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Watch Review

Then & Now: The Rolex Explorer II Throughout Time

Paul Altieri

In 1971, Rolex expanded their Explorer II line of watches with the reference 1655. Rather than simply being an updated version of the existing Explorer watch, the reference 1655 was a completely different timepiece, and was consequently given the “Explorer II” designation. Designed specifically for speleologists exploring deep caverns below the earth’s surface, the Explorer II featured a large 24-hour hand, and a fixed, stainless steel bezel with 24-hour markings to serve as a highly prominent AM/PM indicator.

Upon its initial release, the Rolex Explorer II watches were met with a rather mixed reaction from the public. Relatively few people required a watch specifically designed for professional cave exploring, and many criticized the design of the reference 1655 as cluttered and difficult to read. Despite having a rather narrow and unusually specific target demographic, the Rolex Explorer II has remained in production and has become one of the cornerstone offerings in Rolex’s current sports watch lineup.  

Rolex Explorer II History
There are multiple iterations of this Explorer II, for example, take a look at the seconds hands in the image and the next image.

The Rolex Explorer II Then: The Reference 1655

The original Explorer II, the reference 1655 had an acrylic crystal, a case diameter of 40 mm, and was powered by Rolex’s 26-jewel, caliber 1575 movement. Production of the reference 1655 lasted roughly fourteen years, until it was discontinued in 1984 and replaced by the reference 16550. During this time, the Explorer II experienced five minor dial changes, four bezel variations, and two different seconds hands; however the overall appearance of the watch remained largely unchanged.

Rolex Explorer II History
This Explorer II has a straight seconds hand, cause the value of this watch to rise.

Subsequent generations of the Explorer II far more closely resembled each other in design, but the reference 1655 used a different dial and handset than Rolex fitted to all other Explorer II references. Rather than the traditional “Mercedes” style hands that can be found on the rest of Rolex’s sports watches, the reference 1655 Explorer II received pencil-style hands for the hour and minute indicators, and a large, arrow-shaped, 24-hour hand that was finished bright orange or red, earning it the nickname, “Freccione” among many Italian dealers and collectors.

Rolex Explorer II History
With new versions of the Explorer II, Rolex made a similar model for fans of modern watches.

The Rolex Explorer II Now: The Reference 216570

The latest incarnation of the Explorer II, the reference 216570 is a very different watch than the original reference 1655, yet it still manages to be a modern reinterpretation of Rolex’s original Explorer II design. The overall size of the watch has increased to 42 mm in diameter, the crystal is now made from synthetic sapphire, and the dial and hands have been updated to match the rest of Rolex’s other lines of sports watches – although the bright orange, 24-hour hand has returned as a homage to the defining characteristic of the original Explorer II from the 1970s.

Inside the reference 216570 Explorer II resides Rolex’s caliber 3187 movement, which features Paraflex shock absorbers for greater shock/impact resistance, and an hour hand that can be independently set from the 24-hour hand in order to simultaneously display a second time zone. Additionally, unlike the original reference 1655, which was only ever fitted with a black dial, the reference 216570 is available with either a black or white (polar) dial, with the “Explorer II” name now appearing in orange text to match its signature, bright-orange, 24-hour hand.

Rolex Explorer II History
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One of the unique characteristics about Rolex as a company is that they are constantly working to refine and improve their watches; however they are always moving forward with their designs, and (much to the frustration of many watch collectors) never make heritage or re-issue pieces. Although the reference 216570 is a very different watch than the original reference 1655, the oversized, bright-orange 24-hour hand connects the two timepieces, and allows the spirit of the original Explorer II to be encapsulated in a thoroughly modern sports watch that still possess its own unique appearance.

Paul Altieri