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Introduction to the Rolex Explorer II

Rolex Explorer II with black orange hands.

Characterized by its steel construction and 24-hour engraved bezel, the Explorer II is a Rolex sports watch that has undergone notable design changes over the decades. Modern versions combine a generously sized case along with a practical dual time display. Pre-owned Rolex Explorer II models are particularly appealing because they are some of the most affordable stainless steel Rolex sports watches available in the secondary market.

Rolex Explorer
History

In 1971, Rolex introduced the Explorer II model as an evolution of the original Explorer I watch. While the Explorer 1 is a straightforward time-only watch, the Explorer 2 came equipped with a fixed bezel engraved with 24 hours and an arrow-tipped 24-hour hand (coupled to the 12-hour hand) on the dial. This allowed the Explorer II to differentiate between A.M. and P.M hours, which is helpful in situations where relying on the sun to tell the difference isn’t possible. As a result, Rolex positioned the Explorer II as an adventure watch specifically for spelunking and polar exploration. Whether in a dark cave or in regions with extreme variations in daylight hours, the Explorer II’s combination of a 12-hour and a 24-hour time display permits the wearer to distinguish day from night

In the mid-1980s, the Explorer II underwent a major design change—both externally and internally. Rolex furnished the Explorer ref. 16550 with a movement that had independent 12 and 24-hour hands, thereby upgrading the watch from one with a day/night indicator to one that could display a second time zone. In short, the Rolex Explorer II became a GMT watch. The new Explorer II also had a larger case and a redesigned dial. In addition to black, Rolex also offered the option of a white dial, nicknamed the “Polar.” Rolex then unveiled a newer version towards the end of the decade in the form of the Explorer II ref. 16570.

To celebrate the model’s 40th anniversary, Rolex introduced the Explorer II ref. 216570 in 2011. The case size grew yet again, to 42mm, and this has remained the size of modern Rolex Explorer II watches ever since.

Screw-down Winding Crown.

Explorer II Timeline

Explorer II ref. 1655 with 24-hour time display and 39mm case
Explorer II ref. 16550 with second time zone display and 40mm case
Explorer II ref. 16570
Explorer II ref. 216570 with larger 42mm case

Explorer II Fun Fact: Steve McQueen

The vintage Explorer II ref. 1655 “Freccione” is often called the “Steve McQueen” Rolex. It was once reported that the American actor wore one but that turned out to be false—his Rolex of choice was a steel Submariner. Despite the mistake, the nickname stuck!

Explorer II Design, Features and Maintenance

All Rolex Explorer II watches have the following features:

Stainless Steel Oyster Case

rolex explorer 2 black dial silver.

Screw-down Winding Crown

rolex explorer 2 right side view.

Stainless steel fixed bezel engraved with 24 hours

rollex explorer silver diamond bezel side view

Four hands on the dial: 12-hour hand, 24-hour hand, minute hand, seconds handy

rolex explorer 2 white dial silver tilt angle view.

Luminous hands and hour markers

Luminous hands and hour markers.

Stainless steel three-link Oyster bracelet

Stainless steel three-link Oyster bracelet.

Although the Explorer II has only been around for five decades and is only available in steel, there are significant design variations across the four generations. If you come across a used Rolex Explorer II for sale, it’s important to understand these differences before deciding which reference would suit you best.

Explorer II Generations

Generation 1: Explorer II ref. 1655 (1971 – 1985).

Generation 1: Explorer II ref. 1655 (1971 – 1985)

  • 39mm case
  • Black dial with painted tritium markers
  • Short and fat orange arrow-tipped 24-hour hand
  • Straight 12-hour and minute hands
  • Acrylic crystal
  • Caliber 1575 automatic movement with coupled hour hands
  • Day/night indicator functionality
Generation 2: Explorer II ref. 16550 (1985 – 1989)

Generation 2: Explorer II ref. 16550 (1985 – 1989)

  • 40mm case
  • Black or white dial
  • White gold applied hour markers filled with tritium luminescence
  • Long and slim red arrow-tipped 24-hour hand
  • Mercedes-style hour and minute hands
  • Sapphire crystal
  • Caliber 3085 automatic movement with decoupled hour hands
  • Dual time functionality
Generation 3: Explorer II ref. 16570 (1989 – 2011)

Generation 3: Explorer II ref. 16570 (1989 – 2011)

  • 40mm case
  • Black or white dial
  • White gold applied hour markers filled with luminescence
  • White dial versions have black outlines on the hour markers
  • Luminescence evolved from tritium to Luminova (late-1990s) to SuperLuminova (2000
  • Long and slim red arrow-tipped 24-hour hand
  • Mercedes-style hour and minute hands
  • Sapphire crystal
  • Caliber 3185 (until 2006) followed by Caliber 3186
  • Dual time functionality
Generation 4: Explorer II ref. 216570 (2011 – present)

Generation 4: Explorer II ref. 216570 (2011 – present)

  • 42mm case
  • Black or white dial
  • White gold applied hour markers filled with Chromalight luminescence (glows blue)
  • Short and fat orange arrow-tipped 24-hour hand
  • Mercedes-style hour and minute hands
  • Sapphire crystal
  • Caliber 3187
  • Dual time functionality

Since the Explorer II is a watch built for travel and adventures, there’s no need to be too precious while wearing the modern versions. These are durable watches fashioned from corrosion-resistant stainless steel with a water-resistance rating of 100 meters. As always, do not get the watch wet without ensuring the winding crown is properly screwed down into the case. Additionally, it’s best to follow Rolex’s recommendation to have it serviced at least once every ten years. Conversely, vintage Explorer II models should be treated more carefully due to their age. It’s never recommended to get them wet since water-resistance is no longer guaranteed.

Rolex Explorer II Price,
Value and Collectability

The price of used Rolex Explorer 2 watches varies significantly depending on the specific reference. For instance, the highly collectible vintage ref. 1655, also known as the “Freccione,” is the most expensive of all the Rolex Explorer II for sale. Prices for the Rolex Explorer II 1655 start at around $18,000 but can easily double for rare dial variants.

On the other end of the spectrum, the cheapest used Explorer II is the ref. 16570 with a black dial, where prices start at around $6,000. White dial Rolex “Polar” Explorer price points are generally higher than black dial versions across all models.

Current Explorer II ref. 216570 models retail for $8,350 at authorized boutiques. However, you can find pre-owned Rolex Explorer 2 42mm for sale at slightly discounted prices. Generally, these models hold their value quite well in the secondary market.