In the weeks preceding the 2023 Watches & Wonders watch fair, I wrote an article (LINK) speculating that Rolex could surprise the watch world with a white dial Explorer 1. My argument was that the Swiss brand already offers a white dial Explorer 2 and that, a while back, it used to only make black dial Explorer 2’s. The argument was fair (I hope) and would have shown the typical consistency Rolex is known for. What is surprising, however, is to learn—after the fact—that Rolex made a white dial Explorer 1, reference 1016, referred to as an “albino.” I know, my article from a few weeks ago would have made more sense should I have known of this rare 1016 reference earlier. Its story, however, doesn’t seem to have warranted the creation of a modern white dial Explorer 1.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the origin story of the Explorer 1 ref. 1016 albino and talk in further depths about its dial.
Where Does the Explorer 1 ref. 1016 Albino Come From?
Little has been written about white dial Rolexes and the best source of information I’ve found is this article from Hodinkee (LINK), which was published in anticipation of an auction the centerpiece of which was a rare white dial Explorer 1. Reading this article reminded me that indeed, Rolex used to make white dial sports watches. We often hear of the Rolex that Sir Edmund Hillary took to Mount Everest, however it never dawned on me that it had a white (or perhaps cream) dial. Many watches of this genre during the golden time period of the 1950s had white dials. However, according to Hodinkee, there are not more than 20 vintage Rolexes that came with albino dials across the Submariner, Explorer, and GMT Master collections put together.
The Hodinkee article relates several urban legends relating to these ultra rare albino dials. One of these legends seems to be the most plausible of all of them, at least to me: watchmakers would print black ink on white dials to ensure the proper alignment and functioning of their stamping and printing pad equipment. (Indices and text are printed on dials using a sort of stamping machine.) Ensuring their proper alignment seemed less straightforward when printing with white or gilt ink on a black dial. (I’m not sure I got this detail right, by the way.) What’s important is this: it is most likely that these dials were only made to test equipment, but Rolex might have decided to finish the dials to sell them.
If that were to be true, it would make for a pretty neat story indeed. And if it isn’t, then nobody really knows how albino dials came to be. Rolex has the unfortunate reputation of not sharing this kind of secrets.
Taking A Closer Look at the Dial of the Explorer 1 ref. 1016 Albino
Simply put, the dial of the albino 1016 is your typical 1016 affair. It comes with the classic 3-6-9 layout with the inverted triangle at the 12, Mercedes hands, and a railroad minute track on the periphery of the dial. Just like its ink-black siblings, the albino had fully lumed and printed hour markers and hands, however it seems the lume had a yellow tint like many 1016’s of that time had as well. At least, before that Rolex switched to white colored lume which, arguably, also turns yellow as it ages. It is therefore hard to tell what the lume on the albino looked like fresh off the press. Regardless, it looks nice against the white dial and resembles many of the renderings people made of a potential modern white dial Explorer 1’s.
The 1016 auctioned off a few weeks ago was made in 1962. The design of the railroad minute track is congruent with that found on black dial 1016’s made during the 1960s. What prompted experts to claim the 1016 albino was a production model is the fact that the dial was fully finished and furnished with the “Officially Certified Chronometer” word marks below the pinion, as well as the Rolex branding found on regular production 1016’s dating from the same time period. This makes sense to me. Otherwise, why would Rolex have bothered going to such an extent for a test dial? Regardless of how it came to be, the Explorer 1 ref. 1016 albino looks stunning.
As mentioned above, Rolex made about 20 white/albino dials across its major collections in the 1950s and 1960s. White dial vintage Rolexes are rare, and this 1016 is even rarer as it is only the second time that one was auctioned off, meaning it is perhaps the second one of two to have ever been made. I wonder what else we will see pop at future auctions of ultra rare vintage timepieces.Featured image: www.hodinkee.com