The Rolex Explorer I and Explorer II, collectively The Explorers, are two of the brand’s most unique and versatile contemporary offerings. And although they are loved by many, they tend to sit in the shadows of their more popular siblings, the Sub and the GMT-Master.
If you’ve read any of our extensive horology guides here on Bespoke Unit, you may already know that this is just the kind of watch model we like – the one that’s not in the limelight.
Yet there’s a lot more that makes these two Rolex sports models special and worthy of review.
For instance, the first summit of Mt. Everest featured a pre-Explorer prototype and would later inspire the models name.
Keep scrolling through this guide for more on this and the rest of the legacies of these two modern horological icons.
History Of The Rolex Explorer
The past of The Explorers is quite extensive, especially the Explorer I’s. For this reason, we’ve broken down their timelines into the following subsections to which you can skip using the links below:
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The Pre-Explorer Bubblebacks
Since its inception, Rolex has done a fair bit to associate their brand, and therefore their timepieces, with great achievers throughout history.
The first of these P.R. campaigns is believed to have been Mercedes Gleitze’s 1927 crossing of the English Channel, a feat she accomplished with a Rolex Oyster. Naturally, the next day’s paper contained a full-page ad paid for by the brand highlighting the accomplishment as well as the timepiece’s remarkable durability.
Less than 10 years later, in 1933, Rolex began sponsoring Himalayan expeditions and, soon afterwards, Everest expeditions.
As a result of the brand’s backing, the climbers themselves were equipped with Rolex timepieces, many of which were prototypes. The specific model in use is believed to have been the ref. 6098.
Yet these timepieces worn by the boldest climbers of the time were still “bubbleback” watches, marked by their convex caseback. It wouldn’t be until the first summit of Mt. Everest that the Rolex Explorer watch would be born.
The First Rolex Explorer
In 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would become the first men to summit the mighty Mt. Everest.
From this achievement was born the story that both men wore Rolex watches on their historic trek, yet this story is only half true. It is believed that Norgay was indeed wearing a Rolex, a reference 6098, but the same was not the case for Hillary.
Rolex chose to commemorate the event nonetheless, and did so via print campaigns which advertised their watches as the climber’s preferred timepiece. Most importantly of all, the name Explorer began appearing on the brand’s existing reference 6350’s dial.
Explorer Reference 6350
The earliest Rolex Explorer watches were marked by a 36mm steel Oyster case, a smooth bezel, acrylic crystal, and an Oyster bracelet. The dial was black and could be recognized by the presence of the 3, 6, and 9 numeral indices.
Some limited examples even featured a honeycomb texture on the dial which has become quite desirable if vintage auctions are used as reference.
The Explorer’s dial was designed so as to remain legible in the toughest journeys, and therefore possessed luminous material (radium) both on its indices and hands. This material would shine in low-light environments, ensuring that explorers could keep track of time in all conditions. Lastly, and although the example above does not share this feature, the ref. 6350 would also feature Mercedes hands, the first ever on an Explorer.
The Oyster case, which had already proven its durability and resistance in the eyes of the public, was also an instinctive choice. Wherever the explorer would go, the watch could follow and, thanks to its dust and waterproof case, it could do so reliably.
Along with the 6350, Rolex also introduced a reference 6150. The 6150 was much like the 6350 except for one difference: its movement was not regulated to chronometer specs. Therefore, its dial only read “Precision” as opposed to the 6350’s “Officially Certified Chronometer”.
First In-House Rolex Explorer
The Rolex Explorer 6350 had been in production for less than a decade before the brand updated the model with a new movement, the Rolex Calibre 1030, and subsequently changed the reference to 6610.
The new 1030 movement in the ref. 6610 had been developed by Rolex in the mid-1950s as an improvement on their existing automatic movement. The original Rolex self-winding movement was quite tall, leading Rolex’s automatic timepieces to be equipped with curved casebacks that allowed space for the rotor and also earned the “bubbleback” moniker.
The new calibre 1030 changed that. The movement architecture was much flatter, essentially mitigating the need for a curved or ‘bubble’ caseback. It also helped the Explorer lay flat on the wrist, making for a sleeker look.
Modern collectors covet this reference of Explorer as it was the first to feature red font on the dial. The contrasting typeface was reserved exclusively for the depth rating indication that was printed below the model name.
The Rolex Explorer 1016
The 6610 was in production from 1959 until 1963 when Rolex released what would become the longest lasting Explorer reference yet, the 1016. It’s no surprise it endured for so long as the 1016 is an inherently simple yet captivating watch.
It’s evidently a timeless design as well, judging by demand in the present-day. Depending on numerous factors, a ref. 1016 can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000+.
What kind of factors? Well, at one point or another, the ref. 1016 used either radium or tritium luminous, had a glossy or matte black dial, and was powered by a movement with or without a hacking seconds function.
As is the case with most vintage Rolex models, each of these slight variations make for substantial differences in the price, which itself is a measure of the scarcity of each Explorer 1016 conformation.
After the introduction of the 1016, the next significant chronological event in the Explorer’s lifetime was the release of the Explorer II in 1971. For continuity’s sake, we’ve covered the Explorer II further down the page.
The Five-Digit Explorer
By 1989, exactly 26 years after its introduction, the 1016 was discontinued and in its place now stood the Explorer 14270.
The new reference possessed many of the features that characterize a modern Rolex watch. First, its Oyster case had been upgrade to a larger and bulkier style. It was also equipped with a re-engineered robust Oyster bracelet.
The dial was elevated once more, as it returned to the glossy finish and gained 18K white gold applied hour indices. Within the baton and triangle indexes
The luminous material was tritium at first, though it would evolve into LumiNova and eventually Super-LumiNova. In this model, the luminous was also present within the 3, 6, and 9 numeral indices, a detail that has become highly desired by collectors.
The crystal was synthetic sapphire, yet another innovation for the Explorer. And beating inside the case was Rolex’s latest time-only movement, the calibre 3000.
The 14270 marked the birth of the “modern Explorer”, so to speak. With the release of this reference, the model family took a step into the luxury accessory sector and away from its adventurous past. Nevertheless, the essence of the iconic professional Explorer’s timepiece remained, albeit executed to a more refined degree.
The Six-Digit Explorer
The 14270 would soon be replaced by the 114270 in 2001. Very little aesthetic changes were made, namely an increase in case thickness, along with an upgrade to the movement which would now be the Rolex calibre 3130.
The Contemporary Rolex 214270
At Baselworld 2010, Rolex debuted the contemporary Explorer ref. 214270 that we see in the catalog today. The 214270 brought with it some significant changes, not all of which were well-received at first.
The most notable difference was the case, which was now 39mm. This marked the first time the Explorer was offered in a larger case size, though it was not the first time the model was sold in anything other than 36mm. In fact, in the ’50s, Rolex sold some Explorer dials in Air-King cases (34mm), making for the now-desirable “Air-King Explorer.”
The dial on the new 214270 became a point of contention for many Rolex fans. The larger case brought with it a broader dial, which in turn made the hands appear too short in the eyes of some. For this reason, in 2016, Rolex would update the 214270 with a “Mark II” version of the dial where the hands were made longer.
The Mark II dial was also different in another regard – the 3, 6, and 9 numerals were now filled with lume, whereas the original 2010 “Mark I” dials were full 18K white gold without luminous. This change harked back to the previous ref. 142720, where the numerals were also filled with white (though it was not luminous).
As is customary with the kinds of small changes, two opposing camps have spawned, with each preferring the current or previous dial design.
Along with the new 39mm also came a movement upgrade, this time to the Rolex calibre 3132, essentially the most technologically advanced movement ever used in an Explorer. Specifically, it boasts the brand’s latest shock-absorption and paramagnetic components.
The movement within the 214270 was also the subject of an update in 2015, when Rolex rolled out a new standard in timing precision for all their chronometers. Where the COSC specification is -4 / +6 per day, Rolex took it a step further and now guarantees their watches to -2 / +2. Rolex also ensures that the specs are met by a cased-up watch, where the COSC test the movement by itself.
This may seem like a small difference, but it reflects the brand’s incessant pursuit of the perfect timepiece in all regards. Fortunately, this ethos was extended to the model family in question, making the modern Explorer one of the most cutting-edge adventurer’s timepiece ever created.
Rolex’s First Sequential Model Release, The Explorer II 1655
The Explorer ref. 1016 had already enjoyed 8 years of success by the time Rolex decided, in 1971, to release their first sequential model, the Explorer II ref. 1655. Before the 1655, no other Rolex model had been introduced as the ‘second’ version of an established watch; the first ever Explorer II changed that.
The 1655 debuted as a larger and more complicated Explorer watch. It sported a 39mm steel Oyster case on an Oyster bracelet and, most notably, a fixed 24-hour bezel. More than any other feature, this style of bezel would become the true mark of the Explorer II for the decades to come.
The Explorer II 1655 also came equipped with a date and a 24-hour complication that used an orange (and later red) center hour hand to indicate whether it was AM or PM. Future references would indeed use this 4th hand to serve as a GMT indicator, but this was not the case with the 1655. Ironically enough, the movement inside was a Rolex calibre 1575, the same movement powering the GMT-Masters of the time.
Steve McQueen’s Rolex?
The large orange hand filled with luminous would earn the 1655 the nickname “Il Freccione”, which means arrow in Italian. This same model is also erroneously referred to as the “Steve McQueen”, though the popular figure was never actually seen wearing the watch. In fact, his wrist was usually adorned by a Rolex Submariner. It is believed that the moniker was a marketing scheme by auction houses of the past, and which eventually caught on with collectors.
Though the new orange center hand was the biggest attraction, other elements of the first Explorer II are also of note. The hands were white with black bases and were lumed. The dial, presented in matte black, also possessed numerous luminous indicators, some of which corresponded to hour markers, while other to the bezel indications.
Explorer II 16550
The first upgrade that the Explorer II line was to encounter would come in 1985 with the introduction of the Explorer II 16550, a watch considered to be a “transitional” model in the Explorer II’s lineage.
With this new Explorer II came significant changes that reverberate even into the modern Explorer aesthetic.
The case was increased slightly to 40mm, the bezel design was changed, the caliber was upgraded to the 3085 (which added GMT functionality), the crystal was now sapphire, and the dial came in either white or black with applied white gold indices. Additionally, the big orange AM/PM hand at center was exchanged for a thin, red style.
Most remarkable of the short-lived 16550 is a tendency for the white dial version to patina, or essentially degrade, over time. This would manifest in the watches as the transition of the dial from white to a nice ivory or cream color that has become quite desirable for collectors in the present-day.
It’s not clear how long after the dial’s production this effect begins to occur, but evidently the brand was aware when they began producing the descendant of the 16550, the ref. 16570, just four year later.
Explorer II 16570
The year was 1989 when Rolex finally sunset the Explorer II 16550 and released the longest-running Explorer II reference ever, the 16570.
The 16570 had learned from its transitional progenitor’s mistakes, keeping what worked and fixing what didn’t. The case, dials, bezel, and bracelet remained mostly the same while other aspects, like its movement (calibre 3185), were updated.
The 16570 would enjoy a production run of 22 years during which subtle changes were made to its design. For example, the luminous material used on dials and hands, and which began as tritium, would transition to LumiNova and later to Super-LumiNova. Likewise, the movement was later switched out for a more-advanced Rolex calibre 3186.
As you may already know, tritium luminous is renowned for degrading to an orange/brown color. Originally a defect, and similar to the 16550’s white dials, the patina of the luminous has not only made for some truly attractive 16570 “Polar” dials, but also given way for these flawed examples to increase in value substantially over time.
Explorer II 216570
In the year 2011 when the Explorer II model reached its 40th anniversary, Rolex chose to celebrate by overhauling the watch’s design completely. The result was the modern 216570.
This, the latest model of Explorer II, features a larger 42mm case that, due to the increase in size of the lugs and crown guards, wears a lot larger. This change was not surprising, as similar design updates had been seen on the Sub’s case.
The dial also kept the same theme, though it was now a “maxi dial” with oversized indices and center (“Mercedes”) hands. Perhaps most surprising and controversial was the center GMT hand, now presented in orange and similar in shape to that seen on the ref. 1655.
Upon its debut, the Explorer II 216570 was well-received for its updated looks but mostly for the increase in size. The watch industry had trended towards larger watches at the time and Rolex appeased this demand, if only in their notoriously measured manner.
In the present-day, the 216570 remains a great choice within the Rolex catalog for watch aficionados of all levels. On the other hand, the 214270 is considered one of the most well-rounded entry-level watches around.
Both can also hold their own as one-watch collections, fitting in the office just as well as they do on the mountain.
The two model’s exploratory spirit, imparted by their design and rich history, is exactly what’s made them so emblematic and what will undoubtedly keep them on collector’s wrists for many decades to come.
If you’ve enjoyed our overview of the Rolex Explorer I and Explorer II, check out some of our other detailed horology guides below:
- The Domino’s Rolex: History Of The Air-King
- How Did The Yacht-Master I and Yacht-Master II Come To Be?
- History Of The Premium Rolex Diver, The Sea-Dweller
- These Are The Rolex Watch Models That Could Skyrocket In Value
- The Best Swiss Watches Money Can Buy
"Having owned an Explorer II for a couple of years now, I can say it's easily my favorite watch. Aside from its looks, its complications are perfectly useful and the fit is perfect. Truly the ideal Rolex!"Rating: 5.0★★★★★