Rolex Explorer I vs. Rolex Explorer II

Rolex designed the Explorer with thrill-seekers in mind. The first Rolex Explorer debuted in 1953, the same year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay completed the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest. Rolex sponsored the expedition and supplied Hillary with a watch to accompany him, a prototype of what would become the Rolex Explorer.

Mount Everest Watches

After this extraordinary feat, the Explorer became the preferred watch for committed climbers. Its appeal lies in its ability to withstand extreme temperatures and its simple, straightforward design.

The Rolex Explorer I

Throughout the 1950s, Rolex advertisements for the watch featured climbers using their Explorer during their ascent up a mountain or paying tribute to the Explorer for assisting them on their journey.

Rolex Explorer I vs Explorer II

Rolex Explorer I Models: (left to right) 1016, 14270, 214270

The first official watch inscribed with the Explorer name was the Ref. 6350, launched in 1953. Six years later, it was replaced by the Ref. 6610, which had a more flattened caseback than the previous model. One of its most notable variations is the Ref. 1016, which was in production for an impressive 26 years, from 1963 to 1989.

The Rolex Explorer II

In 1971, Rolex debuted the first Explorer II, Ref. 1655. It was specifically designed with speleologists and polar explorers in mind. Because it’s difficult to distinguish between day and night in those places, the Explorer II features a fourth hand and a 24-hour bezel. This additional hand–traditionally orange–has become a trademark of the Explorer II.

Rolex Explorer I vs Explorer II

Rolex Explorer II Models: (left to right) 1655, 16550, 216570, 16570

The second edition of the Explorer II, Ref. 16550, debuted in 1985. However, this variation is often referred to as a transitional model since another edition was released just four years later, the Ref. 16570.

Differences Between the Explorer I and Explorer II

There are many similarities between the Explorer I and Explorer II. Both are self-winding, waterproof up to 330 feet, and only offered in stainless steel. However, they also have a few important differences that make them appeal to different wearers.

Although it came first, The Explorer I has a more modern and minimalist aesthetic. It’s a classic Rolex with a more understated appearance and modest size. The slim, simple, and clean lines of the Explorer I make it a timeless watch for an expedition or a day at the office.

Rolex Explorer II

On the other hand, the Explorer II has a sportier look and feel, with a larger case, sapphire crystal, and caliber 3187 movement. Each of the details of the Explorer II are bigger and bolder, from the lugs to the dial markers. The more rugged appearance of the Explorer II makes it a more durable and practical watch for daily wear, even if you’re not a passionate adventurer.

While the Explorer I is the perfect watch for the thrill-seeking climber, the Explorer II is more ideal for the avid cave dweller. Or, if neither type of adventure is your thing, both Explorer models are not only fantastic tool watches but also great watches for everyday wear.


Editor’s Note: We published this article on April 19, 2013. We have updated it for clarity.

Image Credits: Header,2-9; Crown & Caliber. 1; via Rolex Magazine.

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Caitlyn is the founder of Grey Ghost, a New York City-based boutique content marketing agency with a passion for artists, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and startups. She believes in quality over quantity, creative thinking, and, above all, using language as powerful tool to build lasting connections.

Latest comments
  • was it not also true that Hillary also carried a British made Smiths Deluxe too? I seem to remember seeing an add boasting such

    • You are correct! Hillary wore a British made Smiths, as they sponsored many of the mountain climbing events. We have expanded a little more on that subject in our paragraph above.