The world has always had a fascination with explorers—pioneering spirits who venture into the unknown, paving the way for us lesser mortals to follow, taming the wilderness and opening up new horizons.
In times past, these intrepid souls have been celebrated in myths and legend, as trailblazers who took on the extremes of the earth for fame or glory or riches or, in the case of Everest, simply “because it was there.”
Perhaps the last of the true heroes, the ones to fully encapsulate the pure essence of exploration, were the astronauts known as the Mercury 7. The crew of NASA’s Project Mercury, including Alan Shepard, the first American in space and the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, were not only the best of the best, they were at the forefront of a new adventure, taking us, at long last, outside the final frontier.
In the early 1960s, the darkest days of the Cold War, the daring exploits of this handful of superhumans earned them accolades and plaudits beyond those showered on any group before or since. The fiercely contested space race with the Soviet Union was too close to call and every victory for the Mercury crew gave hope that the balance of power would finally tilt in America’s favor.
Following Glenn’s historic mission, circling the planet three times in just under five hours, the group embarked on a global goodwill tour where they were lauded as conquering champions at every turn. In Japan, the reception was so frenzied it led Rolex to commemorate their achievements with a special edition of their ref. 1016 Explorer dubbed, appropriately, the Space-Dweller.
Essentially, the Explorer and the Rolex Space-Dweller are the same watch.
The Explorer History
That Rolex chose the Explorer as the model with which to honor the astronauts was entirely fitting. The original had been born in the wake of another staggering feat of human endeavor when the brand sponsored Hilary and Norgay’s first successful ascent of the highest peak on earth. The ref. 6084 Oyster Perpetuals the pair had worn on their climb had been dutifully sent back to Rolex HQ for testing and had laid down the blueprint for the Explorer range.
The ref. 6350, the reference that initially bore the model name after the so-called ‘Pre-Explorer’ ref. 6150, featured a new type of lubricant that would help keep the watch ticking at both -20 and +40 degrees centigrade. It was developed using data taken from the mountaineer’s watches, along with other alterations that Rolex has never made public.
Incredibly, the time between the first scaling of Everest and the Mercury 7’s historic deeds beyond our atmosphere was a relative blink of an eye. Just 10 years separated the two extraordinary accomplishments, by which time the Explorer had reached its third generation, with the ref. 1016.
First appearing in 1963, its design was so successful and universally appealing that it remained virtually untouched for another quarter of a century. While the rest of the sports range were released in ever more fancy suits, with precious metal versions of the Submariner, GMT-Master or the Daytona becoming prevalent, the Explorer stayed what it was—a rugged, steel, no-nonsense watch that would tell you the precise time no matter where you were or what you were doing.
The difference between the standard ref. 1016 and the special edition piece Rolex introduced to celebrate America proving themselves Russia’s equal in the space race is limited to the title only.
Underneath the brand name and the Oyster Perpetual text where the ‘Explorer’ tag usually sits is the legend Space-Dweller. The rest of the watch, from its 36mm dimensions to its trademark 3/6/9 numerals is identical to the original—one of the most handsomely elegant and, irony or ironies, down-to-earth models Rolex has ever produced.
Powered by the Cal. 1560, of the 1500 series of calibers beloved by vintage collectors, the Space-Dweller was produced in tiny numbers and sold, as a trial only, exclusively in Japan. While the returning heroes of the Mercury missions had been greeted like rock stars in the country, the watch designed to capitalize on their achievements failed to land decisively with the Japanese public and sales were muted.
Had the model captured the imagination in the same way as Mercury-mania clearly had, Rolex was prepared to put the rebranded Explorer into production. As it was, the Space-Dweller was retired before it even began, leaving us with one of those pieces that redefines the word rare.
The Classic Explorer Model 1016 was used as the base for the Space-Dweller.
The Space-Dweller Today
Spotting a Space-Dweller in the wild is about as likely as proving the moon is made of cheese. The most hardcore of Rolex collectors can go their whole lifetime without catching even a glimpse of one, and on the special occasions an example comes up for sale, the price is often astronomical.
For those few individuals lucky enough to actually own one, they are the envy of every brand aficionado in the world and the holders of a fascinating piece of Rolex history—a watch built originally to hail the mightiest of earth-bound achievements, reworked to celebrate our first tentative steps into the limitless realms of space exploration.