The Rolex Explorer II
The Rolex Explorer II is one of those watches from the brand that has never strayed far from its original intended purpose. Unlike the more recognizable names in the catalog, such as the Submariner or the Daytona, the majority of which have never been worn underwater or stood within sight of a racetrack, the allure of the Rolex Explorer II is that it is still essential equipment for life’s adventurers.
As such, you will find nothing but the hardiest stainless steel used in its construction. No gold. Not even a half and half Rolesor edition. And most certainly, no platinum to add a bit of status symbol flash to the wrist.
The first Explorer model debuted in 1953. And, a follow-up shows that the two have practically no resemblance to each other beyond the name. In fact, they were conceived to tackle environments that are (pun intended) polar opposites. The earlier piece was born at the very top of the world. It was a reworking of the watch Hilary and Tensing wore as they conquered Everest. However, its sequel was designed to overcome challenges deep underground.
Cave explorers, or spelunkers to use the correct term, and those who venture out into the frozen Arctic tundra can very quickly lose their sense of night and day due to a small amount of eternal sunlight or none at all.
The Explorer II’s mission is to help such people keep track of what part of the day they are in. It’s a vital undertaking that helps to regulate the internal body clock.
To do so, it borrows a couple of elements from the most renowned of its tool watch stable mates, the GMT-Master. Right up until its most recent iteration, the pair have shared the same caliber. This is a GMT-equipped version of one of Rolex’s family of ultra reliable and mechanically simple workhorses. However, while both models have an engraved 24-hour bezel, the Explorer II’s has always been fixed versus the rotatable surround on the pilot’s watch. It means for the first few years of its run it didn’t qualify as a true dual time zone piece, but rather an AM/PM indicator.
Sticking To It’s Roots
This perceived lack of versatility has kept the Explorer II as one of Rolex’s dark horses. A cult favorite among collectors who yearn for the days when the brand made the sort of straightforward, tough as iron watches that could withstand an expedition-long beating in the most hostile surroundings and come up smiling. Also, without having to worry about scratches to a precious metal body or a diamond hour marker working loose.
Today, the Explorer II still sticks rigidly to its roots. The latest version is a little bigger and has fancier components regulating its movement than the ones that have come before. However, its job remains the same. It is a wholly dependable and unfailing companion to doers rather than sayers, and those not concerned with fashion but with achievement.
Below we will look at the allure of the Rolex Explorer II and it is the absolute essence of Rolex and how you can take ownership of one of the brand’s unsung heroes.
There are benefits to being the under-the-radar offering from the world’s most famous watchmaker. Although the main non-aesthetic difference between the Explorer and the GMT-Master boils down to one having a bezel that spins round while the other doesn’t, the disparity in price between them on the pre-owned market is substantial.
Entry into the Explorer II club can be gained with a budget around the $5,000 mark. For the GMT, where it is the two-tone Rolesor examples that tend to represent the entry point, you will need to add between 20% or 30% more.
At the top end for the Explorer there are some especially rare editions. For instance, the MKI examples of the ref. 1655 has a straight versus lollipop seconds hand and orange Freccione arrow (we’ll get onto the weird names and why this particular model is normally known as the ‘Steve McQueen Rolex’ a little later). As a result, it can sell for considerably more—think in the region of $30,000 to $40,000.
The good news is, the Explorer II’s star is definitely on the rise. After a life lived in the relative shadows, the understated charm and no-nonsense demeanor are starting to attract collectors searching for something a little different in a market oversaturated with the usual suspects. Vintage prices have been increasing steadily for some years and with the watch’s comparative unpopularity next to some of the big names, fewer have been made leaving them with a certain scarcity value.
Coupling all that with a complete lack of gemstone enhancements or precious metals anywhere to influence the price and the Explorer II is something of a bargain and a pretty safe bet for those with one eye on future investment returns.
As you would expect of a watch with as few pretensions as the Explorer II, its options list is somewhat thin on the ground. The biggest decision you will be called on to make is to choose between dial colors. Whereas the more showboating offerings from the sports catalog have a vast selection of different shades, ranging from the subtle to the grandiose, all in the name of displaying the unique personality of the wearer, the Explorer II doesn’t really go in for that sort of thing. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any color, as long as it’s black. Or white.
Originally, the watch was only offered with a black dial. It wasn’t until the second generation appeared in 1985, the short lived transitional ref. 16550, that Rolex added the white, or Polar, face. Incidentally, that reference, which was only in production for four years, was beset with problems that make certain examples of it especially collectible—and we’ll get to those.
The biggest design changes happened between the first and second iterations of the watch. The original model had a much more rounded numeral font on its bezel compared to later editions, as well as huge amounts of lume on its dial; a large inverted triangle at the 12 o’clock, batons at the six and nine, small markers every five minutes and even smaller ones every two-and-a-half minutes. In total, there are 24 luminescent dial accents, perfect for those spending prolonged periods in pitch darkness.
The subsequent references of the Explorer II restricted the glow-in-the-dark elements to just the hour indexes, and since the third make in the series, the ref. 16570 from 1989, they have been outlined in black on the Polar dials to give optimum contrast.
One other feature that was extremely popular in the earliest days of the watch which was inexplicably dropped until the latest incarnation is the bright orange 24-hour hand. Nicknamed the ‘Freccione’ after the Italian word for ‘arrow’, it lent the watch a real distinction styling-wise and was also a very practical addition considering its extra legibility. Officially it was only the very first run of the ref. 1655 that had the hand painted orange, Rolex later switching to a red one. However, those have now faded over time and actually turned orange, so every example on the first reference looks the same.
For reasons best known to themselves, the brand did away with the Freccione for the second and third generations of the Explorer II, replacing it with a far less characteristic effort—a plain, long, arrow-tipped hand taken straight from the GMT-Master.
Riding the nostalgia wave of recent years, the new version of the watch released in 2011 for the 40thanniversary has restored the Freccione of old, to great acclaim from Rolex purists.
The Case, The Bezel, The Bracelet
Other than that, most of the decisions concerning the Explorer II have been made for you. The case will be made of brushed steel, as will the bezel (no Cerachrom here) and the bracelet will, of course, be the Oyster.
The lack of options can be off-putting to some, and one more reason the watch has never competed with many others in the lineup and their exhaustive catalog of possibilities. But for others, it does nothing but add to the charisma of the model and restates its credentials as the ultimate tool watch, rather than as some indicator of social standing.
The Explorer II has been through three sizes in its history. The initial reference 1655 came in at 39mm, with its case somewhat on the thick side, needed to house the caliber with the extra GMT complication. It leaves the watch feeling relatively squat and compact, and the busy dial, one of the factors most criticized on its release, makes it feel smaller still. Nevertheless, it is a superbly comfortable wear, and the face becomes more legible as you get used to its idiosyncrasies.
Following on from that model, the two successive generations of the watch increased slightly to 40mm, but with the toned down dials and bigger hour indexes, the design creates the illusion of space and both look far larger than the original when placed side by side.
The latest release has gone the way of many of Rolex’s core family and had its dimensions significantly bumped up, now weighing in at 42mm. It gives a further level of sturdiness to an already very solid looking watch.
The difference in sizes between the generations is one of the most readily identifiable factors of each one’s era. Smaller watches belong to a bygone age and the older examples of the Explorer II, and the original ref. 1655 especially, now have a great sense of nostalgia to them that collectors seek out. That reference, and its two 40mm companions, come with an in-built retro cool that is fuelling the Explorer’s current popularity as a vintage buy.
While it has always had a 24-hour bezel and a fourth hand to point at it like its cousin the GMT-Master, the Explorer II had to wait until 14 years into its run before it became a true dual time zone watch.
It was with the introduction of the Caliber 3085 movement inside the ref. 16550 that the model was finally able to uncouple its two hour hands and adjust them independently of each other. Now, the bright red GMT could be set to display the time anywhere, a feature that has remained ever since.
Until then, the watch had used the Rolex Caliber 1575 that kept the hands linked together—the same caliber as the GMT-Master, which overcame the shortcomings of its movement by having a rotatable bezel which could be turned to match up with the desired hour. With the Explorer’s bezel being fixed, it needed the upgraded technology to become more than a day/night indicator.
Beyond its travel companion credentials, it is a relatively simple beast, as are most Rolex watches that started life in the 20thcentury.
It has a date display, with a Cyclops-covered window at the three o’clock. The feature gained a Quickset function with the watch’s second iteration, in the Cal. 3085 from above, adding a little extra convenience to the whole operation. That was also the movement that introduced the Rolex signature 28,800vph balance frequency, up from the previous 19,800vph.
It’s More About Resilience
But the Explorer II’s biggest selling point has long been more about its resilience rather than any particular party tricks. Its exclusively brushed steel Oyster case safeguards the watch in the most inhospitable environments, and is water resistant, like the rest of the non-diving professional models, to 100m.
Its legibility in the dark is excellent, the simple dial displaying all the information needed as clearly as possible and, with the target market in mind, each generation of the watch has lavished the face with luminescence. Starting with the ref. 1665’s 24 Tritium lume plots, it has evolved through the brand’s use of Luminova and Superluminova, right up until today’s proprietary Chromalight, which is said to shine twice as long as the previous materials and emits a blue glow rather than green.
In all, the Explorer II is very much the strong and silent type. It’s a watch that goes about its business without the need to draw attention to itself, and one that will continue to do so for several lifetimes.
With the attention of collectors turning, as it was bound to eventually, to some of the lesser known and historically less popular models in the Rolex canon, particularly those from the 70s and 80s, the demand for untarnished versions of the Explorer II has risen sharply over the last decade or so.
Once fans have satisfied themselves with as many of the more famous names in the pool as they want, they tend to start casting the net a little wider to round out the group. This is usually Explorer II territory—the first choice for more established and knowledgeable aficionados.
The entry level model is the one which is the easiest to find; the long-running ref. 16570, which was in production for 22 years. These are the watches that represent a significant bargain on the pre-owned market—a genuine slice of Rolex heritage for a surprisingly small outlay.
First introduced in 1989, it was visually practically identical to its predecessor apart from the hour markers on the Polar dial receiving their black outlines and the brand adding ‘ROLEX’ engravings to the rehaut to try and fool counterfeiters. The main difference was internal, with the introduction of the Rolex Caliber 3185 replacing the Caliber 3085.
Again, the two movements were very similar, with the newer caliber receiving four additional jewels and coming in slightly slimmer (it was also used in the follow-up to the first of the GMT-Master IIs and allowed the ‘Fat Lady’ to return to more slender bodywork). The Caliber 3185 was used inside the ref. 16570 up until 2005 when it was swapped for the Caliber 3186 which brought with it the Parachrom Bleu hairspring, offering up greater resistance to magnetic fields, temperature variation and shocks.
The brief four-year run of the reference which came before, the transitional ref. 16550, throws up some eccentricities that Rolex collectors specifically seek out.
It started life in 1985 and was a major departure from the original model in terms of styling. Bigger case, redesigned dial, sapphire crystal and new handset, and the debut of the first of the white dials. But whoever was in charge of quality control in the paint department at Rolex was apparently asleep at the wheel in the mid-eighties. Through some defect, many of the Polar dial ref. 16550s have turned a soft cream color after prolonged exposure to sunlight, giving each one a unique appeal. These especially rare versions of an already fairly uncommon watch command far higher prices than their black dialed counterparts and make for an enticing investment as well as an attractive watch in their own right.
Even more thin on the ground are the so-called ‘rail dials’. These examples have the usual double line of text at the six o’clock position, ‘Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified’ but with the two capital ‘C’s lined up with each other. The incredibly subtle shift in location takes these particular pieces to another level financially. So, if you were to find a rail dial on a cream colored Polar face, you would have one of the most valuable examples of an Explorer II as you can get.
However, the top of the pile is still the very first. The ref. 1655 was unveiled in 1971 and went through a number of changes in its 13-year run. With some of them being so small and unobtrusive, experts haven’t even agreed on exactly how many different versions of the 1655 there have officially been, but it is generally thought there are seven dial variations. Of those, it is of course the MK I that is the most desirable. Only in production for about a year, the easiest way to identify one is by the straight seconds hand. Those which came after had what is known as ‘lollipop’ hands, with an additional dot of lume on either end.
The Frog Foot
The other six dials have such minute differences that it can be almost impossible to tell them apart. However, the one which is becoming a favorite among collectors is the ‘Frog Foot’ from the second generation made between 1972 and 1978. These have the Rolex logo coronet with particularly thin points, resembling (you guessed it) the foot of a frog.
There were also as many as four different bezel styles, with the engraved numerals varying in thickness and moving from close to the plexiglass crystal to a more central position as the series progressed.
If you are in the market for an original generation 1655, you will find prices vary quite a bit. And not just between different versions of the dial. Condition is everything in the world of vintage Rolex. By their nature, the Explorer IIs on offer will have generally lived fairly hard lives. A few scuffs and scrapes on the case are to be expected. They can even be desirable, hinting at an intriguing story. Where value is lost is in the overly polished pieces, the ones that have tried to rid themselves of their battle scars. These are the examples with the facets on the lugs ground out, leaving them with an uneven profile and a drop in price measured in the thousands.
The Steve McQueen Rolex
Incidentally, there is a name you will see associated most often with the inaugural model. In fact, it is a name that sometimes replaces Explorer II completely. That name is Steve McQueen. The king of cool has been linked with the watch for decades, based on no evidence whatsoever. It could well have been a bit of typically savvy brand marketing. However, the connection started after one indistinct and blurry photo of McQueen appeared wearing some sort of Rolex. The photo appeared in an Italian magazine in the 70s. In reality, it was much more likely he was wearing his beloved Submariner ref. 5513. But with the Explorer struggling to attract much in the way of sales, Rolex were in no hurry to quash the rumors. The watch has forever been known as the Steve McQueen Rolex and is likely to remain so.
The Rolex Explorer II Timeline
The Explorer II hasn’t been around as long as some of Rolex’s stalwarts. So far, it has been restricted to just four different references.
The first, the ref. 1655, was launched in 1971 to a wave of apathy. Essentially a less useful version of the GMT-Master, and one missing the same sort of visual appeal, the dial was also criticized for being too untidy and illegible. The target demographic was similarly off-putting to many would-be customers. Compared to the luxury globetrotters of the GMT’s world, wearing the same watch as a cave diver lost out in the glamor stakes.
Nevertheless, it struggled on until 1985 when the decidedly different follow up reference, the ref. 16550, appeared. While a more modern looking effort, and one that improved the watch’s utility by offering independently adjustable hour hands, it was still the perpetual also-ran. Moreover, it did away with the one element that most of the small band of Explorer II fans liked the best. The original bright orange Freccione hand had been replaced. But to add insult to injury, it was replace by the same one from the GMT-Master. Removing the most distinctive and popular feature from an under-performing watch was a strange move by Rolex. And one that wasn’t rectified for a very long time.
Out Of The Shadows
The ref. 16550 was only in service for four years. It was replaced in 1989 by the longstanding and almost identical, on the outside at least, ref. 16570. This was the reference that took the Explorer II up to its 40thanniversary in 2011 when, in characteristic Rolex fashion, an all new celebratory model was released.
The ref. 216570 brought the watch out of the shadows, with a newly enlarged 42mm case and, for the first time in its history, a caliber all its own.
The Cal. 3187, as well as carrying over the Parachrom Bleu hairspring, also introduced Rolex’s in-house Paraflex shock absorbing system; an ideal inclusion for a watch designed for the toughest of uses.
The Freccione Comeback
But most importantly of all, the Freccione was back. Continuing Rolex’s, and many other manufacturers, walk down memory lane, their designers looked to the classic original for inspiration, just as they did with the 50thanniversary Sea-Dweller and its red text. The new Explorer II has a 24-hour hand that is a carbon copy of the one found on the 1655. This is a move that has been welcomed on all sides by the brand faithful. In addition, the black dial version has the ‘phantom’ hands of that first model. The base of the minute and two hour hands are all painted black, making them look as if they are floating on the dial. It is another small touch that the real connoisseurs love.
Although not a rags to riches story on a par with the Daytona, the Explorer II is quickly becoming a highly sought after watch on the pre-owned market. It is a model that has stuck rigidly to its mission. And, it has never been swayed by the increasing gentrification of the professional range all around it.
The allure of the Rolex Explorer II is that it is a simple, robust, but above all, cool watch. Its patience in living its life out of the spotlight is only now being rewarded.
With a realistically attainable buy-in price, the Explorer II could be the perfect choice. Especially for those looking for both a cast-iron investment, as well as a truly accomplished cohort for their next big adventure.
And, at BeckerTime, you can browse low Rolex prices and more popular pre-owned models to help you find your next tool watch.