Cool Tool: The Story of Rolex Explorer II

Ross Povey delves into the history of the Rolex Explorer II.

We often hear the term ‘tool watch’ or ‘professional watch’ used about some of the most iconic and desirable watches. Dive watches were originally developed for divers to time descent and ascent periods via the rotating bezel which indicated elapsed time. To be clear, in the 1960s and 1970s these watches weren’t just cool accessories that looked good, they were vital safety tools that saved lives. The GMT complication was developed for professional use by pilots and travellers, through necessity due to the advent of commercial air travel, to allow them to monitor two time zones. The chronograph had a number of different timing scales that aided racing car drivers, military leaders and doctors in their professional duties. The Submariner, GMT Master and Daytona therefore have some deep roots as tool watches. Today I’m going to lift the lid on one of the quiet stars of the Rolex tool watch line.

Going Underground

Like other more esoteric members of the Rolex sports line, the Milgauss and the Turn-O-Graph for example, the Explorer II received a muted reception when launched in 1971. To many, the watch was garish and the dial too busy and so it was slow to sell. It has, however, become a very desirable watch in today’s market and whilst it’s not necessarily rare (a term that is used far too readily in the current vintage market) it’s not as easy to find in outstanding condition as say a Submariner or GMT Master. One of the reasons it was slow to sell was the fact that it had a 24-hour hand and a 24-hour bezel…but the bezel was fixed and so it wasn’t technically a GMT function, as one couldn’t monitor two time zones. But it was a tool watch and to understand the watch we need to go deep; deep underground and into the earth’s hidden crevices, like true speleologists…

    Speleology is the study of caves and it has been, since the late nineteenth century, its own specific science that is quite distinct from geography and geology. The leisure pursuit of exploring caves is called potholing or caving, but is occasionally called speleology as a lot of the actual exploration and research of cave structures has been done by potholers as part of their hobby. Not for the faint hearted, these cavers have to get themselves through some very small spaces and can spend prolonged periods of time within the cave networks. This can become acutely disorientating, especially when one loses track of time.

    Step forward the Explorer II and its 24-hour hand and fixed bezel. Designed for speleologists and potholers, the watch afforded such explorers to keep a track of time and whether it was am or pm via the large luminous 24-hour hand. A specialist application for sure, but also useful for those who spent large amounts of time away from natural daylight. It would also be useful for explorers in continents where there were periods of constant daylight or darkness.

    The 1655 was powered by the 26 jewel caliber 1575 GMT, the same movement as in the 1675 GMT Master.A modified base caliber 1570 movement, the caliber 1575 had a date feature and logically the caliber 1575 GMT had the additional 24-hour hand. The movement was automatic, had the hacking-seconds feature (where the seconds hand stopped when the winding crown was fully pulled out to adjust the time) and boasted a 48-hour power reserve. This chronometer rated movement was housed in a 39mm stainless steel case with crown guards and the watch had a fixed, non-rotating, bezel with 24-hour markings; even numbers in arabic numerals and odd numbers represented with hash markers.

    The McQueen Big Arrow

    The vintage Rolex collecting community loves nothing more than giving a watch a nickname or a namesake. The Paul Newman Daytona is the most obvious example of a namesake at the moment. Arguably, the art of watch collecting was spearheaded by the Italians and we have a lot of Italian parlance in our everyday vintage watch language. Ovettone (big egg) for the big 1950s bubbleback watches, Padellone (large frying pan) for the large reference 8171 moon phase watch and stelline (little star) for watches with the small stars as hour markers. Interestingly, the 1655 Explorer II has two nicknames – freccione (big arrow) and Steve Mcqueen. The first is derived from the large and boldly coloured 24-hour hand and the second due to the fact that apparently the famous actor often chose to wear one. In fact it was a matte dialed Rolex Submariner reference 5512 that he most famously wore, but the name has stuck for the 1655. The recent Phillips watch gifted by McQueen to his stunt man has also added considerable weight to the 5512 being associated with McQueen and so I more naturally err towards preferring the Freccione monicker for this watch.



    Ross Povey


    June 2021


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