The Rolex Explorer reference 14270, and its associated reference 114270, may not be the first model that collectors would opt for when thinking of acquiring a coveted sports model from the brand, but for many this is definitely a worthy contender when there are budgetary considerations in place. With the subtle design and minimal feature set, the Explorer is the clearest representation of the brand’s adventurous spirit with a lot of details that warrant paying attention to throughout its production run.
The 1950s and 1960s marked the era of human exploration, not only to space, but also the extremes of planet Earth, with the Explorer being destined for those challenging the world’s highest peak, measuring time under extreme conditions. The first successful ascent of Everest was completed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, reaching the summit on the 29th May 1953, and a Rolex reference 6098, often referred to as the “pre-Explorer” by collectors, was along for the accomplishment, believed to have been worn by Norgay. At this stage, the watch didn’t feature the defining “3-6-9” markers, or the “Explorer” name on the dial.
Throughout the evolution of the model, we have reference 6150 for the first “3-6-9” dial, which was not yet inscribed “Explorer” but rather “Precision” for the 50s. Subsequently, the reference 6350 was produced with radium painted “3-6-9” as well as “Explorer” on the dial and “OCC”, confirming the movement had been subject to strict timing tests. Most importantly, the reference came with a honeycomb dial for a very short run, produced for approximately one year. It is worth noting that all of these early references share the calibre A296. In 1955, the birth of reference 6610 set the tone for Explorer models for decades to come. With its black gilt dial, “Explorer” and “3-6-9” configuration, the watch was thinner thanks to its new calibre 1030, with the diameter remaining at 36mm. Then in 1963, the quintessential reference 1016 entered production, for an astounding 26 years. The long run allowed this reference to have many variations, as well as being among the last true “vintage” models for Rolex, with its four digit reference number and plexiglass crystal.
In 1989, the modern successor, reference 14270, was introduced, equipped with the calibre 3000. It preserved the 36mm case and 20mm lugs but replaced the plexiglass with scratch-resistant sapphire, and the dial changed from a matte to a glossy finish. Keeping the Explorer identity, the dial maintained the baton and “3-6-9” Arabic numerals hour markers, with 18K white gold blocks replacing the previous printed designations.
Later, the reference 14270 was replaced by the reference 114270, discussed in more detail shortly; it’s in 2010 that the launch of the reference 214270 changed the dynamic of the Explorer family, with a larger 39mm case and new calibre 3132, with a further minor evolution In 2016, with an updated dial with the Chromalight glow applied not only to the baton markers, but also to the numerals.
One of the parts that I like most about watch collecting is investigating the subtle variations that explain the evolution of a model, like the article I wrote previously for Rolex Daytona reference 16520. The reference 14270 & 114270 also have a series of dials, but not as many as the Daytona; here we will provide a breakdown.
Like other Rolex models around the period, the Explorer’s luminous dial transitioned from tritium to Luminova, then to SuperLuminova, which happened around 1997 with the crossover of case number T and U, and then around 2000 (P) respectively. For the earlier period, you have “T SWISS – T < 25” below the six o’clock marker, indicating the use of tritium for the luminous material. Between late in the U serial and into the A serial, there is the “Swiss” only dial that appeared for a very short period of time, during the use of Luminova. Then later with the transition to SuperLuminova, “SWISS MADE” is inscribed, separated by the white bold hour marker line at six o’clock.
The reference 14270 may be the only model so far that was produced with black numerals on a black dial style from Rolex. The so-called “blackout” was launched in late 1990 to early 1991, with early E to early X serial case numbers, believed to total less than a year of production.
Within this short period, variations are classified into two main sub-categories, with the main difference being the font colour: the E serial featuring more silvery painted text, while the X serial’s fonts are painted in white and with an extended second hand lumen dot. The earliest E0 serials appear to have been fitted with a special second hand that has the position of the luminous dot closer to the tip. There are not many examples of the blackout that have appeared at auction or even in the general market, with the most recent transactions around HKD 180,000 at the time of publishing.
In their May 2019 auction, Phillip’s Hong Kong sold a reference 14270 with a so-called “error dial”, displaying an inverted hour marker at six o’clock. Compared with the standard dial, the ‘six’ in this particular dial was mounted upside down, which could be read as 3-9-9 instead of 3-6-9. The estimate was set as HKD 40,000-80,000 with the final result coming in at HKD 168,750. The cataloguing mentioned there are a few in the market, although these sorts of slips in quality control are not often seen from Rolex.
Looking at the variation within the decade-long production, it’s always amazing to think of these little differences which make collecting watches as a blessing or a curse, but one thing we cannot deny is that they all lead to a good watch.
T SWISS – T < 25
78360 558B/78690 SEL
*Variation applied on bracelet and endlinks.
When we talk about the reference 14270, it’s hard not to mention the reference 114270, as the two are always put together for consideration. With an overall design which is virtually identical, the major upgrade for the new reference was the movement. Calibre 3130 replaced the balance cock with a balance bridge, and was fitted with a Breguet overcoil hairspring. Some collectors think the change from cal.3000 to cal.3130 is not substantial to users, but others buy the point of a better shock absorption and Microstella balance for a more accurate time-keeping, for onlya small price premium. Other changes to the 114270, aside from the calibre, include the removal of the drilled lug holes which was introduced late in the production run of the reference 14270, and at the very end of the run, an engraved rehaut that included the case number.
The dilemma is always there when both reference 14270 and 114270 are available on a dealer’s viewing table. The final decision is personal, but the arguments are universal, mainly about going for the ‘vintage’ (relatively speaking) essence versus the more modern upgrades, especially when comparing the earliest 14270s to the very last examples of the 114270.
Considering market price reflects the actual supply and demand, the reference 114270 are slightly more expensive than the 14270, with more stock available in the market, when comparing SuperLuminova versions. Enthusiasts may hold different perspectives when it comes to collecting; given that every detail counts, the choice ultimately shows where the passion lies. While market prices reflect that buyers, in general, prefer the concept of “the newer the better”, we may agree to disagree in this particular instance.