Two of the most popular Rolex sports watches go head to head, but which is better?

The Rolex Submariner and the Rolex Explorer. Two massive players in the watch world, both from the same brand, both introduced in the early 50s, both packed with stories and provenance and both loved by many.

But which model is the ‘best’? What exactly makes these two watches specifically so different yet so evenly matched? And the bigger picture here, which of the two should you add to your collection?

Not an easy debate

Simply put, this isn’t an easy question to answer. The Rolex Submariner and the Rolex Explorer have achieved legendary status in their own rights. The Submariner was introduced to tackle the great seas, oceans and bodies of waters of the planet.

The Explorer’s forte is land. From the tallest mountains and peaks to the deepest caves, most hidden forests and vast deserts.

Now, although Sir Edmund Hillary wore an early version of the Explorer up to Mount Everest and Auguste Piccard was involved in taking a specially made Submariner down to 3,100 metres, not everyone in 2019 will be following in their footsteps when strapping their favourite Rolex to their wrist.

When deciding on a new watch, being able to know what it’s really like to spend actual on wrist time with these watches in real-world situations is what matters. This is something we’re looking into today.

We've put together four different yet common situations that the 21st-century wrist will experience putting a 2008 16610 Submariner head to head with a 2005 Rolex Explorer 114270 to see which model will come out on top. Let’s start with a popular environment for many...

Everyday / Office wear

Whether you work in an office day to day or you spend a weekend sat on your computer the environment ‘office wear’ falls under is pretty relatable. Normally a little smarter than casual, office wear essentially means ‘smart casual’ for most of us. The winner here should be able to pull off smart, casual and a mixture of the two pretty perfectly.

The Rolex Submariner

First up we have the Submariner and right away one extremely useful function jumps out at me. The date window at 3 o’clock is endlessly handy for when the weekdays just seem to be disappearing from you. To be able to quickly glance down at your wrist to work out at what stage of the month you’re in is very advantageous.

Although not for it’s intended purpose, a rotating bezel is brilliant to use for keeping track of office related things. How long a meeting has been, a reminder as to how long you have until you need to do something, keeping track of how long a lunch break has been. All of these are genuine situations I have coincidently used the bezel on my watch.

It’s not all positive however as the watch, although versatile for more smart outfits, it is thicker which means it's not the easiest to slip under a cuff.

Straps for the Rolex Submariner

If you’re looking to wear the Submariner in regular office wear, you’ll want to go for a comfortable hard wearing strap that can maintain the watches versatility. A stand out classic option here is the Simple Handmade Italian Leather strap. This is made up of high-quality Italian leather, stitching around the lugs, a 4mm taper from 20mm to the buckle and a thickness that is perfect with the Submariner.

The Rolex Explorer

So, how does the Explorer perform in an office environment? Well to start with this particular model is smaller, coming in at 36mm. That 4mm difference hits quite a few strong points. The reduced footprint of the watch means it’s easier to wear day in and day out. The smaller size is also in line with the thickness which is reduced by 2mm from the Submariner meaning any issues with slides undershirt and jacket cuffs isn’t present here.

Much like the Submariner, the simple, purposeful design emphasises its versatility from casual office wear to smarter. The smaller size and lack of rotating bezel mean its subtle design is less prominent and recognisable on the wrist, a desirable trait for some. The lack of date can be seen either as a positive or negative.

For what the Explorer lacks in date telling, it makes up for in a symmetrical and balanced dial.

Straps for the Rolex Explorer.

For office wear, I’d put the Explorer on a great grey leather strap, like the Soft Top Grain. Grey is a colour everyone should wear regularly as it’s versatility is a match made in heaven for the Explorer.

Sports / Exercise

The next topic is something that both watches can of course handle with ease. Watches to be worn when doing exercise should ideally be able to very durable with good resistance to shock. As they will be paired with very casual sports clothes, the winner here should feel pretty comfortable when dressed down.

The Rolex Submariner

Straight away, a few stand out features of the Submariner makes it a strong contender for winning this round. First up, is that rotating bezel again. What was useful earlier for timing meetings, is also perfect for timing workouts, swims and runs. The watch with it’s 300m of water resistance and triplock system for the screw down crown adds an additional level of security and reassurance on the wrist.

Of course, with a larger 40mm case width, the Submariner has arguably more legibility when exercising due to that size increase over the Explorer. And, if you find yourself sticking to the metal bracelet the increased amount of micro-adjustments means you can make more changes as your body warm up.

Rolex Submariner Straps

When it comes to sports with the Submariner, it works perfectly on a good old NATO. A rubber NATO is a great way to go here, with the ever-popular ZULUDIVER 328 Italian Rubber NATO being a go to. Colour wise? As the watch is so versatile you can go for any here as they all work so well, but a nice red really pops.

The Rolex Explorer

Based on all of the positives mentioned above for the Submariner, it sounds like the Explorer is going to have a hard time beating it in this round. A water resistance of 100m is, of course, usable but you the benefits of 300m with the Submariner is hard to ignore. The case at 36mm can feel a little more delicate and almost dressy which can make it feel a little out of place during exercise.

The final point which is against the Explorer is the lack of ability to time exercises or workouts. It doesn’t sound like a big aspect of a watch, but having a rotating bezel to make a note of when you started is very valuable.

The Rolex Explorer Straps

If you’re wearing your Explorer for exercise or sports, the Tropic Rubber is a practical, breathable option that can really make the Explorer feel sporty with a touch of the old school. It just so happens to be ridiculously comfortable.

Weekend / Social Occasions

So, you’re out of the office, your fitness sessions are over and you want a watch that you feel comfortable wearing around friends and family that feels appropriate, comfortable and suitable to a more relaxed environment. This is a really tricky one to choose between them, but I’ll give it a go...

The Rolex Submariner

Here the Submariner’s sporty, almost more youthful side comes into play. The rotating bezel that was once useful is potentially a little overkill now, as when you’re relaxing with friends and family, making sure things happen at an exact time is less important.

I believe the Submariner is one of the most versatile watches available when it comes to replacement watch straps. Leather, nylon, rubber or metal, the Submariner looks equally great on all of these. And, a relaxed casual environment is a perfect place to fully experiment.

The one point to mention is it can look quite a ‘serious watch’. With the black bezel and dial, it can almost look quite severe sometimes. Especially with how glossy black the dial really is.

The Rolex Submariner Straps

When it comes to straps for the Submariner, a solid option that really compliments a more relaxed social scene is a good NATO. Here once again grey is the option to go for as it will basically go with anything. This is the soft, silky touch Iridescent NATO and it’s easily one of the most comfortable NATOs available.

The Rolex Explorer

So how does the Explorer, perform in a more relaxed weekend or social occasion? Well, in short, extremely well. The time only function of the watch is more suitable to a relaxed, enjoying the moment approach that time with friends has. Who needs to know the date on a relaxing weekend anyway? Of course, the lack of date means no date to set. If you’re looking to wear the watch exclusively at the weekend then all you’ll need to do it set the time and you’re off.

It's not just the function of the watch that suits social occasions but also the smaller 36mm width. Having a smaller footprint on the wrist means its strength lie where the Submariner weaknesses are. That smaller case as well is more suitable to a range of weekend outfits with the occasional smart look every now and then.

The Rolex Explorer Straps

For me, this strap choice is a no brainer. Sometimes you just can’t beat the simple looks, and the Geckota Winstone MKII Vintage Leather in Dark Brown is exactly that. This German leather strap may just look like a standard brown two-piece strap with stitching around the lugs, but the thinner profile, unique variation available and small break in period make it perfect for the Explorer.

Formal Wear

Now, this is a tricky one. When we say formal dress we basically mean suit and tie, three-piece suit or black tie dress codes. Anything, where you need to wear some of the most formal clothes available, we’re regarding as formal. Let’s get into it.

The Rolex Submariner

Now, of course, the Sub wasn’t intended to be worn in formal occasions. However, it didn’t take long for James Bond to be seen wearing one and a popular advert showing a Submariner 5513 on the wrist of a man wearing a suit. The combination of a black dial and black bezel plays off each other to create a classy, timeless dressy look.

The Submariner sticks with very simple effective round indices balanced out with longer indices at 6 and 9 o’clock. If this was a no date Submariner, the piece would look even cleaner.

Naturally, on the right strap, the watches ability to have a dressy aesthetic is only enhanced...

The Rolex Submariner Straps

Here we can really see just how well the watch can perform in dressy occasions. The Ostrich Leg Simple Handmade in Brown blurs the lines between the strap and the dial details creating a very coherent look. This combo is perfect with a great blue suit.

The Rolex Explorer

Most adverts for the Explorer tend to lean towards mountains, whether that be skiing down one or climbing one. Although the Explorer didn’t receive an iconic suit wearing on wrist shot ad, it just so happens Mr Ian Fleming himself was regularly seen wearing one.

When it comes to the Explorer, the smaller size width and thickness will mean it can easily slip under jacket sleeves and go a little more unnoticed. The fact the watch is time only with no rotating bezel feels more appropriate for more formal occasions.

With this more modern model, the 3,6 and 9 potentially are a little more sporty than you would expect to see with a suit. Ideally, I’d recommend a 1016 Explorer mainly because of those numerals having a more classic look (Nothing to do with the fact I'm addicted to that watch...)

The Rolex Explorer straps

Strap wise for the Explorer in a formal situation, I’d go for something classy and elegant like the Calmsden. Depending on suit colour, both black or brown work here.

What Is The best Rolex To Buy?

So which watch should you buy? The Submariner is a more recognisable, obvious choice that is more prominent on the wrist. Whereas the Explorer is massively under the radar. Only watch collectors really notice what's on your wrist. Personally, I find the addition of a date and bezel very useful with both being used daily.

The Explorer’s smaller size and footprint on the wrist, with asymmetrical dial and lower price point, will attract many people. As a first luxury watch, the Explorer is a seriously strong option. However, for many the Submariner is Rolex. If you show anyone an image of the Submariner, they will know its Rolex which for some could be positive or negative.

Both bracelets have the same hollow centre link design but with solid end links, meaning the fit on both is solid but the bracelets are lighter than newer models

Can The Rolex Explorer Overtake The Submariner In Popularity?

The increase in price of the Rolex Submariner 16610 over recent years - Image and information credit: Chrono24

Of course, both of these models continue to see consistent growth in popularity in recent years. As you can see from the above graph, the Submariner has seen quite a steep increase in the past two years in price from around £4,500 to touching around £6,000 in recent months.

The increase in price of the Rolex Explorer 114270 over recent years - Image and information credit: Chrono24

Whereas the Explorer although still growing, is a much more steady consistent growth in popularity over the past three years. With the trend of smaller watches at the moment and the fact Rolex doesn’t offer an Explorer brand new at 36mm, it’s hard to argue this model won’t continue its growth and reap the financial rewards that almost all other sports Rolex watches have experienced.

Which Is The Best Rolex?

The mighty Submariner and humble Explorer were designed to excel in their own fields, both without missing a beat and incidentally, looking pretty incredible and timeless at the same time. And in the 21st century, not a lot has changed.

The goal posts have been moved a little with most capable watches spending time on the wrist of people who don’t fully explore those capabilities. At the end of the day if you’re not sure which if you should go for the Submariner or Explorer, go for the watch that speaks to you the most. You won’t regret it.