Rolex Looks Back With The New Explorer 124270

I have a slight confession before we get started here: I don’t particularly care for sport/tool watches with no bezel. It’s a small thing, but to my eye, certain watch types just need one. Something about how they balance the size of the dial against the rest of the case, it just feels harmonious to me. This is likely the single biggest factor in my never taking the Rolex Explorer seriously within the context of my own collecting. I have a Sub, that’s got a bezel, all is well. But, as we all know, tastes evolve, and a few years back, I noticed myself gradually warming up to the idea of the Explorer. Sure enough, when Rolex introduced a new Explorer earlier this year, at its original 36mm sizing, my interest went from “oh, that’s nice”, to “oh, I could see myself wearing that”. 

It’s easy to romanticize the Explorer, as has been done in countless words among countless posts since watch enthusiasts first gathered on the internet. Without question, this is a watch with a vast, and at times intriguing history. From its (intentionally fuzzy) origin story in the 1953 summit of Mt. Everest, to appearing on the wrists of celebrities on your Instagram feed in 2021 (ok, that part maybe not so intriguing), it’s seen some shit. The Explorer enjoys a wealth of prestige today thanks to nearly 70 years worth of brand building by Rolex, some rock solid, some less so (ahem, Edmund Hillary was wearing a Smiths when he summited Everest).

There have been some great Explorer references through the generations, from the first 6298 references, the tone-setting 6610 in 1959, to the ever charming 1016, which remained in production through the late ‘80s, to the 142… look, I’m not here to wax poetic about the history of the Explorer. Lord knows there are plenty of places to get your fill on the subject in all manner of books, blogs, and forums. As they say in the investment world, “past performance is not a guarantee of future results”, and I’m here to judge the newest reference 124270 Explorer on its own merits. I don’t care who’s been seen wearing one, or what they’re commanding in the open market. Let’s get to it.

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$6450

Rolex Looks Back With The New Explorer 124270

Case
Stainless Steel
Movement
Rolex 3230
Dial
Glossy Black
Lume
Chromalight
Lens
Sapphire
Strap
Oyster Bracelet
Water Resistance
100 meters
Dimensions
36x43mm
Thickness
11.5mm
Lug Width
19mm
Crown
Screw Down
Warranty
5 Years
Price
$6450

Context

Earlier this year Rolex revealed a slew of new releases that, as usual, dominate discussion for a day or two, for better or worse. What works, what didn’t, what were they thinking, waitlist memes… that kind of thing. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Explorer II, and expectations were high that we’d see something new and exciting out of that range. They did welcome their latest 3285 GMT caliber to a new 226570 reference, however, the exterior remains, for all intents and purposes, identical to the reference it replaces (shrugs). The far more curious releases happened in the Explorer range, which received, for the first time ever, a two-toned model. (Read our thoughts on the releases here.) Perhaps equally surprising, the watch shifted its case size back to 36mm, after a brief-ish 11 year stint at 39mm in the 214270 reference. Rolex moving backwards? What’s that about?

While a more overt step back eludes me at present, Rolex have indeed remedied some of the, let’s call them sub-optimal, design traits in new models. The lug design of the 41mm Submariner immediately comes to mind, a watch that thins out the prior generations blocky design that famously caught the ire (and admiration) of many within the collector community. Many of us were hoping the Explorer II would take a similar route, but alas, it was the Explorer that received the regression to dimensions of a past generation. Hey, at least it sets a new precedent for such a drastic move. 

A quick note: a 36mm Explorer in 2021 has been met with mixed reactions, as you might expect, from the sensible to the downright ugly, which I won’t dignify here. I will offer this, whatever the size of your wrist, however you identify, there’s nothing that precludes you from wearing this (or any other) watch. For real, it’s very comfortable.

The Same, But Different

Rolex Explorer ref. 14270; credit: Thomas Calara

For the vast majority of its life span, the Explorer has been a 36mm watch. Place the new model next to one from the late ‘90s, and the average viewer will be hard pressed to tell them apart. A closer look reveals some important differences, however. Differences that affect the wearing experience as well as the appearance on wrist. The case is quite similar to the one you’d find pulling duty over in the Oyster Perpetual range, a watch also offered in 36mm. Between the calipers, it actually measures a hair under 36mm when measured from 3:17 to 9:47 (you get to 36mm when taking the measurement between 2:11 and 8:41). From lug tip to lug tip you’ll get 43mm on the dot and thickness is 11.5mm. All in all, a tidy little footprint with a squat presence on the wrist. 

The most significant change to the case is found in the lugs, both in their shape and their span. The newer reference brings a slight curvature to their termination, as well as a more even brush pattern that matches the end link of the bracelet, unlike the older model. More importantly, the distance between the lugs has been reduced from 20mm to 19mm. Looking at each, side by side, you may feel this difference, but not quite be able to put your finger on it. To my eye, this move does wonders for the overall proportions of the watch, and makes the rest of the case and dial appear a bit bigger, as they aren’t sunken between 20mm lugs. This is the singular feature that pushed me over the edge with this watch. The 19mm endlink, and the bracelet’s taper to 14mm not only make the watch exceptionally comfortable, but also create an oddly satisfying equilibrium with the case and dial. 

The so-called Golden Ratio is 1:1.618, and what do you get when you average the ratio of case, to lug span, to bracelet taper on the 124270? 1:1.625. I’m not sure that actually means anything, but to my eye the case and bracelet all work pretty well together, and there’s the numbers to back it up. That number for the 14270, btw, is 1:1.455.

When Rolex released the 39mm Explorer reference 214270 the dial received a notable (for Rolex) change in moving the word “Explorer” to the bottom half of the dial, joining two other lines of text that read “superlative chronometer <br> officially certified”. If you’ve ever spent late nights trying to decipher the often subtle differences in Rolex dials, you’ll know that such a dramatic change is rare in the context of their history. The larger dial of that reference simply changed the calculus of proportions of an acceptable layout, no doubt. With the new 124270, the “Explorer” returns to the top half of the dial, under the “Oyster Perpetual” label that appears under the branding. 

This is a unique execution of this particular layout, and presents the smallest “Explorer” labeling perhaps ever. The word “Explorer” fits perfectly within the width of the word “Rolex” above it. It’s an interesting choice that brings a level of order to the lockup at the expense of a more prominent “Explorer” label. Rolex have been known to fiddle with the proportions of such things mid-lifecycle, and seeing a different execution of this lockup on later model years wouldn’t shock me. 

While this approach does leave an imbalance of negative space underneath the hand stack, the top heavy layout is less exaggerated thanks to the smaller “Explorer” and in total, it’s a look I personally associate with the Explorer so this feels natural to my eye. I don’t think that placing the “Explorer” at 6 o’clock would have been a failure, but it is without precedent in this case size.

The Bracelet

The case and dial might scream old-school but the bracelet is all modern and that is a very good thing. This fully brushed oyster bracelet tapers from 19mm at the lug to 14mm at the clasp, with the clasp itself measuring 16mm in width. It’s svelte and dramatic, and it’s absolutely amazing on the wrist. I’ll credit the new 3861 Speedmaster bracelet for selling me on the 5mm taper (its bracelet goes from 20 to 15mm), and with the Explorer, it again benefits the proportionality of the smaller case size. 

My biggest issue here is the omission of the Glidelock system to allow for quick adjustments on the fly. It’s something I use semi-often on the Submariner (especially during the hot summer), and would make a welcome addition to this watch. This is a feature that’s made its way into the micro brand space as well, and can be found on watches from Halios to Monta. Heck, even Tudor has their own version within the latest Black Bay Fifty-Eight Bronze. The Rolex Glidelock system already exists, is already excellent, and these days, there is little excuse for its absence here, especially considering the Explorers placement within the brand’s “Professional” range.

What it does have is their Easylink comfort extension built into the clasp. A hard yank on the final link inside the clasp will open another 5 mm of space out of the bracelet. It’s not quite as elegant but it’s better than nothing, and feels sufficiently old-school if you’re looking for some personality quirks on this otherwise straightforward tool watch.

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As excellent as the Oyster bracelet may be, the Explorer is known to be something of a strap monster, as they say. Yes, the 19mm lug span is a bit annoying here, but thankfully we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to third party straps in this size (even if it means buying a new one). What is a little trickier, is the design of the case wall between the lugs that accepts the new endlink. Gone is the flush vertical wall, in its place are two large recesses that lock the male components of the endlink in place. This is valuable information when first removing the bracelet, as you won’t get the expected feedback or movement from the endlink as you attempt to remove it. It needs to be pulled straight out. This also hides the point at which the end link meets the case to create a seamless look. 

If you’re thinking a nato style fabric strap here, or even a leather unit, be prepared to confront the site of these grooves on the regular as they will be visible, and they aren’t exactly pretty. The design also moves the spring bar holes closer to the case, and as a result fitting some of the thicker available fabric straps is not possible. For instance, the Crown & Buckle Supreme Matte NATO has a reinforced tip that I could not fit through the space. So while other straps are possible, they aren’t without a few compromises. Thankfully, the OEM bracelet is quite good in both comfort and aesthetic, but this is a serious bummer if you like to have fun with different straps on the fly.

The Movement

Image: Rolex

Rolex continues the expansion of their 32xx series of in-house movements here with the dateless caliber 3230 first seen in the reference 124060 Submariner last year. The 32xx caliber movements have been slowly replacing the legendary 31xx series movements since 2015, with the caliber 3255 first appearing in the Day-Date. While some 31xx series movements are still at use within watches like the Air-King (116900) and Milgauss (116400), its more than three decade long chapter comes that much closer to an ending here. Don’t worry, parts aren’t likely to go out of production anytime soon. 

The new movement offers a slew of advertised benefits, according to Rolex, the 32xx “offers fundamental gains in terms of precision, power reserve, resistance to shocks and magnetic fields, convenience and reliability.” However, ask any watchmaker and they’re likely to tell you that the 31xx movement is no slouch, and surpassing it would be no small feat. As watchmaker (and occasional W&W contributor) Ashton Tracy wrote for the Horological Journal in 2018: “I haven’t met a single watchmaker who doesn’t love working on a Rolex 31- series of calibres. They are easy to service, they keep great time and stand up to abuse. Put simply: they work.

Chronergy Escapement; credit: Rolex

In reality, the benefits realized in the new movements haven’t come without some compromise, and these have been detailed within the community, and indeed by Mr. Tracy in the article referenced above, which you can (and should) read in full right here. Further, if you haven’t watched these videos (part 1 & part 2) of Peter Speak-Marin (aka the Naked Watchmaker) deconstructing a 114060 Submariner (with caliber 3130) while providing commentary for The Watches TV as he goes, you should definitely take a pause and do so now.

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There are a few notable changes within the 3230 worth a brief exploration here. First, this movement receives the Chronergy escapement, which has been designed by Rolex to increase the overall efficiency of the movement. This is achieved thanks to the ‘open worked’ design of the escape wheel, which reduces its mass, and hence the inertia required to get it moving at each beat. The palette lever also gets a revised geometry, with a more pronounced offset to increase the lever effect. The width of the palette stones have been halved, though the contact patch seems to have remained the same, so claims of reduced drag are a toss up. 

The palette lever and escape wheel are made of nickel-phosphorus and produced via Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS), and along with the Parachrom hairspring are impervious to the effects of magnetism. It’s also worth noting that the balance gets a friction fit balance staff, opposed to the old riveted unit in the 31xx movement.

Parachrome hairspring; credit: Rolex

One of the biggest benefits of the new movements is an increased power reserve of 70 hours, without an increase in size to the movement itself. Part of this is achieved through the more efficient escapement discussed above, while the rest is courtesy of a new high capacity barrel. If its footprint hasn’t grown within the movement, how have they managed to wring more power out of it? By creating more space inside the barrel, of course. The walls have been thinned by half to make way for more spring inside. While this sounds good in principle, according to Tracy, it also makes replacing the mainspring impossible without changing the entire barrel.

This theme carries over to the automatic winding system, which uses a monobloc rotor with ball-bearing rather than one fit to an axle. While this does mean less lubrication is required, Rolex have built it in a manner that requires the whole rotor be replaced rather than simply the ball-bearing, should it need to be. Not a massive issue if you keep the watch serviced regularly, but it does raise concern over the long haul and the ability of trained watchmakers to perform those services is compromised unless they have sufficient access to components. Additionally, ball-bearings can be sensitive to hard knocks, so simply keeping the watch serviced is no guarantee an issue won’t arise here. This is a watch meant to take hard knocks, after all. 

A 31 series movement; credit: Rolex

On that note, the 3230 receives the Paraflex shock absorber to provide max protection for the balance staff. The pivot of the balance staff is small, like human-hair thickness small, making it one of the more vulnerable components of the movement, considering it supports a component that beats nearly 700,000 times per day. Rolex engineers developed the Paraflex for better reliability and performance over other systems like Incablock and KIF, and claim a 50% increase in shock resistance while maintaining chronometer performance. Plus, it looks pretty cool. 

I’ve always thought of Rolex movements like a Toyota Tacoma truck. Not particularly beautiful, but really good at what they do, can take a lickin’ and keep on …you know. The 3230 is certainly not a beautiful movement, at least not when compared to something like the Lange L.952.1 or other high-end movements. In consideration of its purpose, however, it becomes beautiful in its own way, like the Tacoma. It looks like a little tank, from the massive balance bridge to the no nonsense uniform finishing. Further still, the closed, brushed caseback feels like the Rolex way of saying, “nothing to see here, let’s get down to business”.

Accuracy remains at the stated +/- 2 seconds of deviation per day, as demanded by their ‘superlative chronometer’ rating. This is their own master chronometer spec but does not come with third party regulation like we see with METAS over at Tudor and Omega. In my time with the watch it runs consistently at +1 second per day. No complaints here.

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On The Wrist

All of the above aside, when it comes down to it, this is a pretty simple watch in use. There are no complications, no frivolous details, no embellishments; just three hands and a dial. The case may be diminutive, but the viewing window is 29mm in diameter, exactly the same as the 114060 Submariner sitting in my watchbox. The hands aren’t quite as thick on the Explorer, but there’s less distraction with no bezel, and I’d wager the legibility is equally as good. Which is to say, it’s pretty damn good. 

The base of the dial is glossy black and the Chromalight filled hour markers stand out with ease (and glow blue in the dark). The white gold surrounds create a bit of glare under artificial light, but this is an easy dial to navigate. The real distinction comes from the 3-6-9 configuration, which has been associated with this watch since the early ‘50s. Side note: this configuration was also seen on early Submariner references from the 6200 on up to the 5513. This particular layout is of course not unique to Rolex, however it is broadly referred to as an ‘Explorer dial’ even when seen on other brands. 

Aesthetically, this dial hits differently than a Sub or GMT. It’s almost funky in comparison. Not quite Air-King funky, but low key funky. It’s not something I really noticed at first but I found myself just staring at this dial from time to time trying to subconsciously come to terms with it. Just like the size of the case. I’ll be honest, when I first held this watch in hand, I was a little taken aback by its size. It looked a bit out of my comfort zone. On the wrist, it didn’t take long for those concerns to fade. It doesn’t look odd or out of place and most importantly, it’s comfortable.

If you own or exclusively drive a large SUV or truck, your perception of where you sit on the road and to the things around you is shaped by that seating position. Swapping over to a small sports car that sits close to the ground would be a jarring experience, and that’s what putting on the Explorer felt like. I’ve been wearing comparatively larger watches for so long, that this required a bit of recalibration on my part. A day or two later and the watch looks and feels totally normal in day to day use. If you’re on the fence about the size, I recommend the following: a) don’t ask the internet for size recommendations and b) give it some time, and be honest with yourself by asking “is it comfortable to me?” and “do I like the way it looks on my wrist?”. That’s all that matters. 

For me personally, it really comes down to that polished bezel ring. Is that a deal breaker in the long run? Maybe I’m going soft here, but I find myself less bothered by such things these days (I still draw the line at PCLs, of course). This is, quite famously, a go anywhere, do anything kinda watch, and I guess that even includes some formal activity from time to time. I will say, if there is an outfit or event where this watch feels out of place, I have yet to find it. Further still, unlike the Sub, which is easily identifiable from across the room, the Explorer doesn’t really garner much attention from people in your general vicinity. A quality I appreciate.

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Conclusions

Setting aside the hype and the heritage, the Explorer is a very simple tool watch. It is perhaps the greatest distillation of a Rolex sport watch available to purchase new. It’s not as flashy as a GMT or Daytona, not as singularly focused as a Submariner or Sea-Dweller, and if you take the crown off the dial you’re left with a very well built field watch of sorts. That’s all part of the charm of the Explorer, it’s not really presenting itself as anything other than just that: a very well built field watch. It also happens to be a Rolex, and that comes with a lot of baggage these days, for better or worse. 

The existing culture around Rolex watches could be described as, well, unfortunate. The availability issues, the grey market pricing, and the exceptionally unpleasant experiences that can arise from attempting to engage with an AD are what I’d charitably call, a bummer. Whatever impact they may have on the long term equity of the brand, there’s no denying that it’s been difficult for the average consumer and collector to experience Rolex watches hassle free. While I hope that changes (and soon), I am happy to see those would be buyers exploring other brands and watches that deserve attention.

In the midst of all this, does a watch like the Explorer still deserve your attention? If you’re in it for the right reasons, I’d say the answer to that is yes, it does. This probably isn’t the watch that will get you the most likes and shares on social media, or impress your friends at the pub. But it is a watch that you will likely enjoy a great bit. It’s a watch that grows on you, and that makes for a practical and enjoyable companion day in and day out. It’s not going to go out of style anytime soon, and the fit and finish are superb. Those are all qualities you will appreciate after years or decades of ownership, but are difficult to capture in a sexy, perfectly staged, shallow depth of field photograph. 

The Rolex Explorer reference 124270 is priced at $6,450. That’s a lot of money for a watch, especially a steel, time only affair such as this. A stroll through this very site will yield no shortage of other amazing field watches available for far less money, and I’d encourage you to check those out, but there is something special about this Explorer. Okay, it doesn’t have a rotating bezel, but it is original, approachable, practical, and lasting. Is it special? Well, I’ll put it this way, were I forced to wear a single watch for the remainder of my days, I’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate. Rolex.

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent the past decade covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seikos to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for classic cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.
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