All men have a bit of "Explorer" in them. I guess that is why, in a modern world, a man feels so comfortable wearing a Rolex! But why does the "Explorer" retain its popularity even now as we enter the 6th decade of its existence? Why a Rolex "Explorer" when a Rolex "Datejust" would do just fine, keeping time just as well and costing less? What deeply rooted bit of genetic romanticism does today's man conjure up in his overworked and overtaxed mind as he groggily awakes in his home, reaches for that trusty and ever reliable "Explorer" watch, strapping it on with great dignity, surety and cocksure confidence that with this watch and his superior intelligence, he can go out and conquer…what? The local interstate? The nearest trendy Sushi Bar? A new route to the office? A big gulp at the local convenience store? Oh sure there will be plenty of time, (maybe next decade) to hunt for a new species in the Galapagos Islands, or to track down Marlon Brando in Tahiti for a little past-due mano a mano. Or next year maybe to take a long canoe ride down some unknown tributary of the Nile. Or maybe even if you had enough money, you could become like Captain Spaulding, the African Explorer. (Did someone call me schnorrer? Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!) Or heck, maybe you could squeeze in some time next year to retrace Lewis and Clarke's expedition in that gas-guzzling, yet comfy leather upholstered Ford F-150 Super Crew Cab (oops don't spill that latte!) that you talked your wife into letting you purchase so you could, um, "haul stuff."
But wait a minute. Hold the phone. That conduit of pure manliness that you wear on your wrist, those 4 ounces of 904L stainless steel that you casually wrapped around your wrist when you rolled out of bed at 6 A.M., that 28-Jewel automatic timepiece that somehow completes the circuit that allows Joe-office dweller to become JOSEPH THE EXPLORER, has a history. And a well-deserved history to boot. There are hundreds of good reasons why something as innocuous as a watch, a fashion accessory, dare I say it an "ENTRY level" Rolex, can magically transform everyman into Superman.
The Rolex "Explorer" watch was probably Dreamed up by Rolex Founder Hans Wilsdorf long before the name was finally registered in January of 1954. The concept of a real live explorer using a Rolex was well understood as far back as the 1930s and Rolex had for years been using rugged outdoors types in their advertising. So in 1952 the firm decided to copyright the name EXPLORER - and indeed, records indicate that Rolex finally took legal claim to the name on January twenty sixth of 1953. The following year (1954) Rolex introduced the "Explorer," along with several other new models, at the Basel Fair. The big boss, Hans Wilsdorf, was a bit of an explorer himself. Born in Germany in 1881 in the small town of Kulmbachin in North Bavaria, Wilsdorf was a man who understood traveling. He was off to boarding school at an early age and shortly after this found himself working at a watch concern in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Many of his ideas went unheralded so he was off to England to try his hand at the fine art of importing and exporting. By the time he was just 25 he had started his own watch company called Wilsdorf & Davis, (Davis, an acquaintance later married Wilsdorf's sister) importing watches for everyman with enough success to spurn him on to bigger and greater things. Yes, in England the German expatriate found it both difficult and rewarding. He imported sturdy yet inexpensive movements from the Aeglers Rebberg factory in Switzerland. But less than four years later, back in Chaux-de-Fonds, Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Davis first registered the name "Rolex". They had had a history of copyrighting an overabundance of names, most associated with royalty and sportsmen, using some and discarding many. They were an odd and disparate grouping of names that laid claim to names such as Air Lion, Air Tiger, Ship's Anchor, The Athlete, The Deep Sea, and the Everest, The Speed Model, The Princess Royal, the Admiralty, the Sailor King, the Prince and the Frogman, as well as a host of others that were used or discarded. But the name "Explorer" seemed to suit their purpose well, as Rolex had for twenty years been well known for their sponsorship of many Himalayan expeditions and were one of the chief sponsors of the historic Swiss climb to within 600 feet or so of the summit of Mount Everest, without oxygen, in 1952! These explorers, an all Swiss expedition team were, of course, wearing their sponsor's Rolex "Oyster Perpetual!" Even John Hunt, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay, in their triumphant and well documented complete climb to the top one year later, gave a nod to the previous year's team with a statement saying that "a good half of the glory goes to you." Of course both teams wore Rolex "Oyster Perpetuals" as their watch of choice and this was undoubtedly the chief reason for the rush to copyright the term "Explorer" in 1953, followed by the unveiling a short few months later at Basel Fair of 1954.
At first glance, the basic design if the Rolex "Explorer" has changed little in the last fifty years. But close inspection shows that Rolex has continued to change, tweak and otherwise improve the design of the watch inside and outside.
The first model - as James Dowling, my colleague and co-author of "The Best of Time, Rolex Wristwatches," suggests - with simply a "6350 Bubbleback," a kind of "pre-Explorer" that was worn well before the watch was officially unveiled. Dowling points out that one of the watches worn on that expedition was auctioned by Sotheby's London on July 19, 1988 as lot 117, and that the watch was a classic "early Explorer," down to the "Mercedes" hands, except for the absence of the word "Explorer" on the dial. The shape of the watch and the description by Sotheby's as a "Bubble Back Explorer" leads one to believe the watch is in fact a model 6350. This hypothesis is strengthened by the photographs, which show another model 6350 with an almost identical dial. The main difference between the two is that the Sotheby watch lacks "Explorer" but has the word "Precision" above the "6," whereas the other watch has the word "Explorer" but lack either "Precision" or "Officially Certified Chronometer" above the "6." Instead it has a British military marking in their place, as well as on the caseback. In the early 1950s, the period these watches were made, they were in fact designed with explorers in mind, with Rolex even going so far as to advertise that they could, upon special request, lubricate your "Explorer" with a special oil which could withstand temperatures between -20_C and +40_C without changes in viscosity!
Later models had a myriad of permutations with scores of different reference numbers and dial configurations. The dial that is considered the classic and only true "Explorer" dial has the large triangle at the "12," whether mixed with an Arabic/Roman configuration of the early model or the 3, 6, 9 Arabic or simply the hour markers of the classic date model reference 1655 with orange or red hands that was discontinued in 1985. (This watch is highly prized by collectors worldwide.)
Other models and reference numbers used for the "Explorer" series are the 5700, 5513, 6610, 6298, and the highly sought after non-date 1016 with both non-hacking and the hacking versions. Various movements used in these watches are the 1030, the 1560, (and the rework of the 1560, the "hacking" 1570). In 1989 the watch had a major overhaul and became the reference 14270, now sleek and modernized with a sapphire crystal. (This model was one of the last models to be fitted with the sapphire crystal, which had been first used in a Rolex some 15 years earlier.)
The collectability of Rolex "Explorer" has been all the rage since Japanese collectors started the ball rolling in the late 1980s. Since then, just about any watch with the word "Explorer" on it is sought after. Purists, of course, only consider the classic triangle-marked dial "Explorers" as TRUE "Explorers." But the cache of the word EXPLORER on any Rolex makes it instantly collectable - even the so-called "Canadian Explorers" made in the 1950s through the 1970s. These watches bear little resemblance to the 1016 and the 1655 and more closely resemble dress watches or "Date" models than a true "Explorer" with stick dials - and often, the word "Precision" is on the dial as well.
There is one other Holy Grail in the "Explorer" family though and that is the famous "Space Dweller Explorer." This was a watch that was produced in very limited numbers with the words "Space Dweller" just under the words "Oyster Perpetual." These have been rumored to have been made for the Japanese market and one has been reported (but not verified) as having been retailed by Cartier. These were reportedly offered for sale around 1963 as a 1016 model, son after the Mercury Astronauts became worldwide celebrities. They are rarely seen and in fact, I have owned only one in my many years of collecting, selling it at Sotheby's in 1998.
"In keeping with Rolex's strategy of constantly changing and perpetual improvement, Rolex recently reworked the non-date "Explorer" and just last year, upgraded the quality of the metal from old industry standard 316L stainless steel to 904L stainless steel in both head and bracelet. This is an important and significant improvement. Rolex chose to use this metal over the 316L, even aware that 904L stainless steel does not machine well and was going to be more difficult to work with, as bending to a small radius is usually performed cold. It is worth the extra trouble and expense however as 904L is known for its good resistance to warm sea water, even being used for such applications as the metal of choice for seawater cooling equipment, oil refinery components and even wires in electrostatic precipitators! Obviously Rolex takes their "water-resistant" statements very seriously."
Still not sure you qualify as a modern-day explorer? Well, there are millions of people out there that do easily identify with the rugged folks who wear a Rolex. Edward Heliosz, who keeps track of such things, lists hundreds of movie stars and celebrities who wear a Rolex. Heliosz is known for his exhaustive lists of characters in movies who sport the world's most rugged, most sporty and most trendy watch and he says the "Explorer" is often referred to as "The Steve McQueen" in honor of McQueen wearing a "reference 1655" in his movie "The Hunter" in 1980!
So if you think a Rolex might be in your future but you find the "Day-Date" a bit "over the top" and the "Datejust" a tad mundane, give Rolex "Explorer" a shot. Sure there are many manly watches available but none with the provenance of the Rolex "Explorer."