The names Rolex gives to their watches generally do a good job of signposting each one’s specific abilities and place in the lineup. There’s no doubt, for example, that pieces called the Submariner, the Sea-Dweller and the Deepsea are designed for the life aquatic, or that the Daytona will find its natural home on the racetrack.
However, the brand does have a habit of releasing ‘sequels’ to some of their most famous creations—sometimes as a natural and recognizable successor to the original, and at other times, to take the range in a completely new direction.
So, whereas the GMT-Master and the GMT-Master II were quite clearly cut from the same cloth, with the two series actually running concurrently for a number of years, models such as the Yacht-Master and the Yacht-Master II resemble each other in title only.
At first glance, another two watches that appear to share precisely zero in common bar their name are the Explorer and the Explorer II.
The earlier piece, born on Everest and released in 1953, is as simple and austere as it is possible for a watch to be—a study in unassuming, three-hand sophistication; its counterpart, a super tough precision instrument designed for a lifetime of service in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.
But while there don’t seem to be too many similarities between the pair, there are in fact a couple of parallels. Firstly, they have always been, and remain to this day, possibly the most underappreciated models in the professional collection. For the original Explorer, the modesty of its design compared to the more showy offerings in the catalog has contributed the most to its underdog status. For the Explorer II, it has been, incredibly for an entity like Rolex, an image problem. Marketing a watch at a tiny subsection of an already highly restricted niche was never going to set sales figures ablaze.
And secondly, both have garnered a fiercely loyal cult following in the last few years, one that is getting stronger by the day. With the rest of the so-called tool watch range becoming increasingly gentrified, with precious metal constructions and gemstones festooning every surface, the hardcore brand purists are turning more and more to those models that exemplify the true Rolex spirit; one of innovation, adventure and, yes, exploration.
Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
The Rolex Explorer
Unsung or not, the original Rolex Explorer can be seen as one of the most important watches in the brand’s long history. It marked a complete change in the way the public viewed the company and what they were trying to achieve.
While Rolex as a manufacturer already had a well-documented association with a number of the world’s pioneers, those who continually pushed the boundaries of what was possible, the Explorer was the first watch created specifically as a result of one of these superhuman achievements.
Top of the World
The company had sponsored, and supplied watches to, eight previously unsuccessful attempts to scale the highest peak on earth by the time of the 1953 expedition led by Colonel John Hunt. When Hillary and Norgay set foot on Mount Everest’s summit for the first time, they were wearing a pair of Oyster Perpetuals with reinforced cases and high performance lubricants that Rolex had donated in a bid to research the effects of the massive shifts in temperature and altitude on mechanical movements.
xThose watches, dutifully sent back to Rolex following the men’s return, went on to form the basis of the first ever Explorer reference, the ref. 6150. Short-lived though that model was, it set down the blueprint for every iteration that followed, with its modest 36mm case and perfectly legible 3/6/9 Arabic numeral dial.
Over the years—and the Explorer has one of the longest unbroken runs in the brand’s canon—the outward appearance of the watch has gone through only superficial changes. Its most renowned reference, the ref. 1016, was the Explorer for a quarter of a century, a gloriously uncomplicated, ageless item that held down the fort for the range all by itself between 1963 and 1990.
The Modern Explorer
The biggest shift in style and concession to modern tastes came in 2010 when Rolex brought out the ref. 214270, unmistakably one of the breed but sporting a newly enlarged 39mm body. Besides the extra girth, the essential Explorer-ness of the watch remains the same as it always has; a dial created solely for clarity, unencumbered by as much as a date window, with the no-nonsense Mercedes-style hands that have been a feature since the beginning, forged from the strongest steel used by any watch manufacturer.
Hold it up to any one of the handful of references from the past and you can see just how right Rolex got their design from the outset. Nothing needed changing, so nothing was changed. Today, the perennial also-ran is finding an appreciative audience of those who look to Rolex not for their prominence as a status symbol, but for their expertise in making some of the finest and most reliable timepieces of any manufacturer.
A watch that sums up the essence of the brand perhaps better than any other, the Rolex Explorer is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
The Rolex Explorer II
Losing out to its sibling in the refined elegance stakes but walking off with the functionality prize, the first of the Explorer II references made its debut in 1971.
While the Explorer’s austere minimalism lent it a greater amount of versatility, making it the watch that could be worn with everything from a t-shirt to a tuxedo, the Explorer II’s strict utilitarian design marks it down as very much a piece with an important job to do—an article of essential equipment for those embarking on untold adventures.
Regardless of its credentials though, when the inaugural reference, the ref. 1655, emerged, it was met with a great collective shrug of indifference from the Rolex faithful. The dial was criticized for its busy, crowded aesthetic, particularly compared to its namesake, and the watch as a whole seemed to have a confusing remit.
The Dark Horse
While the brand’s dive models had the glamorous world of underwater discovery sewn up, the Explorer II was marketed at the decidedly less captivating sphere of underground expeditions—cave divers, or spelunkers, in other words.
Those who spent their days (or weeks or months) rooting around in subterranean grottos were never likely to out-sexy those venturing beneath the clear blue waters of the world’s oceans, and the Explorer II failed to capture the imagination.
However, it was more than qualified for the job. At 40mm, it was a particularly large watch for the period, and its all-steel construction meant it was certainly resilient enough for the sort of conditions it was going to face. It was also perfectly set up for a life spent in the dark, with a total of 24 individual luminescent markers on the dial, one every 2.5 minutes.
But its real party piece was the inclusion of a bright orange 24-hour hand. If you are spending extended periods of time underground with no contact with the outside world, you will very quickly lose your sense of night and day. The fourth ‘Freccione’ hand (from the Italian for ‘arrow’) on the Explorer II was kept pointed at the correct time up on the surface via the fixed, engraved bezel.
Even so, it joined its counterpart into the file labeled the forgotten Rolex and not even an association with the coolest man on the planet could strengthen its appeal. When it was rumored that Steve McQueen, the epitome of masculinity, wore a ref. 1655, the watch immediately adopted the movie star’s name as its unofficial moniker. The fact that, in all likelihood, McQueen never even wore, let alone owned, an Explorer II was neither here nor there.
The ‘Steve McQueen’ Explorer soldiered on its underwhelming way until 1985, when its successor, the transitional reference 16550, was released. Now, for the first time, it became a true GMT watch, with the Cal. 3085 unlocking the two hour hands and allowing the Freccione to be adjusted independently. It also marked it as the only model other than the Daytona to be offered with a choice of dial colors, either black or white.
However, in a most un-Rolex turn of events, both color schemes ran into problems. Defects with the paint caused the white dials to turn cream and the black dials to crack over the years. While that was obviously a less than desirable outcome at the time, with today’s classic watch industry being what it is, these ‘mistakes’ are now highly sought after, as they give each piece a unique appearance.
The Modern Explorer II
The current era Explorer II was launched in 2011 to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The ref. 216570 is definitely the most modern example to bear the name but it still has a healthy level of nostalgia built in to appeal to vintage fans. So, its dimensions have grown to 42mm, making it one of the largest models in the collection, and for the first time, it is powered by a caliber designed specifically for the series, the Cal. 3187. Previous iterations have all shared a movement with the GMT-Master range.
But, the bright orange Freccione hand has made a very welcome comeback, an element missing since the demise of the original Steve McQueen model in favor of an uninspiring red, arrow-tipped effort. And on the black dialed version, the so-called Phantom effect has also resurfaced, with the base of the hour and minute hands painted to match the color of the face, making them seem as if they are floating.
The Explorer II has, like the original Explorer, experienced a quiet revival in recent times. The perpetual misfit is becoming ever more appreciated for its unalloyed Rolex spirit, reminding the purists just why they fell in love with brand in the first place.
Crafted from ultra tough brushed steel and with a movement that will keep going in conditions few electronic gadgets could survive, there is still very much a place for the Explorer with those who risk it all in the uncharted wilderness.