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A Watch Collecting Guide to the Rolex Explorer II

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II 2021

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II (2021)

Of late, you’d have to have to been living in a cave not to notice that things have got, well, a little ‘tasty’ in the market for steel Rolex sports watches. That includes the watch Rolex made for actual cave-dwellers: the sturdy, offbeat, never-quite-fashionable, now upgraded Explorer II. The biggest steel Rolex that isn’t a Sea-Dweller; the only Rolex to offer you two time zones (the GMT Master II, with its rotating 24-hour bezel, gives you three); the only sports Rolex with a white dial variant besides the Daytona; and (still) the only remaining sports Rolex with an embossed steel bezel.

Should you want one, one dealer I called up told me the waiting list for the new model is around three years. But in the world of Rolex sports watches, that actually counts as availability, he said: “We’ve closed applications for the others, because we don’t know if we’ll ever fulfil them.” Another dealer I called simply laughed, and then sighed. Last year, he said, you might have had a chance; but not now.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II 2021

That’s because back in April, Rolex announced a new version of the Explorer II, Ref. 226570 – an event long predicted, since this year marks the watch’s 50th anniversary, and we’re a decade on from its last upgrade.

Anecdotally, supply of the previous model, Ref. 216570 introduced in 2011, had dried up significantly in the months preceding the announcement, meaning pent up demand was already surging without the now-inevitable launch hysteria. In the weeks before the release, as Rolex trailed the announcement via shadowy images on Instagram, the watch community’s online hype lords whipped themselves into a frenzy of speculation, prophesying that the Explorer II’s famous fixed steel bezel was, like that of the Daytona before it, about to be replaced with ceramic.

Inevitably, Del Boy dealers around the globe hoovered up every pre-owned 216570 they could get their hands on, sending prices rocketing, convinced that the soon-to-be-extinct steel bezel style was about to become collectible gold dust.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II 2021 dial

One can imagine an almighty, Nelson Muntz-style guffaw emanating from Rolex’s Plan-les-Ouates HQ on 7 April, the day of the launch: the prophecy did not come to pass. The new Explorer II is the spit of the old Explorer II, steel bezel and all, with minimal exterior upgrades that include brighter, longer-lasting Chromalight lume (in blue); more slender lugs; the latest Oyster bracelet with the secure Oysterlock clasp and EasyLink micro-adjustment system.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II 2021

Inside, it has a new-generation movement: it shares the Calibre 3285 found in the current GMT Master II, introduced in 2018. That means 70 hours of power reserve (up from 50 hours); improved reliability and magnetic resistance via Rolex’s innovative Chronergy escapement; and -2/+2 seconds a day accuracy, in line with the brand’s ‘Superlative Chronometer’ standards.

It is, in other words, the same watch – just a bit better. And all but unobtainable. If you want to jump the wating lists, expect to pay over £10,000 for a watch listed by its maker at £6,800.

Rolex Explorer II 1971

Rolex Explorer II (1971)

So where exactly in the panoply of Rolex greatness does the Explorer II fall? Launched in 1971, it came 18 years after the original Explorer, with a different and distinctly niche kind of exploration in mind: for cavers, potholers and anyone else spending long hours where night and day become indistinguishable (arctic scientists, perhaps, or those exploring the outer limits of their bank balances in Vegas casinos…), the glowing orange 24-hour hand was designed to give you some grounding in time and space. But really, it’s a travel watch: a rugged, dual-time ticker, blessed with Rolex perfectionism.

“If you were going to travel the world and you need a robust companion, or if you’re in low light conditions on a mountainside, it really is the watch for that,” says Adrian Hailwood, of the pre-owned platform Watch Collecting. “It’s not advertising itself to be robbed from you like a Pepsi, and the downward slope of the bezel is nice too – it means it slides under your jacket and doesn’t catch.”

Whereas Rolex’s other professional tool watches emerged in the 1950s, the original Explorer II, Ref. 1655, was notably a child of the 1970s: its black dial was ringed with a bold patchwork of luminescent markings that give it a wonderfully offbeat charm today, but were presumably less than user friendly – it didn’t sell well.

Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655

Rolex Explorer II Ref. 1655 MK5 “Freccione/Steve McQueen” (1984)

It’s known as the ‘Freccione’ (big arrow) to Italian collectors and the ‘Steve McQueen’ elsewhere, even though the actor didn’t wear one – its rugged, period grooviness just has the feel of something he should have worn (though I’d argue it’s as much Les McQueen as it is Steve – if you know, you know). Good 1655 editions can fetch over £30,000 today – if you’re a true vintage nut, you can go potholing through the micro-disparities that distinguish (barely) the different versions.

Rolex Explorer II ref. 16550

Rolex Explorer II Ref. 16550 (1987)

In the 1980s, groovy gave way to sensible: along with periodic technical upgrades, the subsequent two Explorer II models, in 1985 and 1989, saw the hour markings replaced with crisp Submariner-style lume pots, while the sporty 1970s-style hour/minute hands changed to traditional Rolex Mercedes hands. The bold orange 24-hour hand, meanwhile, was toned down to a slim red pointer tipped with a white arrow. The period also saw the debut of the white ‘polar’ dial version – something that has become a bit of an Explorer II calling card.

The modern Explorer II finally arrived in 2011, as Rolex reacted to the trend for bigger watches. Everything was bulked up: the diameter rose from 40 to 42mm, while the dial features all put on weight, with thicker hands, bigger lume pots, and the return of the full-fat orange 24-hour hand. Burly and somewhat quirky, it may lack the romantic backstory – and hence the street cred – of its professional Rolex brethren, but for some that’s part of its allure.

“It’s the contrarian’s sports Rolex,” says Hailwood. “It’s got more functionality than a Submariner, but it’s nowhere near as iconic. It was a bit of a misstep at the start, but that means it really flew under the radar, and gives it a certain charm.”

More details for the 2021 Explorer II at Rolex.

About the author

Timothy Barber

Timothy Barber’s writing on watches has appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, Wired and the Economist’s 1843 magazine, among others. The Telegraph’s former watch editor, and before that editor of QP Magazine, he’s close to accepting that ‘watch journalist’ is actually a thing.

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