Rolex Explorer: A History
Rolex’s continual efforts to improve its waterproof cases and shock-proofing systems ended with the creation of the Explorer model. By the 1950s Rolex’s rounded-back watches were seen as very reliable for their reputation of being tough and hard-wearing. Consequently, Rolex decided to carry these sturdy characteristics to the Explorer model for active and adventurous customers.
From late 1952, prototypes of the first Explorers were given to mountaineering expeditions for field trials. At this early stage, the Explorer name was not displayed on the dial, and the watches were simply bubble-backs with white dials. The 3, 6, and 9 dial markers were marked with steel or brass arrowhead symbols. The dial hands were also leaf-shaped in a choice of steel or brass.
To test the sturdiness of this new prototype, several members of Sir John Hunt’s May 1953 Everest expedition were issued with these watches. However, during the climb, it was later revealed that the climber who ascended mount Everest first actually wore a gold bubble-back given to him by the Swiss climber Raymond Lambert. Fortunately for Rolex’s publicity and marketing departments, climbers Hillary and Norgay both refused to reveal which of them had actually set foot on summit first. Both Smiths and Rolex reported the role of their watches in this great achievement, but the Rolex Explorer was forever linked with this conquest, especially because the climber who reached the summit first had previously worn many Rolex watches (in actuality, however, a Rolex was actually the second watch on top of the world).
The first two Explorer models (6098 and 6150) were launched in the early 1950s. By mid-1953 the 6098 had become the 6298 model, and by late 1953 the 6150 had become the 6350 model. There was a transition period during which, these earlier model numbers (located on the inside of the watch case), were struck through, and below the new numbers were engraved. The A296 movement was installed in all these models. The 6298, 6150, and the 6350 had a recognizable Explorer-type “Quarter Arabic” dial with the 3, 6, and 9 marked with luminous numerals on a black ground. To promote this new model, ads described the new watch as a “reinforced Oyster”, and emphasized its tough construction, as well as reliability. In an attempt to soften the Explorer’s austere look and ensure a percentage of sales from the less adventurous customer, the Explorer’s dial became available with a textured finish.
The first four Explorer models were followed by the 6610 model, which was fitted with the 1030 movement and Mercedes hands (initially the model had hands similar to those of the Submariner model). This was also the last Explorer to be fitted with a honeycomb dial. Shortly after this model came the 5504, fitted with a 1530 movement and a very attractive gloss black dial (these are marked Precision or Super Precision on the dial).
By 1959 the 1016 model was introduced. This Explorer model was fitted with a matt black dial and a 1560 movement. By the 1970s, the 1570 calibre movement replaced the 1560, and later the watch came with a “hacking” feature. This allowed the movement to be stopped exactly on the beat of a second, top allow accurate time-setting. This feature, and the 1016′s successful fusion of the sports and dress watch look, has made the watch very attractive to collectors.
Rolex became eager to capitalize on the success of the Explorer, especially since its popularity, and that of Rolex, boomed in the North American and Asian markets. The company began to use the same dial design on the Air-King 5500 model. These small Explorers were not popular with collectors until recently, especially because many people who were unfamiliar with the model assumed they were fakes. Current interest in Explorers has drastically increased their values.
Rolex went on to produce many other variations of the Explorer, including 6298, 6299 models and event later on the Explorer II. The Space-Dweller model is another variation of the Explorer. More recent designs were influenced by earlier designs, but each advancement came with some kind of new feature, such a new bezel design or hands.
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