If you want to know the differences between the Rolex Explorer I and II, you’ve come to the right place! Here’s what you need to know.
Yes, the Explorer I and II share a name. However, other than a common heritage and general categorization, a complete Rolex newbie wouldn’t necessarily see the relationship between the two. The Explorer II is a bit like a movie sequel whose actors were completely recast.
Still, the differences between them are fascinating, not just functionally and visually, but also because of the history and lore behind these functions and visuals.
Despite both models casting a wide net of fans, you’d be surprised at how niche and nuanced each Explorer is.
The Two Explorers: At a Glance
The quick and dirty difference between the two siblings is that the Explorer I is made for the mountains (more or less), and the Explorer II is made for the caves.
That’s why the Explorer II features that iconic 24-hour hand but a static bezel. Compare this to travel watches like the GMT Master II, with its bezel coded for AM and PM.
The 24-hour hand on the Explorer II isn’t there for potential time zone changes but because it can be difficult to tell whether it’s day or night when you’re deep in a cave.
Meanwhile, the Explorer I is “an ultimate tool watch” of sorts. It was designed to be able to survive impacts and accurately tell time in the face of the elements. While this sounds generic, original models were famously tested by mountaineers, imprinting in it this specific heritage.
Arguably, the Explorer II has a more robust, military-looking aesthetic, while the I is simpler, with its clean, polished bezel is more versatile.
The Lore of the Explorer: Scaling Mount Everest
As mentioned, Rolex tested the Explorer’s strength and reliability via mountain expeditions.
The most famous of these is that of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who were the first people to reach the top of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. Sir Hillary was an explorer from New Zealand, and Norgay was a Tibetan mountaineer.
This feat is essential to the Explorer’s origin story — no different than the Omega Speedmaster and its lunar missions. Also, similar to how the astronauts on the Apollo 15 mission had the Bulova Lunar Pilot as the Speedy’s pinch-hitter, Norgay and Hillary climbed Everest with two watches.
Both their Rolex Explorer and their Smiths Everest PRS-25 survived the high-altitude adventure. Unfortunately, Smiths went defunct, while the Explorer became a legend. Hillary and Norgay spent about fifteen minutes at the top of the mountain before descending back into a world that would soon revere the Explorer watch.
Smiths was eventually revived, and their PRS-25 is still a go-to Explorer I alternative today.
Explorer I: Important References
Thanks to Hillary and Norgay, the Explorer I cinched the crown’s reputation. Besides Hillary’s 6350 reference, other important references have made inroads into the world of watch collecting.
The First References and “Pre-Explorers”
If you want a watch that will last you forever, you go to Rolex. It almost goes without saying that the brand’s marketing dollars contributed to establishing this sentiment. That aside, by 1953, Rolex had been building objectively good timekeepers for decades.
The Explorer that survived Mount Everest is reference 6350, which is the inaugural Explorer model — depending on who you ask.
Reference 6150 from 1952 showcased the same 36mm case and the same Arabic cardinal numbers. Some 6150s featured an “Explorer” appellate on the dial, while most were stamped with “Precision.”
This inconsistency, plus the fact it wasn’t a certified Chronometer, often earned this model the title “Pre-Explorer.” This would make the Explorer Bubbleback a pre-pre-Explorer of sorts.
Early Explorers were definitely based on another iconic watch, called the Rolex Bubbleback, so named because it was one of the first watches to use self-winding movements. At the time, automatic calibers were bigger than regular mechanicals, so Rolex had to extend the back of the case.
References 6610 and 1016
By the mid-’50s, Rolex’s first fully in-house movement, the Caliber 1030, was not only Chronometer-rated but super slim. As such, the Explorer reference 6610 was built thinner and still with its 36mm case.
The 6610 would also be made with a white dial, otherwise known as the Albino Explorer, which may be a predecessor to the Explorer II Polar.
The most famous and longest-running Explorer I is reference 1016.
It was launched in 1959, produced all the way into 1989, and consistently sported the design language we associate with Explorers today. Whether it was gilt or matte, it often had a simple black dial, Mercedes hands, and the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” appellate.
Rolex sized up the Explorer in 2010 with the 39mm reference 214270 before going back to the original and more popular 36mm case.
Explorer II: Important References
Here are the must-know models of the Explorer II.
The Explorer II’s Slow Rise
The first Rolex Explorer II, reference 1655, came out in 1971. Again, it was meant to be the spelunking counterpart to the mountaineering Explorer I, which meant it leveled up the legibility factor with a 39mm stainless steel case.
It was brawnier both in size and aesthetic, with a 24-hour bezel that gave it a more maximalist quality than the clean-bezeled original. On the 1655’s bezel, the machined numbers were separated by lines, giving it a more military-esque look.
Another signature is the orange 24-hour hand, which is still a staple today. At one point, Rolex started using a red hand, which ironically would begin to fade into an orange hue over time.
Unfortunately, the super niche Explorer II wasn’t nearly as popular as the Explorer I was when it first came out.
The 1655 is also referred to (erroneously) as the Steve McQueen Rolex. Though the actor never actually wore an Explorer II, an unverified rumor earned it a nickname, which stuck even after the truth came out.
References 16550 and 16570
In 1985, the 16550 reference gave the Explorer II a few qualities that are quintessential to it today. First, it beefed up the case to 40mm.
Second, it inherited the Mercedes hands that the Explorer I had been using all along.
Of course, it also came with constructional upgrades like a sapphire crystal and Caliber 3085, an in-house movement with a GMT hand that you could adjust independently.
In 1989, reference 16570 arguably changed the game for the Explorer II. It took the white dial variation, changed the index outline from gold to black, and created the “Polar” variation that we all know today.
The Explorer II was launched with the peculiar use of a fixed-bezel GMT, came full circle with the peculiar look of the Polar, and is now a canon model for Rolex, upping the popularity (and auction prices) of Explorer IIs throughout time.
The Modern-Day Rolex Explorers
The Explorer II has definitely changed more over time than the Explorer I. However, how the two differ from each other hasn’t changed.
Even today, the II is the bigger, bulkier sibling, while the I is the clean-lined “every watch.” In fact, the II has a whopping 42mm case, while the I maintains its popular and way more versatile 36mm.
They’re both built with Rolex’s Oystersteel, which is known for its exceptional corrosion resistance and high-level sheen. The contemporary Explorer I also comes in a gold and steel two-tone variation, which is about as flashy as the Explorer has ever gotten.
Both are equipped with Rolex’s signature blue-hued Chromalight, and both run on COSC-certified automatic movements — as all modern Rolex watches do.
Here are some frequently asked questions about these popular Rolex models:
What Is the Difference Between the Rolex Explorer 1 and 2?
The Explorer I features no complications, is smaller, and has a mountaineering heritage. The II has a GMT hand, so that cave explorers will know whether it’s day or night outside.
Why Isn’t the Rolex Explorer 2 Popular?
The Rolex II started out unpopular because it was far too niche and wasn’t as versatile as the Explorer I. Today, it’s more popular than ever, with the Polar version offering a distinct and coveted white dial style.
Will the Rolex Explorer 2 Increase in Value?
Simple Rolex watches in good condition will at least keep their value well. The Explorer II has increased in value over the past few years, with no signs of this trend reversing any time soon.
Both the Explorer and Explorer II have the potential to fill a one-watch collection, depending on your personal style.
While both are adventurer watches, their differences are nuanced in history and function. Still, they’ve both become such icons that these days, choosing between the Explorer and Explorer II is more about which aesthetic you prefer rather than about where your adventures take you.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below!
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