A Moment in Time: Rolex Explorer II Ref. 216570
Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure I worked at Sidney Thomas Jewelers from July to August 2015. This is not a paid promotion.
The Rolex Explorer II is seemingly an oddity amongst the Rolex collection. Initially unpopular when it was released in 1971 and never having garnered as much popularity as the other Rolex sports watches, the Rolex Explorer II is still going strong after forty five years.
The Explorer II Ref. 1655 was first announced in Baselworld 1971 and was specifically designed with a profession in mind, namely spelunkers, cave divers and speleologists. The large stainless steel bezel paired with the bright red twenty four hour hand allowed those working in low light conditions or underground to differentiate between day and night. The large numerals on the bezel made a quick reference to twenty-four hour time easy. Whilst the watch might have been popular within the niche market of explorers, it was a commercial failure with critics at the time claiming the dial was cluttered and illegible. If you'd like to see a full breakdown of essentially every dial variant on the Ref. 1655, head over to this fantastic page.
Compared to the plain dial of the Submariner I can understand the complaint as Rolex had decided to include 2 1/2 minute counters in addition to the traditional five minute markers on the dial of the Explorer II. Combine this with the minute hash marks and for those accustomed to the simple Explorer I or GMT Master dial it could be perceived as being cluttered. I don't believe it was then and I certainly don't think it is now. Over time however the critics would be swayed and now the original Ref. 1655 has become one of the most popular vintage tool watches made by Rolex.
Perhaps it was the connection between Steve McQueen that suddenly made the Explorer II cool, even if the connection was erroneous. In the mid-seventies, an Italian publication (Some say auction catalgoe, others a lifestyle magazine) published an article about the actor and incorrectly stated his watch was the Explorer II. It's likely that they saw the Oyster bracelet of his watch and made a guess without seeing the dial. Even since then the Ref. 1655 has been the Steve McQueen Explorer just as the Ref. 6239 Daytona is the Paul Newman Daytona. I've jokingly started referring to the Ref. 1655 as the Orlando Bloom Explorer as the actor has been spotted wearing it however I doubt it will catch on.
Despite the lukewarm response, the Ref. 1655 stuck around till 1985 when it was replaced by the Ref. 16650. This new reference had several changes, namely a white dial variant, sapphire crystal over hesalite and a new movement inside, the Rolex Caliber 3085. Circular hour markers with metal surrounds replaced the 2 1/2 minute and 5 minute marks and would continue to become more and more prominent as time passed. The new caliber changed what as a twenty-four hour hand to an independent GMT hand as well as the introduction of a quick-set date. Some of the first few white dials had a paint defect which caused them to turn a cream color over time and these cream Explorer IIs are now among the most desirable Ref. 16650s.
In 1989 the Ref. 16650 was replaced by the Ref. 16570 which would remain in the catalog for over twenty years. The metal surrounds became more prominent but the thin hands and triangular hour markers on the bezel remained from the previous version. At a glance it is very difficult to tell the the two references apart with but one difference that is easy to spot being the open style of the number 6 & 9 on the date wheel (For a whole list of differences between the 16650 and the 16570 head over to this forum page). It is odd to think about how the iconic Ref. 1655 had such a short shelf life and having a completely different dial to any other reference. I imagine it was decision at Rolex to step back from apparently cluttered dial to something more safe and familiar but frankly I much prefer the original to either the 16650 or the 16570. The Ref. 16570 was popular with the buyers of the time as it only had one change in its lifetime, a change from Rolex Caliber 3185 to 3186.
Debuting in 2011, the Rolex Ref. 216570 is the latest reference to the Explorer II. Looking through the past references, it is very apparent that this is not a heritage re-edtion like the new Omega Seamaster 300 but a gradual evolution from the original reference. It has modern case size of 42mm which is 3mm larger than the original and is among one of the larger Rolex watches in the catalog. Traditionalists undoubtedly would have prefered a smaller size however I feel that as a tool watch intended for a function, a larger size is welcomed. Along with the increase in case size, the lug width went from 20mm to 21m with the bracelet tapering to 17mm at the clasp. Hidden in the clasp is the easy link extension that gives you an optional 5mm breathing room. It's not as advanced as some of Rolex's later offerings but on a summer's day it will be very welcome.
Inside the Ref. 216570 is the Rolex Caliber 3187, an in-house COSC certified movement beating at 28,800bph. The hairspring is made from parachrom, Rolex's equivalent to Omega's silicium, and has a Breguet overcoil. The Breguet overcoil is a small piece of horology that has never garnered much attention despite it's famous namesake and providence. Simply put, a Breguet overcoil is when the end of the hairspring is bent back into the center of the coil to cancel out the extra springiness that occurs as the metal uncoils and recoils. That extra movement can negatively affect the accuracy of the timekeeping and whilst doubtedly a problem back in the 18th Century,modern watchmaking techniques might have made it redundant. It is still a nice touch however and by considering all possibilities, that is what makes a Rolex a Rolex. The watch has a forty eight hour power reserve and has a stop seconds or "hacking seconds" feature allowing the second hand to stop when the crown is pulled out for optimum time setting.
The hands on the white dialed version that I spent time with are instantly striking and are the only Rolex hands that are painted black instead of the usual white gold hands. The black dial Explorer II does have the white gold hand with matching surrounds on the hour markers. The black dial version also has a small section on the base of each hand painted in black to match the dial whilst the white dial version has all black hands. Even though the original 1655 didn't have the mercedes hour hand or the black paint, I just find these hands closer to the original than any other reference being stubbier and clearer than the thin hands of the previous reference. The cyclops, as with all Rolex watches, is very prominent and it is only when you have one in your hand that you can see how powerful the magnification is.
The Rolex Explorer II has always remained one of my favourite Rolex pieces, even during my anti-Rolex phase. It's not as ubiquitous as the Submariner nor does it have the cultural importance of the GMT Master or Daytona and that's probably why I like it. It flies somewhat under the radar and is one of the few Rolex watches that still feels like the tool watch is was descended from. A watch that could be thrown into a suitcase on a whim and not seem out of place up a mountain, down in a cave or at a dinner party. Just don't make me go spelunking to prove it to you.