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Watch Comparison: The Rolex GMT-Master II vs. Rolex Explorer II

April 9, 2020

BY Paul Altieri


How often is it fair to say the sequel turned out better than the original? There have been relatively few films that followed-up a classic with even greater success in the history of cinema. However, Rolex has managed it twice in its 115-year history. Both the GMT-Master (no longer available) and the Rolex Explorer are classics in their own right. However, the collection’s real heroes strode along the trail blazed by their forerunners and stole the limelight.

Both the Rolex GMT-Master II and the Rolex Explorer II are true industry standouts and they have become in many ways, horological blueprints. Frequently copied but never bettered, these two archetypes stare proudly out upon a market that grovels at their feet. But how are relations between the two legendary models behind closed doors? Surely, with such massive egos vying for attention, the GMT-Master II and Explorer II are no strangers to trading blows, right? Well, let’s dig into how these two iconic multi-timezone Rolex models stack up against one another.

Rolex GMT-Master II

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

GMT-Master II ref. 126710 Key Features:

Case Size: 40mm

Functionality: Time w/ running seconds; Date complication; GMT functionality

Materials: Stainless Steel

Dial: Black

Bezel: Bidirectional w/ Cerachrom insert, Red/Blue “Pepsi” (ref. 126710BLRO); Blue/Black “Batman” (ref. 126710BLNR)

Crystal: Sapphire with Cyclops magnification lens

Movement: Caliber 3285

Water Resistance: 100 meters / 330 feet

Bracelet: Jubilee Bracelet

Retail Price: $9,700 (MSRP)

Click here to learn how to use the multi-timezone functionality on the Rolex GMT-Master II.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

Rolex Explorer II

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

Explorer II ref. 216750 Key Features:

Case Size: 42mm

Functionality: Time w/ running seconds; Date complication; GMT functionality

Materials: Stainless steel

Dial: Black; White

Bezel: Fixed, Stainless steel w/ 24-hour scale

Crystal: Sapphire with Cyclops magnification lens

Movement: Caliber 3187

Water Resistance: 100 meters / 330 feet

Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet

Retail Price: $8,350 (MSRP)

Click here to learn more about the GMT capabilities of the Rolex Explorer II.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

Rolex’s GMT Watches

While you would have to be willfully ignorant not to realize that the Rolex GMT-Master II features a GMT complication (it’s right there in the name, after all), so too does the Rolex Explorer II (with the one exception being the very first Explorer II model, the reference 1655). In fact, the Explorer II’s GMT complication is responsible for its most striking aesthetic flourish – the prominent and brightly colored GMT hand.

Without that additional hand and the GMT complication, the Explorer II would be a very odd duck indeed. It would be one of the largest professional watches in the brand’s collection – its 42mm case is the second largest in Rolex’s catalog, tied with the Sky-Dweller and only dwarfed by the Sea-Dweller and the Deepsea. It doesn’t have the rotating bezel of the Submariner, nor does it have the effortless elegance of a Datejust 41. In short, without that GMT function, the Explorer would be a somewhat strange, oversized Rolex watch with very little to turn heads.

This is exactly why it is a bit unusual that the GMT complication isn’t even mentioned in the Explorer II’s name when it is placed front and center of the GMT-Master II’s marketing material. Sure, it doesn’t have the rotating bezel that could theoretically be used to indicate a third timezone (or be used instead of the GMT hand to indicate a second). However, the ability to display three timezones is not a true requirement for a watch to be classed as a GMT. Barely anyone tracks three timezones at once anyway, so why doesn’t the Rolex Explorer II get to parade its GMT functionality in its title?

Furthermore, it might make more sense to call it the Rolex Explorer GMT because that would (at least) mark it as distinct from the classic Explorer from the get-go. As it is, we are left with a curious family of two watches connected more by spirit than aesthetics. Aside from their intended audience, there is basically nothing that connects the Explorer and the Explorer II. The same cannot be said for the GMT-Master II and its now-discontinued predecessor, the humbly named GMT-Master.

When the Rolex GMT-Master first debuted in 1954, it certainly couldn’t have imagined it would give birth to one of the most popular (and certainly the most talked about) watches of the 21st century. And yet, when the GMT-Master II debuted in the early 1980s, it set out on a collision course with destiny. The Rolex GMT-Master II is easily distinguishable from its predecessor thanks to its independently adjustable hour hands. This feature added the prospect of tracking a third timezone or indicating the second timezone on the dial without using the rotating 24-hour bezel.

The added functionality spelled the end for the original GMT-Master, although not as swiftly as many people think. Although the 1983 debut of GMT-Master II reference 16760 seemed to indicate the immediate end for the classic GMT-Master, it actually remained in production until 1999 in the form of the reference 16700.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

The same but different (very different)

You’ll read a lot online about just how similar these two watches are, but there are a number of key significant differences about them in terms of aesthetics and how they wear on the wrist. But first, to the similarities…

Functionally speaking, the Rolex Explorer II is essentially a GMT-Master II with a fixed stainless steel bezel. And it would be fair to say that these two models were more similar in the past (before Rolex most recently updated the Explorer II in 2011). The current incarnations of the GMT-Master II and the Explorer II, the reference 126710, and the reference 216570, respectively, are very different watches that reduce the overlap of Rolex’s two multi-timezone watches.

For much of its history, Rolex’s Explorer II line has stood in the shadow of its older brother, the GMT-Master. Although the very first Explorer II (the reference 1655) had a significantly different aesthetic than the GMT-Master, subsequent iterations of the two watches brought the lines increasingly closer together, until the only real differences were the bezels and the option of a white dial for the Explorer II.

Until reasonably recently into their respective runs, these two Rolex watch collections even shared the same 40mm case. However, this changed 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).

The new case brought an entirely new character to the watch. It brought 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 more significant wrist presence, and it has more-or-less retained the shape ever since. The new case is throughly modern in design and retains the old diameter but has entirely novel proportions. This was the first major separation of the GMT-Master II and Explorer II lines, but they would diverge further still in the years to come.

When the Rolex Explorer II was given an update in 2011, the new reference 216570 was entirely redesigned to be its own unique watch, rather than just a GMT-Master II with a different dial and bezel. Instead of using the same 40mm “super case” from the GMT-Master II, the reference 216570 uses a 42mm case that completely sets it apart from the other models that constitute Rolex’s sports watch lineup.

Interestingly, the GMT-Master II’s “super case” is 12mm thick. That’s exactly the same as the Explorer II’s 42mm case. What that does on the wrist is make the Explorer II appear even larger than the actual 2mm difference between it and the GMT-Master, as it sits wide and low on the wrist with its sloped bezel, while the GMT-Master II stands tall with its high-sided bezel and somewhat blockish case. This means that the Explorer II – a watch marketed at adventurers, cavers, and general outdoorsmen – actually wears a little bit more elegantly than the GMT-Master II, which was patently designed with swanky jet-setters in mind.

That “luxury lifestyle” bent is perhaps more apparent in the prominent use of colored Cerachrom (Rolex’s proprietary ceramic compound that is both scratch and fade resistant) for the bezel inserts on the GMT-Master II. Additionally, the watch’s face has been refreshed with a new “Maxi” dial and handset that features a color-matched 24-hand.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

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 color profiles. 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 crafted from Rolex’s proprietary Cerachrom ceramic material.

It is rumored that the coloring split was originally intended to act as a quick visual representation of night and day hours. This would allow wearers an “at-a-glance” reference of the second timezone they were tracking and whether it is AM or PM. However, others maintain that the red and blue profile of the original GMT-Master’s bezel was meant to mimic the appearance of the attitude indicators found on airplanes of the era. Additional GMT bezel colors not currently in the lineup include the black and red (nicknamed the “Coke”) and the more incognito all-black bezel.

In its place, the Explorer II uses a radially-brushed stainless steel bezel engraved with numerals marking the 24 hours of the day. It is a far humbler aesthetic and one that people that actually use this watch in the wild might appreciate. Additionally, 2011 didn’t just see a case redesign for the Explorer II. The dial and hands of the reference 216570 Explorer II also received an update, further helping to distinguish the Explorer II from the GMT-Master II.

For much of its history, the Rolex Explorer II directly borrowed the 24-hour hand from the GMT-Master II line. Looking back on the old references in the shared 40mm cases, the red GMT hands can now seem a bit out-of-place. Thankfully, Rolex identified this and decided to do something about it. Rather than continuing with this trend, the reference 216570 features a large, triangular 24-hour hand that is colored bright orange – in homage to the original reference 1655 Explorer II from the 1970s. Additionally, the dial of the reference 216570 features the “Explorer II” name in orange paint to match the orange color of the new 24-hour hand.

Both the reference 126710 GMT-Master II and reference 216570 Explorer II have brightly colored 24-hour hands, but while the one on the Explorer II matches its dial, the one on the current GMT-Master II matches its bezel. These details are done in red on reference 126710BLRO and in blue on the ref. 126710BLNR, while the Explorer II reference 216570 receives them in bright orange (on both black dial and white dial versions) to match the watch’s large, triangular 24-hour hand.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

Rolex GMT-Master II vs. Explorer II: Movements

But what about the movements of these two established icons? Surely, given their “identical functionality” they must share calibers also, right? Surprisingly, this is not the case despite the fact the reference 116710 GMT-Master II and the reference 216570 Explorer II are both 4-hand, date-displaying, multi-timezone watches.

In the past, the GMT-Master II and Explorer II were fitted with the same movement since both watches required the same functionality. However, that is no longer the case. The Explorer II is fitted with the Caliber 3187, which is very similar to Caliber 3186 that previously powered both watches before the 2018 introduction of the GMT-Master II’s new-generation Caliber 3285. The Cal. 3285 holds ten separate patents, and the mechanism’s main advantage over earlier movements are its Chronergy escapement – a stripped-down, skeletonized, and highly efficient version of the standard Swiss lever system that has been in use now for over 250 years.

The Caliber 3187 that is found in the Explorer II is of an older design than the Caliber 3285, offering a shorter power reserve despite identical timekeeping performance. It was among the first movements to be fitted with Rolex’s in-house, Paraflex shock absorption system for greater resistance to harmful impacts – a nice, thematically sensible upgrade for the Explorer II; however one that is also now found on the GMT-Master II’s Cal. 3285. Whether the Explorer will eventually be treated to one of Rolex’s latest Cal. 32xx movements remains to be seen, but the Cal. 3187 with its Parachrom hairspring and chronometric performance is more than up to the task.

Both movements are significantly more advanced than the ones found in the inaugural models from each collection. On the original versions of the GMT-Master and the Explorer II, the hour hands were not independently adjustable, so the only way to display a second-timezone was by rotating the bezel and using the 24-hour hand as a reference. Since the bezel does not rotate on the Explorer II, the bright orange, 24-hour hand of the original version was no more than a large AM/PM indicator.

Both the Caliber 3285 and the Caliber 3187 movements allow the 12-hour hand to be set independently from the 24-hour hand, enabling the reference 126710 GMT-Master II and the reference 216570 Explorer II to simultaneously display a second timezone with just the dial and hands. Additionally, both watches have 24-hour bezels for use with their GMT-functions; however, the bezel on the GMT-Master II rotates to enable simultaneous access to an additional third-timezone.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

GMT-Master II vs. Explorer II Options

This category is something of a no-contest. The Rolex Explorer II, as it has always been, is a solely stainless steel creation and it is still only offered in two variants. You can choose between a black or white dial, and both are now exclusively fitted with Oyster bracelets.

The GMT-Master II, on the other hand, has a collection of six models in the current range. There is a choice of both full Everose and Everose Rolesor editions (both with the black and brown “Root Beer” bezel and fitted with Oyster bracelets), two 904L Oystersteel pieces (a blue and black “Batman” bezel or a red and blue “Pepsi” option, both delivered on Jubilee bracelets), and a further two “Pepsi” watches in 18k white gold and fitted with Oyster bracelets. One of the white gold variants has a blue dial, white the other has a rather fetching meteorite display.

Rolex likes to swap and change details on the GMT-Master series, so at present, the two stainless steel models are only fitted with the rounded five-link Jubilee bracelet, with flat three-link Oysters on all 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, the only gold available on the GMT-Master II collection since 2019 is Rolex’s proprietary Everose pink gold alloy.

That 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, the Explorers (both I and II) have stayed the most faithful to their raison d ‘être. While all around them, other models are being issued and reissued in evermore precious materials with unnecessary aesthetic embellishments, it is the Explorer collection that remains as no-nonsense as it has ever been.

At a time when even something as rugged and masculine as the Sea-Dweller has been softened with a Rolesor variant, the Explorer II has stayed the course. It has resisted all changes to its basic makeup and remained steadfastly functional. The aesthetics of the Explorer II 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 fixed 24-hour bezel has only ever been made from brushed stainless steel, while the GMT’s rotating bezel has appeared in many different materials and colors over the years.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

Rolex GMT-Master II vs. Explorer II: Which one is the best?

They may do more or less the same thing, but the Rolex GMT-Master II and Rolex 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 precious metal case options. Additionally, all of the bracelets on the current-generation GMT-Master II have polished center links, further marking them more as a luxury travel companion than a strictly utilitarian multi-timezone watch.

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 Rolex brand’s foundation. The company now offers plenty of purely status symbol watches, and the collections that do not offer precious metal variants and keep with their original heritage are now in the minority.

However, few luxury watches in the world (Rolex or other) are as iconic as the GMT-Master II. The GMT-Master line has been popular since it first launched more than 65 years ago now. Better still, the current version is simply superb – in both looks and functionality. It also offers more versatility when it comes to personal tastes, with a choice of color schemes sure to captivate anyone.

Both Rolex watch models make perfect everyday watches and there is certainly room in a collection for both, despite their similar functionality. With each one so well made, either would serve for a lifetime and beyond. As ever, the right one to pick is simply the one you most enjoy.

Rolex GMT-Master II vs Rolex Explorer II


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