First released in 1953 and built to stand up to the toughest of tests, such as the Mount Everest expeditions, The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer and Explorer II models embody the spirit of adventure. Known for their durablilty, these reliable sports watches start at $6,550 and are only available in Rolex's patented Oystersteel.
The Rolex Explorer, named in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 in honor of their monumental climb of Mount Everest, is one of the most sought after pre-owned Rolex watches in the world. The two main types of used Rolex Explorer watches, the Rolex Explorer I and Explorer II offer both date and non-date watches and traditionally sport a white or black dial. The pre-owned Explorer 1 and Explorer 2 model is meant for the adventurer in everyone. Bob's Watches carries a wide variety of Rolex Explorers including the Rolex 114270, Rolex 16570, and Rolex 16550.
During the first half of the 20th Century, Rolex Oyster watches were already famous for their waterproofness, durability, precision, and reliability. Rolex began equipping early mountaineering expeditions as early as the 1930s, even including the Houston-Everest Expedition, which achieved the flight over Mount Everest.
For the next 20 years, Rolex continued to equip historic expeditions with waterproof Oyster watches and self-winding Oyster Perpetual watches. In 1953, Oyster Perpetual watches were supplied to members of the British Mount Everest expedition led by Colonel John Hunt. This was the ninth attempt of the first ascent of Mount Everest, and during the expedition, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made history when they reached the summit on May 29, 1953.
That same year, Rolex unveiled the Oyster Perpetual Explorer watch in honor of the Everest achievement. Built as a tough timepiece for adventurers that is resistant to extreme conditions, the Explorer watch featured a durable exterior fashioned from steel, a highly legible black dial with large luminous details, and a shock-resistant self-winding mechanical movement to power it.
Building upon the success of the original Explorer I watch, Rolex introduced the Oyster Perpetual Explorer II in 1971 as a bigger, bolder, and more complex watch than its predecessor. Thanks to its AM/PM indicator displayed via a 24-hour hand pointing to a fixed 24-hour bezel, the Rolex Explorer II was positioned as a tool watch for speleologists, volcanologists, polar explorers and other adventurers who spend extended periods in darkness and can’t depend on the sun to tell night from day.
Whether for polar, mountaineering, or caving expeditions - or as everyday luxury watches with fantastic durability and reliability, the Explorer and Explorer II are some of the best Rolex models within the Oyster collection.
While the Rolex Explorer and the Explorer II share similar names, they are indeed different models, each with their own histories, functionality, and evolution. Although there are a few vintage Oyster Perpetual references (6098, 6298, and 6150) classified as "pre-Explorer" models, it is largely agreed that the reference 6350 was the very first official Rolex Explorer model, complete with the Explorer name on the dial. The watch featured a stainless steel 36mm case, a black time-only dial marked with 3, 6, and 9 numerals, and a steel Oyster bracelet. These fundamental design traits remained largely unchanged for the next five decades.
In the mid-1950s, Rolex launched Explorer 6610, fitted with a slimmer case due to the thinner movement inside the watch. Next in line was Explorer ref. 1016, equipped with a newer 1560 movement and an increased water resistance rating of 100 meters. As the longest-running model in Rolex Explorer history, many collectors consider the reference 1016 to be the quintessential vintage Explorer reference. Rolex introduced the Explorer 14270 in the late 1980s, featuring modern enhancements such as sapphire crystal, glossy black dials with white gold applied indexes, and a higher-beat Caliber 3000 movement. In the early 2000s, Rolex unveiled Explorer 114270 to house the updated Caliber 3130 movement and fitted the watch with solid end links on the Oyster bracelet. The biggest change to the design of the Explorer came in 2010 with the announcement of Rolex Explorer 214270. This is the first time the brand ever made a Rolex Explorer 39mm and this bigger case size has now replaced the classic 36mm size. Also new to the Explorer reference 214270 is the Caliber 3132 movement.
The Rolex Explorer II history began in 1971 with the launch of Explorer II ref. 1655 featuring a 38mm stainless steel case, a bright orange 24-hour hand, a fixed bezel with 24-hour graduations, a date display, and a stainless steel Oyster bracelet. The arrow shaped 24-hour hand (which is coupled to the traditional 12-hour hand) serves as a prominent day/night indicator by pointing to the current hour on the 24-hour scale engraved into the fixed bezel. Far from the simple design of the Explorer I, the Explorer II 1655 featured plenty of details including 24 lume plots for optimal legibility in the dark. Due to the distinct shape of the 24-hour hand, the Explorer II ref. 1655 was nicknamed "Freccione" - a name derived from the Italian word for "arrow."
In the mid-1980s, Rolex replaced the reference 1655 with the Explorer II ref. 16550, which had a larger 40mm case and the familiar Oyster bracelet. New to the 16550 was the dial layout with Mercedes-style hands, large hour markers in the geometric shapes typical of most Rolex Professional Oyster watches, and a red 24-hour hand with a luminous arrow tip. What’s more, the new Caliber 3085 movement allowed the 24-hour hand to be set independently of the 12-hour hand, thereby transforming the Explorer II into a dual time watch. By the end of the 1980s, Rolex released Explorer II ref. 16570 with the updated Caliber 3185 movement.
Finally, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the watch dedicated to intrepid explorers, Rolex introduced the Explorer II ref. 216570 in 2011 with a larger 42mm case size. Additionally, the reference 216570 also marked the return of the bright orange 24-hour hand from the previous model.
As a tool watch developed specifically to withstand the toughest conditions, Rolex has only ever made the Explorer and Explorer II in stainless steel. Unlike many of Rolex's other sports/professional watch collections, there have never been two-tone or solid gold version of the Rolex Explorer. Additionally, the type of stainless steel has evolved over the years from 316L stainless steel to 904L stainless steel, which is a highly corrosion-resistant superalloy, most commonly used in the space and chemical industries. Today, Rolex refers to its particular blend of 904L stainless steel as Oystersteel.
The Explorer and the Explorer II have always had different case sizes, with the latter always being bigger than the former. However, despite the size differences, modern Explorer and Explorer II models both feature Twinlock winding crowns characterized by two sealed zones. This double waterproofness system plays a vital role in the watches' guaranteed waterproof to 100 meters (330 ft).
Rolex Explorer dials have always been known for their understated yet immediately recognizable style, characterized by a black background, Mercedes-style hands, and the addition of 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals mixed in with baton markers. Though Rolex Explorer dials have maintained their signature look throughout history, details such as luminous materials (radium to tritium to LumiNova to Super-LumiNova to Chromalight) and index style (painted markers to hand-applied white gold markers) have of course evolved.
On the other hand, Explorer II dials have changed more dramatically throughout the decades. The first reference, Explorer II ref. 1655, was only available with a black dial and featured a prominent minute track with 24 lume plots to better correspond with the 24-hour display of the watch. Future Explorer II references then offered the option of a white dial or a black dial and included the lume-filled geometric indexes with white gold surrounds - similar to the style of dial used on the Submarine and GMT-Master. White Explorer II dials are often nicknamed "Polar" dials. The luminescence used on the Explorer II evolved similarly to the standard Explorer models, and the latest references have Chromalight coated hour markers and hands, which is Rolex’s in-house luminescent material that emits a blue glow instead of green.
In terms of complications, the Explorer and the Explorer II differ significantly: the Explorer is a time-only watch while the Explorer II is a dual time watch (except for the ref 1655, which had a day/night indicator) with a date window. Therefore, the Explorer and the Explorer II have always depended on a different set of calibers throughout the years. The latest movements that power the current-production Explorer and Explorer II models feature Rolex's new Paraflex shock absorbers for improved shock resistance and stability, along with the Rolex high-tech blue Parachrom hairspring, which provides better resistance to magnetism and temperature variations. Since 2015, Rolex mechanical movements boast an accuracy rating of -2/+2 seconds per day, significantly exceeding the standards for COSC-rated chronometers.
Part of the appeal of the Rolex Explorer is its relatively accessible price point compared to other Rolex Oyster Professional watches. Newer Rolex Explorer prices hover around the $6,600 mark while used and discontinued references can be bought for less than that on the secondary market.
Given its larger size and more advanced functionality, the Explorer II is priced higher than the Explorer I. The latest Rolex Explorer II models are priced around $8,000, while older references can be purchased anywhere from $6,500 to $7,500 on the secondary market.
However, if we're talking about vintage references or rare dial examples, the Rolex Explorer price range can skyrocket well into the five-figure territory.
From the early Oyster watches that were a part of pioneering mountaineering expeditions to today's modern Explorer iterations, exploration has been a part of Rolex's story for well over 80 years.
While the Rolex Explorer has remained largely unchanged throughout the years, it has existed as number of different references.
While the Explorer and Explorer II watches may not be as popular as other Rolex sports watches like the Submariner and Daytona among the celebrity set, there are a few famous wrists that we've spotted wearing the Rolex watches dedicated to exploration.
The Explorer II 1655 is nicknamed "Steve McQueen" but there's no photographic evidence that the famous actor ever wore one. Instead, it is believed that the nickname came about as a result of an advertising campaign that featured McQueen; however even in the advertisements, the famous Hollywood actor is not wearing a Rolex Explorer II.