Perfecting the 36mm Explorer; the Rolex way...
The Rolex Explorer is the brand's most under-the-radar sports watch. Like all things Rolex, the model isn’t anything we haven't seen before though. It’s been on the scene in one way or another since 1953, and in those 68 years arguably two of the biggest visual evolutions the watch has seen include numeral font changes and a size increase in 2010 to 39mm.
Nevertheless, 11 years on we must say goodbye to the 39mm Explorer as the 36mm is back.
As you might expect, the new 36 Explorer (reference 124270) from Rolex feels extremely familiar to previous 36mm examples. When we went to shoot this watch we actually brought a 114270 with us so we could directly compare the two watches.
To give you an idea of how similar these watches truly are, we regularly found ourselves getting the two mixed up when passing the watches between ourselves.
The old Rolex Explorer 36 vs the new - the differences that matter
In the grand scheme of watch design and watchmaking, there are virtually no visual differences between these two watches. Even so, here are the most important differences we believe are tangible enough to make these watches stand out from each other.
Larger hour markers
Although these watches both share the same case widths, the 124270 has slightly larger hour markers. This isn’t just exclusive to the recognisable 3,6 and 9, as the 12 o’clock arrow and all other markers also have put on a little weight. The impact of this change is an increase in the perceived boldness of the watch.
The dial jumps off the wrist a lot more than previously, and in-person the dial aperture feels a little wider than the 114270.
The new bracelet
Here we find one of the biggest and most noticeable differences. The once old, rattly and sub-par bracelet has now received the full modern-day Rolex treatment. This includes a fully solid construction but also a new surprise: a generous taper. Now, I know a tapering bracelet can split watch collectors, but on the Explorer its hefty 5mm taper (19mm at the lugs down to 14mm at the buckle) is sure to remove any possibility of fence-sitting. You either love the heavy taper, or you’re against it.
For the record, I think it’s just what the Explorer needs. It pulls the attention towards the watch itself extremely subtly, while directly contributing to the watch’s comfort. I like to think of it as a little nod to the early sports watches from Rolex, which also had aggressive tapers.
The new buckle
Much like the bracelet, the buckle also receives a 21st-century update. This is the first 36mm Explorer to be fitted with the Rolex Easylink adjustment system, which allows the wearer to extend the bracelet out a further few millimetres whenever needed. It’s a feature that is unbelievably useful for the warmer months and is a complete night and day difference to the micro-adjustments that required a tool to make even the slightest alteration, as seen on older Rolex models.
The buckle is also much longer than the 114270 equivalent and is in general better aligned to the rest of the modern Rolex lineup.
The new movement
The largest and most tangible change on the 124270 is one that you cannot actually see, but its impact is unmissable. The beating heart of this new watch is the Rolex in-house calibre 3230.
First seen in 2020 when it was used to power the Oyster Perpetual and new Submariner, this movement is a big refresh for the Rolex lineup. It is equipped with 70 hours of power reserve, COSC certification with an accuracy reading of +2 seconds a day, further anti-magnetic properties and of course 28,800 vph. Taking advantage of the Chronergy escapement patented by Rolex, this is a thoroughly modern movement and one that is essential to the brand.
The ‘heft’ factor
Maybe this is cheating a little as in reality, the reason why the modern Explorer feels a lot more solid and dependable is down to those changes already mentioned. Either way, there is no doubt that the 124270 feels far more sustainable and dependable on the wrist. In fact, switching between the two 36 Explorers, the older model feels noticeably less refined, clunky and lacking in quality.
After saying all of this though, there is one caveat we should mention…
The ‘iPhone Upgrade’ Effect
You know that relatable feeling when you finally pick up your new phone after that much-needed upgrade? You peel off the plastic, enter your SIM card and get everything set up perfectly. But then you realise you need to jump back to your old phone for something, and suddenly that old phone you used for years without batting an eyelid feels decrepit, slow and results in you questioning how you ever put up with it for so long?
Well, that’s what the new Explorer feels like compared to the 114270 Explorer.
Once the 114270 is in front of you and both are in hand, suddenly you notice the rattly, partially hollow bracelet of the older model and its less than impressive taper. The age of the buckle starts to become noticeable, and its paper-thin metal construction feels scarily vulnerable. Those small dial changes that on paper don’t sound like much, are suddenly hugely evident. And that’s just a first impression.
One thing that is worth mentioning is that these points are emphasised a lot when both examples are hand in hand. Let’s not forget these watches are over 20 years apart from each other, so it's inevitable there will be a difference in quality. Remove each watch from the direct comparison and settle into life with your pick: whichever you go for will feel totally normal.
So, why wouldn’t you buy the 124270?
If (and we admit, it’s a big if) you can get one of the new Explorers at retail it would set you back £5,150. Of course, that isn’t pocket change for a lot of us, but have a quick look on Chrono24 at the Explorer 114270 and you’ll notice that they're trading for around £1,000 more. That’s over £1,000 more for a watch that is over 20 years old, which on paper is statistically worse in every way.
So why shouldn’t owners of the 114270 be selling up and adding their name to every waiting list in the country, hoping to secure that upgrade and a £1,000 heavier wallet? In my eyes, I don’t see why people aren’t doing exactly that. The 124270 is simply brilliant. But there is one reason I can think of as to why people won’t be doing just that. And ironically, it’s probably the most powerful reason.
It’s the same reason why we all obsess and spend vast amounts of time and money on these things: the emotional connection.
As humans, we build funny, almost unexplainable bonds with the little pieces of metal we wear on our wrist. They’re present at big life moments: both the happy and the sad ones. They’re a constant in our lives and experience everything exactly as we do. We don’t use them for a long time each day, just a quick glance down to the wrist. But those quick glances over the years accumulate and help shape our inexplicable bonds to the humble wristwatch.
This new generation of Explorer feels bulletproof. It's nothing new from their modern lineup, it's just great to see this current technology being included in such a classically sized and original model such as the 36 Explorer. But all this doesn’t matter, because if you feel a strong connection to your 114270, chances are you probably won’t upgrade. If it was me? I’d upgrade tomorrow, but then again I don’t have a 114270 on my wrist.
Whether you buy into the company’s marketing or not, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Rolex knows how to make a damn good watch. That marketing is consistently backed up by a product that is brilliant in the hand and on the wrist.
Talking about such an important watch from a brand like Rolex isn’t an easy thing to do. So rather than this being a review to share how shocked I am about how well Rolex has done here, I guess I'm here to praise Rolex for going against their current focus of supersizing models, to bring the world something for the right reasons.
I’m sure that a 41mm Explorer would have been a hit, much like the 41mm Submariner and 41mm Oyster Perpetual - but that would have potentially meant that the 36mm Explorer wouldn’t have returned to the range, and this would have been a huge loss.
I’m just incredibly pleased Rolex went against this commercially-focussed approach with the Explorer to honour the brand’s past endeavours.
Out of all of the sports watches to have received an update in recent years, the Explorer 1 is the only one to have reduced in size. Ironically it's a decision that makes the most subtle Rolex stand out the most.
That and of course the steel and yellow gold option two-tone option, but we’ll leave that one for another day...
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