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08/18/2022
 6 minutes

Chrono24 Buyer’s Guide: Rolex Explorer

By Sebastian Swart
OFP-130-Buyers-Guide-Rolex-Explorer-2-1_EN

An icon in the watch industry with nearly 70 years of history to look back on, the Rolex Explorer is a force to be reckoned with. The history of this model is inextricably linked to one of the most momentous Mount Everest expeditions of the 1950s, which was sponsored by Rolex. On May 29, 1953, New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first individuals to successfully reach the summit of the highest mountain on earth. Hillary is said to have carried a Rolex Oyster Perpetual with him during the trek for testing purposes, and the watch survived unscathed at altitudes of some 29,000 ft. Known as the Pre-Explorer, this model later inspired what many consider to be the first true Rolex Explorer, the ref. 6350, which was introduced later in 1953.  

The ref. 6350 was followed by the slightly modified 6610, which Rolex made from 1955 to 1959. Its successor, the ref. 1016, debuted in 1960 and was in continuous production for the next 29 years – by far the longest production run of any Explorer. While all the aforementioned references can be considered vintage models, the ref. 14270 from 1989 is the first “modern” Explorer. This watch is equipped with all the features you’d expect from a contemporary luxury wristwatch, including a sapphire crystal and a movement that beats at 28,800 vph. All previous variants were powered by calibers that ran at 18,000 or 19,800 vph, respectively. 

The ref. 114270 from 2001 featured an updated movement as well as solid end links, i.e., solid stainless steel lugs. Between 2010 and 2016, the Genevan manufacturer produced the Explorer ref. 214270. While its predecessors all measured in at 36 mm across, this reference was the first watch to be housed in a 39-mm case. Rolex discontinued this reference in 2021, replacing it with two new variants featuring a number of technical updates and a return to the tried-and-tested 36-mm case size. Another new edition to the Explorer lineup in 2021 was a two-tone gold and steel version, the ref. 124273. 

Basic facts: Rolex Explorer ref. 124270
Basic facts: Rolex Explorer ref. 124270

Many watch enthusiasts consider the Explorer to be the perfect luxury sports watch. It is a versatile timepiece that easily suits any occasion. Plus, buying this model is almost always a good investment. So, now let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular Explorer references. 

Vintage Explorers 6350 and 1016 

The Explorer 6350 was produced between 1953 and 1955. Examples of this watch in good condition are extremely rare and highly sought-after. The watch features everything that continues to characterize the model to this day: a 36-mm Oyster case, the typical Oyster bracelet, a black dial with Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, and an upside-down triangle at 12 o’clock. 

Rare and sought-after: the Explorer ref. 6350
Rare and sought-after: the Explorer ref. 6350

There are a few different versions of this reference out there. You can find some watches with narrow baton hands and others with the Mercedes hands that are more familiar to fans today. You’ll also find watches for sale with a textured dial known as a honeycomb dial, as well as those with the smooth lacquered dial we are used to nowadays. The reasoning behind Rolex’s alterations and choices remain a mystery to us, but each and every version is coveted by collectors. This reference is powered by the automatic, chronometer-certified caliber 775, which beats at the leisurely pace of 18,000 vph.  

The Explorer 1016 is much more common. This reference had a production run of nearly 30 years, from 1960 to 1989. One of the more famous wearers of this watch is James Bond author Ian Fleming, who also equipped his title character with a Rolex. If you go purely by the description of Bond’s watch in Fleming’s first novel, the secret agent clearly also dons a 1016; though, the protagonist was later known for wearing a Submariner on the silver screen.  

Early Explorer 1016s are outfitted with the caliber 1560, which also beat at 18,000 vph and was the first to carry the title “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified.” This inscription is featured on the dial of this watch, which in turn has come in numerous permutations over the years. In typical Rolex fashion, the basic design remains consistent – the differences are in the details. One of the more noticeable changes is the size of the crown above the Rolex font. Moreover, some dials feature a “chapter ring” which surrounds the minute track. Until around 1967, Rolex used so-called gilt dials. All the lettering and minute markers are etched into these dials, giving them a golden hue. Rolex also alternatively used high-gloss and matte lacquers for various dial versions. 

Ian Fleming's watch and Bond's first wrist companion: the Rolex Explorer ref. 1016
Ian Fleming’s watch and Bond’s first wrist companion: the Rolex Explorer ref. 1016

From the mid-1960s, the Explorer featured the caliber 1570, which provided a slightly improved balance frequency of 19,800 vph. Rolex added a stop-seconds mechanism in the 1970s. The movement was then left untouched until production of the ref. 1016 ceased in 1989.  

The average price for a pre-owned Explorer 6350 on Chrono24 is $46,500. In contrast, you can find the 1016 for “just” $21,000. If you are interested in buying either of these models, it’s advisable to speak to an expert in advance. By now, most of the remaining watches will have had a number of owners and seen countless watchmakers. Authenticity is key here, and it must be verified thoroughly to ensure you are making a sound investment.  

The Explorer Refs. 14270, 114270, and 214270 

Rolex made some fundamental changes to the Explorer in 1989. These modifications carried the model into the modern era. For starters, the manufacturer outfitted the Explorer 14270 with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal instead of the plexiglass that had been used in previous versions. The same watch also featured 18-karat white gold applied indices rather than printed ones. Starting in the late 1990s, these were also filled with Super-LumiNova instead of tritium. Watches dating up to 1991 have been given the moniker “blackout” because Rolex used black lacquer over the luminous material on the Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Since around 1994, the 14270 became the first Explorer with solid lugs, as opposed to the drilled ones on older watches. 

Transition from vintage to modern: the Rolex Explorer ref. 14270 with a blackout dial
Transition from vintage to modern: the Rolex Explorer ref. 14270 with a blackout dial

Even more important changes occurred inside the watch. Rolex replaced the caliber 1570 with the 3000 – a contemporary movement that beats at 28,800 vph. 

Rolex discontinued the Explorer 14270 in 2001 and replaced it with the ref. 114270, which then remained in the lineup until around 2010. This watch is visually identical to its predecessor, but features the updated caliber 3130. The 114270 was also the first to feature Rolex’s patented flip-lock clasp.  

Rolex took a big step in 2010 with the introduction of the 39-mm Explorer ref. 214270. Bar its size, everything stayed pretty much the same in terms of design, but Rolex did give the watch another updated movement. The caliber 3132 features the Paraflex shock protection system and a blue Parachrom hairspring. As a result, the movement is more impervious to shocks, temperature fluctuations, and magnetic fields. Another innovation appeared on the 214270’s dial: Rolex opted to use the blue-tinted luminous material Chromalight instead of Super-LumiNova. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the hands are slightly longer than on previous versions. Rolex ceased production of this reference in 2021. 

The first and last (?) 39-mm Rolex Explorer: the reference 214270
The first and last (?) 39-mm Rolex Explorer: the reference 214270

While prices for some luxury watches have been falling since mid-2022, all three of the aforementioned references have been performing rather well. In the summer of 2022, you could still purchase a ref. 14270 in mint condition with its original box and papers for just over $11,000. Blackout examples, on the other hand, can cost almost double that amount. Prices for the successor reference, the 114270, fall around a similar level. Be prepared to spend closer to $11,500 on the 39-mm 214270. 

Since 2021: The Explorer 124270 and 124273

Back to the roots with the 36-mm ref. 124270
Back to the roots with the 36-mm ref. 124270

In 2021, Rolex made a slight U-turn with the size of the Explorer. The current ref. 124270 marks a return to the model’s former, more moderate 36-mm diameter. Otherwise, the watch features a lacquered dial and looks almost indistinguishable from the 114270, which is very much in keeping with Rolex’s policy of careful model curation.  

That being said, the movement does have a few upgrades up its sleeve. The watch is now powered by the new caliber 3230, which provides a 70-hour power reserve and Chronergy escapement. The Genevan manufacturer also caused quite a stir with the unveiling of the Explorer 124273, the first-ever two-tone Explorer. Despite its revolutionary looks, this steel and gold watch is technically identical to the solid steel version. 

Current performance of the Rolex Explorer 124270 from the Chrono24 Watch Collection
Current performance of the Rolex Explorer 124270 from the Chrono24 Watch Collection

The current references are rarely available through authorized dealers, and long wait lists are the norm. Prices on Chrono24 reflect this scarcity. Expect to see prices around $9,700 for a new 124270 complete with box and papers; quite a jump from the official list price of $7,200. The two-tone ref. 124273 will set you back just over $13,000 (MSRP $11,150). 

The Rolex Explorer ref. 124273: the first two-tone Explorer
The Rolex Explorer ref. 124273: the first two-tone Explorer

About the Author

Sebastian Swart

I've been using Chrono24 for years to buy and sell watches, as well as for research purposes. I've had an infatuation with watches for as long as I can remember. As a …

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