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The Rolex Explorer: From Sherpa Tenzing to Today

A lot of folks name the Submariner as the watch that defined the tool watch genre. And indeed, an argument can be made for that. But an argument can also be made that the chronographs worn by WW II pilots were the first tool watches. Or maybe the first tool watches were those early watches clumsily strapped to the wrists of doughboys in WW I.

And a similarly valid argument can be made for the Rolex Explorer, though many of those other timepieces predate it by decades. But we don’t mean to argue, other than to point out the ethos of the Explorer as an ultimate expression of horological form following function.

Another way of putting it is, “Everything you need, nuthin you don’t.”

Yesterday, I said the Explorer reference 1016 belonged in everybody’s Rolex collection. But the reference that kicked off the watch in 1953 was a bubble-back which housed a rather thick movement. As far as we know, that was the watch Tenzing Norgay wore as he and Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt. Everest in 1953.

Rolex spent the next several years refining the movement and thinning it down. In 1959 they released the 6610, with the slimmed down calibre 1030 as its engine.

Rolex replaced the 6610 with the 1016 in 1963, when they upgraded the movement to the calibre 1560. That year they also released a few 1016s in Japan with the signature “Space-Dweller” replacing “Explorer” in honor of the US Mercury space program.

In fact, the history of Rolex watches called Explorer is a long and winding road. Some looked like the Explorer, but didn’t carry the name. Others carried the name, but not the look.

The 1016 reference actually saw several updates during its 26 year run, movement and bracelet among them. Finally, in 1989, it was replaced with ref. 14270. The 14270 had new everything – case, crystal (sapphire), applied numerals, and movement.

An interesting side note here – 1016 fans were a little passive-aggressive in their response to the new 14270. They continued to buy pre-owned 1016s, often willing to pay more for them than the 14270’s retail price.

However, the next generation Explorer was abiding. The derivative ref. 214270 remains in the line. It now calipers at 39mm and is a terrific watch in its own right.

But there’s just something about that old 1016…

 

-Ed Estlow

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