In-Depth: Five Reasons Why The Rolex Explorer Is In The Midst Of A Renaissance
Watchonista explores the factors behind this classic model’s recent revival.
In the spring of 1953, Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay made front-page news around the world – and changed the course of watchmaking history – when they became the first two people to summit Mt. Everest. Both were equipped with Rolex wristwatches. The exact model Hillary wore is a matter of some debate, but most experts agree that it was a prototype built by the watchmaker specifically for the 29,028-foot trek.
“Rolex was, in essence, a sponsor of the climb,” Geoffrey Hess, international watch specialist at Phillips, told Watchonista. “No watch saw moments like this one would. It was punishing on the mountain: the altitude, the temperatures, the high winds.”
“It’s such an incredible story,” Hess added. “And it triggered a revolution for watches. Immediately after the climb, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer was born. It became an icon. It symbolized strength, achievement, courage, and the ability to conquer.”
Now, after years of ceding the spotlight to its better-known sports model siblings, the Daytona and Submariner, the Explorer is on the cusp of a revival. In April, Rolex released a revamped version of the model along with its bigger and bolder sibling, the Explorer II, causing a stir among collectors. In a parallel development, vintage dealers say secondary market prices on vintage Explorers are rising – fast.
Below are five reasons why, nearly 70 years after its debut, the watch that summitted Everest is having a moment.
Think of It as the Original Tool Watch
The concept of a “tool watch” came into its own in the 1950s. And it describes a class of robust timepieces designed to aid in rugged outdoor activities, like aviation, deep-sea diving, mountain climbing, and scientific exploration. While a tool watch no longer has the same relevance in today’s GPS-enabled world as it did in its mid-century heyday, demand for timepieces fitting the category continues to grow.
To understand the enduring appeal of tool watches, just look to the Explorer, one of the earliest and arguably most authentic examples of the genre. Hillary and Norgay’s Rolex-equipped ascent of Mt. Everest “was a defining moment for wristwatches, and thousands, if not millions, of timepieces have been sold as a result,” Hess said.
It’s Now Back to Its Original (Pleasingly Unisex) 36mm Size
Rolex surprised and (mostly) delighted fans this spring when it introduced its next-generation Explorer in a 36mm case, the same size as the original 1953 model.
“In 2010, it became a bigger watch, at 39mm,” said Hess. “Fast forward 11 years, and they’ve brought it back down to 36mm, which really is a wonderful size. It’s a time-only watch. It doesn’t need to be big and bold.”
Rolex lovers have speculated that the size change is an attempt to lend the model greater unisex appeal. And that it fills a vacuum for a steel sports watch in a slightly smaller case. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the Explorer’s new-old size of 36mm resonates both with vintage lovers and watch aficionados with smaller wrists.
The New Two-Tone Execution Gives It a Crossover Elegant-Sporty Vibe
Size isn’t the only factor that Rolex took into consideration when the brand redesigned the 2021 Explorer. The watchmaker also gave the piece a fetching – and unexpected – two-tone appearance, creating a yellow Rolesor version combining Oystersteel and 18K yellow gold.
“It’s the first time the Explorer is a bit swanky,” Hess said. “But it’s still a 36mm watch with the emblematic 3-6-9 on the dial. They just made the bezel gold, the center of the bracelet links gold, and made it a little more rich. I tip my hat to them. They blended their vintage history with modern enhancements. For years, people have been saying two-tone is going to make a comeback, and maybe this is the beginning.”
Vintage Explorer References Continue to Increase in Value
It’s impossible to say why Rolex chose to revamp the Explorer this year (the brand is famously secretive, especially when it comes to explaining its motives). But one thing is clear: “With Rolex now rereleasing the 36mm Explorer, it’s kind of lit the vintage market on fire,” said Cameron Barr, founder of the Los Angeles-based vintage watch dealer Craft & Tailored.
According to Barr, two to three years ago, you could easily pick up the vintage Explorer reference 14270 with a tritium dial for $2,500 to $3,000. “Now, it’s hard for me to buy a tritium dial for $6,500 to $7,000,” he added.
Barr noted the surge in interest in vintage Explorer reference 1016, in both the gilt and matte dial versions, as one reason why comparatively more recent five-digit references, such as the 14270, are rising in value. “The 1016 moved from being a $5,000 to $6,000 watch to being a $12,000 to $13,000 watch,” he explained. “Because earlier four-digit references got priced out, the later five-digit references became more popular.”
Vintage examples of the Explorer II are also burning up the secondhand market. Introduced in 1971 in a 40mm case, the model was originally intended for people, such as spelunkers and Arctic explorers, “who might not see daylight for days a time,” said Hess. That is why its signature 24-hour bezel featured an arrow to allow its wearer to track day and night hours.
The Explorer II reference 1655 “is the watch for me,” said Paul Altieri, Founder and CEO of Bob’s Watches, one of the web’s biggest dealers of pre-owned Rolex models. “It was below the radar until the last six months. They were hovering around $17,000 to $20,000 on the vintage market. Now they’re pushing $30,000.”
Both Barr and Altieri told Watchonista that the increased visibility and attention afforded the modern Explorer is at least partly responsible for the spike in queries over vintage Explorers.
It’s the Perfect Bridge Watch
Barr acknowledged that for a long time, he didn’t really like the Explorer. “I never understood it,” he said. “I wanted something with a rotating bezel. But this watch doesn’t have any features. It’s a time-only, chronometer-rated, superlative watch.”
Gradually, however, he came to see what sets the Explorer apart from the rest of the Rolex pantheon. “It bridges the gap between a dress watch and a sports watch,” Barr explained. “If you’re a one-watch-only kind of guy and you want something you can wear with a suit and something you can jump into the ocean with, this is it.”