The Climber’s Timer: Testing the Rolex Explorer I

WatchTime spent some time with the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer — a watch originally made for a Mount Everest expedition and recently revamped with a larger case and modern caliber. Scroll down to read our test of the watch from the WatchTime archives, along with original photos by Nik Schölzel.

The 1950s were a decade of adventure. Mankind strived to conquer nature, to descend to the depths of the ocean’s trenches and to climb to the peaks of the world’s tallest mountains. The first mountaineers reached the summit of Annapurna, more than 26,000 feet above sea level, in 1950. Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak, in 1953. Seven years later, the bathyscaphe Trieste descended to the planet’s deepest point: the bottom of the Marianas Trench, more than 35,000 feet below sea level. It should come as no surprise, then, that the decade also saw the debut of two Rolex watches tailored to adventurous pursuits: the Submariner divers’ watch and the Explorer expedition watch, both in 1953.

The first Explorer watches were provided as tools for the successful Everest expedition of May 1953. Rolex released a modified version of the Explorer later that year, with a black dial and painted-on luminous indices and numerals, which made it more legible under all lighting conditions. This model was designed to live up to the promise implicit in its name, by satisfying all the requirements of expeditions and other adventures. The Explorer underwent more improvements over the years and, beginning with the 1989 model, it was also designed to be more luxurious. Its indices and numerals have been made of gold since then, although there is still luminous material inlaid into the indices.

The 2010 version of the Explorer, which we review here (the watch was redesigned in 2016), has a bigger case: 39 millimeters, versus the previous model’s 36 millimeters. It also has a new type of shock absorber, along with an in-house, Parachrom hairspring and a new Oysterlock folding clasp. (Click on photos for larger images.)

Rolex Explorer I - front angle
The dial’s proportions look good in the new 39-mm case, but the minute hand is too short.

The watch’s new size is just right: the dial’s proportions look good in the enlarged case. But the narrow and somewhat short hands don’t quite fit into the otherwise pretty picture. The minute hand is especially problematic: the one on the previous Explorer extends all the way to the minute circle, but the tip of this one falls quite a long way from it. However, except for this flaw, the design is excellent and the watch’s classic look is easily recognizable.

With gently curving lugs and a broad bezel, the case looks as though it had been poured into a mold and hardened into a single unit. All surfaces, with the sole exception of the upper side of the bracelet, are polished. As with nearly all Rolex watches, the flat, sapphire crystal rises above the plane of the bezel, but its perimeter is beveled to deflect the force of a blow. Rolex’s crown-shaped logo is laser-etched into the crystal at the “6” as proof of the watch’s authenticity. Additional anti-counterfeiting details include the letters of the name “Rolex” engraved into the metal flange around the dial, the Rolex logo at 12 o’clock and a serial number at 6 o’clock.

The crystal has no nonreflective treatment, which would have improved the legibility, but the rhodium-plated and slightly curved gold hands (with a Mercedes-logo-like circle on the hour hand) clearly contrast with the matte black dial. The rectangular indices for the hours are filled with luminous material, and a large luminous triangle at 12 o’clock provides orientation for reading the time in the dark, although the rhodium-plated digits 3, 6 and 9 have no luminous coating. The rhodium-plated numerals on the previous model were filled with white, non-luminescent paint, giving the dial a more harmonious appearance and improving its legibility in low light. The hands and indices of the new model gleam brightly in the dark, thanks in part to the new Chromalight luminous substance, which debuted on the Sea-Dweller Deepsea and is now also used on the Explorer. Unlike on that watch, however, it glows in the traditional, pale green hue rather than a blue one. The luminosity lasts a very long time: the dial remains easy to read even after 11 hours in total darkness.

Rolex Explorer I - side
The bezel is elegantly polished, as are the flanks of the case and bracelet; the upper sides have a satin finish.

The new Explorer is very user-friendly. The crown is easy to unscrew and has only two positions: one for winding; the other for setting the time. A stop-seconds mechanism stops the balance, immobilizing the hands for easy to-the-second setting. The line under the Rolex “crown” logo on the winding crown marks it as the Twinlock type, which helps make the watch water-resistant to a depth of 100 meters.

The Explorer’s Oysterlock safety folding clasp is distinguished by its ease of operation. A gentle tug with a fingernail opens the protective bow; a second tug on the front part of the clasp triggers a lever mechanism to unlock it. The Easylink lengthening system is very practical, too: concealed inside the clasp is one half of a link, which can be pivoted out without changing the appearance of the bracelet. This five-millimeter extension can be a welcome addition when your wrist expands after a workout or in hot weather.

Top-quality craftsmanship is also evident in the bracelet. Like the clasp, it has a completely satin-finished upper surface and polished flanks, which ensure that it perfectly matches the case. However, compared to the big 39-mm-diameter case, the bracelet tapers to a rather narrow width at the point where it joins its clasp.

The improvements aren’t confined to the watch’s exterior. Its movement, Rolex Caliber 3132, is well protected under a fully threaded screw-down back. This movement differs from Caliber 3130, which powered the previous Explorer, because of its Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex shock absorbers. It’s based on the familiar Caliber 3135 with date display, which powers the Submariner and the Datejust. These Rolex manufacture calibers are regarded as the best automatic movements on the market, a distinction they’ve earned thanks to their structure, which is designed for robustness, longevity and very precise fine adjustment. A sturdy balance bridge replaces a conventional cantilevered balance cock.

Two knurled screws are used to adjust the balance’s vertical clearance. The hairspring’s Breguet terminal curve contributes to the watch’s precision in all situations, as does Rolex’s decision to eliminate an index in favor of Microstella nuts along the balance’s hoop. Red anodized reverser gears minimize friction in the self-winding device.

The Parachrom hairspring is made of a blue niobium-zircon alloy and is immune to the influence of magnetic fields. It is also claimed to be 10 times less susceptible to vibrations than a conventional hairspring.

Rolex Explorer I - caliber
Caliber 3132 is based on the well-known Caliber 3130, but has Rolex’s own shock-absorption and hairspring.

The Paraflex shock-absorption system (another Rolex invention) provides improved protection against sharp blows. This is the first time that Rolex has installed the system in a steel watch. The Paraflex mechanism had previously been used only in the Cellini Prince and the Day-Date II, both of which are available only in precious-metal cases. In the Paraflex system, the spring that returns the upper bearing jewel to its original position is symmetrical and smooth on both its faces so that it can be inserted on both sides, which makes the assembly process much easier. The spring is also less likely to jump out of its anchorage when a strong blow strikes the watch. Its shape, which extends over the center of the balance staff, makes it less yielding, which improves its ability to resist deformation. Furthermore, the spring bears two markings: one for the maximum oil level and one for the minimum. The Paraflex system is another example of Rolex striving to take what’s already good and make it even better.

The movement’s construction is solid and its decorations are impressive, despite the fact that the case has no viewing window in its back. Rolex’s standard piercings adorn the rotor, and the self-winding bridge sports a sunburst pattern. Other bridges are embellished with circular graining, a pattern that resembles tiny clouds. All bridges and plates are coated with a layer of rhodium and their edges are beveled and polished. The polished heads of the screws look particularly handsome.

Rolex is renowned for its precision, and the watch we tested did not disappoint in this area. It gained three seconds per day when tested on the wrist. The values measured on the timing machine (a Witschi Chronoscope X1) were similar. Averaging the values in all positions resulted in a daily gain of 3.7 seconds. However, the amplitude declined noticeably in the hanging positions. The greatest deviation among the various positions was seven seconds, which slightly exceeds the maximum allowable for chronometers. In fairness, however, we must disclose that we tested this watch in each position for only a half hour on the timing machine (not for 24 hours, as the COSC chronometer-testing authority does), and used that measured deviation to calculate the assumed variance over 24 hours. In any case, the results indicate that you should not need to bring this timepiece to a watchmaker for fine adjustment.

Considering all the improvements Rolex made to the new Explorer, it’s not surprising to learn that it costs a bit more than its predecessor. Overall, however, the cost seems reasonable for a vastly updated watch that can ascend to the peak of a mountain and still look good peeking out from a shirt cuff under a business suit.

Rolex Explorer I - buckle
The practical folding clasp has a bracelet extender and bears Rolex’s crown-shaped logo.


Manufacturer: Montres Rolex SA, Rue François-Dussaud 3–7, CH-1211 Geneva, Switzerland
Reference number: 214270
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, stop-seconds function
Movement: Manufacture Caliber 3132, automatic; diameter = 28,5 mm; height = 5.37 mm; 28,800 vph; 31 jewels, Paraflex shock absorption; Parachrom hairspring with Breguet terminal curve; Glucydur balance with Microstella regulating screws; 48-hour power reserve
Case: 904L stainless steel, fully threaded screw-down back, flat sapphire crystal, screwed Twinlock crown, water-resistant to 100 meters
Bracelet and clasp: 904L stainless steel, Oyster band and Oysterlock safety clasp with Easylink extender
Rate results (Deviations in seconds per 24 hours):
Dial up        +7
Dial down    +6
Crown up    +5
Crown down      0
Crown left    +4
Crown right      0
Greatest deviation of rate.            7
Average deviation:     3.7
Mean amplitude:
Flat positions    296°
Hanging positions    263°
Dimensions: Diameter = 39 mm; height = 11 mm; weight = 126 g
Price: $6,550

Bracelet and clasp (Maximum: 10 points): Beautifully crafted steel bracelet with easy-to-operate, massive folding clasp and extending mechanism.     9
Operation (5): Thanks to the stop-seconds function, the time can be set quickly, simply and precisely via the crown, which is convenient to unscrew  and easy to grasp.     5
Case (10): The well-made steel case has neatly polished and satin-finished surfaces.     9
Design (15): Except for the unduly short hands, this is a successful enlargement of the classic design, which epitomizes sporty elegance.                           13
Legibility (5): Only the reflective crystal above the dial detracts somewhat from the good legibility of the high-contrast hands and large indices; the legibility is also good at night.     5
Wearing comfort (10): Nothing pokes or scratches uncomfortably; the wearing comfort is unusually good for a watch with a steel bracelet.                    10
Movement (20): The construction, which is built for robustness and precision, is quite solid, and the decorations are nice. Rolex has further improved the hairspring and the shock absorption.    18
Rate results (10): The rate is decent, but one has a right to expect even better performance from a Rolex.      8
Overall value (15): The price of $6,550 is justified.     13
TOTAL: 90 points

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.




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  1. ps: The minute hand of the MkI is short, but if you look where the lume on the minute hand ends it lines up perfectly with the 5 minute markers to form an unbroken column, it’s pleasing to the eye once you are aware of it.

  2. The MkII is 136gm. Is 126gm with no links removed? Is the MkI lighter than the MkII?

  3. Randy Cee

    Neat article. I had 1969 Ref 1016. Worked very well but was rendered inoperable by a satellite uplink power amplifier klystron magnet. Put it in the drawer and neglected it for years. Gave it to nephew to play with.

  4. Günter Engels, Niels-Gade-Straße 10, 24768 Rendsburg (Deutschland)

    Ich besitze die Rolex Explorer I seit 4 Wochen (seit 1. Nov. 2017) und trage die Uhr 24 Stunden am Tag und in der Nacht. Die tägliche Gangabweichung beträgt +0,6 Sekunden.

  5. Reviewed is the slightly older version. The latest 2016 version is now PERFECT, with the hands now proportionate, and the 3/6/9 now also lume filled.

    • I have that older MK1 model, I would call the new hands and lume a correction, not perfection.

  6. Jose Casas

    I still like better the original Explorer, I have one and it performs as expected from a Rolex.

  7. J P Reddy

    The minute hand had been lenghtend in 2016 and 3 6 9 numericals have lume as well and the accuracy is now + -2 a day

  8. John Blue

    Come on, for 6K this is by far a bad choice, overpriced & overrated and you probably buy it for the logo or the story. For climbers use Casio PAW2000.

  9. Tor Henneberg

    The Rolex web site shows the Explorer with a much longer minute hand. I think the hour hand is too short. What is going on?

  10. Raphael Wilwayco

    I can’t see the video. It says private. I really want to see the video.

  11. A disappointment. Once again you have scored a Rolex to high. Very poor rate results for a any watch. All my lower cost automatic movements will match or do better than that. The short minute hand is not acceptable. As for the over all design – it looks like any other old Explorer.

  12. I think you will find that Edmund Hillary wore a Smiths Everest on his successful Everest accent and, in fact it was Tensing Norgay who wore an Explorer 1. The Explorer 1 is a wonderful watch, Iv’e had 3, but it was originally conceived for deep underground caving and potholing exploration and not the first choice of climbers. Reinhold Messner wore an Explorer II when he summited Everest without oxygen. His partner Peter Habeler wore an Oyster Quartz

  13. Robust? I’m wearing my Explorer, right now. So? Well, I bought new in 1965 (For $180.00). It has been in heat, snow, water, sand, surf. The watch works well all the time, every time. The bracelet was replaced about two years ago, when I sent the watch to Rolex for overhaul. Wonderful, accurate, rugged, good-looking timepiece.

    • I purchased my 1016 in 1970 for just over $200 while on my honeymoon . I wore it as my daily until I lost it hoisting lobster pots off Block Island in 1992, a year after my divorce. I guess some things are meant to be lost.

  14. fraser stewart

    My next watch, classic stainless steel rolex sport watch. Love the clean dial free of the date like my 14060, understated yet elegant.

  15. Thanks Erik and Jake for this great expose on a ba u tee ful ROLEX SUBMARINER !BTW, if you dig a litlte Jake, there was a white gold Sub mfg’d probably around the early 80’s. I think Larry K might of owned one at one time…Thanks,Randy

  16. Rolex designs are visually amazing…iconic, in fact. I wish that lower end watch designers would understand the appeal of iconic design, instead of the cluttered clunkly look that some inexpensive watch makers produce. A clean, spare aesthetic is more timeless than a clunky looking cheap design.

  17. Actually after buying Explorer II,
    Explorer I seems to be more charming than before :)

    Explorer II is also wonderful, but it’s not an excuse for missing I :)

    • trevor gill

      nice watch but the explorer wasnt up everest , it was oyster perpetual though every one knew that the explorer was brought out to commemorate the climb.

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