The Rolex Explorer I – A Vintage Rolex Alternative

The Rolex Explorer I – A Vintage Rolex Alternative

by Tom Mulraney

When it comes to vintage watches Rolex is generally the brand of choice for most enthusiasts, especially those just starting out in the collecting game. And why not, there is a readily available supply of good quality examples all around the world plus a wealth of information no more than a click away, making buying your first vintage Rolex not only relatively risk-free (if you do your homework properly of course) but also quite affordable.

The flipside to this of course is that you may not be the only one amongst your friends to own a particular vintage Rolex model, and worse still you may not be the first. This risk increases exponentially if you limit yourself to the handful of classic tool watches that everybody seems to know – even the ones that aren’t even into watches – namely the Submariner, the Sea-Dweller and the GMT-Master.

Now don’t get me wrong, a nice example from any one of those three collections is something to be cherished and worn with pride however today I’d like to introduce a fourth, and sometime overlooked option for your consideration; the Rolex Explorer I.

The Rolex Explorer

Like its slightly larger brethren the Rolex Explorer was part of the highly popular series of professional (aka tool) watches that the brand began introducing back in the early 1950’s. According to Rolex these watches were intended for professional activities, such as deep-sea diving, aviation, mountain climbing and scientific exploration. The watches generated lasting enthusiasm and became known as the watches of achievers.

As you might have guessed the Rolex Explorer was created for the mountain climbing category. In fact, one mountain in particular – a rather significant one was it were – is said to be the inspiration behind the original Explorer. You see, back in 1953 during Sir John Hunt’s expedition, in which Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest, both climbers were equipped with Rolex Oyster Perpetuals. Inspired by the knowledge gained from this fascinating chapter of human adventure, the Oyster Perpetual Explorer was launched in the same year to celebrate the victorious ascent of Everest.

Rolex ad for Explorer Ref. 114270

Rolex ad for Explorer Ref. 114270

An instant hit with adventurous types, the Rolex Explorer I became a staple in the Rolex catalogue, enjoying a long production run spanning multiple decades. Still, despite its status as a professional watch the humble Explorer has struggled over the years to gain the same level of notoriety as some of the other, better known tool watches (missing out on Bond movies will do that for you I guess.) Now admittedly at 36mm it doesn’t command the same type of presence on the wrist however that’s one of the things that makes it such an attractive option as an everyday watch. It’s a subtle classic that you can wear anywhere with just about anything without attracting too much unwanted attention.

Best of all though, thanks to the long production run there are multiple different variations to choose from. The Rolex Explorer 1016 was the most common series made and was in production for over 25 years, which is why today we can show you two different versions from two different eras. The first an absolute classic from 1965, the second a pristine R-series from 1987, possibly one of the last pieces ever made of this now iconic series.

Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 (1965) and R-series (1987)

Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 (1965) and R-series (1987)

Rolex Explorer 1016 Gilt Dial Circa 1965

Before I go into the details of this particular watch I should probably start by saying this is one of the most gorgeous Rolex Explorer I’s I have ever seen. Honestly the photos do not do it justice. The highlight for me is undoubtedly the gilt dial, which is in excellent condition and looks absolutely stunning in the light. For those of you who are not familiar with the term ‘gilt dial’, this generally means that all the markings on the dial are coated in gold, although sometimes a single line may be left in white. As the dial fades over time it takes on its own unique character meaning that even if you’re best friend has a similar looking Explorer I there will still be subtle differences in the dial.

Rolex Explorer 1016 Gilt Dial Circa 1965 - Wristshot

Rolex Explorer 1016 Gilt Dial Circa 1965 – Wristshot

What makes the dial of this particular watch so attractive though is the fact that it has not been ‘burned-out’ by the radioactive radium used at the time to provide luminosity. As you can see in the photos it still looks almost as fresh as the day it was made. On the wrist it is equally attractive, the smaller size ensuring it wears comfortably making it a great choice as an everyday watch, although that golden dial is sure to attract some attention.

Rolex Explorer 1016 R Series Matte Dial Circa 1987

At the other end of the scale we find this stylish Rolex Explorer 1016 from 1987, with a more subdued matte dial and original steel bracelet. This particular model is an R Series, the last series of 1016’s ever produced and as you can see not much has changed in the 22 years or so that separate the two models.

Rolex Explorer 1016 R Series Matte Dial Circa 1987 - Wristshot

Rolex Explorer 1016 R Series Matte Dial Circa 1987 – Wristshot

The dial is easily readable, with large luminous triangle at 12, pronounced Arabic numerals at 3, 6 and 9 and Mercedes style hands, like the Submariner. The R-Series is more subtle on the wrist though thanks to its matte dial and is the type of watch you choose if you really want to fly under the radar without compromising on quality.

Whatever your preference both watches prove beyond a doubt that the Explorer I is a viable choice for those looking for something a little less mainstream when it comes to vintage watches, whilst still offering the brand recognition and quality assurance of a brand you know and trust. Of course finding ‘the one’ for you may prove a bit more challenging. Happy hunting!

    Author Bio

    Articles by Tom Mulraney


    Tom Mulraney is the CEO and Editor of The Watch Lounge, an online magazine dedicated to luxury watch lovers that he founded in 2009. Although passionate about all things horological, he is particularly fascinated by independent watchmakers, often travelling the globe for a chance to spend some “hands-on” time with their breathtaking creations.