This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of Rolex’s perennial professional watches, the speleologist-oriented Explorer II, which was created in 1971. In light of its 50th anniversary, we were expecting to see a new version this year as we predicted in our article. So, here it is, the new Rolex Explorer II ref. 226570. And to be honest, there’s not much new, as the proportions and the dial are identical – almost. The main update concerns the incorporation of a new movement.
Short History of the Rolex Explorer II
Like most of the names Rolex selects for its watches, the Explorer truly speaks for itself. First seen in 1953, the watch was, as all other members of the professional collection, a purpose-built timepiece created for explorers, mountaineers, alpinists and pioneers of all sort. In short, a robust, no-nonsense watch with great legibility.
In 1971, Rolex introduced another Explorer watch, the Explorer II, a watch that didn’t replace the initial model but sat alongside it in the collection. And if the first one was already focused, the Explorer II clearly is one of the most niche models of the Crown. With its larger and even more robust case, and mostly the addition of a 24h bezel and additional time zone, the Explorer II was destined for adventurers in conditions where discerning night from day was impossible – think about mine-explorers or speleologists. Good point though, the watch appeared to be usable in different conditions too.
The first of the Rolex Explorer II watches was launched in 1971, under the reference 1655. It was equipped with a 40mm stainless steel case and, its main feature, a fixed radial-brushed steel bezel engraved with a 24h scale – and the fact that it was fixed differentiated it from the GMT-Master. Working in conjunction with the oversized central GMT hand, AM and PM times could be easily differentiated. Important to note, Explorer II 1655 are not dual-time watches since the 24-hour hand is coupled to the traditional hour hand. It is solely a 24h indication. The first iterations of the 1655 had an orange 24h hand; later models featured a red one. Another very distinctive point on this first generation was its dial with painted tritium markers, including an oversized triangle at 12 o’clock – a layout that was unique to the 1655. Inside was the Rolex calibre 1575, the same movement as contemporary GMT-Master watches. With small variations over the years, this watch had a long production run from 1971 to 1985.
The first evolution of the Rolex Explorer II came in 1985, with the reference 16550… And this was probably marked the biggest update of this model. Differences were both technical and design-related. The movement, for instance, was now the calibre 3085, which allowed the 24h hand to be set independently. This meant that the Explorer II became a dual time zone watch – while the GMT-Master became a triple time zone watch. The case remained at 40mm, with sapphire crystal, but the bezel, still fixed and radially brushed, was revamped with inverted triangular markers and bolder numerals. Finally, the dial, which was now available in black and in white, became more conventional, in line with other Rolex sports watches – meaning Mercedes hands, a smaller 24h hand and triangular, round, and rectangular tritium-filled hour markers. The watch thus became more of a robust globetrotter’s watch, less focused on speleology and cave-exploring. The Rolex Explorer II 16550 was discontinued in 1989.
The next model is known as the Explorer II 16570 and was launched in 1989. Evolutions were soft, with most of the features found on the 16550 retained. It first appeared with a new movement, the calibre 3185, and then with its evolution, the calibre 3186. The white ‘polar’ dial was equipped with black-outlined hands and markers (no longer silver coloured). Apart from the evolution of the movement, the addition of the Rolex-engraved réhaut and a change from tritium to LumiNova and then SLN, the 16570 remained the same for 22 years – available with a black or white dial.
The latest update on the Rolex Explorer II occurred in 2011 with the reference 216570. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of this collection, the watch paid a discreet tribute to the earliest generation with an oversized orange 24h hand. The case became larger, at 42mm, the radial-brushed bezel remained fixed but with even bolder markings. Mechanically speaking, this 216570 was fitted with calibre 3187, again with an independent dual time hand. Following the evolution of the case, the dial became ‘Maxi’ with oversized luminous markers and hands – like, really oversized… The white model retained the black-outlined markers while the black featured white gold markers. And like all its predecessors, it was water-resistant to 100 metres.
Today, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this highly specialized watch, Rolex is announcing a new generation of Explorer II, meaning that the reference 216570 is now discontinued.
The new Rolex Explorer II 226570
Let’s do a quick summary. What’s new in the Rolex Explorer II 226570? Well, mostly, there’s a new movement – as you’d expect. There are some minor updates on the dial and hands. The crystal is different, and the case has been reworked too, in a rather discreet way, though. All in all, this is an updated model, not a de facto a brand new iteration.
Starting with the case, the new Rolex Explorer II 226570 retains the 42mm diameter of the previous generation as well as the brushed top surfaces and polished casebands. The crown, still a Twinlock, is still protected by crown guards, and the water-resistance is still rated at 100 metres. The Oystersteel case has been slightly redesigned, though, with thinner lugs and more tapered casebands, in line with the Submariner of 2020.
One of the defining elements of this watch, its radial-brushed bezel with a 24h scale, is also retained. The font of the numerals is identical, and the inversed triangles are still there too. We were somehow expecting a ceramic bezel to be part of this update, but apparently, Rolex still believes in steel for the Explorer II.
For the dial, the new 226570 retains its two classic white or black lacquered dial options. While the so-called “maxi” layout has been retained, with oversized hands and markers, some slight evolutions are noted, mostly on the white dial edition. Indeed, the hands are white gold with a matte black PVD coating to avoid reflection and to enhance legibility. The black dial edition retains the polished white gold markers and hands. Rolex mentions that the indexes and hands now benefit from an optimised Chromalight display. In daylight, these display elements also have a brighter white hue and the intensity of the blue glow emitted by the hour markers and hands now lasts longer.
An iconic element of the Explorer II, this new 226570 retains its oversized central GMT hand coated in orange. Not only can it work as a day-night indicator but also as a second time zone. Over the dial is a sapphire crystal, which now features anti-reflective coating. The emblematic magnifier over the date is still present.
The main update concerns the movement, which is part of the 32xx generation and is shared with the GMT-Master II. This calibre 3285 features the Chronergy escapement and blue Parachrome hairspring. It beats at 4Hz and stores up to 70 hours of power reserve. As mentioned, it is a dual time movement, where the hand corresponding to local time can be independently adjusted.
As for the bracelet, no major updates, it is still made of Oystersteel, fully brushed and equipped with an Oysterlock folding safety clasp and Easylink comfort extension link (approx. 5 mm).
The Rolex Explorer II ref. 226570 will be priced at EUR 8,050, either with a black or a white dial.