Posted on March 12 2020
One of my most popular articles is our list of affordable alternatives to the Rolex Explorer. There’s little surprise that readers, shopping on a budget, want a watch a little more modestly priced than the classic Rolex.
The Explorer is the quintessential tool watch.
Inspired by the 1953 ascent of Everest, the Explorer is a no-frills design, originally marketed as the adventurers choice. It has simple colouring, a relatively spartan dial, and can be worn in the field or office. At 39mm the current model is a modestly sized timepiece.
Launched in 1971, the Explorer II is its bolder and larger big brother. This is very much a sports watch and as you'll see has features that meant it became the Rolex model linked to polar explorers and cavers.
Whereas the original Explorer’s appeal was its simplicity and legibility, the Explorer II has additional features designed to aid its performance in the toughest environments.
First is the increase in size.
The bigger case means additional space on the dial which in turn allows for larger markers.
Another key feature is the inclusion of a 24hr hand. On the current model, this is a small orange pointer. Rotating once a day, the hand works in conjunction with the fixed 24hr bezel. This allows the wearer to know not only the time but whether it is day or night.
Hence, the watches popularity with polar explorers who can experience unbroken daylight and cavers who can spend a full day in the dark.
It also has a date display and the crystal has a cyclops window that magnifies its display.
In keeping with the original Explorer and the Submariner, the watch has mercedes style hands. There’s the option of two dial colours. Black and White. The white variation is often referred to as the ‘Polar Explorer’.
So if we are looking for an affordable alternative we’re expecting most of the following.
- 24hr hand.
- 24hr bezel.
- Date with cyclops magnification.
Steinhart Ocean Vintage GMT
Unsurprisingly, Steinhart has made it onto a couple of my lists.
Stylistically, the German brand has a number of designs inspired by Rolex. With a strong preference for the vintage look, they have models reminiscent of the Submariner, Explorer II and Daytona.
Steinhart are far from a homage brand. Their watches being powered by their own movements – using a Swiss ETA base.
The Ocean Vintage GMT is clearly based on the original 1971 version of the Explorer, with the only real change being the lack of a cyclops lens.
It has a 42mm case, and like the Rolex, is powered by an automatic movement. A nice nod to the obvious vintage inspiration is the Superluminova "old radium" lume.
Japanese giants Seiko need no introduction. Founded in the late 1800's the company has progressed from its initial production of clocks to the forefront of wristwatch design and manufacturing. Along the way, the company released the world's first quartz watch, the first quartz chronograph and introduced the innovative Kinetic models, like the one we see here. A Kinetic movement is a marriage of mechanical automatic watch features with quartz accuracy.
This model has a Kinetic movement and is a part of the popular Sportura line. It’s not a direct homage to the Explorer, but the similarities are obvious. It’s a large watch, with a diameter of 44mm. Although the hands and markers are a different style to the Rolex, the colouring is there, including the orange 24hr hand, which maintains a similar aesthetic.
We've previously mentioned this Chinese brand in our article on affordable alternatives to the Rolex Explorer 1 and also our piece on the Daytona.
Alpha is essentially a brand that specialises in Rolex homage watches.
Their version of the Explorer is among the cheapest on this list. It’s a very affordable automatic, powered by a Chinese movement.
Bernhardt Binnacle GMT II
Having spent a number of years collecting and restoring Rolex watches, Fred Bernhardt Amos founded Bernhardt. Based in High Point, North Carolina, Bernhardt was featured on our list of Explorer 1 alternatives. A few of their line give a nod to Rolex designs, this particular model more so than others.
The Binnacle GMT II was an early release by the manufacturer and has recently been reintroduced. It’s more expensive than some on the list, but the price reflects the inclusion of a Swiss ETA 2836 automatic movement modified for GMT. There’s also a sapphire crystal, which importantly, does boast a cyclops lens.
Chronotac Xplorer II
There’s a number of interchangeable Chinese brands producing what we’ll call ‘homage’ watches. Timepieces that stylistically resemble iconic designs by the worlds best watch brands. We’ve highlighted a few of these, and as long as you're realistic about the quality, these can be fun watches.
The Chronotec looks the part and has a mechanical movement. It's priced at not much over £100 so it may be worth a look, even if it's just to see if you like this style of watch in the flesh.