve already seen in watches such as the 2020 no-date Submariner 124060 and the 41mm and 36mm Oyster Perpetual watches.
The automatic 3230 calibre has a Chronergy escapement. It features a Parachrom hairspring, which is up to 10 times more precise compared to a traditional hairspring. It also has an optimised geartrain, a high-capacity barrel storing up to 70 hours of power reserve and a new oscillating weight for more rapid winding. Needless to say, this movement comes with Superlative Chronometer certification, running within -2/+2 seconds per day.
As said above, I applaud the idea of a reduced diameter and, if bold, I think this is a clever move from Rolex. Still, I can imagine that some enthusiasts won’t appreciate this new 36mm diameter. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rolex, in a couple of years, adds a 41mm edition of the Explorer in its collection… And regarding the addition of a Rolesor edition, I really like it. And since there’s also a classic Oystersteel edition available, no need to be sad.
The 2021 Rolex Explorer 36mm Oystersteel 124270 retails for EUR 6,100. The Rolesor 124273 edition retails for EUR 10,300. More details at rolex.com.