Rolex Revamps The Explorer Collection, But Probably Not In The Way You Were Expecting

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Explorer II, which debuted with the reference 1655 in 1971. Today, Rolex is commemorating the occasion not with a redesign, but with a new movement in the reference 226570. No ceramic bezels, no resized cases, no new dial. So much for a few years worth of speculation on that front. Surprisingly, the bigger news comes over in the Explorer I family, which gets the Rolesor treatment in steel and gold, and more importantly, moves back to its original 36mm case size.

The Explorer II

The new Explorer II, now ref. 226570 may not look all that different from the previous generation ref. 216570, but it gets a full overhaul under the hood. The little crown appearing between the Swiss Made at the bottom of the dial signifies the caliber 3285 inside, a movement we’ve seen slowly make its way into all of the Rolex GMT models in recent years. Its appearance here should come as a surprise to no one. What is raising a few eyebrows with these new watches is the subtlety of their visual changes. 

The case remains at 42mm (sorry, 16570 fans), however Rolex says it has been redesigned. The lugs look a hair trimmer and we hope the case has trimmed up a smidge as well, but from the images we’ve seen, what those differences actually are remains a mystery. The bezel is still brushed steel, which frankly makes the most sense for this reference, and it retains the same design etched into it as the prior reference. Likewise, the dial looks much the same as the outgoing reference, however it does receive an “optimized Chromalight display” for better low light visibility. 

In total, the new Explorer II may not be the new watch we’d hoped for to celebrate its 50th  anniversary, but it’s typical Rolex. If the new Submariner last year didn’t clue you in, this is a brand that moves slowly and methodically in its progression, continuously evolving. In hindsight, the addition of ceramic bezels to their sports watches seems a shocking move in comparison. Once they make a move, they rarely go back on it. Until they do, that is.

The Explorer

The Explorer line offered the biggest surprises from the brand this year, with the addition of an unprecedented two-toned, Rolesor model in the reference 124273, and more importantly, the move back to a 36mm case size, even in the steel reference 124270. Rolex moved the Explorer to 39mm with the introduction of the 214270 in 2010, which received lumed numerals in 2016 with the mk II dial. Of course, the Explorer has always been a 36mm watch, right back to 1953 and the references 6150 and 6350 that set the template. This brings the model back to its roots in a sense, and it’s not the only change to the watch this year. 

In addition to the new case size, Rolex is now using the caliber 3230, first seen just last year in the Oyster Perpetual family, and the Submariner reference 124060. That means a Chronergy escapement impervious to magnetic fields, a blue Parachrom hairspring, and 70 hours of reserve. A closer look at the dial reveals another change that offers another rare nod to the past, they’ve moved the “Explorer” label back to the top of the dial, where it has always historically been placed. This is about as throwback as it gets from Rolex, and the result is about as pure Explorer as you could have hoped for. 

The Rolesor Explorer, on the other hand, is a bit of a head scratcher. I’m not sure who was asking for this one, but here it is. Unlike the two-toned Sea Dweller we saw in 2019, which had precedent, this is a new look for the Explorer. It cuts against the simple utility the Explorer is famous for, but it doesn’t outright replace anything, and more choices is a good thing at the end of the day. 

The Rolesor Explorer ref. 124273 is priced at $10,800, while the steel Explorer ref. 124270 can be had for $6,450. Assuming you can find an AD that will sell you one. May the odds be ever in your favor on that one. Rolex.

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent his professional life covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seiko to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.