Along with the Milgauss collection, the Explorer collection has always been the most underappreciated collection in Rolex’s repertoire. The Explorer watches have great designs, come from valid histories and and are steel sport watches — with the latter being the main reason Rolex is so popular. Yet, it doesn’t have the same pedigree that a Submariner or a GMT Master II does in the eyes of collectors. There are many reasons as to why that’s the case, but none of them are because Explorer watches are bad watches, or even necessarily worse watches than the Daytonas and Submariners of the world.
I was given the chance to borrow the Rolex Explorer II Polar review and I’ve found that while it’s dated, it remains a great watch at a great size. It represents the era of Rolex watches that just does it for me and I’ve been since drawn to this watch.
The Rolex Explorer II’s case is assembled in a three-part case construction consisting of the bezel, the middle case and the caseback. This is typical of Rolex tool watch construction and is a tried and tested method throughout the industry.
The different types of finishing throughout the case make this watch really glisten in the light. With the radial brushing on the bezel, curved brushing on the lugs and high polish on the flanks, the watch under natural light is an amazing sight to behold. A little detail Rolex added is the very slight beveling between the brushed lugs and high polish flanks. It’s such a small detail, but it catches the light so well and is that ‘one more thing’ that elevates the case to greatness. It’s something that Tudor still does on their heritage watches, but it’s something that Rolex has taken away from its current line up — a damn shame.
Wearability is a huge component of how a watch looks and it is where this watch really excels. At 40mm in diameter and 12mm in thickness, the watch is at that perfect average size for a modern tool watch. While the caseback does protrude out a little from the case, the Explorer II sits on the wrist really well and doesn’t flare out (I’m looking at you, Apple Watch). The slim shape of the crown guards and strong taper on the thin lugs also help make this watch wear smaller. This is unlike the modern Super case Rolexes with their chad-like chunky lugs and masculine crown guards.. If you’re the type to fly under the radar with your watches or wear your Rolexes underneath a dress cuff, this watch is perfect for you.
One thing I will note about the Rolex Explorer II’s case shape is that because it has a relatively flat profile and non-arching lugs, it may look out-of-place on smaller wrists because the caseback bump will be accentuated. This watch does work with a wide range of wrist sizes, but may not work if your wrists are too small.
I won’t claim to be able to distinguish the 316L stainless steel on this Explorer II from the 904L on the newer models, but the 16570 I have here definitely doesn’t feel as solid or well-built as newer Rolexes. It just doesn’t have the same heft and rigidity to it that the 42mm Rolex Explorer II’s have. However, for me, it rests at that perfect point of Rolex’s case construction in that it’s not as flimsy as the ‘vintage’ models, but also not as overbearing as the modern ones.
The coronet-embossed crown is present and done well in typical Rolex fashion. It is a good size for gripping, it doesn’t stick out of the crown guards too much and has a nicely detailed embossing. One nitpick I have with the crown is that it’s a bit too sharp for my liking so gripping on it can hurt, but it’s a small issue in the grand scheme of things.
The fixed 24-hour bezel dons in-filled black arabic numerals and is brush-finished radially. The non-moving bezel means that you can only read up to 2 time-zones at a glance unlike the 3 of the GMT Master II. But, this also means that the watch can be made to fit under a cuff better than the GMT Master II — a tradeoff I will easily take.
Durability is a big issue on the bezel as it loves to show off its wear and tear marks. This is because the brushed finish makes any scratches it has more obvious. There is no way to refinish the bezel in a way that retains the original look because any polishing you do will make the numeral engravings less pronounced. The glossy black enamel in-fill on the numerals also rubs off pretty easily, but unlike the brushed finish, it can be easily repainted.
One design choice that perplexes me to this day is the presence of a ‘crevice’ between the bezel and the middle case pictured below:
The crevice is finished in high polish, which is a nice touch, but I would prefer a more integrated bezel design as I find that it clips onto my shirt cuff sometimes and is a space where dust can settle in.
The polar dial base on the Explorer II is one of the cleanest dial bases you will ever find on a watch. Looking at it up close, there are no grains or textures to it — it’s white and that’s all it is. On a tool watch like the Explorer II, that sterile dial base can feel spare and boring sometimes. However that same boring dial base is what sets the stage for the rest of the dial details to really stand out.
The simple-looking black circular indices are actually made of glossy black-painted white gold. It’s a superfluous detail for sure, but one that I welcome. Embedded in the indices is the excellent Superluminova lume that holds up for 8-12 hours in my usage — very impressive for an 18 year-old watch. In comparison, my personal Bond Seamaster from around the same period only holds up for 3-4 hours these days.
The 3 main hands are made in the same way the indices are and work really well to tell the time. They are distinct enough shape-wise to be able to tell them apart, and have the perfect lengths as to point towards the indices well. Rolex is really good with its hands.
All of this monochromeness sets the stage perfectly for that sweet, sweet, red GMT hand. Traditionally, Rolex has been very restrained with its usage of color in its watches. Think the Submariner and its black dial. Iconic, yes, but oh so boring. However, every time Rolex uses colors in its dials, it’s sensational. That bright, glossy red GMT hand on the Explorer II is so beautiful I’ve now forgiven Rolex for their decades of holding back colors.
Excellent typography is par for the course as far as Rolex goes, but this watch still has some flaws that I cannot overlook. For example, the ‘ROLEX’ text below the crown has some serious kerning issues. This is not to overlook the perfect symmetry of the ‘Swiss Made’ at the bottom of the dial, the excellent serifs Rolex uses, and the feather-free printing present throughout the dial. However, Rolex is usually perfect with their typography and thus it is disappointing seeing errors.
The flat sapphire crystal on this Explorer II does an alright job showing the dial head-on, but fails dramatically from an off-angle. Under natural light, this thick, AR-coatingless crystal creates a lot of glare on the dial and makes it flat out unreadable. The cyclops eye, on the other hand, is a welcome addition as it increase date window visibility substantially. I use the date window a lot and I’ll take all the criticism from purists for that with open arms because it’s a functional upgrade in my opinion.
The sapphire crystal is raised slightly above the bezel, making for a vintage-esque aesthetic which I have come to appreciate. But, because it doesn’t sit flush with the bezel, there is a chance the crystal gets clipped onto something and gets cracked. It also interrupts the taper of the bezel when sliding it over a dress cuff which is mildly annoying.
The quality on the Oyster-style 316L stainless steel bracelet is pretty good overall, but is obviously lacking when compared to the competition. Out of the box, the tolerances between links on the Explorer II’s bracelet are tight. This, together with the relatively small number of channels, mean that the bracelet doesn’t pull hair easily. Also, running my fingers along the flanks of the bracelet, I noticed that the 20mm to 18mm taper does not flow continously. It’s close enough and probably fine for a watch at this price point, but no cigar.
The Explorer II’s bracelet isn’t the heftiest bracelet, either. It’s charming for sure, but nowhere near as solid as modern bracelets, or even old Omega bracelets from the same time period. The quality on the links are good enough, but the friction-fit clasp on the Explorer feels rattly and weak. The spring bar-style microadjustment is also a very antiquated feature that doesn’t inspire confidence. While it has never failed on me, I always get the feeling that it could pop out at any time.
The finishing on the bracelet, on the other hand, still holds up decently to this day. The bracelet sports brushed polishing down its length on the top side and high polishing on its flanks. Being the tool watch the Explorer II is, this is a good setup as the bracelet doesn’t attract too much attention by being shiny and flashy, but still retains some detail and contrast when viewed against the light.
Rolex movements are boringly reliable and the caliber 3185 found here is no different. When I received the watch, it had not been serviced in 15 years, but yet it ran smoothly with minimal time deviation. It has since been serviced and is extremely accurate and precise, staying well within COSC specs throughout my 2 months with it. To me, boring movements are amazing as everyday wearers as they’re easily serviceable (both watchmakers and service parts are readily available) and just work with no fuss.
The movement setting procedure functions as you’d expect on a GMT watch. There are 3 pull-out positions on the crown: the first position is the manual winding function; the second position moves all the hands and hacks the seconds; the third position moves just the regular hour hand and changes the date. As such, to set the time on the watch, you first pull to the second position to set the home time on the GMT hand, then pull to the third position to set the local time and date. This is, of course, assuming that you’re a frequent traveller and use the GMT hand more as a constant reference back to where you’re from. For sedentary people like myself, I set the regular hour hand to my home time and the GMT hand to the timezone of the place I wish I was at.
Sapphire crystal casebacks have become a must have feature recently, and it’s a feature the Explorer II lacks, but I would argue that the watch is better off this way. Rolex movement finishing, especially compared to other watches at this price point, is nothing special. Most parts are industrially finished and lack the special touches other watches in this price point have, making a see-through caseback moot. Some omissions include the beveled bridges, countersunk screw holes, polished balance bridges and embellished Côtes de Genève — details that the Jaeger LeCoultres, IWCs and Zeniths of the world have.
There are many things that this watch does well in my opinion. However, as superficial as it sounds, what I like most about the watch is that it looks good on my wrist. It wears well size-wise, sits well on the wrist, sports that beautiful polar dial and has a sporty yet elegant case shape. A few gripes I have with the watch include the AR-less crystal that glares too much, the cheap-feeling clasp and microadjustment, and the mediocre movement finishing for the price. But, because of how good it looks on my wrist, I can look past those shortcomings.
At between $4000-$5500 depending on condition, box/papers, service history and year of production, the 16570 is an excellent value play. Relative to other Rolex watches, especially a GMT Master II from that era, the Explorer II represents great value. However, I would caution against buying one as an investment piece as while it punches way above its price point, quality isn’t strongly correlated to price and I don’t think this watch as much more to grow price-wise in the aftermarket.
All-in-all, the Rolex Explorer II Polar is an excellent watch to get into the Rolex brand through. It’s a stainless steel complicated sports watch at a great size and a great price. If it strikes your fancy, you shouldn’t hesitate to get one.