For many years, the Rolex Explorer II was considered a kind of runner-up to the GMT-Master. While the GMT-Master exudes the cosmopolitan flair of jet-setters and business travelers, the Explorer II’s image is considerably less glamorous. Originally designed to be a tool watch for speleologists, the first model caught the eye of very few buyers. But for those looking to get their hands on an affordable Rolex, the Explorer II was and continues to be attractive because its prices are (at least for now) well below those of the GMT-Master. At the same time, prices for the Explorer II – as with just about every Rolex – continue to soar. Despite a slight downturn in recent months, the Explorer II has done very well over the past two years in terms of price performance.
Have we piqued your curiosity? Find out more about individual models and references below.
Rolex Explorer II Reference 1655 – Orange hand
A fixed GMT bezel, a date complication, and a GMT hand that has earned it the moniker “orange hand”: When Rolex introduced the Explorer II 1655 in 1971, the Genevan watchmaker garnered a very lukewarm response from enthusiasts and specialists alike. While the Explorer I was a simple “three-hander,” its successor delivered new features and a look that left more than a few people scratching their heads. These included minute indices in both five-minute and two-and-a-half-minute intervals. The hand set was also different; instead of the characteristic Rolex Mercedes hands, the Explorer II had pencil-style hands. For many, this watch was simply a bit too “busy” and difficult to read. It’s hard to imagine, but in its early days, the 1655, like the Rolex Daytona a decade prior, gathered its fair share of dust on dealer shelves.
The Explorer II’s extremely narrow market focus probably contributed to this. As opposed to the GMT-Master, the Explorer II did not display a second time zone. Its fixed 24-hour bezel and orange GMT hand merely indicated whether it was AM or PM. Ideal for those spending extended periods of time in places like caves. In the 1970s, however, there was apparently an insufficient number of these kinds of explorers to support a market for this timepiece. The Explorer II 1655 only found a wider public upon its discontinuation between 1984 and 1985.
During its relatively long 14-year production run, Rolex produced different dial and bezel variations for the Explorer II, the details of which can often be seen only upon close inspection and are designated as MK 1-5. The MK1 dial was produced from 1971 until around 1973, while the MK5 was used for the final production run between 1979 and 1984. There is simply not enough space here to fully compare and contrast the different Explorer II dials and bezels produced over the years, which is why the focus below on the Explorer II 1655 will be of a more general nature.
The Explorer II 1655 has a 39-mm Oyster case with a fixed 24-hour bezel. In contrast to the GMT-Master, which has a GMT scale with Arabic numerals for even-numbered hours and dot indices for odd-numbered hours, the bezel on the Explorer II 1655 has Arabic numerals for the even-numbered hours and vertical lines for the odd-numbered ones. These hour markers are engraved in black into the bezel. The Rolex 1655 came on a typical three-link stainless steel Oyster bracelet.
Like the GMT-Master at the time, the Explorer II was also powered by Rolex’s in-house, 26-jewel 1575 caliber, which is based on the 1570 movement and features an additional GMT hand as well as stop-seconds and a 48-hour power reserve when fully wound. It also beats at a rate of 19,800 vibrations per hour (vph), and, like all Rolex calibers, is chronometer-certified.
If you’re interested in purchasing a Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655, be both thorough and careful when looking for one. Never hesitate to consult an expert, like the personal watch sales consultants at Chrono24, whom you can contact via email or phone. Regardless of the production year or dial of the Explorer II you’re interested in, the watch’s overall condition, its authenticity, and any available accessories play a factor in its price. Over the past decades, many models have changed owners several times, so be sure to get as much information as possible regarding the ownership history of the timepiece you’re considering.
Have around $35,000 on hand for a well-maintained Explorer II on its original Oyster bracelet. This represents a $12,000 increase between August 2020 and August 2022 for the 1655. This upward trend is expected to continue, at least for the time being.
Rolex Explorer II 16550
The year 1985 saw a number of changes to the Explorer II, with Rolex releasing an entirely new model with the reference number 16550, available with a white dial. The dial design was now more reminiscent of the GMT-Master, with the Explorer II featuring for the first time lume-filled applied dot and bar indices with white gold surrounds. Additional updates were made to the bezel as well, with the vertical lines on the odd-numbered hours now replaced with triangles. The watch also featured the trademark Rolex Mercedes hands, and the large orange GMT hand was replaced with a noticeably smaller red 24-hour GMT hand. The Explorer II 16550 was basically an entirely new watch that kept the name of its predecessor. The case on the new model was also a millimeter larger (40 mm) and had a piece of sapphire crystal covering the dial, rather than the plexiglass of the 1655. The new version retained the drilled lugs of the previous model, while the in-house Rolex 3085 caliber found in the GMT-Master at the time also powered the new Explorer II, oscillating at a rate of 28,800 vibrations per hour (vph).
The 16550’s production run was short, lasting only until 1989. This makes well-maintained models a rarity, a fact reflected in their prices on the secondary market. As with all vintage watches, proceed with caution when purchasing and be wary of offers that appear too good to be true. Be equally suspicious of listings that strike you as overly expensive. Never hesitate to consult an expert any time you have a question or concern.
Be prepared to spend around $18,000 for a well-maintained ref. 16550 with a white dial, and around $12,500 for one with a black dial. Both of these watches saw very good price performance over the past two years, with the white dial Explorer II appreciating some 40%, the black dial version 60%.
Rolex Explorer II 16570
The Explorer II ref. 16570 replaced the 16550 in 1989. Few changes were made to this reference, but of note were the white dial indices, now outlined in black instead of white gold, with the hands also outlined in black, delivering the kind of contrast and legibility still found on the Explorer II today. A caliber 3185 ticks away inside, which for the first time featured an independently adjustable GMT hand. This was replaced in 2006 by the caliber 3186, now replete with Rolex’s Blue Parachrom hairspring, Paraflex anti-shock protection, and an increased power reserve of 50 hours.
Rolex would make a number of updates to the 16570 between 1999 and 2006. For instance, the Swiss watchmaker replaced the Tritium luminescent material with Super-LumiNova. Around the turn of the century, the case lost its drilled lugs. During this period, the Explorer II, which up to that point had had only hollow end links, was upgraded with solid end links. These models also saw the introduction of the engraving of “ROLEX” along the watch’s rehaut. Rolex stopped producing the 16570 in 2011.
You’ll find this Explorer II reference most frequently in used or refurbished condition. As always, take a very close look at the quality of the watch, and try to find a model with the corresponding accessories; so-called “full sets” can be readily found on the market. If you do decide on a 16570 that is not part of a full set, be sure to look for a correspondingly lower price. In August 2022, a used Explorer II with a black dial cost around $8,500 on Chrono24. Condition and accessories vary greatly with individual listings. “New old stock” timepieces and full sets can in some cases cost double the standard asking price. 16570s with a white dial are relatively rare, and generally go for around $9,200. Like-new timepieces that are part of a full set flirt with the $20,000 mark. Like other Rolex Explorer II references, the price performance of the 16570, except for a brief downward adjustment, has been outstanding over the last two years.
Ref. 216570 & 226570 – The 42-mm Explorer II
2011 saw significant changes to the Explorer II. Rolex presented for the first time a 42-mm Explorer with the reference number 216570. As with the so-called “maxi case,” Rolex designers put a “maxi dial” on this watch that features larger indices filled with Rolex’s proprietary Chromalight, which glows blue in the dark. The hands on this timepiece were also adjusted to the Explorer’s new dimensions. In tribute to the Explorer II ref. 1655, this new model has as its GMT indicator the iconic, classic orange hand.
The 216570 comes with a caliber 3187, which features Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex anti-shock system, as well as 50 hours of power reserve. The 216570 also comes on the obligatory Oyster bracelet with its Rolex-patented Easylink extension, enabling you to quickly and easily extend the bracelet by an additional 5 mm.
The Explorer II ref. 216570 was probably the first-ever Explorer for which demand outpaced supply; potential buyers had to have their names placed on long waiting lists. Because this reference is relatively new, there are many of them on the market in like-new or unworn condition. Be prepared to pay $13,000 for one of these with a black dial, and a few hundred more for one with a white dial.
The design of the current 2021 Explorer II 226570 is virtually identical to its predecessors, but a few minor changes were made: The dial is now made of enamel, which some say gives the white dial version an even brighter appearance, and the black dial version better depth. Another important update is found inside the watch, with the 226570 now powered by the caliber 3285, which boasts an impressive 70 hours of power reserve.
You guessed it: Going to a Rolex authorized dealer and politely asking for a ref. 226570 is only going to get you a polite smile at best. If you have a good relationship with your Rolex dealer, you might be fortunate enough to be placed on the waiting list. Just be prepared to wait until retirement to finally get your hands on an Explorer II. Your best option of course is the secondary market. But be prepared to pay a premium on the Rolex list price for the Explorer II, which upon its release in 2021 cost $8,550. Otherwise, a never-worn Explorer II with a black dial will cost you around $13,000, while the white dial version will cost you slightly more, about $13,500.