Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Rolex Explorer.
The Explorer is a Rolex sport watch in its purest form. It's unflashy but recognizable, and it presents the features, design language and history that underpins multiple icons of the brand. Most of all, however, it's known as the watch that accompanied the first humans confirmed to summit Mount Everest. (Sort of.)
The story of Everest and the Explorer is important and exciting, but it requires some unpacking and qualification right up front: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of the world's tallest mountain in 1953, and Rolex had sponsored the expedition and provided a watch. Just like when Rolex placed its waterproof Oyster watch on the wrist of Mercedes Gleitze for her 1923 swim across the English Channel, it was a brilliant marketing and publicity coup.
The Explorer's role in the 1953 expedition has been so mythologized, however, it's also been closely scrutinized, as nerdy watch collectors are want to do. Some have questioned what watch Hillary was actually wearing the moment he stepped foot on the peak, as he also had his own Smiths De Luxe watch with him — but there's no way to confirm one way or the other. Both watches made the trip and both companies prominently advertised it. (Interestingly, it would seem that Norgay chose to take his own gold Rolex Datejust on the British 1953 expedition — one that he received as a gift from the company following an expedition in 1952). Which watches were actually on the climbers' wrists at the summit is still cause for fierce debate.
It's also noteworthy that the watch Rolex provided was an Oyster Perpetual made in 1950 before there was such thing as an Explorer collection. Just as Hillary would later be knighted and have Sir tacked onto his name for the achievement, the Oyster Perpetual would only later be branded with "Explorer" on its dial. The Oyster Perpetual that went to Everest had a white dial, dagger indices, leaf hands, and lacked most of the design cues associated with the Explorer today.
The "Explorer" designation, along with many of its now familiar traits, would be introduced the very same year as the Everest expedition. The 1953 reference 6350 had the proven-rugged Oyster case, automatic winding, the 3-6-9 Arabic numerals, triangular 12 o'clock marker and Rolex's iconic Mercedes handset — all features that existed on previous Rolex watches, but which coalesced to celebrate the occasion. It also had a delectably cool dial texture which collectors have come to refer to as "honeycomb" due to its pattern.
So, if you buy a 2020 Rolex Explorer today, will it look at all like what was on Edmund Hillary's wrist in 1953? Nope. But all the little details of the Explorer's story serve to fill out its character and only make it more interesting. Between 1953 and the present, the Explorer has evolved but largely stayed true to the first model.
The biggest change came in 1971 when the collection was expanded to include the Explorer II, a watch with very different looks and functions but connected to the original in its stated purpose. The Explorer II has a larger case with crown guards, a fixed steel bezel with 24-hour markings and a GMT complication expressed as a big, bright orange arrow on the dial. With its own tales of adventure, it's sporty and cool, and one of the most popular Rolex models today. (Why the fixed, 24-hour bezel and GMT function? It was made for spelunkers, so that they could tell whether it was AM or PM in the darkness of a cave.)
The poor Explorer, with its smaller case, plain black dial and simple functionality lacking even a date display, is largely overshadowed by the Explorer II and other more exciting Rolex sport watches. In 2010, the 36mm case established in 1953 was updated to a more modern 39mm, and then it returned to 36mm again int 2021. Because it's simple and less hyped than its siblings, it happens to be one of the most accessible Rolex watches available today ($7,200) and makes for an excellent everyday watch.
To help the Explorer stand out more in the catalog, we dream of Rolex bringing back the "honeycomb" dial texture with a modern execution. It would excite brand fans and capitalize on all the current vintage watch enthusiasm, but realistically isn't too likely for the conservative brand. Even in its current form, though, it's a pretty solid option.