I’ve read and heard there are some basic stages of watch collecting and nerdery. Rolex being one of the most recognizable brands in the world brings many in and sets an initial standard for design and quality. A collector will oftentimes go from there or start in kind of an anti-Rolex matter as they discover the sheer volume of vast other options, especially with vintage watches and so many have such neat storied history. And the final stage is the (usually) inevitable return to Rolex or at least the eventual holding of Rolex in a different light than the second stage of looking everywhere but. I tend to be somewhat naturally interested in the less obvious choices, things that are more geared to those in the know or the other obsessive and detailed types and I will admit that I too am guilty of this pattern.
I will still maintain that I’m not a Rolex guy; I spent the first few years of my interest in watches looking for anything but. There is just so much more out there that’s just as or more interesting, has the history, provenance, or design, particularly when looking at vintage watches. But, in nearly every one of those storied pasts, Rolex is somehow involved, as a player, a competitor, or an alternative. And speaking of history, you absolutely cannot deny Rolex’, especially when looking at their impressive array of tool watches that were used as such in a myriad of extraneous environments. Rolex just seemed like too obvious of a choice, and it always kind of bothered me that as you dove deeper, what appealed to those in the know were variances in fonts or serifs or such miniscule cosmetic details that could drastically effect prices. But putting that aside, I do get it. I somewhat got it when I stopped resisting the crown as I developed more and more respect while learning its history, but you really get it once you’ve had a chance to wear and appreciate the intangible feeling or presence it has over you, like some non-detectable force that you just cannot deny.
Naturally, the Explorer, particularly the 1016 Explorer, was the model that drew me in. In a modern sense it’s the least Rolex, Rolex, or the most anti-Rolex. It’s modestly sized at 36 mm (A 39mm option is now available), has no complications, no date, no cyclops, no turning or fluted bezel, no diamonds, no nothing. In the classic sense, it’s about as pure as it gets, turned into an official model once it was used to summit Mt. Everest. It’s rugged, purpose built, no nonsense, and about as clean and simple as a watch can be. The 1016 is one of my favorite watch designs of the mid-century era, and that’s considering how many great watches came out of that time (including my absolute favorite, the original Heuer Carrera 2447 / 3647). The 1016 remained largely unchanged for over 40 years, and still remains one of the most true to the original in Rolex’ current lineup. However, I must not be the only one that feels this way as 1016 prices have been strong since I’ve been interested and have only risen in the last few years with an increasing interest in vintage watches. It’s nearly impossible to find a quality 1016 for less than $12,000 these days.
Enter the 14270, the first “modern” Explorer, introduced in late 1989, and the first major refresh of the model in some 27 years. The 14270 brought a sapphire crystal and the now standard white gold hour marker surrounds. I will admit that I did not like this watch at first. The white gold surrounds and metallic 3, 6, and 9 markers felt too blingy, and the font too large and sterile, lacking the warmth and charm of the 1016. However, as I started looking at more and more Explorers, I was exposed to Explorer II’s of the same era (ref. 16570) and I started seeing the great patina many of those were starting to develop, so the promise of future warmth and charm started to become appealing. With the 14270, I could get very close to the 1016, at a quarter of the price and be able to enjoy seeing the watch change over years of wear.
I should mention that around the time I started to fall for the Explorer 1, my wife was pregnant with our first child. We didn’t know the gender, but the thought of buying a watch to commemorate the life event if it was a boy, to give to him say on his 30th birthday was lingering in the back of my head. As I continued to learn more about the 14270’s, what to look for and what is correct, I knew they were the last of the tritium dial Explorer's, but I didn’t realize this last batch was produced in 1997, exactly twenty years before my impending child’s birth year. Maybe I was starting to build a case to talk myself into liking the watch or maybe the stars were aligning, but we had a boy, and the hunt was on.
14270’s aren’t particularly hard to find, a few pop up on the forums and through dealers each month, and there is a steady supply, mainly via Japan on eBay, but finding the “right” combination of condition and price, from 1997 gave me something to hunt for, as I talk about in this editorial rambling. With prices between $3500 in good condition maybe without a bracelet, and $4700, in great condition with bracelet, it really kind of represents a good “value” as far as Rolex’ go, and you have to think this watch is probably not going to get any cheaper either. (I always put “value” in quotes because thinking about spending thousands of dollars on something that tells time is always a bit subjective, but considering almost any new or preowned Rolex starts at $3000 - $4000, this did represent a relative “value”). The one I found was at a good price and in honest condition; a few scratches on the bezel, but an otherwise very sharp case in original and correct condition. I actually missed out one towards the higher end of the spectrum in nearly NOS (new old stock) condition because it came up the weekend we brought the baby home, so I still hadn’t fully committed yet, but I’m also of the opinion that I would maybe have a hard time buying and wearing a watch in that condition for fear of putting the first marks on it.
Like many times while waiting for a watch to arrive, I had fears of doubt running through my head; mainly what if I didn’t connect with it, what if the neo-vintage thing or Rolex isn’t right for me, what if I actually did just talk myself into liking it and that will eventually wear off? Well, I’ve had the watch for three months, and I’m very glad I did talk myself into it. I’ve heard people say it, and I get it and acknowledged that it was probably true, but there really is something about wearing it that makes it something special, that sets Rolex apart, and once you really wear the watch you get it. There’s a certain presence, a feeling of solidness with refinement, everything being designed to fit together just so. Those that go nuts for the way a nice German car’s door closes know what I’m talking about. The watch feels so refined but so rugged, so smooth and so wearable without trying, it really is hard to describe other than it’s really, really good…and satisfying.
So yes, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this is another plug for the worst kept secret that is buying neo-vintage watches. Some of the classic designs from the mid to late 1990’s (I preface the term classic here as not include some of the weird watches from the 90’s, looking at you plastic bezel Tag Heuer’s), that have the last of the tritium dials, that might be the last generation of watches where the lume really develops patina because of the switch to luminova, are largely overlooked, and not particularly expensive compared to their true vintage counterparts. But I digress, this post is really about succumbing to the power of the crown that is Rolex, and why that power exists and is deserved.
I will still maintain that I’m not a Rolex guy, but I get it. And I appreciate the subs, GMT’s, Datejusts, etc., and the people that are passionate about them. Will I buy another? Who knows, but I can say that I’m very much looking forward to watching my son grow up and creating memories with this on my wrist in hopes of giving him a fifty year old watch on his thirtieth birthday.