What? You thought we’d forgotten? No, of course, we weren’t going to cover Baselworld 2011 without commenting on Rolex’s new Explorer II. Regular readers know, it’s a watch that’s very close to our hearts. Your editors simply love the Explorer. Whether it’s vintage, modified or new, the Explorer, in many ways, represents all that is good about Rolex: the tool-watch par excellence. The Fool tends towards the regular Explorer, whereas Six has always been an Explorer II man. So, what do our two Explorer fans make of the 2011 refresh? It’s a hot potato of a question so, to avoid another unseemly squabble, we asked each of them in turn.
The Prodigal Fool
The Explorer II was probably the most frustrating model I saw at Baselworld this year.
There is so much to like here yet also so much to berate the brand for.
On the plus side, the new dial (as long as you choose the lovely matte black) with its ‘maxi’ look is fantastic: the enlarged markers with their black borders, the large hands and the stunning orange GMT arrow with accompanying Explorer II lettering on the dial (a tribute to the original 1971 model that manages to look modern not fake-retro) are all great design cues that work really well together. I also – although initially a little unsure about it – have come to really like the new bezel and its markings.
And the engineering is a big step forward too. I love the new bracelet (we raved about it on the new Explorer; it’s great to see it come to the Explorer II) and the innards of the piece: the new in-house calibre 3187 with Parachrom hairspring, a Breguet overcoil, a large and variable inertia balance wheel. And, just like the Explorer last year, the whole thing is protected by Paraflex shock absorbers. There are 31 jewels and the cal 3187 has a power reserve of about 48 hours.
So far, so stunning. But here’s the rub, what I simply can’t abide is Rolex’s current obsession with ‘super-sizing’ its cases. It’s already ruined the Submariner and the GMT-Master II and now it’s done it to the Explorer II. Let’s be clear, this is not simply a matter of size. As long as they are properly proportioned and it’s appropriate for the brand, some large watches work very well (think Panerai’s Historic range). No, the real problem here is that it’s also a matter of shape and heritage.
The super-sizing process distorts the look of the watch and how it sits on the bracelet. The lugs look oddly extended, the sides of the case strangely bloated and angular. There’s a sharpness, a lack of sophistication to the whole thing that makes it look more like a fake than the real thing.
Without wanting to repeat what we’ve already written on The Guide, what used to make Rolex great – and what has sustained one of the most thriving used watch markets in horology – is the fact that their models used to be serious tool watch, yet elegant and subdued enough to look good in any rarefied environment.
Let me be blunt: nothing in the current range – with the exception of the current Explorer, which JUST about treads the right side of the line – can make that claim. They’re now all too bling.
I’m not stupid, I understand why Rolex is doing it. The company has some of the brightest marketers in the business. They’re extremely savvy and know their market well. There’s a lot of new money out there that they’re chasing and that money gravitates towards the flashier, bigger, blinger looking product. They’ll sell a lot of these new watches, no doubt. I get it. I just don’t like it. And I can’t help wondering whether the new models will hold their value the way previous generations have. I suspect not.
As you all know, I’m a huge fan of the previous Rolex Explorer and Explorer II. In fact, I owned them both before trading the pair in for a couple of old horlogical farts, albeit from the same brand.
To my eyes and finger-tips, the previous generation Explorer and Explorer II were the finest toolwatch duo in watch history. Ever. Think those are mere words that cost nothing? Well, after one dark evening during which I “lost” my Explorer II, I went out the next day and bought another one. Cause that’s how I roll.
Back to the matter at hand. We’d clocked the same video teaser that Rolex issued last year that you had, showing us a maxi-hands version with orange GMT hand. I then commented that I wasn’t holding my breath on what would finally emerge, given it only made sense for Rolex to use the maxi-case that has corrupted the Submariner/ Sea-Dweller/GMT. I don’t use the word “corrupted” lightly, as the larger case has fundamentally unbalanced the Explorer II in a manner that no dial design could ever hope to help it recover from.
As The Fool points out, the new movement and bracelet/clasp are just dynamite. They deserve a round of applause if only because the bracelets on the previous generation Explorer and Explorer II weren’t particularly worthy of the watch they were linked to, or the price tag for that matter. But when that applause dies down you’re left with a hulking, case-heavy piece that I personally find infuriating and sad all at the same time.
It’s infuriating because there were ways of downsizing the new design and pulling off something that would have been a lovely progression from the previous Explorer II. There is merit to many of the details the Fool picked up on above (the modern appearance of the matte dial, contrasting so nicely with the hands and orange 24-hour hand) but just as you gulp to swallow it all down, you get hit with the bit that suddenly makes everything go quiet: the case. Let’s be clear: this watch is badly proportioned. End of. It’s the same criticism I leveled at the new Explorer that The Fool purchased, the ratio between the bracelet and the case is simply dead wrong.
Shit. This is genuinely heart-breaking for me to admit, but there isn’t a single watch in the current Rolex line-up I want or would recommend. I know Rolex isn’t fussed. Plenty more fish in the sea with deeper pockets, as Europe and North America implode with unsustainable debt. But take a look around, dear Rolex. We’re in the middle of a recession and here you are swinging your dick around like a fat cat who just strolled out of the Kitty Cat club at 3 AM with another $50k in his pocket to blow. It’s wrong. It’s offensive. It doesn’t reflect where many of us are are right now.
Thank God, Tudor is taking up where Rolex has left off. But Tudor has to prove it can do more than re-issue classic pieces and that it has enough staying power to command the prices it’s asking for the new Tudor Advisor, for example. So, it smells like a hand-over to me and who knows where this will all go. There is one thing I can tell you for sure though: the vintage Rolex market is loving all this. I’m in there with them, as we laugh our asses off and revel in the fact that Rolex’s greatness lies in what it was, not in what it is becoming. And people, there is a mind-boggling amount of vintage Rolex worth buying…
Truth be told, I do actually want to buy another Explorer II (cause good things come in threes)! And lacking the cash for a really great cream-dialled 16550, I think I may just buy a last of line, black-dialled 16570. Cause when a watch is perfect, there’s never a good enough reason to screw with it.
Photo credit: Thanks to our friends at Hodinkee from whom we shamelessly stole the photo of the black-dialled new Explorer II.
Baselworld 2011: The new Rolex Explorer II teases and frustrates
What? You thought we’d forgotten? No, of course, we weren’t going to cover Baselworld 2011 without commenting on Rolex’s new Explorer II. The Prodigal Fool and Straight-Six each give you their perspective on this year’s refresh of a watch that is so close to our hearts. Oh, and it’s only fair to warn you, you’re about to see at least one grown man cry.
Editors Timothy Barber and Alex Doak are both lifestyle journalists of long standing with some of the deepest expertise and plumpest address books in the worlds of horology, motoring, food and drink, travel and all things luxurious. Much more importantly, they’re top chaps who share our passion for excellence, our vision for TPG and our penchant for a shandy or two.
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