How the Rolex Explorer Became the Watch of Choice for Pioneers and Explorers

How the Rolex Explorer Became the Watch of Choice for Pioneers and Explorers

Luxury watches like the Rolex Explorer are versatile timepieces. They work for all occasions, from celebrity galas to corporate meetings. However, only a few of them are as synonymous with outdoor adventure as the Rolex Explorer.

Over the past Century, the Rolex brand has been associated with high-octane outdoor adventure in many ways. The watch leading that charge is the Rolex Explorer. This highly durable and incredibly versatile watch has been seen accompanying various daredevil explorers on some of the most challenging adventures ever. Whether braving the Himalayas’ peaks or crossing the polar caps, the aptly named Explorer has been on every adventure imaginable.

But how did this happen? How did a high-end watch collection manage to become the watch of choice for adventurous pioneers and daredevil explorers? In this article, we’ll explore the history of the Rolex Explorer and its journey to the adventurer’s favorite timekeeper.

The Rolex Spirit of Exploration

The Rolex brand has a long and interesting history with outdoor exploration. It began as far back as the 1920s, even before the Explorer was born. This period of history is often referred to as the golden age of exploration. Men and women were attempting to reach the highest peaks on the planet and conquer previous uncharted territories.

In the record-breaking frenzy that characterized that period, the Rolex brand saw an opportunity to venture into an unusual field. To do this, it’ll have to build a timepiece that could withstand the harsh conditions that characterized the difficult terrains the explorers of that period were trying to brave.

To go beyond red carpets and celebrity endorsements, Rolex had to build durable watches. The best way to do this while also riding the wave of international attraction that these daring exploration feats attracted was to partner with the pioneering explorations of the time. Consequently, Rolex began sponsoring some of these expeditions, especially those looking to conquer the peaks of the Himalayas.

In doing this, the brand also uncovered an additional benefit: the opportunity to test its watches in real-life demanding situations. While the unconquered peaks of the Himalayas held a fascination and appeal for climbers from all over the world, to Rolex, it was a living, breathing laboratory. Here, the company could test its inventions in an environment that pushed it to the limit. Between 1933 and 1955, Rolex collaborated with explorers on up to 17 expeditions to some of the world’s highest peaks. Part of the deal was to equip the adventurers with the brand’s watches.

Building Watches For The Peaks

As a seasoned watchmaker, the Rolex company knew how to build highly fashionable high-end watches. In the early 20th century, the challenge was to build super-durable ones. Things like dust, moisture, and freezing temperatures that characterize rugged terrains like the peak of Everest can cause significant damage to the complex mechanism powering watches.

On the other hand, explorers needed durable watches that could withstand difficult conditions. Knowing how to tell the time of day in most rough terrains played a key role in survival. With no visual reference points and possibly no distinction between night and day, being unable to tell the time can make an already difficult adventure perilous.

Rolex developed the Oyster case specifically for this. The perfectly sealed case was invented and patented in 1926. To test the waterproofness of this innovative casing, Rolex asked explorers to wear watches fitted with Oyster casing on their expeditions. This made it possible to test the casing in real-life conditions, see how it held up, and make iterative adjustments.

Famous polar explorer Henry Georges “Gino” Watkins was one of the adventurers who took Rolex watches for a spin. He wore these watches on his expeditions along the coast of England in the 1930s and gave positive reports about their durability.

The vision for Rolex was to build powerful watches whose resistance, precision, and legibility wouldn’t fail in difficult situations. The Rolex Explorer was the culmination of efforts to develop such a powerful timepiece built to last regardless of the terrain.

Conquering Everest

After many years of trying, man finally conquered Everest in 1953. The expedition was organized by the British Joint Himalayan Committee, with a 16-man team led by Sir John Hunt. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first known explorers to reach the summit. In addition to the main team, hundreds of porters assisted with the climb by assisting with carrying supplies for the trip.

The climb supplies included several sophisticated equipment meticulously packed for the trip. But beyond special climbing boots and durable shelters, the explorers also had Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches to accompany them on the trip.

In the words of Sir John himself, “The Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches, with which members of the British team were equipped, again proved their dependability on Everest.” The watches not only held up well in the harsh conditions of Everest but also maintained time accurately and were an essential part of the gear used by the explorers for the climb.

Introducing the Rolex Explorer

Although it is often rumored that the success of Everest prompted Rolex to design the Explorer, the watch was already in development before 1953. Conquering Everest with a Rolex did help cement the watchmaker’s reputation and confirm that Rolex could indeed build functional watches for explorers.

Rolex officially unveiled the Explorer in 1953. It was a simple but functional watch built to withstand temperatures up to -20C and +40C without getting damaged. The watch also had a luminous dial, which allowed low-light visibility. It was powered by superbly resilient caliber 3230 movements designed to keep functioning even when faced with powerful magnetic fields, dust, moisture, and other types of shock.

Due to the robustness and durability of this watch, the Explorer soon became a favorite among adventurers like mountaineers, polar explorers, and spelunkers. Rolex introduced the Explorer II in 1971. It was based on the design of the Original Explorer with added upgrades such as a metal bezel, a 24-hour clock, and a second-hour hand or GMT hand.

Famous Adventurers that Wore the Rolex Explorer

Throughout the decades, the Explorer has been on countless adventures on the wrist of some of the most renowned adventurers in the world. The durable watch has traversed the frozen plains of Antarctica and reached the summit of some of the world’s highest mountains. Here are some of the most famous explorers who notably wore Rolex Explorers on major expeditions. 

Erling Kagge

Norwegian Erling Kagge is famous for its dare-devil feat of becoming the first person to conquer the “the three extremes”, the North Pole, the South Pole and the summit of Everest. In 1990, Kagge and Børge Ousland became the first two people ever to reach the North Pole unassisted, traveling approximately 800 kilometers on skis.

Barely two years later, he set out on another adventure, this time to the South Pole alone. In 1993, he completed the first solo expedition to the South Pole, covering over 800 miles in 50 days without external support. A year later, Erling Kagge set out to conquer Mount Everest. Kagge completed the Trifecta of achievements (otherwise known as the ‘three poles challenge’) with an Explorer II wristwatch on his wrist.

Ed Viesturs

Ed Viesturs is a seasoned mountaineer reputed for climbing the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) without supplemental oxygen. He was the 5th person ever to complete this challenge. Viesturs has climbed these peaks repeatedly (up to 21 times), and 7 of these involved climbing Mount Everest.

According to Viesturs, his wristwatch is a key part of his equipment because it directly impacts the safety and success of every adventure. Viesturs has been wearing Explorer II since 1994, which he claimed has never failed him. In addition to being durable, he testifies to the watch being easy to read in the dark and the robust self-winding technology.

Rune Gjeldnes

Rune Gjeldnes is an explorer familiar with venturing into difficult terrains where time is precious. He was the first person to cross the entire length of Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, and Antarctica on skis unaided. The expedition, named the Longest March, was sponsored by Rolex and earned him a Guinness World Record.

Expectedly, Gjeldnes had an Explorer II on his wrist during this entire trip. The terrain he had to navigate for this expedition was not only difficult, it was also characterized by perpetual sunlight. With no difference between night and day, Gjeldnes’ Explorer II watch was a valuable companion that played a crucial role in structuring his days and schedule throughout the expedition.

Christine Janin

In 1977, Christine Janin became the first woman to reach the North Pole without assistance from anyone, including dogs. She has also scaled some of the highest peaks in the world on all continents. Many of her expeditions took her to altitudes of up to 8,000 meters at freezing temperatures of up to –50°C. Defying the limits like this meant pushing one’s body to the very limit. In addition to the physical endurance and exceptional mental resilience, Janin believes being able to calculate and time one’s move carefully was an important part of such expeditions.


Today, the original Rolex Explorer and the many variations that came after it are still associated with an unwavering spirit of adventure. A product of years of research and technical investment, the watch remains a testament to the enduring desire to push boundaries, not just of Rolex company but of the brave men and women whose brave achievements inspired the creation of one of the most durable Rolex watches ever made.