What’s the Difference? The Rolex Explorer II Vs. The Rolex GMT-Master II

Until relatively recently, a Rolex watch with a GMT complication represented the brand at its most complex. The relentless pursuers of perfect three-hand simplicity have traditionally steered away from additional functions, with a dual time zone or a chronograph’s stopwatch seemingly as far as they were willing to push it.

Lately, things have started to change over in Geneva, with the Yacht-Master II’s outrageously impressive regatta timer and the Sky-Dweller’s annual calendar (alongside its own unorthodox GMT feature) but for years, if you wanted a Rolex that could tell you the time both here and there, you had two choices; the GMT-Master or the Explorer II.

Travel Companions

However, while both watches have always had the all-important fourth hand needed to track a second time zone, the Explorer II was not a true GMT watch for the first few years of its life.

Rolex Caliber 1575

The two ranges have shared a movement throughout their respective runs, right up until the most modern iteration.

At the start of the GMT-Master’s life back in 1953, the 24-hour hand was linked to the 12-hour hand, without the ability to be set independently. The regular hour hand simply went round the dial twice a day, whereas the GMT hand was geared to only do it once.

It got over these shortcomings by bringing the bezel into play. Engraved with all 24 hours, the wearer simply rotated the surround until the extra hour hand pointed to the right time for the second zone they wanted to track. To give a bit of extra help, the bezel was split into two colors, representing night and day.

The Explorer II, launched in 1971, used the same caliber as the GMT of that era, the Cal. 1575, but its static bezel meant it was basically little more than an AM/PM indicator.

Right Tools for the Job

The reason for the difference in functionality was the two vastly dissimilar markets the watches were being targeted at. The GMT-Master was originally built, in conjunction with a team from Pan American Airways, as an aid to both pilots and passengers in combatting the effects of jetlag.

The increasingly popular transatlantic routes the airline was running had succeeded in making the world that little bit smaller, but crossing several time zones was playing havoc with globetrotter’s internal body clocks. Studies had shown that being aware of both local and home time went some way in overcoming many of the psychological symptoms, and the GMT-Master quickly became a practical tool and, with its unusual bi-color bezel, an aesthetically distinctive success story.

The Explorer II, on the other hand, had a far more specific remit. As the name suggests, it was aimed at those who ventured out, or down, into the unknown. Spelunkers, or cave divers, can spend days underground mapping subterranean caverns, and losing track of whether it is day or night up at the surface is pretty much guaranteed. Arctic adventurers face similar problems—at the poles, the sun barely rises in the winter, and in the summer it never sets, leading to a great deal of disorientation. The bright orange 24-hour hand on the Explorer II, along with its extra rugged stainless steel construction and luminescent markings every 2 ½ minutes, was designed to help deal with the effects.

Yet, because of its somewhat limited demographic and its lack of functionality compared with the GMT-Master, the Explorer II was, and has always been, the also-ran; the dark horse in the Rolex stable.

The Fat Lady Sings

The next step, for both watches, was obvious, but it was a long time coming. It wasn’t until 1983, some 30 years after the range made its debut, that the first GMT-Master II arrived. Although the original series was still running, this new ‘sequel’ was driven by a next generation caliber that finally uncoupled the two hour hands. Now both could be positioned however the wearer wanted, and even meant that a third time zone could be displayed by reading it off the bezel.

Rolex GMT-Master II 16760

The extra components required to run the complication gave the Cal. 3085 a bit of extra bulk, leading to the watch that housed it needing a correspondingly bigger case. The generously proportioned ref. 16760 immediately became known as the ‘Fat Lady’. It also announced a previously unseen color scheme. The red and blue of the original model’s ‘Pepsi’ bezel had changed to black and red, not surprisingly dubbed ‘Coke’ soon after.

With the final piece in the puzzle completed, the GMT-Master II continued its upwards trajectory. The Fat Lady was retired in 1988, making way for the slimmer-hipped ref. 16710 and the series has carried on gently evolving ever since, with increasingly advanced movements and cutting-edge materials.

Today, it remains one of the most quintessentially ‘Rolex’ watches in the lineup, a piece that is unmistakable in any of its many guises. Alongside the Coke and Pepsi examples, the vintage brown and gold ‘Root Beer’ and the contemporary blue and black ‘Batman’ top many collectors’ wish lists, as well as the incognito solid black bezels, and the range has appeared in both white and yellow gold and Rolex’s own Rolesor.

This year’s Baselworld also premiered a stunning Everose gold model, proving that a piece with an already impressive pedigree is in no danger of slowing down.

Now into its seventh decade, the GMT-Master II remains the world’s favorite travel companion.

Meanwhile…

The Explorer II had to wait a couple of extra years before it was fitted with the Fat Lady’s Cal. 3085, which turned it, at last, into a genuine dual time zone watch.

Rolex Explorer II 16550

The initial reference, the ref. 1655, had long been the conspicuous underperformer in the catalog, with even a link to Steve McQueen, completely unsubstantiated though it was, failing to do for this particular watch what Paul Newman did for the Daytona.

Nevertheless, in 1985, Rolex brought out the ref. 16550 with independently adjustable hour hands.

For the first time, the Explorer II could now be used as a real GMT. Unfortunately, the world already had one; it was called the GMT-Master—and the clue was very much in the name.

Although the two watches were practically identical; same case, same movement, just with different dials and bezels, one was stuck with an image problem and the other wasn’t. A colorful model aimed at the impossibly glamorous world of international luxury travel was always going to out-sexy the stubbornly utilitarian one intended for people who spent most of their lives blundering around in the dark.

Rolex didn’t help themselves with the ref. 16550 either. By using the thin arrow-tipped 24-hour hand straight from the GMT-Master, they removed the most distinctive element from the Explorer II, and a favorite among its small group of fans—the orange ‘Freccione’.

Still, this new reference did introduce a white dial alternative to the original black, but again, more problems loomed. A defect in the paint used for the white, or Polar, dials caused them to turn to a soft creamy color after exposure to the sun, while the black dials cracked under the same conditions.

True to vintage Rolex collecting rules, examples of both these types of flaws are now priced at a premium over fault-free models.

Out of the Shadows

Rolex Explorer II 216570

Much like the first GMT-Master II, the ref. 16550 was a transitional reference, only in production for a short while before it was replaced with the long-running ref. 16570. Its 22-year lifespan took the Explorer II up to its 40th birthday and the biggest overhaul of its makeup so far.

2011 saw the introduction of the ref. 216570, with a 42mm case that makes it the fourth biggest in the Rolex range. As well as giving the watch a welcome boost in wrist presence, it also served to finally set it apart from its dual time cousin.

Underlying the brand’s efforts to carve out a unique space for the Explorer in the lineup, it has, for the first time, been granted a movement of its own, the Cal. 3187. In addition, it follows the current nostalgia drive Rolex have been on with their other updated favorites and reintroduced the original Freccione (‘arrow’ in Italian) 24-hour hand.

A Tale of Two Time Zones

The GMT-Master II and the Explorer II are fascinating watches, in that, for most of their production runs, they have been physically almost identical, yet with massively different levels of appeal.

Just the addition of a rotating, two-tone bezel has seen one become a brand emblem, recognizable to anyone whether they have an interest in horology or not, while the other is the cult outsider; a tool watch in the real sense of the word.

But, although the GMT continues to don precious metal suits and roll out new color schemes, while the Explorer has stuck to its no-nonsense brushed steel, they both represent the very essence of Rolex—tough, practical and efficiently beautiful.