This is probably the most underrated Rolex watch ever

Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a bi-monthly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting stories and unexpected influence. This week: the Rolex Explorer.

The Explorer is a Rolex sports watch in its purest form. It’s simple yet recognizable, and it features the features, design language, and story behind several of the brand’s icons. But above all, it is known as the watch that accompanied the first confirmed humans to the top of Mount Everest. (Kind of.)

Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay on Mount Everest in 1953.


The story of Everest and the explorer is important and exciting, but it requires unboxing and qualification from the start: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of the world’s tallest mountain in 1953, and Rolex sponsored the expedition and provided a watch. Much like when Rolex placed its waterproof Oyster watch on Mercedes Gleitze’s wrist for its Channel crossing in 1923, it was a brilliant marketing and publicity stunt.

The Explorer’s role in the 1953 expedition was so mythologized, however, it also came under close scrutiny, as nerdy watch collectors want it to be. Some have wondered which watch Hillary was actually wearing when he stepped onto the summit, as he also had his own Smiths De Luxe watch with him – but there’s no way to confirm in any way. ‘another one. Both watches made the trip and both companies made prominent publicity. (Interestingly, it looks like Norgay opted to take his own gold Rolex Datejust on the 1953 British Expedition – one he received as a gift from the company following a 1952 expedition). What watches were actually on the wrists of summit climbers is still the cause of heated debate.

rolex perpetual oyster
The real Oyster Perpetual watch that Rolex lent to the Everest expedition.

Beyer Museum of Clock and Watchmaking, Zurich

It should also be noted that the watch supplied by Rolex was an Oyster Perpetual made in 1950 before there was an Explorer collection. Just as Hillary would later be knighted and have Sir added to her name for the feat, the Oyster Perpetual would later be marked with “Explorer” on its dial. The Oyster Perpetual that went to Everest had a white dial, dagger indexes, leaf hands, and lacked most of the design cues associated with the Explorer today.

The “Explorer” designation, along with many of its now familiar features, would be introduced in the same year as the Everest expedition. Reference 1953 6350 had the rugged Oyster case, automatic winding, Arabic numerals 3-6-9, a triangular 12-hour marker, and Rolex’s iconic Mercedes handset – all features that existed on previous Rolex watches, but which have merged to celebrate the occasion. It also had a delightfully cool dial texture that collectors call “honeycomb” because of its pattern.

vintage rolex advertising


vintage rolex advertising


So if you buy a 2020 Rolex Explorer today, will it look at all like what was on Edmund Hillary’s wrist in 1953? No. But all the little details of the Explorer’s story serve to complement his character and only make him more interesting. Between 1953 and today, the Explorer has evolved but remains largely faithful to the first model.

rolex explorer vintage
A classic reference. 1016 Explorer sold by Analog / Shift.

Analogue / Shift

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 indications and a GMT complication expressed by a large bright orange arrow on the dial. With his own adventure stories, he’s sporty and cool, and one of the most popular Rolex models today. (Why the fixed 24-hour bezel and GMT feature? It was designed for cavers, so they can tell if it was AM or PM in the dark of a cave.)

rolex explorer modern
The modern explorer, a direct descendant of the famous Oyster Perpetual who (supposedly) peaked Mount Everest.


The poor Explorer, with its smaller case, solid black dial, and simple features lacking even a date display, is largely eclipsed by the Explorer II and others. exciting Rolex sports watches. In 2010, the 36mm case created in 1953 was replaced by a more modern 39mm, but because of its somewhat overlooked, it is one of the more accessible Rolex watches available today (5,900 $) and makes a great everyday watch.

To help the Explorer stand out in the catalog, Rolex might consider bringing back the texture of the “honeycomb” dial with modern execution. This would excite fans of the brand and capitalize on all the current craze for vintage watches. Add an updated movement like other watches have recently received (caliber 3230), and so: another Rolex success – no need for a 41mm case, thanks.


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Floyd N. Morlan