Off to New Heights: Rolex Explorer II

This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 Issue of the WatchTime print magazine. Photos by Marcus Krüger.

To mark the model’s 50th anniversary, Rolex has updated the Explorer II with a new movement and subtle design modifications. We look at what the most recent version can offer collectors, explorers and adventurers.

Before last year’s Watches and Wonders in April, speculation about the anniversary Explorer already ranged far and wide. Would it be given a ceramic bezel? Would it get a green hand, or other elements in the color Rolex has so often used for anniversary models? Would the case diameter be changed? Nothing of the sort. Changes to the new Explorer’s appearance are minimal. Even most watch enthusiasts can only identify the wider bracelet in a side-by-side comparison.

Was this disappointing? Actually not; design continuity is one factor that makes Rolex so successful and stable in value. While other brands replace their less popular models every two years with completely new versions, Rolex improves the technology of all of its watches — even those that are less in demand. And until a few years ago, the Explorer II was one of the Rolex sport models that could even be bought from a jeweler at a discount. Those times have passed. The new, improved model has gained considerable popularity despite minimal changes to its look. And this is not only due to the new caliber, which has since become almost standard in the Rolex portfolio.

50 Years on an Expedition 

How did it all begin? In 1971, Rolex presented the Explorer II as an expedition watch. The 24-hour display was designed to be particularly helpful for cave explorers who would work in the dark for days on end or for those on polar expeditions during the Arctic summer when the sun never sets. The Explorer II was the professional upgrade of the Explorer presented in 1953, which was without a date or a second time zone. This design icon continues to be produced today.

The Explorer II has been on numerous Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and has been worn by explorers of volcanoes and caves. The first model had bar hands with a pointed tip, rectangular indexes and an orange 24-hour hand. The second model followed in 1985. The 24-hour hand was now slimmer and red instead of orange. Applied markers were round in the typical Rolex style, and the familiar Mercedes-shaped hour hand was added. A white-dial version was offered alongside the black-dial model. The new Caliber 3085, which was also introduced in the GMT-Master II that same year, permitted the independent setting of the hour hand to a second time zone. This made the fixed coupling of the 24-hour hand to the hour hand a thing of the past and increased its usefulness.

In 2011, to mark the 40-year anniversary, Rolex took the next evolutionary step and based the 24-hour-hand model on the original “orange hand” model, as it’s known among collectors. Rolex also increased the case diameter from 40 to 42 mm and also enlarged the hands and indexes.

New Details 

The most significant modification of the revised 2021 Explorer, our test watch, is its more harmonious proportions. The bracelet, which has now grown to a width of 22 mm, the narrower lugs and the wider clasp make for a better and more attractive fit with the 42-mm case.

The dial shows only minimal changes. The applied white-gold indexes now have a matte black PVD coating to match the matteblack lacquered white-gold hands. The large markers and hands enhance legibility. But the white dial of our test watch is a disadvantage in this regard. The version with a black dial is easier to read. And now, and for the first time, Rolex has given the flat crystal an anti-glare coating on the inner surface — a noticeable change, which has a positive effect. At night, the Chromalight luminous material increases legibility with its intense blue glow, which lasts until the early morning hours. The Cyclops date magnifying lens increases legibility only if you look directly at the watch from the front.

Overall, the design with the sloping steel bezel with a sunburst finish, the white dial, and the orange hands is a success. However, the combination of modern-looking elements with typical Rolex and historical Explorer II elements is not as seamless as other icons of the brand — the Submariner and the GMT-Master II, which have remained unchanged for decades. The white dial and the 42-mm size are atypical for Rolex watches and are an interesting alternative to the majority of sport models with a black dial.

One tiny new detail can be found on the dial: a small Rolex crown at 6 o’clock. It indicates a new generation of movement, as on other Rolex models.

Movement Update 

The new time-zone Caliber 3285 has replaced the older 3187. With the exception of the Milgauss and the Air-King, a new generation of calibers powers all other Rolex models. The greatest advantage for the wearer is the extended power reserve, which now lasts three days instead of two, thanks to the higher efficiency of the Chronergy escapement. For this purpose, the geometry of the pallet fork and escape wheel was optimized. And with the LIGA process, in which these components are galvanic, Rolex was able to create a perforated and, therefore, lighter structure. Thanks to the nickel-phosphorous alloy used, the escapement does not react to magnetic fields. The new movement also has a ball bearing instead of a friction bearing.

When we opened our test watch, we noticed that Rolex has been further optimizing the movements without any fanfare. The rotor bearing now has 27 balls instead of just seven, which allows the rotor to run almost as quietly as a bushing-type rotor. This should please many Rolex fans.

The well-known advantages of Rolex movements have remained: the in-house Paraflex shock absorber, which is designed to return to its normal position better in the event of impacts, the extremely stable balance bridge instead of a balance cock that is only attached to one side, the free-sprung hairspring with Breguet overcoil made of a paramagnetic niobium-zirconium alloy and the free-sprung fine regulator with Microstella weights on the balance wheel. And the movement can be adjusted using a special tool, no disassembly required. Decorations include a sunburst finish, but no hand engraving is present.

As always at Rolex, the official chronometer certificate from the Swiss testing agency COSC confirms a high accuracy rate of the movement in different positions and at various temperatures. Rolex’s own in-house specifications demand even more precise regulation that ensures accuracy averaging between -2 and +2 seconds per day. On the timing machine, our test watch met these high expectations and showed an average deviation of only 0.3 seconds.

All six positions remained between -2 and +3 seconds; accordingly, the greatest deviation between the positions was 5 seconds. Amplitude differences were quite substantial, however, with a 50-degree drop between the vertical and horizontal positions.

In addition to accuracy, our test watch also meets Rolex expectations of quality. Finishing is virtually perfect — excellent polishing and satin finishes on the case, the bracelet with no play between the links, and a finely printed dial. Every component exudes high quality and can withstand careful scrutiny with a loupe.

The case has Rolex’s own screw-down Twinlock crown and is water resistant to 100 meters. This is sufficient. But we would have liked to see the more secure Triplock crown that offers a higher level of protection on this expedition-style watch, as on the GMT-Master II.

Despite the crown guards, the crown is easy to unscrew. The first position, as you would expect, winds the mainspring. When you pull the crown out to the second position, you can adjust the hour hand in hourly increments, which is useful when you travel to another time zone. The 24-hour hand indicates home time. If the hour hand moves over the date line, the date will change accordingly. This works forward as well as backward and is almost as smooth as a proper quickdate adjustment mechanism. The minute hand can be advanced in the third position, along with the 24-hour and normal hour hand. The secure Oysterlock clasp is also easy to use. Lifting a safety bar over the spring-held lever opens the sturdy folding clasp. The practical Easylink extension of up to 5 mm can be unfolded from the clasp.

At $8,550, the Explorer II has a list price below the GMT-Master II in Oystersteel ($9,700) with its rotating 24-hour bezel. The price is appropriate, and while demand is greater than supply, it’s still not as extreme as the GMT-Master II. Frequent buyers may have a realistic chance of getting this watch from a certified dealer in a shorter period of time, but count on waiting awhile.
Conclusion Evolution over revolution: Rolex avoids major design changes and, for this reason, once again, has built the best Explorer II of all time with its new movement and minor modifications like the more harmonious bracelet proportions.

Rolex Explorer II Specs

Manufacturer: Rolex SA, Rue François-Dussaud 3-7, 1211 Geneva, Switzerland 

Reference number: 226570 

Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date, second time zone 

Movement: In-house movement Caliber 3285, automatic, chronometer, 28,800 vph, 31 jewels, stop seconds, quickadjust date with hour advancing mechanism, Paraflex shock absorber, Glucydur balance with Microstella regulating screws, 70-hour power reserve 

Case: Stainless steel 904L, flat sapphire crystal with Cyclops date lens and inner anti-reflective coating, screwdown Twinlock crown, fully threaded 904L stainless-steel caseback, water resistant to 100 m 

Bracelet and clasp: Oyster bracelet made of 904L stainless steel, with safety folding clasp and incremental extension piece 

Rate results: Deviation in seconds per 24 hours

Dimensions: Diameter = 42 mm, height = 12.1 mm, weight = 164 g 

Price: $8,550


Bracelet and clasp (max. 10 points):
The safety folding clasp with incremental extension piece and the steel bracelet are well made, sturdy and attractive. 9

Case (10):
The cleanly polished saltwaterresistant case could have a higher water resistance for an expedition watch. The screw-down crown provides security. 9

Dial and hands (10): Carefully crafted dial with applied indexes. The matte lacquered hands are not as attractive as the polished hands found on other Rolex models. 9

Design (15): Excellent design but not as timeless as other Rolex models. The wider bracelet provides better proportions. 13

Legibility (5): The large hands and indexes are still easy to read despite low contrast on the white dial. The blue luminous material shines for a long time. 4

Operation (5): The deeply grooved crown is easy to use. The date can be adjusted quickly, and the stop-seconds mechanism facilitates setting the time accurately. 5

Wearing comfort (5): Curved links make the watch comfortable to wear, even with the wider bracelet. Extension piece in the clasp. 5

Movement (20): The well-designed and sturdy inhouse movement provides a long power reserve. 19

Rate results (10):
Very low average deviation, but in the minus range. Values in all positions are close. 9

Overall value (10):
Appropriately priced and high value retention – but it’s hard to get. 9

TOTAL: 91 points

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