The Heart & Soul of Debonaire Explorer Watches
Plenty of articles and videos have been made about the Rolex Explorer 1, when it was first released, why, and who made it famous. I myself wrote an article about it a few months back. This article is not another one to promote the watch and how good it is. Instead, I will be discussing what this type of watch represented when it was first released and what modern iterations still represent. The Explorer 1 along with the Seiko Baby Alpinist and other similar collections represent a very particular type of horology and resonate with a certain category of watch enthusiasts.
Let’s find out what and how.
Watches for Explorers
As you probably know, watches have always served a practical need to keep track of time. First in the form of pocket watches and then wristwatches used on the battlefields of World War I. Then as dressy timepieces worn by members of high society. Then as rugged tool watches used by professionals. Now, everyone. Watches have existed for centuries in the forms of clock towers and tabletop clocks, but pocket watches and wristwatches made it possible to bring time tracking devices alongside human adventures.
Knowing the time when traveling is crucial. We need to know, for example, how much time we have left trekking the jungle before sunset so that we give ourselves enough time to set up camp. Or we need to make it to an important appointment with a guide. Or we need to check in at our hotel on time. Sure, nowadays we can do all of this with our smartphones. But think back of the 1950s and the fact that watches were all we had to keep track of time.
Just like World War II military service members needed rugged and precise tool watches to coordinate attacks, explorers needed a watch that could withstand hard conditions and be comfortable to wear all day. Each type of person wearing each type of watch had certain needs. And their watches had to work in tandem with the rest of their equipment. These watches were, therefore, designed and built to specifications. And explorer watches, unlike field watches of yesteryear, were made elegant because they were supposed to be worn in any and all situations.
What Made Them Special
Debonaire explorer watches had slim figures. The first Explorer 1, just like the 1959 Seiko Baby Alpinist, had a 36mm case. These watches were generally worn on leather straps because it’s more comfortable in cold weather rather than steel bracelets. Their lug-to-lug distance was well below 45mm, 43mm in the case of the Explorer 1 ref. 1016. They were also rather thin for automatic watches with time only function, around 12-13mm. Despite these reasonable dimensions, they were sturdy watches (as we will see below), making them perfect companions for any type of adventure.
From a design perspective, these watches were modest in appearance. Again, their purpose was to tell time accurately and easily regardless of where or what the wearer was doing. The emphasis was put on functionality and versatility rather than luxury and complexity. The Explorer 1 has the iconic 3-6-9 dial coupled with the Mercedes hands, while the Laurel Alpinist has triangular-shaped indices with matching Dauphine hands. Both combinations were highly legible and were visually inoffensive. (Read: versatile.)
Lastly, explorer watches are robust and come with movements that are both easy to service and reliable. The watches that accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay on Mount Everest had a special oil that made it possible for the movement to work at higher altitude and in colder temperature. And even though today our watches don’t have this—perhaps they don’t need it anymore—explorer watches are tough. Decent water resistance of at least 100 meters, screw-down crowns and case-backs, as well as sapphire crystals (for modern versions) and bright lume.
In 2022, one has many options for proper explorer watches that have preserved the spirit of the original ones. One of my favorite releases of 2022 is the Lorier Falcon Mark III which takes visual inspiration from the very same debonair explorer watches I mentioned above. The dimensions and overall spirit of the Explorer 1016 are palpable here. Of course, one can get the current reference of the Explorer 1, the 124270, which is the most advanced and refined reference of the past few decades. If you are a fan of the Smiths watch company, TimeFactors make their own version of a 36mm Explorer-style watch in the PRS-25. Last but not least, I would always recommend the Monta Triumph for anyone looking for a proper everyday/field watch.
I am a sucker for vintage inspired watches. Not only because they look like something James Bond or a young James Cameron could have worn, but because they have safeguarded the spirit of the first wristwatches that have accompanied bold explorers to trek through jungles, abandoned cities, and countries in search for new adventures and a greater meaning. If money was not an issue, I would be wearing a 1016 Explorer 1 as I’m typing this article. Although I love watches that come with certain complications I deem useful—a dive time bezel, a date, and a GMT function—my horological heart resonates with the spirit of the first legitimate exploration watches.
Featured image: www.outdoorjournal.com
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