Rolex’s dedicated adventure watch, the cheap fake Rolex Explorer, traces its origins back to mountain climbing in 1953. In 1971, however, another watch joined the collection with the name Explorer II and a quite different set of features, looks, size and purpose. Rather than for scaling peaks, the original Explorer II was intended for plumbing the depths of caves.
A 24-hour hand and bezel were meant to keep the likes of spelunkers or arctic explorers oriented when it might be easy to lose track of whether it’s day or night. Although it looked like a GMT watch with its prominent, arrow-shaped fourth hand and the steel bezel, it functioned differently: Unlike, say, on the Rolex GMT Master, the bezel was fixed (non-rotating) and the 24-hour hand couldn’t be set separately from the main time (though this changed in later versions).
There have been five Explorer II iterations to date. The very first reference looked and functioned a bit differently than the modern variation, but the steel case copy Rolex Explorer II that’s well known today was more or less established in 1985. The differences between the models have sometimes been subtle and other times significant, so here’s a breakdown of how this iconic watch has evolved over the decades.
1971: Reference 1655
The first Rolex Explorer II 1655 replica with black dial established several of the key features that have shown continuity through the variations, but it’s also the most distinct compared to later versions. The steel 24-hour bezel and brightly colored 24-hour hand have characterized the line, but the reference 1655 had a blocky hands and indices with a kind of military look that would later be replaced by more familiar Rolex design elements.
Bonus trivia: Though this model is sometimes called “the Steve McQueen,” there’s no known connection between this luxury copy watch and the actor better known for wearing certain other watches.
Movement: Cal. 1575 automatic