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.
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.
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–typically orange–has become a trademark of the Explorer II.
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.
On the other hand, the Explorer II has a sportier look and feel, with a larger case, sapphire crystal, and caliber 3000 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: This article was originally published on April 19, 2013. We have updated it for clarity.