3 Price Tiers of Rolex Explorer I Alternatives

Article By: Logan Hannen

WATCH101 | Feb 19, 2019

The Rolex Explorer is perhaps the ultimate option for someone looking for their one and only watch. It has a lot going for it, from its relatively restrained case size (36mm for the older models, 39mm for the current one), its impressively clean dial, to its unquestionable durability thanks to its water resistant Oyster case and patented Rolex Twin-Lock crown. It looks beautifully rugged on its stock Oyster bracelet, but looks just as good on nearly any strap you can put it on, making it as versatile as it is simple.

The thing is, with the modern 214270 coming in at just over $6,000 retail, and older models at about $5,000, the Explorer simply isn’t an option for some geeks. For that reason, I want to again dive into some more affordable alternatives, this time for the Explorer. Instead of just casually listing off options, though, I really want to approach this as a case of finding the best possible alternative at three distinct price points: $500 or less, $1,000 or less, and $2,500 or less. That way, even at the most expensive piece on this list, we remain at no more than half the cost of a pre-owned Explorer in an effort to truly emphasize the pieces’ relative affordability and value.

1: Smiths PRS-25 – 320 GBP ($410 USD)

Smiths PRS-25
Source: Timefactors

I didn’t want this to be a list of homages to the Explorer, of which there are plenty, but this specific example is unique for one particular reason – it was a Smiths watch, and not an Explorer, that was on the wrist of Sir Edmund Hillary when he famously climbed Mount Everest.

Smiths Advert feat. Sir Edmund Hillary Endorsement
Source: Timefactors

Of course, a Rolex was present on the climb as well, but that is another story for another article. The Smiths brand went defunct some time in the 1970s, and has been bought and sold three times since, most recently to a brand called Timefactors, who produce high grade replicas of iconic vintage models that are long discontinued and, in most cases, without a modern reedition from their respective brands.

This example is an obvious homage to the Explorer, and the specific piece highlighted here is the 36mm model, so highlighted to capture the vibe of the original more directly. The steel case features drilled lug holes for easy strap changing, and the bracelet that comes on the watch features a solid, milled clasp with a ratcheting extension system that isn’t quite a diver’s extension, but is more easily adjusted on the fly than a springbar based micro adjust as seen on most clasps. Plus, for around $410 USD, it’s kind of tough to beat.

2: Christopher Ward C65 Trident Vintage – $755

Christopher Ward C65 Trident Vintage
Source: Christopher Ward

Christopher Ward has finally started to settle into their niche as a brand that produces downright impressive value-for-money tool watches (though their dress range has some wonderful stuff as well). In more recent releases, the brand is dabbling into a world I’d call “Vintage Reimagining,” in which they create pieces that, as they put it, are “homages to a period,” rather than a specific watch.

In the case of the C65 Trident Vintage, we have a watch that is clearly designed with an everyday style in mind. It lacks the distinctly tool-ish functionality of a diver, and features no extra refinements or complications you might find on a dress watch. It is, at its core, a timepiece, and nothing more. At 38mm, it is in the range of perfect modern casual watch sizes, and its thin bezel helps to give the dial a bit more presence. Despite the lack of any numerals, the watch does feel like a spiritual successor to the Explorer, and it runs a Sellita SW-200 automatic caliber to keep it both reliable and easily serviced, when the time comes. It’s exactly the kind of no-nonsense watch that would make the Explorer proud.

3: Tudor Black Bay 36 ($2,850) OR Ball Engineer II Powerlight 72 ($2,390)

Tudor Black Bay 36 (left), Ball Engineer II Powerlight 72 (right)
Sources: Tudor, ABlogtoWatch

So I want to quickly address the Tudor Black Bay 36 because it really is the perfect alternative in this price range, but being just above our max budget, I don’t want to make it the definitive choice here. Tudor, owned by Rolex and producing watches of absolutely exceptional quality, released this watch a couple of years ago and it has quickly become the top recommendation for alternatives to the Explorer I in this budget. It’s easy to see why, especially noting the 36mm case diameter and Rolex connection. However, in order to play by my own rules, I want to highlight another watch that can be had for under our top budget.

That watch is the Ball Engineer II Powerlight 72. The Powerlight is a watch that features a handful of Ball in-house refinements in the movement department, including their patented SpringLOCK shock absorption system, making for a highly durable watch. Couple that with the design of the dial, and it’s easy to see how this piece makes a solid alternative to the Explorer. Speaking of the dial, the thing that separates many Ball watches from other modern pieces is their use of tritium gas tubes, rather than Superluminova, for the piece’s luminescence.

Tritium, used for decades in watchmaking as the lume material of choice, has since fallen out of favor, but Ball’s decision to use tritium tubes allows for the 24/7 glowing of tritium, without the aging and eventual dying of the glow altogether that’s seen on older watches with tritium paint. Its use here is a choice that I think truly highlights Ball’s philosophy of bringing the old into the new.

Alright geeks – those are my choices. Be sure to sound off with yours and, as always, keep it classy, watchfam.