OK, so this might seem an obvious candidate, given that Rolex’s simplest timepiece has been undergoing a resurgence in popularity during the past few years. The Explorer is – like its undeservedly less-appreciated twin, the Air-King – a time-only three-hander, and short of removing the seconds sweep-hand indices and numerals, it couldn’t possibly be more basic. This is as minimalist as one gets. If you prefer even less, you are advised to buy a Movado Museum Watch…

Last August, Revolution.Watch covered the values of key models in the vintage Explorer line-up, but the 5500/5504 was not chosen. It has, however, been a screaming success of late in vintage circles because novice enthusiasts, too easily dazzled by stuff like Daytonas, have been realising that the Explorer – a.k.a. the Explorer I, to distinguish it from the completely different Explorer II – defines the concept of perfect tool watch in precisely the same manner that a Patek Philippe Calatrava is the essence of the perfect dress watch.

Rolex Explorer Ref 5504
Rolex Explorer Ref 5504

While most people lust after Ref. 1016s or other Explorers, the “55s” offer another type of appeal. Oddly, it’s their size. These are the tiniest of Explorer Is, based on then-current Air-Kings and measuring 34mm in diameter for the 5500, and 36mm for the 5504. Far be it for me to proclaim the recent downsizing trend to have extended this far – most of the major brands are merely dropping the current “normal” girth of 40mm to 38mm or 39mm – but there is a certain charm to less-obvious timepieces.

“Size matters” despite arguments to the contrary: I must point out that women watch enthusiasts seem to flock to me whenever I wear my 5500, begging me to sell it. They always cite the size as the reason for the appeal. Not, alas, the wearer.

Rolex Explorer Ref 5505 (Image: Ken Kessler)
Rolex Explorer Ref 5505 (Image: Ken Kessler)

Briefly, if there’s such a thing when weaving through the vagaries of Rolex lore, the Explorer series justifies its own book, so many are the references and variants, the aforementioned 1016 being one of the most coveted, along with the 6610. The original Explorer of circa-1953 (even that isn’t carved in rock, as prototypes from 1952 have been noted) owes its name to the 1953 Everest expedition, the first prototype based on the Ref. 6098 Oyster Perpetual issued for that venture. It is, in effect, an Air-King with a distinctive 3/6/9 dial and a triangle at the 12 o’clock position. That’s it.

Despite its macho name, the Explorer is simply an expression of the basic Oyster Perpetual. It doesn’t boast construction like Deep Sea or Sea-Dweller beasties, nor does it feature a bezel-on-steroids. It simply promises the wearer absolutely faultless legibility, abetted by all of the security imparted by the standard Oyster case.

It remains a styling masterpiece of function-defining form, like a Zippo cigarette lighter or a BiC pen. Because of this, its renewed appeal might just be a backlash against the cluttered illegibility that dominates modern horology. It is to watches what the L.L. Bean boot, the Jeep, and the Ray-Ban Wayfarer are to outdoor footwear, 4x4s, and sunglasses.

What the 5500 and slightly larger 5504 provide is a sense of downsizing and denial of ego – these are for watch lovers who eschew bling. Explorer “55s” were not certified chronometers and thus bore only the legends “Precision” or “Super Precision” on their dials, though inside were 1520 or 1530 calibres just like the concurrent Explorers with chronometer certification.

Rolex Explorer Ref 5504
Rolex Explorer Ref 5504

My first “55” was a 5504 dated by Rolex as 1957, which I had to sell due to my own fiscal stupidity. However, the Watch Gods deemed that I must own an Explorer, so a week after I let it go, I found a gilt-dial 5500, from around 1964. Prices, as with anything Rolex, are all over the place, but these typically cost half what you would pay for a 1016 or 6610, and they are plentiful. And if your ego questions your choice of a teeny-weeny “55”, just consider it a Porsche 912 to a flash 911 of the same vintage.

Rolex Explorer Ref 5504
Rolex Explorer Ref 5504