There’s a definite trend among the current Rolex lineup to draw on certain styling elements from past classics and incorporate them into contemporary designs.
The latest Sea-Dweller, for example, gives an obvious nod to the piece that started it all with its splash of red dial text. Similarly, the reborn Air-King arrived with a model signature lifted straight from the 1950s.
But, in keeping with modern tastes, the most recent versions of both those timepieces were issued with far larger cases than we’ve had previously, and we can see a further example of this merging of past and present in another long-serving name; the Rolex Explorer II.
The Explorer II, and the original Explorer to some extent, represent a couple of Rolex’s most perpetually overlooked releases.
While the first in the family from 1953, a watch built on the back of Hillary and Tenzing’s conquest of Everest, is perhaps the least altered of any of the brand’s designs over its long life, its sequel runs it a close second in models that Rolex decided to leave well alone.
The Explorer II first emerged in 1971, sharing a name with its predecessor but little else. Where the Explorer was the epitome of modest, three-hand, time-only construction, the follow-up was built with a very specific role in mind.
Professionals in some of the more glamorous vocations are well catered for by Rolex. Divers have the choice of the legendary Submariner, the extra tough Sea-Dweller or the lunatic Deepsea. Pilots have long turned to the GMT-Master. Wealthier pilots have the Sky-Dweller. And no racing driver’s outfit is complete without a Daytona.
However, one field of gainful employment, or so Rolex seem to think, was being continuously overlooked; the spelunker.
Those who spend their working lives, or indeed their time off from their working lives, exploring cave systems, do so mostly in the dark. In that kind of environment, losing track of the time of day is practically guaranteed, and a watch that tells you only that it’s, say, seven o’clock is relatively useless. Is that seven o’clock in the morning or evening?
Enter the Explorer II. The initial reference 1655 launched with a bright orange extra hour hand and an engraved, fixed 24-hour bezel. The second hour hand, immediately dubbed the ‘Freccione’ after the Italian for arrow due to its shape, rotated around the dial at half speed, pointing out the time on the brushed steel surround, helping wearers determine between night and day.
The Dark Horse
However, in a world that was already being served very nicely in the dual time stakes by the GMT-Master, the Explorer II and its highly specific target market failed to capture much in the way of popular imagination.
The two series even shared a movement, the Cal. 1575, a trait that would continue throughout their respective runs, right up to their most recent iterations. But whereas the unidirectional bezel on the GMT-Master made it possible to track a second time zone by lining it up with the additional hour hand, the Explorer’s non-rotating surround meant it was little more than a large AM/PM indicator.
So, it was no match for the GMT on functionality, it was also lagging behind image-wise, and its aesthetics were a more acquired, utilitarian taste as well, compared to the iconic bi-color bezels of the aviator’s piece.
Even the completely groundless rumors that the Explorer II was the watch of choice for the undisputed king of cool didn’t help its cause, and the ‘Steve McQueen Rolex’ tended to linger on the shelf long after its two-toned cousins had found appreciative homes.
The exclusively black dialed ref. 1655 stayed in underwhelming production for a further 15 years before Rolex decided to have another go.
The follow-up ref. 16550 was released around the same time as the first of the GMT-Master IIs, again with a shared movement, this time the Cal. 3085, but one that finally allowed the two hour hands on both watches to be set independently.
Considered a transitional reference, it managed to pack a lot into its brief four-year run.
Rolex inexplicably chose to do away with the large orange Freccione hand, the Explorer’s only positive element in the eyes of many, and replace it with the much less distinctive skinny red example straight from the GMT.
Although it retained the 40mm dimensions, it was given a new bezel with a fatter font on the engravings and, for the first time, was offered in two dial colors; the traditional black and a new white, or Polar.
Unfortunately, or fortunately if you are a collector, the chap in charge of quality control for Rolex in the eighties took a day off when it came time to choose paint suppliers. Both dial types ran into problems on the ref. 16550. The crisp white of the Polar models turned a warm cream after prolonged exposure to sunlight, while the black dials cracked into spider web patterns after a few years. This being vintage Rolex of course, examples of both these ‘mistakes’ are now highly sought after.
Following the ref. 16550, 1989 brought us the only marginally altered but much longer-running ref. 16570. Aside from a movement upgrade, being fitted first with the Cal. 3185 and later the Cal. 3186, and new black outlines around the hour markers on the Polar version, there was little to choose between it and its predecessor visually.
Its 22-year tenure brought the Explorer II neatly up to its 40th anniversary, and the biggest change to the series in its history, one that finally saw it step out of the shadow of the GMT-Master and set itself apart as very much its own watch.
The ref. 216570
The most recent incarnations of the GMT-Master and Submariner have been given what Rolex call their Maxi case, staying at the time-honored 40mm but beefing up crown guards, lugs and bezels, along with adding fatter hands and hour markers. It is all an attempt to satisfy the modern vogue for larger watches without technically increasing their size on paper.
For the latest Explorer II, the brand have actually boosted the diameter, taking it up to 42mm and making it the fourth largest model in the catalog in the process.
The extra millimeters work especially well with the enlarged case and dial features, giving the watch both an additional wrist presence, as well as more refined proportions compared to its smaller stable mates.
It is evidence that the Explorer II, at long last, has come of age. For 40 years it has been described as a GMT-Master with a fixed bezel but, with its imposing new bodywork, the ref. 216570 now occupies a unique space in the lineup.
Further proof of Rolex’s attempt to separate the two series comes in the form of the Explorer’s caliber which, for the first time, has been created specifically for it alone.
Ok, that may be overstating it slightly, seeing as the only difference between the GMT’s Cal. 3186 and the Explorer’s Cal. 3187 is the latter’s shock absorption system, but still! Replacing the KIF setup with Rolex’s own Paraflex in the 3187 gives a reported 50% improvement in protection, perfect for a no-nonsense tool watch.
A Little Nostalgia
While many of the elements in the ref. 216570 are as contemporary as they come, there is still plenty for historians to appreciate. It has kept to its entirely brushed steel construction, Rolex resisting the urge to roll out a version in precious metal or with their formidable Cerachrom bezel inserts. It is, as always, only available with the Oyster bracelet, the sportiest of the brand’s metal band collection. But most significantly, the Freccione is back. Missing since the eighties, it is a gloriously welcome retro return for the bright orange 24-hour hand, harking back to the Steve McQueen original, particularly on the black dialed piece.
40mm or 42mm?
The Explorer II, pretty much from day one, has been the forgotten Rolex. Today though, that reputation has seen it achieve a cult status.
Along with its namesake, the original Explorer, it has stuck true to its roots. It is the tool-like essence of early Rolex, the reason why many purists fell in love with the brand in the first place.
Whether you veer towards the vintage or the modern, there is an example in the range to suit most tastes.
Although its unpolished finish means it loses some of the versatility of certain other big names in the inventory, its also-ran nature gives it that precious exclusivity factor.
After all, who doesn’t love an underdog?