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Watches - Head-to-Head

Watches In the Field: Rolex Explorer I vs. II

Inspired by Rolex’s new partnership with National Geographic, our editor compares the latest versions of Rolex’s Explorer watches and considers their practicality above 7,000 m.

Earlier this year, Rolex shook hands on a partnership with National Geographic in which both parties will dedicate a portion of their considerable pull and budgets to promoting exploration and conservation. “The biggest story on Earth is Earth itself,” read the tagline. The message, highly convincing, tells us that Rolex understands nature and exploration are fast becoming our most valuable commodities.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the roof of the world

Rolex has been harnessing man’s love of exploration since it arrived at the summit of Everest in the 1950s. Those breathtaking images of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the roof of the world, beaming with the knowledge that they had just made history, fixed Rolex as number one in explorer watches ever since.

Of course, Rolex Explorers are no longer particularly practical in the sense that digital watches now come with altimeters, barometers, temperature gauges and GPS tracking. Some are now even solar powered. Yet the Rolexes are still owned and cherished by explorers. Probably worn on expedition from time to time too. This is mostly because of their image, durability and connection to the heroes of mountain climbing. But also because there is still the argument that they are the only watches that can deal with the weather conditions of the 7,000 m peaks, as digital watches won’t function much below -20° C.

Personally, as a fan of mountain climbing, I’d like both. A digital piece for the climb (although currently I just use my phone which also doubles as my quick-shot camera and sits warm in an inner breast pocket), and the Explorer for everything else, namely, to drip-feed me inspiration on a daily basis.

The question then is which of Rolex’s two Explorer models is best? Not to mention the countless references and re-editions from over the years. To try to answer this I applied our head-to-head formula and compared them in terms of looks, function and of course value for money. I focused on the latest editions but I also give me vintage picks too. But first, a little bit of backstory.

The Rolex Explorer Series

Rolex didn’t introduce the Explorer watch until after Hillary and Norgay had returned. They in fact summited with Oyster Perpetuals that had been modified for the occasion with reinforced cases and watch oils with lower freezing points. Norgay wore his Oyster all the way up but Hillary was rumoured to have a Smiths watch on him and nobody knows what he wore on the peak (such confusion makes me feel he went with the Smiths but Rolex quietly erased all trace of it). Regardless, Hillary went on to amass a huge collection of Explorers I and II, as did many important climbers of our time.

Rolex had sponsored Himalayan expeditions since the 1930s. This was a chance to live-test their watches. The tool watch concept had been growing and by the end of WWII it was big business. The Explorer was an evolution of these watches and it went on to give birth to the Submariner, GMT and the like. But the Explorer was the original and the base design.

The later sport watches were edging closer towards luxury sports watch territory, which emerged in the seventies. Duly, in 1971, in line with the new hunger for functionality, Rolex introduced the Explorer II. It had a brightly coloured fourth hand and a 24-hour bezel, which meant you could get a 24-hour reading in the dark. Unlike the Explorer, which was the mountain climber’s bread-and-butter, the Explorer II was intended for a mixed group of speleologists, volcanologists and polar and jungle explorers. 

Explorer I Reference 214270 vs Explorer II 26570

Aesthetics

Explorer I

The Explorer is a no-nonsense, Spartan-looking watch that tells the time and endures. It holds the line between sports and formal watches, and it’s far more at home with a suit than James Bond’s Submariner. The aesthetic differences across the references have been relatively few, but many fans contend that early versions favoured a sportier, more-legible look, with lume in the 3-6-9 hour markers, and later versions leaned in favour of smartness, swapping out the lume. 

The Explorer’s size was always 36 mm, which for me is more than adequate, but what with the 21st-century shift into the 40 mm range, Rolex brought us the 39 mm version, the reference 214270, in 2010. The new Explorer was larger but it had the original sportier look. It had a classically shaped Oyster Professional case, a slim profile and a (mostly) original dial. I say mostly because it had the lume-free numerals and the hands were relatively short. Rolex then replaced this in 2016 with a carbon copy that had longer hands and numerals that glow blue in the dark.

Explorer I 214270

Explorer II

For the Explorer II Rolex turned up the sportiness. Everything is bigger, bolder and less formal. The case is 42 mm. The hour markers, a mix of circles and rectangles, have fatter outlines calling for more attention. The 3-6-9 are gone. There’s a Cyclops-covered date function in place of the 3. The lugs are chunkier, the bezel too, even the crown protector. The bezel is inscribed with a 24-hour track and the dial boasts a bright orange 24-hour hand. The word “Explorer II” is also written in orange.

While the core of the watch is much the same, these aesthetic tweaks give it an entirely different look. The information-heavy effect gives it an air of being more useful and so perhaps higher in value. Indeed, when it first came out those functions were actually pretty useful, but less so today and so some people prefer the more minimalism of the original. In my eyes, the Explorer I looks a little more mature, but I also understand how people might grow tired of it. I’d be tempted to put it on a distressed leather or vintage leather strap, moving it further in the direction of the explorer-era feel. I’d also try out a NATO option.

Rolex-explorer-2-216570

Function

Explorer I

The 2010 reference 214270 came with the calibre 3132, Rolex’s latest in-house movement, which has, among other things, the Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex shock absorbers, meaning it’s even more resistant than before. Although this resistance is kind of much of a muchness, considering the early editions could already scale Everest, it now only needs servicing once every ten years, which is a huge plus. It’s also now extremely accurate, losing at max only a few seconds per month. The Oyster bracelet has also been upgraded to the latest version, the three-link Oyster bracelet with Oysterclasp and Easylink adjustment system, and on the wrist the difference is notable thanks to the seamless links.

Explorer I 214270

Explorer II

The Explorer II has the same bracelet and both watches feel immaculate on the wrist. Both are also waterproof to a depth of 100 meters and both are forged from the same corrosion-resistant, reinforced 904L steel. But the profile of the Explorer II is slightly beefier and it comes with the added functionality we mentioned. Today the 24-hour hand and bezel are more likely to be put to use in keeping a second timezone. The date too is an added bonus for many. In my opinion, however, function and complication is now largely obsolete, so it comes down to image.

Rolex-explorer-2-216570

Verdict

Indeed, choosing between the two hinges on this functionality question. On the one hand you have the original Explorer I, which you might consider frugal or minimal, and on the other you have the more useful, more “advanced” looking Explorer II, which could also be considered busy and unnecessary in 2017. Of course, you’ll want to consider how much this extra functionality costs—roughly £1,000 is the answer. To me, £1,000 for the image of function is key. 

Also key, is that the Explorer II actually has little to do with the Explorer I. It strays a long way from the original. Don’t forget, many of us are buying the watch for what it reminds us of—those pioneering mountaineers and their Spartan mind-sets. So, in this battle I think it’s clear I lean in favour of the Explorer I.

The Explorer I reference 214270 is a great watch and at a good price in comparison to other Rolex sport models, however, in my eyes the 39 mm size is unnecessary and I’d go back a reference or two. I’m willing to put in a few extra services over its lifetime in order to get closer to that early explorer-watch feel that recall its glory days in the fifties and sixties. I’d look for a Ref. 14270, which launched in 1989, and can be found at auction between £4,000-6,000. Or better still, a Ref. 1016, introduced in 1963, and had the longest production period, which you can still pick up for £6,000-10,000 at auction. These old-school pieces on a leather strap really strike right to the heart of the feeling I’m looking for.

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