In the mid 1950s Rolex introduced their new movement, the caliber 1030. This new movement was Rolex’s first complete
in-house built and designed movement and was chronometer rated. This next generation movement required a new
generation Explorer and so the Wilsdorf Empire gave birth to the reference 6610 in approximately 1956. The newly
launched caliber 1030 was a lot slimmer than its ‘bubbleback’ predecessors and so a new case design was produced
that was still well proportioned at 36mm with a 20mm lug width. The slimmer movement meant that a flatter caseback
could be fitted to the watch and it was this shape that became the standard for many years to come.
The 6610 also fully embraced the standard Explorer aesthetic. The dials had the inverted triangle at twelve o’clock
and the 3-6-9 numerals and now Mercedes pattern hands were always present. All the dials were gilt too. The term
gilt can be misused and so to be clear, when discussing vintage Rolex dials the gilt refers to the glossy black
dials with the text in a gold (gilt) colour. The text is not actually printed on the gloss, but is actually relief
print and the gilt text is the brass base plate of the dial showing through; a production method known as galvanic
process. The dial then had a lacquer applied to protect it. There are some very rare 6610 that had an additional
line of text that was printed onto the top of the dial in either red or silver; a depth rating (50m = 165
ft). This was a way for Rolex to demonstrate the capabilities of the watch for all sports and methods of
exploration. Another rare version of the 6610 had a painted white seconds hand; it’s always about the minute details
In 1963 Rolex unveiled what would become one of the longest running sports watch references, the Explorer reference
1016. Production ceased in 1989 and in essence not a lot changed on the watch, except some minor details…which is
what it’s all about! Again, the 1016 was heralded by the latest movement improvement by Rolex, the caliber 1560. A
chronometer rated movement, it became the staple in Rolex Oyster watches of the era. A decade later there was minor
improvement to the caliber with the introduction of the 1570 which had a hacking (or stop-seconds) feature added.
The 1016s were also rated to a slightly deeper depth rating at 100m.
One of the biggest changes that occurred in the lifespan of the 1016 was the shift in what was used for the luminous
materials on the dials in the hands. Up until the early to mid 1960s Radium had been used. It became apparent that
it was completely unsafe and had potentially catastrophic effects on health and so Rolex moved to using the safer
option of tritium. This was signified by the new ‘SWISS T<25 or T-SWISS-T’ on the bottom edge of dials replacing
the ‘SWISS’ which had been there previously. This switch began in 1963 and was transitional over a number of years.
In the late 1960s a new type of dial began to appear on Rolex sports watches and relevantly here, the 1016 Explorer.
Known as matte dials, these dials had a matte black finish and the text was printed onto the dial surface.
Towards the end of the 1980s Rolex introduced the next generation Explorer. The reference 14720 was a very different
watch, but as per the Rolex way, the core DNA was still present. The acrylic crystal was replaced with a
scratch-resistant sapphire glass, which gave the watch a more ‘modern’ feel on the wrist. 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 for their lume. The
watch was powered by the newly introduced caliber 3000. The 14720 ran for almost a decade until it was superseded by
the reference 114720 in 2000; a watch with a second generation 3000 series movement, the 3130.
Collectors of vintage Rolex watches are divided about what actually constitutes a ‘vintage’ piece. The majority would
probably argue that the switch from acrylic crystals to sapphire is the shut off. As time passes, however, the early
sapphire crystal watches are becoming more sought-after as acrylic (or plexi) Rolex watches gain spectacularly in
value. Another key point to note is that quality control and production was much tighter now at Rolex and so the
multitude of small variations seen between the 1950s and 1970s in sports watches was largely eradicated by the
1990s. There are some interesting small differences in these models. One is the vintage-esque drilled lug holes seen
in early 14720, which were phased out relatively early in the watch's run. n 1990 (where the corresponding Rolex
serial numbers began with the letter E) the 14720 was produced with a dial version where the 3-6-9 numerals were
filled with black enamel instead of tritium. This wasn’t received well and so Rolex reverted back to filling the
numerals with luminous material almost immediately. This version has been given the nickname ‘Black-Out’ by
collectors and is probably the rarest modern Rolex watch.
Then in 2010 Rolex supersized the Explorer with the reference 214720 at Baselworld. Featuring the caliber 3132, the
watch was housed in a big 39mm case (nearly as big as a Submariner!) and the word EXPLORER had been moved to the
bottom half of the dial. The other noticeable change was the removal of luminous material (by now Rolex’s new blue
Chromalight) from the numerals, which were solid white gold –remind you of the ‘Black-Out’ 14720? The lack of
luminous material in the 3-6-9 was not well received (and the hands were criticized as being too short) and so the
dial and hands were reworked for the current version. Collectors take note – the Mk1 214720 is surely a future
Now in 2021, Rolex has gone back to 36mm with the Explorer. The 36mm Oyster case has always been the sweet spot for
Rolex, in my opinion, and so it makes total sense that the Explorer returns to its original proportions. Following
hot on the heels of last year’s super-hot ‘stella’ dial Oyster Perpetual 36, Rolex has relaunched its Explorer in
its familiar 36mm guise and has expanded the line with a Rolesor yellow gold and Oystersteel version.
Following on from the Seadweller a couple of years ago, the Explorer now has this treatment and it’s a solid move by
the brand, thanks to the recent surge in interest in steel and gold watches. The layout is familiar classic Explorer
with applied Arabic numerals at three, six and nine with Chromalight luminous material in these and the other
applied baton hour markers. The reference number is 124273 and the watch has a yellow gold winding crown, bezel and
centre-links on the Oyster bracelet.
The steel version has reference 124270 and has the familiar look that all Rolex fans know and love. Black dial and
applied Arabic numerals at three, six and nine are both familiar and comforting. Eagle-eyed Rolex fans will notice
the coronet at the bottom edge of the dial which signifies the presence of the new calibre, 3230 that made its
appearance last year on the OP 36. The dials are also lacquered again, having been fitted with matte-finished dial
in the 39mm version.