Rolex Explorer Alternatives: Navigating First World Problems

This is not an article about the fabled Rolex Explorer 1016 (Feature Photo Credit: HQ Milton).

But… if you squint your eyes really tight and tilt your head, it could kind of look like one.

The perfect storm of Rolex’s value increase and the vintage market renaissance has made it difficult to locate a 1016 below the five figure mark. Perhaps, if you were keen on owning a smaller watch several years ago when the craze was all about 42mm and up, it would have been economically feasible. But, sensibly, you mulled it over and pivoted toward Zodiacs or something equally pocket-friendly and settled. Several years have passed, and now that you’ve tumbled down this rabbit hole of vintage interest, you’re kicking yourself over what could have been.


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Today, if you were to list one for sale on Chrono24 in “fair condition,” the suggested price is $19,688… in excess of three times its value since 2015. Its worth by 2025 will be anybody’s guess. Sure, a Rolex is a Rolex, but while the argument can be made “there’s nothing else quite like it,” a broke watch snob is uniquely postured to play devil’s advocate.

This in mind, there are still several tool watches of the era also designed for the casual adventurer that could satisfy your craving for purpose-built aesthetics, while standing firmly on their own merit (and not just as Rolex Explorer Alternatives). Here are several of them.

Tudor Prince Oysterdate Ranger ref. 90220

Featured Specs
 

  • Case: “Oyster-case” Steel, 34.5mm, with signed Rolex crown
  • Movement: Automatic, caliber 2784/ETA 2483 with hacking seconds
  • Dial: Matte black with Arabic numerals at “12-3-6-9.”
  • Hands: Luminova Sword (minutes), Arrowhead (hour), paddle (second)
  • Bracelet: Rolex “oyster-type bracelet; ref 7835,” with signed Rolex crown
  • Date produced: 1970
  • Expect to pay: $5000+

When comparing watches to the 1016, it’s difficult to ignore the Tudor Ranger… mostly because there are Rolex crowns all over it. At the time of its release, the largest differentiating factor was primarily its engine, a stock ETA movement with a Tudor-branded oscillating weight. While the prices of these have skyrocketed in suit with Rolex, they are a fraction of what you’d expect to pay for the “real deal.” Maybe it isn’t trying to not look like Rolex at all, in which case, the internal dialogue worth considering is, “Will I be happy with a borderline homage?”

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Even more controversial of an issue for collectors is the prevailing concern of reference integrity. Many early examples of the Ranger shared the same reference numbers with more conventional Tudors. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Ranger had earned enough of an identity to rate its own unique number set. Because of this, charlatans had capitalized on the confusion by giving birth to the now infamous “Red Ranger” —a redial fraudulent model that has enchanted suckers world-wide.

Bulova Snorkel “666’ Deep Sea Diver” ref. 386-3

Featured Specs
 

  • Case: Steel, 35.2mm x 43.3mm long, 18mm lug width. Signed “Bulova” on crown, steel rotating bezel, with painted black indices. Note: there are two dial variants with a triangular and circular pip above the twelve.
  • Movement: Automatic with Date, 11ALACD, 17 jewels
  • Dial: Matte Black, with Luminova Arabic numerals at “12-6-9” with window date at “3.” Note: There is also a white dial variant (386-4)
  • Hands: Dauphine-shaped with Luminova on the minute and hour. Steel second hand
  • Bracelet: Originally steel (although extremely rare)
  • Date produced: 1964-1968
  • Expect to pay: $350-$800

Despite being called the “Snorkel,” Bulova catalogs referred to the model as the “Deep Sea Diver.” To make things more confusing some have referred to it as the “Devil Diver,” a nickname shared by at least two dozen other Bulovas (also boasting the 666ft depth rating on the dial).

Photo Credit: mybulova.com

It might surprise some that the case back doesn’t feature anything aquatic-related such as a diving helmet or a ship. Instead we see Bulova’s traditional logo of a dancer who in earlier ads from the early 20’s, represented goddess-like elegance (not unlike automobile hood ornaments of the era). At the time, Bulova’s watches were designed with luxury in mind, and it wasn’t until 1919 that they’d built a watch for men specifically for WWI.

The Snorkel was located in Army PX’s around the world when it was released, often placed alongside Rolexes and Zodiacs. And although they were never “issued,” it’s probable that thousands ended up on wrists of service members in Vietnam.

Caravelle Sea hunter ref 49482 “Dauphine hands”

Featured Specs
 

  • Case: Polished Steel, 36mm, signed “C” on the crown. Rotating Bezel with aluminum insert
  • Movement: Caravelle Cal. 11 / manual winding (17 jewels); 18,000 bph
  • Dial: Black with Luminova arabic numerals at “12-3-6-9,” and 5-minute indices
  • Hands: Tritium dauphine (or) baton (ref. 41585). Baton version includes a “lollipop” second hand
  • Strap: 20mm Tropic diver
  • Date produced: 1971
  • Expect to pay: $350-$800

What Tudor was to Rolex, Caravelle was to Bulova. It was sibling brand with economic methods of production, surfing off the reputation and resources of its big brother. Bulova Watch Co. went through painstaking efforts to advertise that Caravelle’s lineup was all the quality you’d expect from a Bulova, while at the price point of a Timex. This included 17-jewel movements, 50 steps of quality assurance testing, and a 200m water resistance that made the “Snorkel” a success. What never made its way to the full page magazine ads was the fact that they were produced in China.

Still, the merits of its tool watch functionality made it a popular choice for divers who needed a reliable companion underwater without breaking the bank. In keeping with utilitarian basics, Caravelle dismissed the need for a date window (for what reason would it be relevant as opposed to tracking your remaining oxygen?). The only drawback for some could have been its manual wind movement, which, cost savings aside, was behind the curve for 1971.

Featured Specs
 

  • Case: Polished Steel, 35mm, signed “C” on the crown. Rotating Bezel with black aluminum insert
  • Movement: Automatic Movement, date complication (17 jewels)
  • Dial: Black with Luminova arabic numerals at “12-6-9,” with a date at “3,” and 5-minute indices
  • Hands: Tritium arrowhead (hour), tapered baton (minute), white second hand
  • Strap: 20mm Tropic diver
  • Date produced: 1969
  • Expect to pay: $900-$1700

In all of Caravelle’s lineup, the Sea Hunter seems to have benefited the most from the age of vintage popularity; it’s found a strong cult following. Despite their mass numbers produced, flippers will try to price them well above a Bulova Snorkel when placed side by side.

Caravelle Sea Hunter “Swiss-Made”

To the true connoisseur, there’s a Sea Hunter reference that combats the entire notion of quality spared. It’s known simply as “the Swiss Made version.” Because Caravelle was at one point “Caravelle New York,” it’s understood that their goods were designed with the United States in mind. There’s little research that can speak to this unique model’s place for distribution, as it was never mentioned in printed ads alongside it’s counterparts. It’s scarcity has made it coveted.

Notably, it shares the same unique handset as the Ranger, yet the inclusion of the bezel sets it apart from the Explorer enough that it’s very much its own design… although eerily similar to the Longines Legend Diver.

“But I don’t want to settle.”

Then don’t. Maybe you’re kind of guy who eats first world problems for breakfast. But, consider the fact that the Rolex 1016 Explorer is one of the most mass-produced Rolex replicas circulating the second-hand market. Your likelihood of finding an honest example through dealers on eBay are that much more slim because of it. Risk can be skirted through expert sellers who routinely assess the legitimacy of their stock (expect nose bleed-inducing premiums). Educate yourself*, and learn to enjoy the research.

Photo Credits:

Rolex Explorer 1016

Tudor Prince Oysterdate Ranger ref. 90220

Bulova Snorkel “666’ Deep Sea Diver” ref. 386-3

Caravelle Sea hunter ref 49482 “Dauphine hands”

Caravelle Sea Hunter “Swiss-Made”

Damon Bailey( Contributor )

Damon is based out of the Bay Area, where he’s a black sheep among Apple Watch loyalists. Having served as a Combat Engineer with the USMC, he believes a true field watch’s success is measured by how closely it compares to a “G-Shock.” Nonsensically, a background in design has guided his preference toward higher craft, as he struggles to become the lifestyle his watch tastes more closely reflect.


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