So, the watch in question is from 2016, so why dig in now? The steel Rolex market has never been hotter and I thought it might be interesting to look at a watch that is both actively at the creamy center of the Rolex design language and also one of the least expensive new Rolex sports models on the market. My daily watch is a last-generation Explorer II 16570, and with that perspective I wanted to see where it all began and where we find the Explorer today, in a world crazy for steel Rolex.
To understand the modern 214270 Explorer, we need to look to the past, to see where it came from. In this case, they don't call it the Explorer for nothing and the model can trace its roots back to the earliest days of post-war adventure and the birth of the modern sport watch.
Born of a time where a watch needed little more than three hands, today's Explorer can trace its roots back to 1953 with a ground-breaking expedition to the world's highest peak. These earliest Explorer models were provided by Rolex for testing on the expedition that saw Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquer Mt. Everest on May 29, 1953. The "Explorer" branding was registered in Geneva earlier that same year and the watches were prototyped specifically for this Summit bid.
The specific and special watch in question was an early 50's reference 6098. Worn by Norgay, as Hillary was famously said to have worn a Smith's watch to the summit (both Rolex and Smiths were sponsors of the climb), this insanely important watch can be seen today at the Beyer Museum in Zurich, Switzerland (and in our Talking Watches with Mr. Réne Beyer himself).
The Explorer 6089 worn by Tenzing Norgay on his successful summiting of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953.
With a banner role in one of the most notable post-war exploration achievements, Rolex had the positioning they needed to establish their dressy but tough-as-nails Explorer as the quintessential sport watch of its era.
While the Explorer has been in production since 1953, it took a few years for Rolex to land on the core design that we know today. The earliest models were based on Rolex Bubblebacks and there were several early Oyster models that said "Explorer" on the dial (though, you'll notice, the 6098 taken to the peak of Everest did not). While the genesis of the model is undoubtedly that original 6098, it would be a few more years and a few more references (including the 6150, the 6350, and a few oddballs like the Air-King Explorer 5500) before Rolex released the 6610 and established the format of the Explorer that we recognize today.
In what started as a real-world prototype of the eventual Explorer, the 36mm 6150 barely pre-dates the 6350 (both use the same A296 movement, which was also in Norgay's 6098 on Everest) and would later replace it entirely as the Explorer matured towards the 6610. Produced until 1959, the 6150 originally said "Precision" on the dial and not "Explorer." Being an early steel Rolex sport watch, and one of the references at the onset of the Explorer's lineage, these are exceedingly collectible. In the world of watches as tools for modern adventure, the 6150 is entirely OG.
This was the first reference to have "Explorer" on the dial and it was made specifically for adventurous applications (like Himalayan mountain climbing) following Hillary and Norgay's success on Everest. Indeed, the 6350 could be ordered with special oil to keep the movement running in a wide temperature range of -20C to 40C (-4f to 104f). All 6350's are very collectible, but the so-called 6350 "Honeycomb" has a guilloché dial (similar to those found on early Milgauss models) that really sets it apart from other examples and makes it a highly desirable model from the early days of the Explorer. The 6350 was not produced for long, with some estimates putting it out of production by 1954 as Rolex moved forward with the concurrently-produced reference 6150 as the future of the Explorer.
This is the reference that would establish the general and enduring aesthetic of the Explorer, with a black dial, gilt markings, a 36mm case, and 50 meters water resistance. Largely similar to the 6150 that it replaced, the 6610 was a bit thinner thanks to the use of a new movement, the Rolex caliber 1030. If you want to see a truly wild 6610, take a look at this white dial version we highlighted at auction from Christie's back in 2013. Beyond rare and originally carrying an estimate of $10,000 to $16,000, this white-dial 6610 would later claim an impressive CHF 171,750 at auction.
This is the quintessential Explorer reference. At 36mm wide in stainless steel with a stretch bracelet and 100m water resistance, the 1016 was launched in 1961 and would remain in production until 1989. In 1975, Rolex updated the 1016 with a solid link bracelet (though not with solid end links) and added hacking via the new caliber 1570 movement (vs. the previous cal 1560). This is where Rolex really hit its stride with the Explorer, and indeed, many of their steel sport watches.
The 1016 also gave us some seriously collectible Explorers, including the exceedingly rare "Space-Dweller." Said to have been created for the Japanese market, little is known about this incredibly rare Explorer variant that quite literally says "Space-Dweller" on the dial and may well be one of the rarest Rolex watches ever made. Generally dated to 1965 or 1966, Ben highlighted the Space Dweller in his collecting feature for HODINKEE Magazine, Volume 3, saying, "This watch is so remarkably simple, but equally special and rare – estimates range from as few as five correct examples to at most 30 – with a small percentage seen publicly. It is the ultimate sleeper, and to me, one of the very coolest Rolex watches ever made."
Also well-loved in the collector community for the Explorer are white dial or "Albino" 1016s. Early pre-Explorers like Norgay's 6098 had white dials, and while it was never something that seemed to be produced in any considerable quantity, there are some white dial examples of the 6610 (see linked example above) and the 1016 on the market.
With such a long production run, there are many collectible 1016 Explorers that have either aged into a special look (such as tropical dial examples) or earlier examples with gilt dials, or rarer stock like those with a gilt dial and a line under the text above six o'clock (aka "gilt underline" 1016s).
This is the first truly modern reference for the Explorer and, while the format was similar, it was a considerable departure from the case shape and dial execution of the 1016. Holding steady at 36mm but employing a sapphire crystal for the first time, the 14270 also had applied white gold markers with tritium lume (the 1016 used painted markers on a matte dial) and the movement was updated to a then-modern Rolex caliber 3000.
Those looking for a collectible 14270 should be aware of the "Blackout" variant. Dubbed as such for its black enamel–filled 3, 6, and 9 markers, the 14270 Blackout dates to the start of the production cycle, with known examples dated to 1990 and 1991. Subtle changes are always the name of the game in Rolex collecting and these dark numeral Explorers are easily the most collectible derivation of the 14270 reference.
Identical to the 14270 save for an update to the Rolex caliber 3130, if you consider that Rolex didn't change the reference when they updated the movement in the 1016, the Explorer basically only had two cut-and-dry versions from 1961 to 2010 – which is wild. Looking into the future, Rolex opted to hang onto the six-digit reference (214270) despite the updates described below. Rolex, you work in mysterious ways.
The Explorer reference 214270, with its non-lumed 3, 6, and 9 and shorter handset. (Image: Bobswatches.com)
This is the first phase of the Explorer as it exists today in the modern Rolex line up. Launched in 2010, the 214270 upped the size from 36mm to 39mm, added solid end links to the Oyster bracelet, and updated the movement to the modern caliber 3132. This reference is easily demarcated from its predecessor thanks to the use of a shorter handset (the minute hand does not make it to the minute track) and metallic, non-luminous markers for 3, 6, and 9. Some like to say the handset was carried over from the 36mm case size and there are definitely those that feel the visually lighter hands were more elegant and a better fit for the semi-dressy Explorer. Either way, with production spanning only five or so years, this is a notable reference and may prove to be collectable some time in the future.
As reviewed here (please keep reading), the current-spec 214270 was updated at Baselworld in 2016 with a larger and more proportionally appropriate handset and luminous infill for the 3, 6, and 9 markers. This return to lumed markers is the first time since 1989 (when the 1016 was phased out) that the Explorer offered luminous execution for all of its hour markers.
So those are the roots, but what do we get today (and why)? Updated in 2016, the modern 214270 Explorer is 39mm with an Oystersteel case and a black dial, the recognizable 3, 6, 9 markers (now with lume in them) and a refreshed handset that is both longer and a bit thicker. All of the lume is Rolex's proprietary Chromalight and it glows blue when things get dark. The result of these updates make the so-called "MKII" 214270 Explorer (dubbed so due to the fact that Rolex updated the reference without changing its number) feel more balanced, a bit sportier, and overall more comfortable in its 39mm sizing.
Originally upsized to 39mm (from the 36mm 114270) in 2010, I'm a bit mixed on whether or not the Explorer really needed the extra size. On one hand, 39mm is a truly excellent (and still reserved) size for a sport watch. On the other hand, if you've tried on a 36mm Explorer, such as the older 1016 or the more modern 14270, you know just how sweet that size really is. The 36mm feels like wearing an old watch, even if you're picking up a 114270 fresh from the box, that format speaks directly to its lineage and I feel like the impression is good at 39mm, but more powerful at 36mm.
Even at its somewhat larger (but still not all that large) sizing, the Explorer is arguably Rolex's last classic steel sport watch under 40mm. And despite it being one of the less expensive and certainly one of the most minimal offerings in the brand's portfolio, the Explorer still has 100m water resistance with a Twinlock crown, excellent lume, and a case that looks especially svelte when viewed next to the much more burly cases of the modern Submariner, GMT-Master II, or its direct sibling, the 42mm 216570 Explorer II.
To my eyes, this 39mm Explorer and the current Daytona have the two best cases of any modern Rolex, with neither having been updated to the so-called "maxi" case shape common to other Rolex sport watches. Within that opinion, the Explorer's continued use of this thinner lug case helps to speak directly to its "all killer, no filler" vibe.
Regardless of the case size and shape, while the Explorer's dial has evolved, there is still an easy through line from early references like the 6150 to the modern 214270. The deep black dial, the simple and very legible layout, and the recognizable 3, 6, and 9 of the Explorer's dial have persisted for more than 60 years.
While I've used numerous terms like "simple" or "minimal" in describing the Explorer, don’t for a second think that I mean basic or underdeveloped. Being a quintessential Rolex, while the Explorer may have a comparatively simple time-only movement, it's built to last and to do so without skipping a beat regardless of where you take it. More specifically, the 214270 Explorer uses the brand's caliber 3132, an automatically wound movement that ticks at 4Hz, sports a Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex shock absorbers, and a power reserve of 48 hours. Accuracy is also assured, with the 3132 earning a COSC certificate long before it reaches your wrist.
Being a Rolex Superlative Chronometer, COSC is not enough. Once the caliber 3132 is cased in a final Explorer watch, the entire package must be internally certified to run within -2/+2 seconds per day (much more stringent than standard COSC). Along with the improved accuracy, Rolex Superlative Chronometers carry a five-year warranty and have a 10-year service interval. From a movement standpoint, it's exactly what I'd want in an Explorer. It's strong, tough, entirely fuss-free, easy to service, and not complicated in any way that detracts from the ethos of the watch as it exists as a whole.
The bracelet is a classic Rolex Oyster. Basically the gold standard for an everyday bracelet, the Oyster bracelet has a three-link design, solid end-links, and a robust fold-over safety clasp with micro adjustment. I don't love most bracelets, but the Oyster suits the Explorer as well as it does any other Rolex. It's well matched in thickness and weight and the fit and finish are both exacting and tool-ish. While a fella such as myself would quickly opt for a simple leather or a NATO, the Oyster is a fan fave for many good reasons. It just works.
In many ways, that is the ethos of the Explorer. It just works. A rotating bezel? Do you need one? Look elsewhere. What about a date? That's a no, bro. How about you get hours, minutes, and seconds, and just be cool about it? The Explorer, regardless of the reference, is a classic thing forged in a time of classic requirements. Furthermore, the 214270 is a modern case study in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" thinking. Yes, the current gen is larger and more lux than than gems like the 1016, but that is the way of all Rolex watches and it's one of the reasons people adore their vintage watches.
When you think about it, if the design didnt have lasting merit, a watch like the Submariner could easily have replaced the Explorer at some point. More so, I think it’s telling that Rolex elected to create an Explorer II instead of bending the Explorer aesthetic to fit the needs of the modern spelunker (in 1971 – though that's a story for another time). Despite its role as something of a generalist among the other classic, purpose-built Rolex sport watches, the Explorer endures.
On wrist, it feels like nothing more than you need. While I love the 36mm sizing of the previous generations, the 214270 feels nicely balanced at 39mm. It's not delicate, it feels current and thoughtful, and it is a great size on my 7-inch wrist. On the bracelet it wears a bit heavy (I don't commonly wear any of my watches on a bracelet), but the Oyster is a solid option that doesn't overpower the Explorer on wrist.
The dial is a rich black and the updated handset offers a proportionally appropriate fit for the larger case sizing. Legibility is excellent in any lighting, with plenty of lume on hand thanks to the updated lume-filled numerals (see the included video). The Explorer feels elemental, like the sort of watch you wear after you leave field HQ and venture out to where the map gets iffy. Sure, maybe today some GPS-synchronized system is providing the time along with several other points of data, but the Explorer is the consummate backup on your wrist (it's cool, too).
For everyday wear (i.e., when not adventuring), the Explorer feels stylish, laid-back, and without the pretense or fuss of a dive watch or a chronograph. In your day-to-day, you don't have to explain an Explorer. There is a confidence in the design, both in its legacy and in its execution, that is a strong amalgam for the entire Rolex philosophy. It's the golden age of Rolex's sport watch design distilled down to the point of being the foundation for so much of what they are known for, both aesthetically and as a brand. The Explorer doesn't pose, presume, or peacock – it's just a great watch.
While I will always want the second time zone offered by my beloved Explorer II, the OG Explorer is a better and much more focused design. If you like the idea of a toolish Rolex but don't want any added complication, this is likely where you're going to land and the 214270 rocks.
The 214270 Explorer carries a list price of $6550 and competition at this price point is pretty fierce. For simplicity, I've opted to only consider time-only watches with automatic movements, in an overall form factor that is subtle but tough (extra points if it can be made dressy). This isn't exhaustive, but rather a highlight of other watches that I think could appeal to the same buyer at a vaguely similar price point, or even a similar type of enthusiast taste (comparable at a philosophical level, if not directly in price and quality).
While many may call upon the Omega Aqua Terra, the no-date and time only Railmaster (which Stephen reviewed right here) is a more interesting comparison that offers a design that is a better match for the quiet, casual elegance of the Explorer. At 40mm wide and offered on a steel bracelet for $5,000, the Railmaster has a tech-forward co-axial Master Chronometer movement and a similar five-year warranty. While the Railmaster bests the Explorer's price by a good margin, it can't match the legacy of design and heritage offered by the long-standing Rolex. But it does offer an excellent alternative with similar charm.
This is 41mm of gorgeous JLC steel (especially with the blue dial). The Polaris Automatic may not stand as a legacy design totem to the Jaeger brand, but it does hit that difficult blend of sporty and elegant, especially on the bracelet. Coming in a bit over the Explorer at $7,560, the Polaris has a smaller power reserve, but you can see the in-house 898E/1 JLC caliber via an included display case back. It's a different take on a similar formula and done so with a strong design execution from Jaeger-LeCoultre.
It's a bit smaller and uses a much less prestigious movement, but the Black Bay 36 has a charm all its own. Where the Explorer is a cornerstone of Rolex design language rendered with no additional ornamentation, the Black Bay 36 starts as a neo-retro dive watch design and then removes all of the dive bits. Like with the JLC, the blue dial just sings, but in any version the dial and marker proportion is weird and charming and the BB36 wears so well on any wrist. For those lamenting the 39mm case size of this latest Explorer, try on a BB36 and see if you dig the deconstructed Black Bay vibe.
No-date and sporty is not a format commonly found from Grand Seiko, but the 42mm SBGR301 is something of an outlier and an interesting foil to the concept of the Explorer. While certainly a bit larger in width, the SBGR301 is a sporty three-hander that carries long-standing design elements from the history of Grand Seiko. The hand shape and the simple but elegant dial layout are matched by 100m water resistance and an excellent in-house Grand Seiko movement with 72 hours of power reserve. Certainly a lovely design and a strong value to the price of the Rolex, with no lume and more polished elements, this $4,300 GS may be a bit too dressy to line up directly with the Explorer.
While not available with a black dial or a bracelet, the 40mm NOMOS Club Automatic offers a sporty time-only watch with excellent legibility, an in-house movement, and a distinct wrist presence for $2,160, or about a third of what the Rolex costs. While aesthetically very different from the Explorer, the Club is also not an example of NOMOS's core design (for that, consider the Tangente). I really like the Club and the stranger Club Campus, but neither are strong competition against the appeal of the Explorer unless you're looking for a similar ethos with an entirely different take on design.
Bear with me here, as this is less about actual competition and more of a thought exercise. While the sub-$500 Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical is really not that comparable to the Explorer (and it breaks my requirement of these watches having automatic movements), I think that if you dig the Explorer for reasons beyond the crown on its dial, you'll probably also dig this charming hand-winder from Hamilton. No, it's not of comparable quality, it doesn't have nearly as high-end of a movement, it's not automatic, and it doesn't offer a bracelet, but it is is a simplified and elemental expression of its base design. It's 38mm wide, in steel, works on any strap, and costs less than $500. For those who aren't ready to spend at the level of the Explorer (or perhaps have their name on a waiting list to get one), this sweet Hammy is a budget alternative with a look that is all its own.
In so many ways the adage "less is more" has trouble integrating with our modern lives. In an existence characterized by open access, complicated multirole products, and endless options, we fight to tread water in a sea of functionality that belies actual function (have you ever tried to pick a toothpaste?). And while I don't explicitly wish for "simpler times," I think there is something to be said for products that make an effort toward being really good at one thing regardless of the application.
In a world of multi-tools and app stores, consider the elegance of a well-made pocket knife, a simple wallet, a carabiner, a ball cap, or even a humble pencil. While items like these may not seem especially multi-capable, they forego extra functionality for pure versatility. Their thoughtful designs work anywhere and require no specific explanation. While we praise the Submariner and the GMT-Master for their strong functionality, they are little more than specific functions added to the lovely core established by the Rolex Explorer.
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The current 214270 Explorer is the modern evolution of the purest Rolex design to have ever graced the top of our world. Compared to its fore-bearers, it's bigger, stronger, better made, and more luxurious. While Rolex has steadily worked to improve the Explorer from an empirical standpoint, I think they've made concerted efforts to protect its original appeal and the charm of its bloodline. If you're going to bandy about the term "iconic" the Explorer has undoubtedly earned its place on that list and it exemplifies the core of competency, design, and watchmaking that has made Rolex into the brand it is today.
For lives that blur the line between peace and peril, if the goal is a very solid watch with minimal pretense and near endless versatility, the Rolex Explorer remains one of the finest and most straightforward sport watches ever created.
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