There are a small handful of models in the Rolex catalog which have been given 'sequels' over the years. Three, in fact - the Rolex Explorer, GMT-Master, and Yacht-Master. Of those three, only two still have both versions running side-by-side. The other, the GMT-Master II, superseded its originator (called the GMT-Master,) in the late 1990s, although they were produced and sold concurrently for a number of years.
But while there was almost nothing to choose between the pair of GMT-Master watches, the other namesakes in the brand’s portfolio are so unrelated to each other they can really be thought of as completely different watches. The Yacht-Master, for example, is a straight-down-the-middle, time-and-date luxury watch with no particular features save for a date display and its bidirectional rotating bezel. Its sibling, the Yacht-Master II, is a great, hulking, ultra-complicated regatta timer and easily the most attention-grabbing piece in Rolex's standard lineup.
As for the Rolex Explorer and Explorer II, these watches also bear little resemblance to each other and both have long been viewed as underdogs in the Rolex lineup, the perpetually overlooked cult heroes. However, as is often the case with Rolex fandom, it is precisely that dark horse status that is now (ironically) attracting an increasing number of admirers. Both versions of the Rolex Explorer are growing enormously in popularity, helped along by their stubborn adherence to the brand's tool watch roots of old. In an era where enthusiasts crave all things vintage, both watches perfectly marry the very best of modern technology, wrapped up in the nostalgic, no-nonsense styling of yesteryear.
But what is the difference between the Rolex Explorer and the Rolex Explorer II? Below we lay out everything that you need to know.
Case Size: 39mm
Materials: 904L Stainless Steel (Oystersteel)
Functions: Time w/Running Seconds
Dial: Black, Chromalight Luminescence
Bezel: Fixed, Stainless Steel, Smooth
Crystal: Sapphire (Flat)
Water Resistance: 100 Meters / 330 Feet
Movement: Cal. 3132
Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet
Let's give a quick rundown of each watch in turn, starting with the earliest. The origin of the first Explorer is probably as famous as the watch itself. It launched in 1953, during the decade in which Rolex could do no wrong. The watchmaker has made a habit of using the world's harshest environments as its own personal proving grounds, and as for the Explorer, it took the planet's most formidable mountain as its testbed.
Rolex had been sponsoring attempts to scale Everest since the 1930s, totaling about nine in all, before finally backing the first successful expedition by Hillary and Norgay in 1953. The duo wore Oyster Perpetual watches during the punishing climb, supplied especially by Rolex with the agreement that they would return them to the manufacturer for research purposes upon their descent. This they duly did, and the watches would go on to form the basis for their first-ever sports watch: an austerely beautiful, time-only steel model with a 36mm case called the Rolex Explorer.
Rolex actually released two versions of the Explorer at the same time, the ref. 6350 and the ref. 6150. Even though they were both powered by the same movement, the A296, the former graduated to chronometer status after a few months (and so was given the 'Officially Certified Chronometer' text on its dial), with the latter staying non-certified and so being marked simply 'Precision'.
However, just as with the modern-day Yacht-Master, there was nothing overtly explorer-oriented about the model to justify its name. It was certainly created with reliability and durability in mind, but it contained nothing specifically designed to make the life of a trailblazing pioneer that much easier. It was simply a smart, tough, and stylish timepiece with an especially readable dial, thanks to its now-trademark 3/6/9 Arabic numeral hour markers - what we now refer to as an 'Explorer dial' within collecting circles.
As with most everything released by Rolex in the 1950s, the watch had a fairly tumultuous start to life. The ref. 6350 was withdrawn after just a year, with the ref. 6150 holding the fort alone until 1959, when it was in turn replaced by the ref. 6610. That model upgraded the movement to the Cal. 1030, the first caliber designed and built by Rolex, and it allowed the watch to be much slimmer than its Bubbleback predecessors. Even so, the ref. 6610 was itself discontinued in 1963 to make way for the ref. 1016.
After that release, Rolex just appeared to forget about the Explorer. Beyond a few subtle changes (the original Cal. 1560 was swapped for the Cal. 1570 in 1972; the two movements were more or less identical except for a higher frequency and a hacking function in the later mechanism) and the glossy gilt dials becoming matte in the late 60s, the ref. 1016 went virtually unaltered for an incredible 25-years. It wasn't until 1989 that Rolex took another look at the Explorer, granting the ref. 1016 a well-deserved retirement and bringing in the ref. 14270.
Even still, there was not an enormous amount to choose between them. The ref. 14270 stayed the same size, at 36mm, but was given some contemporary touches, such as a sapphire crystal in place of the previous acrylic one and (of course) a modern movement in the shape of the Cal. 3000. The ref. 114270, which came out in 2001, was essentially the same as its five-digit predecessor except, once again, with a new engine - the Cal. 3130.
However, the essence of the piece didn't change over all that time. It was still (as it is today) a minimalist, no-frills but somehow extremely tasteful wristwatch. The biggest upset to the Explorer line came in 2010. The ref. 214270 increased in size to 39mm, catering to the trend for larger watches but still horrifying some Rolex purists. This is the current reference, part of the brand's Professional Collection, but one that is perhaps due another update soon. It is one of the few remaining models still powered by the previous generation of Rolex movements - in the Explorer's case, the Caliber 3132.
- Rolex Explorer ref. 6350: 1953 - 1954
- Rolex Explorer ref. 6150: 1953 - 1959
- Rolex Explorer ref. 6610: 1959 - 1963
- Rolex Explorer ref. 1016: 1963 - 1989
- Rolex Explorer ref. 14270: 1989 - 2001
- Rolex Explorer ref. 114270: 2001 - 2010
- Rolex Explorer ref. 214270: 2010 - Present
Case Size: 42mm
Materials: 904L Stainless Steel (Oystersteel)
Functions: Time w/Running Seconds, GMT-Functionality
Dial: Black or White, Chromalight Luminescence
Bezel: Fixed, Stainless Steel, 24-Hour Scale
Crystal: Sapphire (w/ Cyclops Lens)
Water Resistance: 100 Meters / 330 Feet
Movement: Cal. 3187
Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet
The Explorer II made its debut in 1971, borrowing a name but not much else from its adventure-ready counterpart. It could, in fact, be seen as the antithesis of the original Explorer. Where that watch had been born on Earth's highest peak, the Explorer II was designed expressly for those venturing into its most forbidding underground depths.
Spelunkers (more frequently known as cave divers) can spend days or even weeks cut off from the surface, and any source of natural light. Losing track of day and night in those environments is virtually guaranteed, and so Rolex outfitted the Explorer II with an additional 24-hour hand and an engraved 24-hour bezel. Together, they acted as an AM/PM indicator to allow wearers to keep tabs on what they were missing up above.
The first iteration, the ref. 1655 measured 39mm and came in all stainless steel. Mindful of its anticipated audience, Rolex turned up the watch's readability to 11, especially in the dark. In addition to the normal luminescent markers every five minutes, they were also given small luminous squares in-between to better correspond with the watch's 24-hour display. The main handset (plain sticks as opposed to the Mercedes type which would come on later references) was also heavy on the tritium, as was the distinctive 24-hour hand.
This broad, bright orange indicator ultimately resulted in the watch being nicknamed the Freccione after the Italian for 'arrow' and this unique vintage trait is a real favorite among Rolex collectors. Later in the production run of the ref. 1655, examples had their 24-hour hands painted red but over time, these have all faded to a similar washed-out color as their orange counterparts.
However, just as with the original Rolex Explorer, this follow-up struggled for sales. Its main problems were a perceived limitation in its functionality and a dial that was deemed to be difficult to read. While the additional hour hand on the GMT-Master allowed it to display a second time zone with the use of its rotating bezel, the fixed bezel on the Rolex Explorer II meant that its 24-hour hand was just a large and prominent AM/PM indicator, since the two different hour hands on the Caliber 1575 are not independently adjustable.
Even a spurious link to Hollywood royalty didn’t help the Explorer II off the shelves. Somehow it became common knowledge that the undisputed King of Cool, Steve McQueen wore one, although there is not a shred of evidence or even a single photo to back up the claim. Nevertheless, the ref. 1655 is now and forever known as the Steve McQueen Rolex.
The Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655 lasted up until 1985 when the ref. 16550 took over. Known as a transitional reference, the ref. 16550 introduced more modern features, such as a sapphire crystal, and brought the case size up to 40mm. More importantly, a new movement (the Cal. 3085, again also used in the GMT-Master series of the time) finally unlinked the two separate hour hands, allowing them to be adjusted independently and so transforming the Explorer II into an authentic GMT watch.
The dial was given a significant makeover too, bringing it into line with the majority of Rolex's other sports models. The familiar mix of dots and batons for hour markers appeared for the first time, as did the traditional Mercedes handset, with the end result looking far more like the GMT-Master series than the inaugural reference. The second generation of the Rolex Explorer II was given a choice of dial color, adding a white - known as Polar - option, on top of the traditional black dial. However, the large arrow-shaped 24-hour hand was also omitted, inexplicably, replaced with the same thin arrow-tipped hand as the GMT-Master.
Only in production for four years, the ref. 16550 was supplanted by the ref. 16570 which had almost as long a run as the Explorer ref. 1016. It was made for some 22-years, with only a change in movement (from Cal. 3185 to Cal. 3186), a couple of upgrades in luminescent material, and a few extra details here and there such as lug holes and bracelet design altered during all that time.
And finally, the current-production model, the ref. 216570 arrived in 2011, just in time to celebrate the Explorer II's 40th birthday. As with the original Explorer, this too increased in dimensions, up to 42mm. To balance out the extra space, it was given Rolex's Maxi dial, with its larger indexes, and best of all, it reintroduced the much-missed Freccione 24-hour hand as a faithful recreation of the one from the original ref. 1655.
- Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655: 1971 - 1985
- Rolex Explorer II ref. 16550: 1985 - 1989
- Rolex Explorer II ref. 16570: 1989 - 2011
- Rolex Explorer II ref. 216570: 2011 - Present
As we saw, the two Rolex Explorer watches don't share much in common except their name, and this is especially true when it comes to functionality. The first Explorer is just about as simple as a watch can be. It tells you the time - and that's it. There is not so much as a date complication available to confuse matters.
As for the Explorer II, not only does it have a date display at the usual 3 o'clock position that is covered by a Cyclops lens, it also has its dual time zone capability. On balance then, at least as a day-to-day companion, the Explorer II has the lead.
Just as with their respective functions, the aesthetics of the Rolex Explorer versus the Explorer II are very much apples and oranges. The pair have very little equivalence as far as looks are concerned. The original Explorer is a study in strict restraint, held up as one of the most starkly beautiful watches ever to emerge from Rolex. Only ever released with a black dial (with the exception of a tiny handful of "albino" examples of the vintage ref. 6610), its 3/6/9 numerals remain the watch's calling card and its 39mm case is still ideal for a wide-ranging spread of situations and dress codes.
With the Rolex Explorer II, it is far more tool-like than its cousin, and purposely so. Unlike many others in the Professional Collection, it has never succumbed to the allure of precious metals or gemstone enhancements. It has stayed true to the one-time essence of the brand, a rugged stainless steel creation that still looks as if it could easily do the job for which it was first made. You could legitimately take it on an arctic adventure or into a bottomless cavern and use it in a way that you likely wouldn't want to risk doing with an 18k yellow gold Submariner.
But in terms of all-around versatility, it is perhaps the classic Explorer that just pips this one. The Explorer II's larger size, coupled with an altogether busier appearance, makes it less suitable for formal occasions, whereas the classic time-only Explorer can be dressed up more easily. What is similar about the two is the fact that both have changed only marginally over the years, as with all the greats from Rolex. The watches that have enjoyed the longest times in production have done so because they were just tailored perfectly from the get-go and then simply left alone.
In the end, we are left with two Rolex watches with plenty of appeal for lovers of both the modern and the nostalgic. Each one is flawless in its design and execution but in different ways. The Explorer is classically unassuming and is a wonderfully elegant timepiece that is welcomed anywhere. Moreover, it is one of the cheapest models to buy new and is now the only 39mm watch in the current lineup except for the Pearlmaster.
The Explorer II is bigger, bolder, and more functional, plus it comes with a choice in colors. With that in mind, it does cost more, thanks to its extra size and complications, but not by a huge amount. There is just under $2,000 between them at retail - $6,550 for the ref. 214270 and $8,350 for the ref. 216570.
Interestingly though, the gap between pre-owned versions of each is significantly lower. You can easily find examples of the 36mm Explorer ref. 14270 for less than $6,000 and the ref. 16570 Explorer II starts out at around $6,500. Choosing between them comes down to personal preference (as is always the case), but between these two Rolex tool watches, there are absolutely no wrong choices.