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The Rolex Reference 5500 with Explorer Dial

The Explorer is the original Rolex sports watch, and for the vast majority of its existence, it has had a case diameter of 36 mm. In 2010, Rolex increased its size to 39 mm; however for a brief period of time during the late 1950s and 1960s, a slightly smaller, 34-mm version of the Explorer was offered with a reference number of 5500.

Traditionally, the 5500 reference number has corresponded to Rolex’s Air-King line of watches; however for almost a decade between roughly 1958 and 1967, Rolex fitted reference 5500 watches with Explorer dials that largely resembled the dials found inside their standard, 36 mm version of the Explorer, the reference 1016. To match their dials, these reference 5500 Explorer watches also received scaled-down versions of Rolex’s classic, “Mercedes-style” sport hands. The end result was a watch that more-or-less resembled the reference 1016 Explorer, just in a slightly smaller, 34-mm package.

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The Explorer dials fitted to reference 5500 watches were very much of the same design as the gloss black, reference 1016 gilt dials of the time; however they differed in the text that appeared below their hands. Instead of the classic, “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” text that appears on the lower half the dials on reference 1016 watches, the dials on reference 5500 Explorers reads, “Precision” or “Super Precision” – just like on reference 5500 Air-King watches.

The Explorer dials fitted to reference 5500 watches were very much of the same design as the gloss black, reference 1016 gilt dials of the time; however they differed in the text that appeared below their hands. Instead of the classic, “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” text that appears on the lower half the dials on reference 1016 watches, the dials on reference 5500 Explorers reads, “Precision” or “Super Precision” – just like on reference 5500 Air-King watches.

1972 Rolex Air-King with Tropical Gilt Dial. Ref 5500.

A significant percentage of reference 5500 Explorer watches were purchased through NAAFI stores (the British equivalent of PX stores) by officers serving on military bases; however other examples have been confirmed to have been purchased by civilians through regular authorized Rolex dealers. Despite a relatively long production run, reference 5500 Explorer watches are exponentially outnumbered by their Air-King equivalents, and a decent number of reference 5500 Explorers have had their original dials and hands replaced over the years due to damage and moisture exposure.

Despite the numerous visual similarities with the reference 1016, reference 5500 Explorer watches sell for significantly less than their full-size counterparts, and may be the most cost-effective way of obtaining a gilt-dialed Rolex sports watch. With an interesting history that is partially shrouded in overlapping reference numbers and unconfirmed facts, the reference 5500 Explorer represent one of the best values in vintage Rolex collecting, and is a worthwhile and highly versatile addition to any timepiece collection.

Click here to visit the shop and browse our collection of ref. 5500s.

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