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Affordable Alternatives to the Rolex Explorer 1

Posted on October 03 2017

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Northwind Watches

After previous failed attempts to conquer Everest a British team of mountaineers successfully scaled the worlds highest mountain. In 1953 Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first two humans to stand at the top of the world.

It's not clear what watch each of them wore, but Hillary was rumoured to have worn a British made Smith's to the summit. What isn't in doubt is that Rolex were the expeditions official watch supplier. To celebrate the successful ascent, and Rolex's contribution, the company released the Oyster Perpetual Explorer later that year.

A deceptively simple watch this is the most understated of Rolex's sports watches. Its lasting appeal has been that simplicity – rugged yet smart enough to wear to the office. A watch with high technical specifications but without a busy dial or rotating bezel.

Although the watch design and specifications have evolved through the decades since its introduction the basics are a constant.


Rolex Explorer 1 watch


  • Case of 36-39mm
  • Black Dial White Arabic Numbers at 3, 6 and 9
  • Automatic Movement
  • Mercedes Style Hands
  • Oyster Bracelet

The latest reference of what is now known as the Explorer 1 has been increased in size from the original 36mm to 39mm. The crystal is now sapphire and it uses Rolex's in-house movement Calibre 3132. The price reflects this quality and Rolex's position in the luxury watch market and puts the watch over the budget of many watch enthusiasts.

Here we introduce you to the best Explorer-style watches produced by a wide selection of watch manufacturers.


Smith's Everest

Timefactors Smith's Everest Watch


Whilst Rolex were the official suppliers of the 1953 expedition, Smith's were also represented at the summit. Quick to market their involvement Rolex is the name now associated with Everest. However, Smith's also ran ad campaigns to promote Hillary's De Luxe watch and later released an Everest branded version. Still, the world remembers Rolex's involvement more.

Smith's fine heritage came to an end in the 1980s, only for the name to be revived by Timefactors, a modern British based company. In a sense, the new Smith's Everest is a homage to both Rolex's watch and Smith's initial involvement with the original expedition.

At 40mm the Smith's is a little over the latest Explorers diameter. It's powered by the popular and reliable Japanese Miyota 9015 automatic movement and has the black dial and white 3, 6 and 9 numbers as expected. Timefactor's have opted for a domed acrylic crystal ensuring an authentic vintage aesthetic and a screw-down crown to compliment the 100M water resistance.


Zeno Explorer

Zeno Explorer Watch


Of all the Explorer inspired watches the Zeno Explorer is nearest to a full homage. Particularly notable is the case size. At 36mm this Swiss-made watch is the same size as Rolex's 1953 original. For many that will just add to the appeal of the Zeno, but the reduced size may not be suitable for others – particularly those drawn to modern watches. 

The styling, numbers and the domed acrylic crystal all add to the general feeling of authenticity. This certainly looks and feels like a modern take on a vintage classic and is a watch always mentioned when discussing Explorer alternatives. A favourite with watch enthusiasts. 



MkII Vantage

MKII Vantage Explorer Watch


MKII presents itself as an American company that produces Swiss-made watches. They do this in small numbers with their total annual output not exceeding 1000 watches. Those small numbers mean you have to buy one when you can.

The Vantage is clearly a 39mm homage to the Explorer 1. The dial, as expected is black with white markings. Simple. As it should be. There's the addition of a date window, but with it placed at 4 o'clock it doesn't interfere with the bold '3'. Like the Smith's there's a domed crystal, this time sapphire.

The Vantage is powered by a Swiss ETA 2824 movement. As expected the watch is therefore more expensive than the first two on this list. If you're keen to track down this watch there was also a special edition produced for New York based clothing store Epaulet. This more recent model added a red second hand for a slightly more contemporary look.


Armida A6

Armida A6 Explorer Watch


Hong Kong based Armida are best known for their range of dive watches, but the Explorer-style is a rugged tool watch and compliments their other offerings.

At first glance, you can immediately see the inspiration. Its heritage is Rolex's classic design. Yet, it's not a homage. The black dial and large numbers are there and the handset is as expected but there are a few subtle differences. Most obvious is the brass colouring of the hands, logo and chapter index. Unlike the Rolex, there's also a version available with a date. At 40mm both variations are slightly larger than their Swiss predecessor. Water-resistance comes in at a respectable 200M.

Like the Smith's, the A6 is powered by a Miyota 9105 automatic movement which is a Japanese alternative to the Swiss 2824 used in the MKII. The Miyota is a staple of the Microbrand watch world and is considered to be very reliable. Overall this is a great alternative to the original. The Explorer styling is obvious but so is Armida's own contribution. A perfect example of a classic design re-imagined.



Bernhardt Binnacle Anchor III

Bernahardt Binnacle Anchor III watch


American manufacturer Bernhardt has made two previous incarnations of the Binnacle Anchor. This, the third, is the nearest to the classic Explorer design. Primarily this is due to the addition of the Mercedes hands that weren't on the previous Bernhardt watches. This small change compliments the watch, but with the custom Anchor second hand it still retains its uniqueness.

In a similar manner, the dial is very close to the Rolex but also has its own design. In this case, there's the inclusion of the number 12 at the top of the dial rather than the triangular index seen on the Explorer and most of its homages. It works well, but it's maybe a step too far for those buyers who want a Rolex in all but name.

Like most of the homages this watch is significantly larger than the early Rolex and at 40mm is again slightly wider than the latest Explorer. Internally there's a Miyota movement, this time the 8215. Depending on how close an inspiration you'd like there's now a Binnacle Ancor IV which is very similar to the III but a little further away again from the classic Explorer.


Best of the Rest

For such a classic and durable design there are surprisingly few alternatives to the Rolex, unlike for example the Submariner. Still, there are a few others that are worth considering.

The Sinn 556 Explorer is a German-made alternative that only loosely resembles its Swiss namesake. It has a similar aesthetic but without any single feature actually being the same as the Rolex.

There's also a selection of cheaper homages, ranging from the blatant to the subtle.

The Timex Waterbury TW2P75100 is a very affordable Quartz alternative. Orient's WZ0091ER has been dubbed the 'Explorient' but appears very difficult to actually find. As is the ETA powered Sandoz Explorer, which at 36mm is one of only a few homages to retain Rolex's original size. If you're willing to take a punt on cheaper Chinese watches there's a number of manufacturers such as Alpha, Bagelsports, and Tiger Concepts also producing Explorer-style watches.

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