If you’re going to christen a watch with such a name as ‘Explorer’, then the timepiece really does need to put its money where its mouth is and prove that it has what it takes to live up to its moniker. And that is exactly what Rolex did with their adventurers’ sports watch when they were testing the prototypes in the early 1950s – they sent those watches into the unknown!

The Explorer saga began in 1952, at a time when the world’s leading explorers were on the cusp of reaching the highest point on the planet – the peak of Mount Everest. Many attempts had been made and many lives lost, but the British mountaineers of the early 1950s were ultimately the men that would conquer the mighty mountain.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay ascending Mt. Everest as part of Sir John Hunt’s team
New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali Sherpa climber, where the first successful pair from John Hunt's British expedition, and the first in the world to have reached the summit of Mt. Everest at 11:30 local time on 29 May 1953 via the South Col route
Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans were the first pair from Sir John Hunt’s team to make the attempt for the summit; they were unable due to exhaustion, problems with their closed-circuit oxygen sets and time running out.

Rolex were adamant that they wanted their watches on the summit and so in 1952 they equipped the British climbers with large size Oyster watches. These watches were what collectors now refer to as Pre-Explorers (references 6092 and 6298) that were essentially prototypes of what would ultimately become the Explorer.

Rolex Explorers ref. 6098 and ref. 5028 “Ovettone” (Image © Philipp Stahl, Rolex Passion Report)
Caseback engraving of the 6098 belonging to Dr. Robert Charles Evans (Image © Philipp Stahl, Rolex Passion Report)
Rolex Explorer ref. 6298 with black dials
Rolex Explorer ref. 6298 with matte-silver dials
Rolex Explorer ref. 6098 belonging to Alfred Gregory

In 1953, Rolex officially rolled out the black 3-6-9 dial Explorer with references 6150 and 6350. These references utilized the A296 ‘big bubbleback’ movement, as used in the Pre-Explorers, and the three-piece large size Oyster cases.

Rolex Explorer ref. 6150 featuring a Mercedes hour hand
Rolex Explorer ref. 6350 with “pencil” hands

This iteration was the true origin of what we see today on the Explorer – the inverted triangle at the top of the dial and painted 3-6-9 numerals. The mercedes hands were fitted to the majority of reference 6150 and 6350, although there were some early reference 6150s that were fitted with ‘pencil’ hands, like those seen on the early 6204/5 Submariner.

The 6350 was actually the first reference to wear the text – EXPLORER! To many collectors this watch is the first Explorer proper. Collectors particularly look for the very rare version with a honeycomb dial; it is truly stunning!

A rare ref. 6350 with honeycomb gilt dial customised for Serpico Y Laino, a Rolex retailer in Caracas, Venezuela

In 1963 Rolex unveiled what would become one of the longest running sports watch references, the Explorer reference 1016. Production continued until the end 1980s when Rolex introduced the next generation of Explorer, the reference 14270.

An early 1970s matte so-called 'Frog Foot' Rolex Explorer ref.1016 (©Revolution)

This was a new era for Rolex sports watches, but as is the Rolex way, the core DNA was still very much intact. The acrylic crystal was replaced with a scratch-resistant sapphire glass, which gave the watch a more ‘modern’ aesthetic. The dial, whilst maintaining the iconic 3-6-9 layout replaced the painted numerals with white gold numbers that were filled with luminous material; initially tritium and then in the late 1990s Rolex moved to using luminova.

Rolex Explorer ref. 1016 Tritium dial
The Rolex Explorer ref. 1016 with hacking feature
The Rolex Explorer ref. 1016 with gilt dial

The watch was powered by the newly introduced caliber 3000. The 14270 ran for almost a decade until it was superseded by the reference 114270 in 2000; a watch with a second generation 3000 series movement, the 3130.

The Rolex Explorer ref. 14270 was in production for almost a decade
The Rolex Explorer ref. 114270 launched circa 2000 succeeded the ref. 14270