The History and Development of Rolex Explorer

Published on Sunday 20th of March 2022
Rolex Watch History

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The History and Development of Rolex Explorer


The Rolex Explorer 214270 has always been a little overlooked in the Rolex Professional Watch range. Unlike its bigger brother the Explorer II 216570, with its large case and a chunky, tool-watch aesthetic, the Explorer 214270 is a much smaller more refined design, a design that has remained relatively unchanged since its inception in 1953.

Rolex have often used feats of remarkable human accomplishment and engineering to show off the capability of its watches, from Mercedes Gleitze swimming the English Channel in 1927 sporting a Rolex Oyster, to the Rolex Deepsea being tested to the extremes by being taken to the deepest depths of the ocean strapped to the Bathyscaphe Trieste. The Rolex Explorer was born from an equally extreme exhibition of human achievement, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay ascended to Mt Everest's peak, Norgay wore a Rolex Oyster Perpetual on his wrist that would eventually be branded, the Explorer.

The first watch to be branded with the Explorer name was the ref 6350 released the same year as the Everest climb in 1953. As this model was only made for a year, it has become a firm favourite with collectors who refer to it as the ‘honeycomb’ after its distinctive dial design. The 6350 Explorer was produced alongside the ref 1650 Explorer that would eventually replace it. These first Rolex Explorer models were heavily based on the Rolex Oyster Perpetual worn by Norgay on Everest, but with a few technical modifications to make them more suited to the extremes they were made to be used in, with a stronger case and a different oil used to lubricate the movement that would allow the watches to work reliably in temperatures as low as -20° C and, up to +40° C.

In 1956, Rolex replaced the ref 1650 with the ref 1656, and in 1963 replaced the ref 1656 with the 1016. The 1016 would be produced consistently for 27 years. During that time many variations were made, with some of the most notable, and now most collectable being the ‘albino dial’ featuring, you guessed it, a white dial, solid link and stretch bracelet variants, and possibly the rarest variant with ‘Space-Dweller’ printed on the dial. The Rolex Space Dweller was an experimental model based on the Rolex Explorer ref 1016, originally inspired by the astronauts of Project Mercury, the United States’ first man-in-space program. It was only available to the Japanese market, and was never put into full production.

Rolex eventually replaced the ref 1016 in 1989, with what is considered the first modern Rolex Explorer model, the 14270. The 14270, like the 1016 it replaced, would go on to have a long production run with different variations of the model being phased in and out during its life.

The first ref 14270 variation is the rarest and most sought after of the four variations, with the now iconic black dial with baton hour markers and polished Arabic numerals at 3,6 and 9. These applied numbers didn't have a white enamel applied like previous models, and so earned the name ‘blackout dial’. It wasn't until around 1991 (although there is some overlap) that Rolex would return to using white paint-filled numbers at 3, 6 and 9, with what is referred to as the ‘T-Swiss’ variation of the ref 14270.

The ‘T-Swiss’ produced around 1991 to 1998 was the longest-running variant in the reference. It was called the ‘T-Swiss’ because of the use of tritium lumen on the hour markers, meaning the dial was marked with ‘T Swiss - T<25’ under the 6 o’clock marker. This is also the variant that saw Rolex go from a case with holes in the lugs for making changing the trap easier, to solid case lugs, a change that happened gradually around 1994/96. Around the same time Rolex also started using the more modern and more secure flip lock clasp on the Explorer ref 14270. There were also a few examples of Tiffany stamped T-Swiss dials, from the days when Tiffany & Co would stamp the dials of watches they sold in their boutiques with their logo.

From around 1998 to 1999 Rolex produced the ‘Swiss Only’ variation of the Explorer ref 14270, the shortest-running variant. Like the ‘T-Swiss’ variant that it followed, it is named after the text under the 6 on the dial. This dial represents the shift from the use of radioactive Tritium lumen to Rolexes own LumiNova, and is thought to have been fitted to most watches it is now found in as a replacement part, most likely fitted at Rolex when the watch has been serviced.

In approximately 1999 Rolex replaced the ‘Swiss Only’ dial with the ‘Swiss Made’, these dials came with another change in lumen material, from LumiNova, to Rolexes latest innovation in lumen technology, Super-LumiNova, that is still used on its dials today.

All four variants of the ref 14270 had a 36mm steel case with oyster bracelet, the different glossy black dials all had applied markers and numerals with white-gold surrounds. A sapphire crystal, and features an upgraded movement over the 1570 used in the ref 1016, the newer Rolex Calibre 3000.

Between the end of production of the ref 14270 in 2001, and the current model ref 214270 launched in 2010, came the ref 114270. This updated ref on the 14270 saw very few changes to design or functionality, retaining the ‘Swiss Made’ at 6 on the dial, and the 36mm case. The only change on the ref 114270 from the ref 14720 before it is the use of solid bracelet end links giving the watch a sturdier feel, and the updated calibre 3130 movement.

Rolex Explorer 36mm and 39mm models

Rolex Explorer 36mm and 39mm models 


The 214270 saw the first increase in size in the modern Rolex Explorer from 36mm to 39mm, as well as a newly designed oyster bracelet and clasp. Like the ref 14720 of old, the current Rolex Explorer ref 214270 also has had different dial variants within the same model, referred to as the mk1 and mk2 dial. In a way that echoes the “Blackout” dial and the other variations of the older 14720, the mk1 dial had non-lumen applied numbers of polished solid white-gold at 3, 6 and 9. The mk1 dial variant also had notoriously short hands, with some saying that Rolex simply used the hands from the 36mm models in the 39mm case. It would be 6 years after the release of the ref 214270, that we would see the mk2 dial in 2016, with Rolex returning to the filled numbers at 3, 6, and 9, but this time being filled with Super-LumiNova, something not seen on an Explorer dial since the lumen filled numbers on the 1016, discontinued in 1989.

The Rolex Explorer 214270 is still often forgotten when people talk about the Rolex Professional Watches range, but as the most common of the steel sports watches become harder to get hold of, the more and more people are showing interest in the Rolex Explorer 124270, and is quickly going from a niche cult following, to becoming a very desirable watch, and a future classic.

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