Rolex is perhaps one of the few companies in the world that benefits from the unique position to have a catalog full of iconic products. It is a company that is loved with passion and hated with the opposite feelings. It is a company that surpassed brand awareness around the globe. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knows Rolex. There are many things that can be said but an undeniable fact is that Rolex produces consistently fine watches that are industry’s benchmarks. From the DateJust and the Day-Date, to the professional watches developed be used as tools for a specific job, like the early Explorers and the Turn-o-graph, which led to the archetypal Submariner, the GMT Master and the Milgauss and later the Cosmograph (Daytona) and finally the Sea-Dweller and the Explorer II. Every single one a legend in its respective category among other models from competitive brands.
The real big problem for me – and I think for almost everyone actively in the market for a Rolex watch – is how you choose. Which model should I buy? Budget matters aside, I think this comes down to your aesthetic criteria and, of course, to the unique charm of each model. Having all these on my mind and probably many more considerations, I chose the Rolex Explorer Ref. 214270, for me the archetypal Oyster professional watch. Recently, Rolex revamped the model, keeping the same reference number while introducing small but very important changes – a new watch version that we’ll called the Mk2. Therefore, in this review I will use my watch as a reference point and of course analyse the differences and how I feel about them. But first we will go back in the past, for a small history lesson…
The history of the Rolex Explorer
The birth of the Oyster automatic watch started during the 1920s, when Hans Wilsdorf (founder of Rolex) realised that users could easily forget to screw down the crown of their manual winding watches and as a result, water would enter the case. The oyster case and the crown needed a new component in order to be perfected. The patent for the automatic watch was owned by the Harwood factory in 1920s, so Rolex had to produce the automatic watch based on a whole new concept. This coincided with the Harwood Company getting out of the business because of bad management. The timing was perfect and Rolex proceeded by adopting the basic 360-degree automatic winding rotor that made the movement thicker than normally. The solution was a curved case-back, in order to accommodate the calibre. The Bubbleback was born.
The true Rolex Bubbleback watches were produced from 1933 to 1955 and it was, on a larger scale, what made Rolex as we know it today – since it was based on the actual formua that combines a hermetical construction (case and crown) that perfectly protect the reliable automatic movement from external elements. This series of watches had many configurations and shared the ethos of the company for a dependable, waterproof and sturdy watch, which due to its automatic calibre, could be worn all the time by its user. The variability of the Bubbleback was amazing. There were more than seventy models according to Rolex literature records. Six generations in total, 6/7 case and caseback types, 11 types of minute and second hands, six types of bezel and over 100 types of dials.
The legend of the Bubbleback forged Rolex reputation for the public. This, and the fact that the company was a pioneer in product placement through media, created the halo that surrounds its name, even today. Quite early (1927) there was the English Channel crossing by a young English swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze. She wore on her neck a Rolex Oyster and the watch remained in perfect working order at the end of the 10-hour swim. To celebrate this achievement, Rolex published a full-page ad on the front page of the Daily Mail, claiming the success of the waterproof watch. Flying over the Everest in 1933 (crew using Rolex Oysters) and the connection of the company with the speed demon sir Malcolm Campbell were important public boosts. However, it was the attempt of mankind to conquer the highest peak of the world that was the real global event that the company needed, in order to prove to the world how superior Rolex watches were. Rolex knew its watches to be reliable and accurate, but by issuing them to various expeditions, they managed to test them in hostile conditions – and in parallel to benefit from a large exposure.
Now we enter the Explorer era. For me a very important, perhaps the most important Oyster Professional watch the company has ever produced, since it marks a clear demarcation line between the past watches and the Rolex we know now. Rolex supported the Himalayan expeditions since 1933, and later in Everest expeditions. Rolex had always been the official supporters, and they provided each exploring team with their wristwatches. However, Rolex was not the only supporter: it is said that when Edmund Hillary climbed up on the top of Everest, he wore a watch from the British company Smiths. But what Tenzing Norgay wore was indeed an Explorer (Ref. 6098).
The Everest Expedition in 1953
The Explorer was based on the already existing and sturdy Bubbleback series of watches, which has been modified by Rolex for its more audacious clients. In 1952, the references 6098 and 6150 (both using the A296 movement) were in fact the first prototype watches to be used by climbers; they were watches with white dials and leaf shaped hands, which didn’t bear the name Explorer yet. In 1953, these models became the references 6298 and 6350, when they were fitted with the typical Explorer-type 3-6-9 dial and later with the Mercedes hands. Before Hillary and Norgay climbed the Everest, Rolex didn’t name their watches Explorer. Although Rolex registered the Explorer trademark on January of 1953, the Explorer gained its name after Hillary and Norgay climbed up the Everest and “Explorer” began to be added on the Ref. 6350, at the end of 1953.
A Rolex 6098 – Pre-Explorer
The Rolex Explorer Ref. 6350 was especially intended for Explorers: it had a highly legible dial design (the defining characteristic of the model), its case was also strengthened and the movement used special lubricants, making this watch functional between -20° C and +40° C. It was made for a year and then replaced with the Ref. 6150, which was stopped in 1959 and replaced by Ref. 6610, which was almost the same except the back being flatter, since the new reference used the new Calibre 1030. It was a 36mm watch, water resistant to 50m.
The Explorer Ref. 1016, introduced in 1963, is certainly the most famous edition, with the longest production period of all the Explorers, until Ref. 14270 replaced it in 1989. Needless to say that it is this model that most people associate as the archetypal Explorer. The Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 was very close the older Ref. 6610 in terms of design and of technical content. It went under two production periods. During its first phase of production, which lasted up until approximately 1971, it was equipped with the Calibre 1050. Then, Rolex replaced the Calibre 1050 with the more modern Calibre 1570 and increased its water resistant from 50m to 100m.
Launched in 1989, the Rolex Explorer Ref. 14270 surprised collectors, since it left aside the pure tool / utilitarian character of the 1016, by successfully moving to a more formal result, which made it more modern and more refined (like the rest of the Rolex collection). The case was different, being beefier and slightly thicker, however it retained the 36mm diameter. The glossy black dial and the white gold 3-6-9 indices gave to the model a greater level of versatility and made it appropriate in any situation. The comfortable Oyster bracelet also remained (with solid links) however the Plexiglas was replaced with a sapphire crystal and the movement now was the faster beating Calibre 3000.
In 2001, Rolex replaced the 14270 with the new Rolex Explorer Ref. 114270, which had the Calibre 3130. To this exception, it was the same watch as the previous reference. The biggest change in the family came in 2010 when, in Baselworld, Rolex introduced the Ref. 214270. The case became bigger, with 3mm more (now 39mm), which led many Rolex devotees to state that the model lost its classic proportions. The Oyster bracelet was now solid all around (including the end-links) and the movement was the Calibre 3132, an in-house self-winding mechanical movement featuring a bigger base plate, Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex shock absorbers, offering greater resistance to shocks and to extreme conditions. Beating at 28,800vph with a power reserve of 48 hours, the 3132 is a certified chronometer, a designation reserved for high-precision watches that have successfully passed the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) tests. Recently, Rolex introduced a revised Explorer but kept the same reference number.
The 2016 Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk2
For the sake of the article, I will refer to the previous Explorer 214270 as the Mk1 and the 2016 edition of the 214270 as the Mk2. Brice has already previewed the latest reincarnation of the model here, however I will attempt to give a more hands-on and personal view, starting from the similarities. The watches are exactly the same, proportionally speaking. They are both 39mm in diameter, with a very slim profile that creates a very comfy feeling. The Explorer’s robust Oyster case is guaranteed waterproof to a depth of 100 meters (330 feet). It’s crafted from a solid block of corrosion-resistant 904L steel. Fitted with the Twinlock double waterproof system, the winding crown screws down securely against the case. The crystal is made of flat and scratchproof sapphire.
The Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk1
This classic variation of the oyster case is, to me, one of the best designed cases of all time – and actually, even the great Gerald Genta considered it as a masterpiece. The fluid lines, the slightly curved lugs, they way it hugs the wrist and the fact that it looks stunning with its bracelet, but also with leather and NATO straps, makes it a piece of design, regarding watches, that is very hard to be surpassed. It is, to me, the definite and classic Rolex case, which resembles the iconic Rolex Oyster professional cases of the past, along with the Milgauss and the newly introduced Air-King.
The 2016 Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk2
Both Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk1 and Mk2 share the shame 3132 calibre. The Superlative Chronometer certification, recently redefined by Rolex, covers the Explorer since 2015. This exclusive designation testifies that the watch has successfully undergone a series of tests conducted by Rolex according to its own standards, which are said to exceed classical watchmaking norms and standards. The certification applies to the fully assembled watch, after casing the movement, guaranteeing superlative performance on the wrist in terms of precision, power reserve, and waterproofness. The precision of a Rolex Superlative Chronometer after casing is of the order of −2/+2 seconds per day, or more than twice that required of an official chronometer (COSC goes for -4/+6 seconds per day). The Superlative Chronometer status is symbolized by the green seal that comes with every Rolex watch and is coupled with an international five-year guarantee.
Here I must note that Rolex, by extensively checking the watch after the calibre is cased, clearly offers an alternative to the METAS certification provided by its biggest opponent, Omega. In addition, it must be highlighted that each Rolex with the green seal (a recent change happened in July 2015) not only has a 5-year guarantee and a 10-year service interval, but is also tested in accordance with Rolex new standards. My Explorer, which I bought after July 2015, has earned 6 seconds in a period of one month. Yes, you have read this correctly: +6 seconds over a period of 30 days – and that means a daily deviation of +0,2 second per day. That is an extraordinary figure for a mechanical calibre.
Detail – The hands of the 2016 Rolex Explorer 214270, longer than before
So the Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk1 has exactly the same case, bracelet, and calibre as the Mk2. They however differ in two areas, which were quite hot topics on various forums around the world. The first is the dial and the second are the hands. The Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk2 traces back to its early tool roots by introducing 3-6-9 indexes filled with luminous paint, a the first since the Ref. 1016 (the 14270 and 114270 had a line of white paint in the 3-6-9 indexes but it was not luminous – the MK1 214270 has plain indexes). That is a welcoming change in my honest opinion. The dial seems slightly more proportioned now and above all, its more readable, especially when lighting conditions are not that optimal. However, the effect of the Mk1 dial was also interesting, since the white-gold 3-6-9 numerals reflected light in a superb way in day-light conditions, producing a pleasing result. This combination created a ghost-effect when light diffused into the dial and it was like the hands and the indices were floating within. Therefore, it is fair to say that the new luminous numbers are a welcoming change, and more importantly a more historically and retro-accurate direction – but this does not make the Mk1 a less attractive variation. I would prefer the newer dial but this is not a big issue for me, just a matter of tastes.
Detail – The indexes of the 2016 Rolex Explorer 214270, now filled with luminous paint
The hands are the other big improvement introduced on the 2016 Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk2– it might just be hands, but this detail has in fact a strong importance, especially when you’re named Rolex. To be fair, the hands of the Mk1 are short and this is now rectified, with hands that are longer (and fatter) than before. This topic was highly contested in major forums around the world. Some said that Rolex kept the hands set of the 36mm and put them in the 39mm model, others tried to prove that this happened on purpose by the company. The truth is that I never notice the length of the hands in real life. I never had this moment were I didn’t understand what time was indicated on the dial – never, period! Visually speaking, yes, the hands of the Mk1 were a bit short, especially the minute hand (which was not touching the minute track), but this has never been a practical problem for me. The new hands are therefore longer but they are also fatter – and that makes the dial of the Mk2 bolder, sportier and slightly less elegant – again, to me.
It is true that, with the introduction of the Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk2, many people who disliked the Mk1 for its “deficiencies” will be eager to order one. Yes, now the model became sportier, more retro-accurate and looses this perfectly balanced toolish-elegance that was given by Rolex to the Explorer I model from the Ref. 14270 onward. Please bear in mind that small changes like that affect a lot a very Spartan design like the Explorer. For me, both versions have pros and cons and I am not eager to part with my Mk1.
The Rolex Explorer is for me the ultimate Oyster Professional model in the history of the company and sadly, it’s very much underestimated. It is in production since 1953 and as we saw, it marks a clear demarcation line, when Rolex moved from its early period of tool watches to the modern times of sports-luxury. The Explorer is a model that the company tested in hostile conditions and was made in order to develop the legendary Submariner and GMT, which had the same case (slightly larger), same ethos, same crown but just added a bezel functionality (for divers) and a second time-zone functionality for the GMT. Do not forget that some early Submariners shared explorer dials.
The Rolex Explorer family is an icon comparable to the Omega Speedmaster, the IWC Mark or the Breitling Navitimer. Its archetypal nature and clear lines radiate the philosophy of a company whith one goal: create simple but highly reliable, accurate watches that could be worn by everyone. Rolex, with the Explorer, managed to create a line of tool watches, fine-tuned accordingly and which wrote history on the wrists of influential individuals. Today they are not longer tool watches but they do continue to have all those typical Rolex qualities that transcend time, although they are now more luxurious than ever.
The 39mm Explorer is quite possibly the perfect watch for me. It has everything I need and nothing I don’t. If it had a date, it would become more convenient but it would break up the beauty of the dial. If it were bigger, it would not be as comfortable and would attract too much attention. It’s the perfect everyday watch; it can be worn in almost every circumstances. Its size is perfect, it has a flat profile, strong enough lume, a tool style with just a hint of flash, a great movement, a matte dial, a great bracelet, and an unparalleled pedigree. The Rolex Explorer 214270 Mk2, with the changes introduced this year, manages to keep all the qualities of its predecessor and, in parallel, it becomes sportier and more complete than ever before. Last but not least, it is now more historically accurate and I think that this is the perfect timing to acquire this legendary timepiece (at a price of 6,000 Euros).