Rolex Explorer Old vs New
Not every Rolex achieves the role it was intended for: the Cosmograph never made it into space, and the Milgauss was made obsolete by the scientists intended to wear it. But the Explorer is one of the lucky ones that climbed its way to the very top—quite literally—when the summit of Mount Everest was conquered for the very first time. With that kind of heritage under its belt, the follow-up Explorer II should be a complete success ... shouldn’t it?
Watch our video review of the Rolex Explorer 1016, the Rolex Explorer II 1655 and the Rolex Explorer II 216570
First, some housekeeping. It wasn't actually an Explorer that made it to the top of Everest on the 29th of May 1953. The quest to conquer the world's highest point was the collective effort of over 10 expeditions on, up and over Everest, and on seven of those expeditions, the explorers wore Rolex watches.
Rolex has had a fascination with Everest from very early on. It was founder Hans Wilsdorf's marketing nous that had got him into the wristwatch game in the first place, an attempt to crack the pocket watch trend with what was then considered a feminine product. And he knew what the best way to market products to men was: get the manliest of all men to use them.
Wilsdorf pursued pilots, scientists, astronauts, divers—and, of course, explorers. As soon as he'd convinced the 1933 British expedition to take one of his Oyster watches along with them to 28,150 feet, Wilsdorf began adding the word 'Everest' to his consumer watches. But the real gold was at the top of Everest, and that was to come two decades later.
With that inaugural British climb in 1933 failing just 1,000 feet from the summit, Wilsdorf was confident that his product was capable of handling the minus 32-degree Celsius temperature, but an oil that could resist coagulation in cold temperatures was used just to be safe. That, plus a longer strap to fit over the explorers' bulky clothing, were the only technical differences between the Everest watch and the ones in shop windows.
The Explorer was created in honour of the famous conquering of the top of mount Everest
What made the Everest watch iconic—or at least one of them; it seems multiple references, and even brands, were taken on the trip—was the display. Compared to the traditional Oyster Perpetual, the numbers and markers were applied in luminous paint, arranged in the now-famous 3, 6 and 9 pattern with the triangle at twelve. The hands received a broad coating of luminous paint, too, with the hour and second hand redesigned with an additional circular section for better legibility in poor visibility. The circle on the hour hand, being quite large, was divided into three portions to give the luminous paint more stability—also forming the basis of the classic Rolex sports watch look.
After the successful climb—which has generated much speculation as to who actually wore what; safe to say that someone wore a Rolex—Rolex jumped on the opportunity to brand this new, sporty style as the 'Explorer'. Why the watch wasn't already called 'Explorer' is unclear, particularly as an Oyster Perpetual from three years prior exists with that name on the dial. It did start something of a naming trend, though, with many future Rolex sports watches christened with a name associated with their intended use. All that leads us to this, the 1971 Explorer II. By this point, following the Submariner, GMT-Master, Daytona and Sea-Dweller, the original Explorer was looking a bit old-fashioned, a bit dainty, so Rolex gave it a bold makeover to bring it in line with contemporary style.
This reference 1655 is clearly a child of the 70s, with its bold orange colouration and outlandish design. Rolex was having of a tough time selling watches back then—particularly the Daytona—and this Explorer II was just the ticket to usher in a new generation of customers with its cool looks and trendy colours.
Still in line with the ethos of making real watches for real people, the Explorer II's modus operandi was to give explorers working in the harshest of environments—where day and night become indistinguishable, such as in an underground cave system, or deep within the thick ash spewing from a volcano—a bearing in time from which to work from. The high-contrast bezel and even higher-contrast 24-hour hand with stepped 24-hour dial markers were intended to give utmost legibility.
Rolex revised the Explorer in 1971 to the bold 1655 Explorer II
And ... no one bought one. The 1655 barely made it into its teens before it was superseded by the 16550, whose dial, in polar white in honour of the Everest expedition, fell more closely in line with rest of the Rolex sports watch collection. It wasn't until 2011, nearly 30 years later, that the orange hand made a reappearance, right here on the reference 216570.
A further increase in size is the most obvious difference between the old and new, bringing the case up two millimetres to 42 millimetres’ total. That makes sense, really, as the original Explorer II also attempted to give Rolex a larger, bolder, more modern look, and so does this.
Not that the vintage details have been thrown out completely, because of course we have the famous orange hand in full view, and—despite other prominent Rolex sports models being upgraded to the Triplock crown—a Twinlock crown, as per the original. This means it has one less seal than the three in the Triplock crown, although water resistance is still a healthy 100 metres.
What's odd, though, and only really becomes apparent side-by-side with the original 1655, is that many of the details in this new watch are taken from the facelift 16550 instead. The dial, for example, has round markers instead of the staggered oblongs seen on the original. And the bezel, which has the 24-hour markers separated by triangles instead of lines. What gives?
Fast forward to 2011 for the release of the hybrid 216570
Really, the modern 216570 is actually something of a hybrid, a best-of-both-worlds between the 1655 and the 16550. Add in the extra case size and those wide—really wide—hands, and it's actually the best spiritual successor to the 1655 that Rolex could hope to achieve. Like the 1655 itself, which took the Explorer's origins in the conquest of Everest and refreshed them for a new generation, the 216570 is Rolex's take on where the brand could be going next. Chances are, like its forebear, its striking design will put a lot of the old guard off, but who knows—if few enough people buy one, in several decades' time it could become something of a collectible.
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Other watches you may be interested in: Rolex Daytona 116500 LN Rolex Submariner 14060 Rolex Explorer II 16570 Rolex Datejust 1601 Rolex GMT-Master II 16710