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.