When it comes to Rolex sports watches, the Submariner and Explorer II are amongst the most beloved. And despite the fact that they are both tough, purpose-built timepieces, they’re just about as different as it gets in nearly all respects.
But if you’re not very familiar with either watch, comparing these two industry titans can seem daunting. So here, I’m breaking down everything you need to know – and compare – about the Rolex Submariner and the Rolex Explorer II.
True sports watches, both the Submariner and Explorer II were built by Rolex with specific jobs in mind – and the hint lies in their names. Unsurprisingly, the Submariner is a divers watch, built to time out scuba dives and withstand the unrelenting pressure of 300-meter (1,000 foot) depths. In fact, this watch has been one of the world’s top diving watches since it was first released back in 1953.
The Explorer II, on the other hand, was originally introduced in 1971 for speleologists who work in deep underground caverns. But like the original Rolex Explorer – the watch that provided its foundation – the Explorer II appeals to adventurers and explorers of all kinds, especially since its popular 40th anniversary remodel.
No, I’m not talking about the Submariner and Explorer II’s famously good looks – we’ll get there in a minute. Both timepieces have a pretty long history with Rolex, and over the years, they have been worn and beloved by many famous faces.
The Submariner is famous for its James Bond appearances, author Ian Flemming writing, “He could not just wear a watch. It had to be a Rolex.” Over the years, Sean Connery’s 007 wore a Submariner ref. 6538 and Roger Moore sported a ref. 5513. And as one of the most popular Rolex models ever, we often see the Submariner sported today on the wrists of celebrities and dignitaries alike – whether they’re scuba divers or not.
The Rolex Explorer II has graced its fair share of celebrities and famous explorers too. Hollywood actor, Jason Statham can frequently be spotted at red carpet events sporting a vintage ref. 1655 – the very first Explorer II reference. Meanwhile, Prince Harry prefers the modern version of the watch, and owns the 42mm Explorer II ref. 216570 with a white “Polar” dial.
Rolex Submariner vs. Explorer II: Case, Bezel, and Bracelet
This is where the differences between the Submariner and the Explorer II become very apparent. First up, the Submariner has a colored unidirectional timing bezel that today is available in black, blue or green. And before Rolex started using modern, scratch-resistant Cerachrom (aka ceramic) bezels on the Submariner in 2007, it featured an aluminum bezel. The bezel is really one of the main selling points of this watch, as its color really adds some great personality to the wrist, and is one of the defining characteristics of the Rolex Submariner collection.
The waterproof Oyster case on the Submariner clocks in at 40mm, and along with the bracelet, can be either constructed from Oystersteel (904L stainless steel), solid 18k yellow gold, or Rolesor (two-tone steel and gold). This is another big selling point for a lot of collectors, as the combinations of alloys and bezels really allow for a lot of style and creativity. And before I forget: the Submariner has always featured an Oyster bracelet, but in recent years was updated with the improved Glidelock clasp, which allows for tool-free adjustment for a perfect fit.
Then there’s the much more subdued fixed stainless bezel of the Explorer II which matches the case and features a 24-hour marked scale. This feature was specifically built for explorers who need to distinguish day from night – think cave explorers or polar explorers in the height of summer when the sun never sets.
For decades, the durable and waterproof Oyster case on the Explorer II measured 40mm, but upon its redesign for the 40th anniversary of the collection in 2011, it was enlarged to 42mm. However, while Rolex produces a precious metal version of the Submariner, the Explorer II is exclusively offered in 904L stainless steel, and there have never been any solid gold or two-tone models ever produced. The current Explorer II is only offered on a steel Oyster bracelet with a Oysterlock clasp, but to be honest, when it comes to the Explorer II, collectors are much more concerned with what really makes this watch: the face.
Rolex Submariner vs. Explorer II: Dial and Hands
The dial of the Explorer II is iconic for a few reasons. The most notable being the colored 24-hour hand which circles the face. First, there’s the iconic orange 24-hour hand, originally designed to help polar and cave explorers distinguish night from day, that gained its cult-status from the original “Steve McQueen” reference. Rolex eventually brought back the bright orange hand with much fanfare. Then there’s the red 24-hour hand which graced the dial for decades – it’s distinctly different than the orange hand with a skinnier body and smaller luminous triangle at the tip. The dials with a red 24-hour hand are far less punchy than their orange counterparts, but still make the Explorer II standout from the rest of the Rolex lineup.
Then there are the dial colors – available in effortlessly-cool black and the coveted ‘polar’ white. The polar dial is totally cool and clean, the white face outfitted with white lume plots and Mercedes hands outlined in black. The blackface on the other hand has a totally different appeal. While it boasts the same features, the darker face really highlights the stainless steel bezel, lume hour plots and lume-filled Mercedes hands (this time in white gold rather than finished black). It’s a punchier look, and the colored 24-hour hand – especially the orange one – shines against the black a little brighter.
But if we look at the Submariner, you’ll notice it always has a dark face. The most common is the black dial, but the blue and green dial Submariners are incredibly popular as well. What defines the face are those beautiful rounded, lume hour plots which pop against the dark colors of the dial. To break it up, you’ll also find an inverse triangle up at 12-o’clock and down at the 6 and 9 o’clock locations, there are rectangular lume plots.
Of course, over at three there is the date window under a sapphire crystal cyclops lens. And swinging around the dial are those world-famous Mercedes hands which are also outfitted with easy-to-read lume. The dial of the Submariner is quite simple yet stylish and versatile, which is what draws a lot of people to this iconic model.
Rolex Submariner vs. Explorer II: Movement
The earliest movement used in the Rolex Explorer II was the Caliber 1575, but over the years it was replaced with more technically advanced movements to help this watch reach its full adventure potential. The first big upgrade was the Cal. 3085 which allowed the 24-hour hand to be adjusted independently from the 12-hour hand. This meant the Explorer II no longer just indicated day and night hours, but could also be used to track a second time zone – turning it into a GMT watch. Then came the Cal. 3185 which was improved upon more with a Glucydur balance wheel that is not only paramagnetic but was resilient in extreme temperatures. The 3186 came next with a blue Parachrom hairspring that is anti-magnetic and shock resistant for even better durability. Finally, we have the modern-day Cal. 3187 which features all the upgrades this watch has gained over the years – from the GMT functionality to the blue Parachrom hairspring. It’s also notable for its high-performance Paraflex shock absorbers, 31 jewels, -2/+2 seconds per day accuracy and 48-hour power reserve.
The Submariner has a much longer history, so we’re going to start with the automatic Caliber 3135, which, while upgraded over the years, has been used in all date-displaying Submariner watches since 1988. While the aesthetics of the Submariner can vary, the Cal. 3135 has remained a trusted source of power for this beloved timepiece because of its sheer reliability. Today, the upgraded Cal. 3135 movement is COSC certified, outfitted with the anti-magnetic and ultra shock-resistant blue Parachrom hairspring, and boasts an impressive 48-hour power reserve just like the Explorer II.