When it comes to the Rolex Explorer vs. Explorer II, the main difference lies in the functions of the movement, with the Explorer I offering a time-only movement and the Explorer II including both a date complication and an additional 24-hour hand. The Rolex Explorer also does not feature a 24-hour bezel and is smaller in size, making it easily identifiable when placed next to the Explorer II. While the Explorer was introduced first, it continues production today alongside the Explorer II, with each model appealing to a different profession and style. To better understand the differences between the two models, let’s take a closer look at their history, overall design, and functions.
Each Rolex Explorer model was designed to cater to a different profession. The Explorer I was originally developed for mountaineers and the Explorer II was developed for spelunkers (cave explorers). The original Explorer entered the market in 1953, shortly after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The brave men were outfitted with Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches for the expedition, and it was these models that ultimately served as the core foundation for the Rolex Explorer – the brand’s very first sports watch.
The core design of the model centers around offering a tough exterior and a clear legible display. Whether you’re conquering the tallest peaks in the world or navigating a treacherous river, the Explorer has what it takes to keep perfect time. Even though the Rolex Explorer has been on the market for decades now, its design remains largely unchanged, with stainless steel construction, a smooth bezel, and a three-link Oyster bracelet. Early models featured a black dial topped with the model’s signature 3, 6, 9 Arabic numeral configuration and Mercedes hands that are still present today. References, such as the rare 6610 and certain ref. 1016 watches, also included a stunning gilt dial; a feature that was only produced for a relatively short time.
Over the years, the water-resistance rating has increased to 100 meters, and the movement has received several upgrades. However, one of the most notable changes to the Explorer came in 2010 with the addition of the ref. 214270 (Mark I), which included a larger 39mm case and a then-new Cal. 3132 Perpetual movement. A few years after its release, the ref. 214270 received a slight update to feature slightly longer hands and dial with fully-lumed Arabic hour markers. Due to their revised dials and hands, this edition is known as the ‘Mark II’ Explorer; however, the watch retained the same 214270 reference number.
Rolex Explorer II
In 1970, Rolex added another adventurer’s watch to their catalog in the form of the Explorer II. Like its predecessor, the Rolex Explorer II was developed to offer a precise reading in some of the world’s most extreme environments with a sturdy Oyster case and a self-winding movement. The reference 1655 was the first version of the Explorer II that was introduced. It was larger than its cousin the Explorer, and at the time of its release in 1971, it marked a significant departure from the classic Rolex aesthetic.
The Explorer II was specifically designed to keep time while spending long hours (or days) in the dark and included a fixed 24-hour bezel and a bright-orange, arrow-shaped 24-hour hand that served as a prominent AM/PM indicator. This reference is highly unique and is among the most sought-after by vintage collectors due to its unusual aesthetic and orange arrow-shaped hand, which earns its nickname “Freccione” from the Italian word for arrow (“freccia“). The ref. 1655 is also famously known as the “Steve McQueen Explorer” among collectors; however, not a single photo exists of the famous actor actually wearing one of these unique Rolex watches on his wrist.
With the introduction of the second edition of the Explorer II – the ref. 16550, the case increased to 40mm in diameter, and the face of the watch took on a more traditional design with standard Mercedes hands and a dial that followed the same general design as the Submariner and GMT-Master. The acrylic crystal was replaced with one made from sapphire, and the 24-hour hand also became independent of the standard 12-hour hand, essentially turning the Explorer II into a dual-time watch. Several changes were made to the Explorer II during the next several decades that followed, including updates to the movement, case, bracelet, and luminous material.
The current Explorer II is the ref. 216570, which was introduced in 2011 – just in time to celebrate the Explorer II’s 40th anniversary. As a nod toward the original 1970s model, Rolex brought back the orange “Freccione” arrow hand. It also received a larger 42mm case size, a completely redesigned bracelet, and Chromalight lume on the dial and hands. Like previous generations of the Explorer II, the ref. 216570 is available with either a traditional black or white ‘polar’ dial, the latter of which is distinguished by its hands and hour markers outlined in black, rather than polished white gold.
The Explorer and Explorer II each bring a different aesthetic to the Rolex catalog. If you’re in the market for a modest tool watch that also doubles as a sophisticated, time-only reference that can be worn on more dressy occasions, the original model might be more suited for your wrist. On the other hand, the Explorer II might appeal to anyone who seeks a more Rolex with a more ‘tool watch’ appearance as it includes additional complications and a 24-hour bezel fitted to its case.