A Half-Century as an Icon: The Rolex Explorer II 50th Anniversary

A Half-Century as an Icon: The Rolex Explorer II 50th Anniversary

2021 is clearly shaping up to be a very special year for all of us. For one thing, we are now experiencing the first true collective signs of optimism for the world to change back to some semblance of normality. In countries where vaccines have been aggressively disseminated, we can feel the oppressive cloaks of existential malaise being lifted off our weary shoulders. For the first time in a long while, the possibility of embracing friends and family seems like a true possibility. Even for countries that have entered a new lockdown, the consensus seems to be that this will be one of the last or even the final one. Without overlooking the catastrophic losses, the situation today feels so much better than they were a full year ago when we were amid the onset of the pandemic and the resulting panic stemming from the uncertainty and fear brought with it. It’s funny because I have a lot of friends who were meant to celebrate their 50th birthdays last year, but as that proved impossible — much like the Tokyo Olympics — they’ve simply transferred the jubilation to this year. Which means they will be joining one of the single most iconic timepieces in watchmaking history in its celebration of its 50th anniversary. I speak, of course, about the Rolex Explorer II, a watch that has a very special place in my heart. As part of this celebration, I thought it fitting that we take a look back at this amazing timepieces and its evolution over its half-century of existence.

1971–1985: Reference 1655

The ref. 1655 is one of my all-time-favorite Rolex watches. It was also the very first vintage Rolex I ever purchased. Quite honestly, I can’t imagine cave exploration being that much of a hobby for the majority of Rolex owners; instead, if you were to suggest “chardonnay tasting”, I think you would find a much more receptive audience. However, Speleology, which is the study of caves, and spelunking certainly conjure up the right romantic image. Presumably, the brilliant marketing minds of Rolex realized that they had already made the two most iconic watches related to the sea, the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller; and the most iconic watch related to the air, the GMT–Master II, which was created at the behest of pilots. Since Rolex is already closely associated with the conquest of Everest, pragmatically they probably realized that caving was the last area that the brand had yet to explore. Anyway there was enough marketing rationale for Rolex to come up with one of the most stunningly designed sports watches ever made.

A 1971 ref. 1655 Rolex Explorer II
A 1971 ref. 1655 Rolex Explorer II
Big orange arrowhead 24-hour hand of the ref. 1655 Rolex Explorer II
Big orange arrowhead 24-hour hand of the ref. 1655 Rolex Explorer II

Measuring 39mm in diameter, the 1655 featured a super-cool bezel with a 24-hour scale engraved with all the even numbers, with stick markers used for the odd numbers. It had baton hands read off a matte black dial with a uniquely spaced set of indices that were read using a massive arrow-shaped orange hand coated with luminous material. Actually, the normal time should be read off the set of indices placed closer to the center of the dial, while the second set of markers at the dial’s perimeter are meant to align with the odd numbers on the bezel’s 24-hour scale. Initially, I found reading the time on my 1655 somewhat confusing, but then I remembered that Rolex had ostensibly made the watch for cave exploration, which often takes place in darkness. Because the 24-hour scale is not luminous but engraved into the bezel, Rolex needed a way to show the full 24 hour markers on the dial, and they did this by placing the luminous marker at 2.5-minute intervals. The hands and indices had a very liberal amount of tritium applied to them. Interestingly, the hands on the earlier 1655’s were bright orange, and in later watches they were red but also faded to orange; the earlier MK I watches also have straight seconds hands without the luminous lollipop dot that was added from the MK II watches onwards. While these earlier watches are more desirable, the addition of the luminous dot does provide a very useful running indicator for your watch in the dark. Anyway, if you are interested to learn all the nuances of MK I through MK V in 1655 Rolex Explorer II collecting, you can check out this story here by Revolution UK Editor Ross Povey.

One of my favorite things about the 1655 is that it has a very cool Italian nickname, which is “Freccione”, in reference to its arrow-shaped orange 24-hour hand, which cannot be decoupled from the central hour hand unlike the later Explorer II models. So this watch’s added complication is only an additional 24-hour indicator, which is apparently indispensable while braving the darkness and hardships of spelunking. It is, however, one of the most unusual and beautifully designed Rolexes of all time, which is something you can appreciate even while, for example, chardonnay tasting. The 1655 was powered by Rolex’s venerable calibre 1575. The watch has been called the “Steve McQueen Explorer II”, and according to lore, he even wore this watch in his movie The Hunter. But the reality is, there is not a single published image of him ever wearing this Rolex model.

1985 –1989: Reference 16550

As it happens, I was alive and in my teens in 1985. Preoccupied as I was by Season 2 of Miami Vice, The Cure’s Head on the Door album, and sneaking into nightclubs like Danceteria, I still vividly remember seeing the ad for the Explorer II Reference 16550. In fact, I recall cutting it out from a magazine and taping it up above my bed where it joined the Porsche 930 Turbo and Phoebe Cates from Fast Times at Ridgemont High as objects of my unbridled affection and adolescent lust. The 16550 is probably the most important Explorer II in that this was the watch that ushered in everything that we now associate with this model.

The 16550 is probably the most important Explorer II in that this was the watch that ushered in everything that we now associate with this model.
The 16550 is probably the most important Explorer II in that this was the watch that ushered in everything that we now associate with this model.
The 16550 is probably the most important Explorer II in that this was the watch that ushered in everything that we now associate with this model.

First and most importantly, the now-40mm watch featured the Rolex caliber 3085, which meant that the 24-hour hand could be decoupled and set to the 24-hour bezel to offer a fantastic and easy-to-use indicator for the second time zone. Incidentally, the cal. 3085 is the first Rolex movement to feature the independent hour hand. In order to achieve this, Rolex had to make the movement a bit thicker at 6.3mm. From an aesthetic perspective, the 16550 created the fundamental blueprint of the Explorer II: the 24-hour bezel now uses inverted arrows in place of stick markers for the odd hours; the hour hand has become a Mercedes-style unit; the 24-hour hand is now a white-gold triangle with a red shaft; the hour indices are now applied with white-gold surrounds. This is essentially the perfect watch for business travelers and global vagabonds alike, with the name Explorer II and the more rugged-looking fixed all-steel bezel giving it a sense of roguish tough-guy allure.

The 16550 was offered in both black and white dials. Many of the white dials, especially the ones from the first two years of production, turned a stunning cream color with time and are referred to in collecting circles as “cream” or “panna” (the Italian word for bread), and command a premium. This amazing timepiece was only made for four years and, to my mind, is still somewhat undervalued — especially if you can find a nice cream dial watch. Some of these cream dial watches’ tritium has aged to an amber color, and the color combination can be quite appealing. However, you should always check the condition of the tritium in the hands and indices of these watches before purchasing one, as they have a tendency to degrade.

1989–2011: Reference 16750

Remember when I said I cut out an image of the 16550 and taped it on my bedroom ceiling when I was a teen? Over two decades later, I came to possess the successor to this amazing timepiece — though the story about that watch is a little bittersweet. My first real wristwatch was a Rolex Oyster Datejust that was given to me by my uncle when I was 16 years old. What was incredible about that watch was that it had, in turn, been given to him when he was a young man by my grandfather. So, to say the watch had emotional significance was something of an understatement. I wore it all through my teens, through university and on the weekends when I was fulfilling my mandatory national service in the Singapore Army. In the late ’90s, my father found himself on the jury of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. With the objective of doing me a big favor, he brought my Rolex with him to Geneva for his meeting and had them completely refurbish the watch. On his next trip, he picked up the watch and brought it back with him. He stopped off in New York, but tragically, it was stolen from his hotel room. Hoping not to disappoint me too much, he actually went to Rolex and purchased a new ref. 16570 for me. Of course, I was delighted with the watch, but the memory of my stolen Datejust always tugs at my heartstrings.

Anyway the point to all this is that I know the 16570 very well, and it is pretty much a perfect watch. When people ask me about Rolex, I always say that each time I board a plane, I make sure I am wearing one. Because, God forbid, should that plane go down and I manage to swim to a desert island, I know that I would be able to bash open clamshells and hit small marsupials over the head with my Rolex to provide food for myself, and the watch would still be able to function perfectly.

The Rolex 16570
The Rolex 16570

It was the white-dial 16570 that I had in mind when I wrote this. To a large extent, the 16570 looks just like the 16550, with the subtle difference being that the white-dial watch had black surrounds for the indices instead of white gold. Also, around 1999, Rolex transitioned from using tritium to using Super-LumiNova, and the dials began to read “Swiss” instead of “Swiss – T<25”. Inside the watch was the caliber 3185. This movement features a full bridge secured on both sides for the free-sprung balance wheel. It features a Breguet overcoil hairspring that has been laser-welded to the stud. In contrast, the cal. 3085 found in the 16550 uses a traditional balance bridge and has an index for regulating the balance. Both movements run at 4Hz. Around 2006, Rolex started to fit the caliber 3186 movement into the 16570, which is immediately distinguishable by its blue Parachrom hairpsring.

2011–2021: Reference 216570

It’s incredible that this watch was launched a full 10 years ago, as to me, it seemed like just yesterday, we’d celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Explorer II with its unveiling. The Reference 216570 is a sort of “greatest hits” showcase of the Explorer II’s design vocabulary. Part of the anniversary celebrations resulted in the resurrection of the famous orange hand of the ref. 1655, but with the bezel, dial and hands of the ref. 16550 and ref. 16570 — well, almost anyway, because everything on the 216570 was bigger and bolder. The case was at the time a staggering 42mm in diameter. The hands, indices and even the print on the bezel were much thicker, and the common consensus was that this would henceforth be referred to as a “Maxi Dial” Explorer, borrowing from Submariner terminology.

The Reference 216570 is a sort of “greatest hits” showcase of the Explorer II’s design vocabulary.
The Reference 216570 is a sort of “greatest hits” showcase of the Explorer II’s design vocabulary.

One major advantage of this model was the use of Chromalight, Rolex’s proprietary luminous material, which glows blue and for a longer duration than Super-LumiNova. Inside the watch was the cal. 3187, which is fairly similar to the cal. 3186, just with a slightly larger baseplate. While this is a great watch in the context of 2021, with the pendulum swinging back to more traditional sizes and more elegant, wearable timepieces, this seems to be the perfect moment for the launch of an all-new Explorer II model.

As it turns out the new Explorer II is not remarkably different looking from the outgoing Explorer II 216570. Well at least not at first. That is until you take a closer look at the profile of the case. While in principle, it measures the same as its 42mm predecessor, like the Submariner that was launched last year, the idea was to create a slimmer feeling profile. It is also now equipped with an Oyster bracelet that features the Oysterlock folding clasp which prevents accidental opening as well as the EasyLink comfort system that allows you to micro adjust the length of the bracelet by up to 5mm.

The new Explorer II is powered by Calibre 3285, which was introduced back in 2018 with the GMT Master II.
The new Explorer II is powered by Calibre 3285, which was introduced back in 2018 with the GMT Master II.

The biggest change to the Explorer II however is found inside the watch with the Calibre 3285. If the Calibre 3285 sounds familiar that’s because it was introduced back in 2018 with the GMT Master II. Like all 32 series movements this Calibre features enhanced power reserve thanks to a high capacity barrel and the Rolex patented Chronergy escapement. The vast majority of the Swiss watch industry relies on the tried-and-tested Swiss anchor escapement. This escapement, however, has two vulnerabilities: first, the way in which the pallets contact the sliding face of the escapement wheel results in sliding friction; second, as it is generally manufactured in traditional materials, it is susceptible to becoming magnetised.

The Chronergy escapement is Rolex’s proprietary design for a better anchor-style escapement. What sets it apart? First, the geometry of the lever is offset to better optimise leverage on the pallet fork. Second, the pallets are 50-percent thinner than on previous units while the contact surfaces on the escape wheel have doubled in size. Third, the escape wheel is made from nickel phosphorus using the LIGA process (galvanically grown), which means it is impervious to magnetism, as well as being significantly lighter than a steel escape wheel and as a result, taking less energy to restart each time. Knowing Rolex’s attention to detail, pivots and other smaller parts are likely made from nonmagnetic materials as well. Rolex tells us the Chronergy escapement increases efficiency by 15 percent.

Each 3285 equipped timepiece undergoes Rolex’s in-house Superlative Chronometer test, which is much stricter than the COS certification.
Each 3285 equipped timepiece undergoes Rolex’s in-house Superlative Chronometer test, which is much stricter than the COS certification.
Like all 32 series movements, Calibre 3285 features enhanced power reserve thanks to a high capacity barrel and the Rolex patented Chronergy escapement
Like all 32 series movements, Calibre 3285 features enhanced power reserve thanks to a high capacity barrel and the Rolex patented Chronergy escapement

Each 3285 equipped timepiece undergoes Rolex’s in-house Superlative Chronometer test. As opposed to other tests such as COSC which only tests movements (the criteria has changed recently), Rolex prefers to test entire watches. Furthermore, while COSC certification requires movements to test within a maximum deviation of -4/+6 seconds per day, Rolex’s criterion is much stricter at -2/+2 seconds. Rolex is also one of two sports watch brands that undergoes a double certification process. Movements are sent to COSC facilities in Biel and St. Imier. They are tested for a total of 15 days, in five different positions with three temperature variations. Once the movements are passed, they are sent back to Rolex with their certifications. The movements are cased before these complete watches are tested again to Rolex’s standards of -2/+2 seconds. Since 2015, 100 percent of Rolex watches are tested in this way. Note the presence of the Rolex crown between the “Swiss” and “Made” at the base of the dial denoting this.

Tech Specs

Case
42 mm Oyster (monobloc middle case, screw-down case back and winding crown)
Safety; Integral crown guard ; 24-hour graduated; engraved graduations and numerals, black coating via electrolytic technique; Scratch-resistant sapphire with anti-reflective coating; Cyclops lens over the date with double anti-reflective coating; water-resistant up to 100 meters

Movement
Calibre 3285, Manufacture Rolex • Mechanical movement with bidirectional self-winding via Perpetual rotor; Precision −2 /+2 sec/day; Frequency: 28,800 beats/hour (4 Hz) • Paramagnetic blue Parachrom hairspring ; Rolex overcoil; High-performance Paraflex shock absorbers; Chronergy with optimized energy efficiency • Paramagnetic nickel-phosphorus pallet fork and escape wheel

Functions
Centre hour, minute and seconds hands; independent rapid-setting of the hour hand • Time shown by conventional hands and in 24-hour format via additional 24-hour hand (day/night distinction)

Dial
White lacquer; Matt hour markers in 18 ct white gold, black coating via PVD (Physical Vapour Deposition), highly legible Chromalight (long-lasting luminescence, blue glow); Hands in 18 ct white gold, coated with matt black lacquer except the 24-hour hand, which is coated with orange lacquer, highly legible Chromalight (long-lasting luminescence, blue glow)

Bracelet
Oyster, three-piece solid links; Easylink comfort extension link (approx. 5 mm)

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