For two Rolex watch designs that have long been (below the surface) incredibly similar, the Rolex GMT-Master II and Explorer II have always enjoyed very different levels of popularity. Both were originally designed to take on a specific task, as were all of the brand’s sport and tool models, but one has since gone on to become the ultimate jetsetter’s status symbol, while the other has stayed much truer to its roots.
The current iterations of these two Rolex watch families are as dissimilar from each other as they have ever been; however, they still do the same job in more-or-less the same way. Below, we take a look at the GMT-Master II ref. 1267xx and the Explorer II ref. 216570.
GMT-Master II vs. Explorer II Visuals
Until fairly recently into their respective runs, these two Rolex watch collections shared the same 40mm case. That began to come to an end in 2005 when the GMT-Master II graduated to Rolex’s ‘Super Case’ with the ref. 116718 (later adopted by the new stainless steel ref. 116710 in 2007), bringing with it lugs and crown guards nearly twice the width as before. While still the same 40mm diameter on paper as older versions, the thicker elements gave the redesigned GMT a much greater wrist presence, and it has retained the shape ever since.
The Rolex Explorer II had to wait until 2011 with the introduction of its current reference before it was granted a redesign. And it was a significant one. Following the general trend for larger timepieces, and especially for tool models, the ref. 216570 was given a larger 42mm case, adding a significant bulk overall and general wrist presence.
However, at first glance, this pair of Rolex watch models have never had too many similarities. The GMT-Master range is defined by its 24-hour bezel, and specifically its various color schemes. From the outset, the bi-color designs have been for both decorative and practical purposes. The blue and red of the original, swiftly christened the ‘Pepsi’ by collectors, has been joined over the years by other liveries; in the current range, alongside the Pepsi models, are two with black and brown bezels (known colloquially as the ‘Root Beer’), in addition to the black and blue of the ‘Batman’ – the first bi-color bezel to be crafted from Rolex’s proprietary Cerachrom ceramic material.
The split in the coloring was originally intended to act as a quick visual representation of night and day hours, allowing wearers an at-a-glance reference of the second time zone they were tracking and whether it is AM or PM. Past versions not presently in the line up include the black and red (nicknamed the ‘Coke’) and the more incognito all-black bezel.
With the Explorer II, the aesthetics are altogether more staid and workmanlike. From its second generation, it has been available with either a black or white (Polar) dial, but that has always been pretty much it as far as variety goes. Its 24-hour bezel has only ever been made from brushed stainless steel and fixed, as opposed to the GMT’s rotatable surround, which has appeared in a number of different materials and colors over the years.
The contemporary versions of both watches have the Maxi dial, with larger hour markers and handset, and the modern-day Explorer II has reinstated a much-loved detail from its 1971 originator – the bright orange, arrow-shaped ‘Freccione’ 24-hour hand – absent for many years as previous iterations borrowed the red, small-arrowed hand from the Rolex GMT-Master range.
GMT-Master II vs. Explorer II Movements
As both Rolex watch models are four-handed, date-display GMT watches, the two have also shared a movement for many years. That only ended with the 2011 introduction of the current Explorer II the ref. 216570. It was, and still is, fitted with the Cal. 3187, while the GMT-Master II of the same year retained the Cal. 3186. In reality, the calibers were virtually identical to each other, with the greatest difference being that the Cal. 3187 received Rolex’s in-house Paraflex shock absorbers.
However, the latest generation of the GMT-Master II released in 2018, the ref. 1267xx, has been upgraded to Rolex’s new wave of movements, and comes fitted with the new-generation Cal. 3285. The holder of 10 separate patents, the mechanism’s main development over earlier engines lies in its Chronergy escapement, a stripped down, skeletonized, and highly efficient take on the standard Swiss lever system which has been in use now for over 250 years.
The movements inside both Rolex watch models allow for the pair of hour hands to be set independently from each other, meaning that even the Explorer II with its static bezel, can be used as a true GMT. Of course, the addition of the rotating bezel on the GMT-Master II allows it to track a third time zone if needed.
Despite their differences, each movement, in keeping with the overarching philosophy of the brand, is designed to be at once extremely resilient and exceptionally accurate. Both are rated to Rolex’s own ‘Superlative Chronometer’ precision standards promising an accuracy of between -2/+2 seconds a day.
Options for the GMT-Master II and Explorer II
This category is something of a no-contest. The Explorer II, as it has always been, is a solely stainless steel creation and is still only offered in two variants; a black or white dial, with both now exclusively fitted with Oyster bracelets.
The GMT-Master II, on the other hand, has a collection of six models in the current range, with a choice of full Everose and Everose Rolesor editions (both with the black and brown Root Beer bezel and fitted with Oyster bracelets), two 904L steel pieces (a blue and black Batman and a red and blue Pepsi, both fitted with Jubilee bracelets) and a further pair of Pepsi watches, in 18k white gold, one with a blue dial, the other a meteorite dial, both fitted with Oyster bracelets.
Rolex likes to swap and change details on the GMT-Master series, so at the present time , the two stainless steel models are only fitted with the rounded five-link Jubilee bracelet, with flat three-link Oysters on the rest. Additionally, while solid 18k yellow gold and Yellow Rolesor (two-tone) models were both previously available as options for the GMT-Master II, since 2019, the only gold available on the GMT-Master II collection is Rolex’s proprietary Everose pink gold alloy.
That being said, the lack of variety in the Explorer range shouldn’t really be seen as a disadvantage, but rather a strength. Out of all of Rolex’s Professional series, it is the Explorers (both I and II) that have stayed the most faithful to their original tool watch tradition. While all around them, the other models are issued in more and more precious metal finery, it is the Explorer II that is as no-nonsense now as it has ever been.
The Best All-Around Rolex Watch
They may do more or less the same thing, but the GMT-Master II and Explorer II are very different beasts and, consequently, appeal to different people. There’s no doubt the GMT-Master II will attract more attention, with its eye-catching coloration and golden case options. Additionally, the bracelets on each version have polished center links, further marking them out more as a luxury travel companion than a strictly utilitarian multi-timezone watch.
The Explorer II (along with its sibling, the time-only Explorer) is the most tool-like Rolex watch in the current catalog. It has resisted all changes to its basic makeup and remained steadfastly functional – at a time when even something as rugged and masculine as the Sea-Dweller has even been softened with a Rolesor variant.
The Explorer II has long been a favorite of Rolex sports watch purists, because it still closely adheres to the core values that served as the foundation for the Rolex brand. The company now offers plenty of purely status symbol watches, and those that turn their back on precious metals in keeping with their original heritage are now in the minority.
That being said, there are few luxury watches in the world (Rolex or other) that are as iconic as the GMT-Master II. Massively popular since day one, more than 60-years ago now, the current version is simply superb, in both looks and functionality. It also offers more versatility in terms of appealing to personal tastes, with a choice of color schemes sure to captivate anyone.
Both Rolex watch models make perfect additions to a collection, with each one so well made and with a timelessness to its design that means it will serve for a lifetime and beyond. As ever, the right one to pick is the one you most enjoy.