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Baselworld 2011: The new Rolex Explorer II teases and frustrates

By on 30 March 2011 in Watches

Baselworld 2011: The new Rolex Explorer II teases and frustrates
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What? You thought we’d forgotten? No, of course, we weren’t going to cover Baselworld 2011 without commenting on Rolex’s new Explorer II. Regular readers know, it’s a watch that’s very close to our hearts. Your editors simply love the Explorer. Whether it’s vintage, modified or new, the Explorer, in many ways, represents all that is good about Rolex: the tool-watch par excellence. The Fool tends towards the regular Explorer, whereas Six has always been an Explorer II man. So, what do our two Explorer fans make of the 2011 refresh? It’s a hot potato of a question so, to avoid another unseemly squabble, we asked each of them in turn.

The Prodigal Fool

The Explorer II was probably the most frustrating model I saw at Baselworld this year.

There is so much to like here yet also so much to berate the brand for.

On the plus side, the new dial (as long as you choose the lovely matte black) with its ‘maxi’ look is fantastic: the enlarged markers with their black borders, the large hands and the stunning orange GMT arrow with accompanying Explorer II lettering on the dial (a tribute to the original 1971 model that manages to look modern not fake-retro) are all great design cues that work really well together. I also – although initially a little unsure about it – have come to really like the new bezel and its markings.

And the engineering is a big step forward too. I love the new bracelet (we raved about it on the new Explorer; it’s great to see it come to the Explorer II) and the innards of the piece: the new in-house calibre 3187 with Parachrom hairspring, a Breguet overcoil, a large and variable inertia balance wheel. And, just like the Explorer last year, the whole thing is protected by Paraflex shock absorbers. There are 31 jewels and the cal 3187 has a power reserve of about 48 hours.

So far, so stunning. But here’s the rub, what I simply can’t abide is Rolex’s current obsession with ‘super-sizing’ its cases. It’s already ruined the Submariner and the GMT-Master II and now it’s done it to the Explorer II. Let’s be clear, this is not simply a matter of size. As long as they are properly proportioned and it’s appropriate for the brand, some large watches work very well (think Panerai’s Historic range). No, the real problem here is that it’s also a matter of shape and heritage.

The super-sizing process distorts the look of the watch and how it sits on the bracelet. The lugs look oddly extended, the sides of the case strangely bloated and angular. There’s a sharpness, a lack of sophistication to the whole thing that makes it look more like a fake than the real thing.

Without wanting to repeat what we’ve already written on The Guide, what used to make Rolex great – and what has sustained one of the most thriving used watch markets in horology – is the fact that their models used to be serious tool watch, yet elegant and subdued enough to look good in any rarefied environment.

Let me be blunt: nothing in the current range – with the exception of the current Explorer, which JUST about treads the right side of the line – can make that claim. They’re now all too bling.

I’m not stupid, I understand why Rolex is doing it. The company has some of the brightest marketers in the business. They’re extremely savvy and know their market well. There’s a lot of new money out there that they’re chasing and that money gravitates towards the flashier, bigger, blinger looking product. They’ll sell a lot of these new watches, no doubt. I get it. I just don’t like it. And I can’t help wondering whether the new models will hold their value the way previous generations have. I suspect not.


As you all know, I’m a huge fan of the previous Rolex Explorer and Explorer II. In fact, I owned them both before trading the pair in for a couple of old horlogical farts, albeit from the same brand.

To my eyes and finger-tips, the previous generation Explorer and Explorer II were the finest toolwatch duo in watch history. Ever. Think those are mere words that cost nothing? Well, after one dark evening during which I “lost” my Explorer II, I went out the next day and bought another one. Cause that’s how I roll.

Back to the matter at hand. We’d clocked the same video teaser that Rolex issued last year that you had, showing us a maxi-hands version with orange GMT hand. I then commented that I wasn’t holding my breath on what would finally emerge, given it only made sense for Rolex to use the maxi-case that has corrupted the Submariner/ Sea-Dweller/GMT. I don’t use the word “corrupted” lightly, as the larger case has fundamentally unbalanced the Explorer II in a manner that no dial design could ever hope to help it recover from.

As The Fool points out, the new movement and bracelet/clasp are just dynamite. They deserve a round of applause if only because the bracelets on the previous generation Explorer and Explorer II weren’t particularly worthy of the watch they were linked to, or the price tag for that matter. But when that applause dies down you’re left with a hulking, case-heavy piece that I personally find infuriating and sad all at the same time.

It’s infuriating because there were ways of downsizing the new design and pulling off something that would have been a lovely progression from the previous Explorer II. There is merit to many of the details the Fool picked up on above (the modern appearance of the matte dial, contrasting so nicely with the hands and orange 24-hour hand) but just as you gulp to swallow it all down, you get hit with the bit that suddenly makes everything go quiet: the case. Let’s be clear: this watch is badly proportioned. End of. It’s the same criticism I leveled at the new Explorer that The Fool purchased, the ratio between the bracelet and the case is simply dead wrong.

Shit. This is genuinely heart-breaking for me to admit, but there isn’t a single watch in the current Rolex line-up I want or would recommend. I know Rolex isn’t fussed. Plenty more fish in the sea with deeper pockets, as Europe and North America implode with unsustainable debt. But take a look around, dear Rolex. We’re in the middle of a recession and here you are swinging your dick around like a fat cat who just strolled out of the Kitty Cat club at 3 AM with another $50k in his pocket to blow. It’s wrong. It’s offensive. It doesn’t reflect where many of us are are right now.

Thank God, Tudor is taking up where Rolex has left off. But Tudor has to prove it can do more than re-issue classic pieces and that it has enough staying power to command the prices it’s asking for the new Tudor Advisor, for example. So, it smells like a hand-over to me and who knows where this will all go. There is one thing I can tell you for sure though: the vintage Rolex market is loving all this. I’m in there with them, as we laugh our asses off and revel in the fact that Rolex’s greatness lies in what it was, not in what it is becoming. And people, there is a mind-boggling amount of vintage Rolex worth buying…

Truth be told, I do actually want to buy another Explorer II (cause good things come in threes)! And lacking the cash for a really great cream-dialled 16550, I think I may just buy a last of line, black-dialled 16570. Cause when a watch is perfect, there’s never a good enough reason to screw with it.

Photo credit: Thanks to our friends at Hodinkee from whom we shamelessly stole the photo of the black-dialled new Explorer II.



Baselworld 2011: The new Rolex Explorer II teases and frustrates

What? You thought we’d forgotten? No, of course, we weren’t going to cover Baselworld 2011 without commenting on Rolex’s new Explorer II. The Prodigal Fool and Straight-Six each give you their perspective on this year’s refresh of a watch that is so close to our hearts. Oh, and it’s only fair to warn you, you’re about to see at least one grown man cry.

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  • Dom

    Totally agree guys..And I don’t totally buy into the fatter hands either. Such a shame as I do like the Orange hand – just a tiny tweak to the old model would been fine for me.

    Maybe Rolex should offer multiple sized models to pader to the larger diameter market?

    • Straight-Six


      I think offering different size variants might indeed resolve the particular problem on the new Explorer II. Unfortunately, it’s also the overall designs that plague all recent Rolex releases. They’re just not good enough…

  • Chris I

    I think I need to see and feel this one in the flesh. When I decided to purchase my first real watch (Rolex) – I really wanted to like the Ex II. But. It just wore so darn small. So I eventually bought a 2006 Sub no date off of TRF. I might need to revisit the ExII with the upsizing. Of course I also want an Explorer as well – and at 39mm now it seems more right sized.

    I was reffing a volleyball match this last weekend and my partner (6’6″ tall) was wearing an Air King that seemed super small. An all Rolex ref crew! Not sure that has happened in American collegiate volleyball before. I do want an Air King for my wife but she wants an Audi A4. So I guess I am buying a car.

    • Straight-Six


      Indeed, a happy wife means a happy couple. Buy the car!

      • The Prodigal Fool

        Make it an RS4 and this timid, marital bliss compromise has my support.

  • Jack

    This isn’t too bad…. And 42mm is a better size for me personally. However, I totally agree that the proportions are all wrong.

    Did you see the new Daytona? Talk about gaudy gross bling.

    What were they thinking?

    • The Prodigal Fool

      Don’t get me started on the Daytona!

      Still, at least they didn’t super-size it. I guess that will be Baselworld 2012’s ‘treat’…

    • Straight-Six

      Re: the new Daytona variant, Rolex was thinking: “How do we get us some Hublot magic, eh!?”

      But to be absolutely fair, if you look past the atrocious combination of materials (ceramic, pink gold) you can find something that has us really hot: the chocolate-coloured dial! Give it to us in a steel model and we’re talking a modern tropical. Yummy!

  • Chris K

    I suppose I am alone in welcoming the changes from Rolex to the Explorer II. The maxi dial and fatter hands lend to its bold presence. I also welcome the added 2mm in width. The last generation Explorer II proved too small for many wrists and the delicate hands and markers made for an odd combination on a “tool” watch.

    Humans are getting larger. That’s a fact. Watches need to enlarge to meet their demands. I’m just glad Rolex took their time and only added a few mm. All the first hand accounts I have read or heard about state that this watch wears no larger than the SubC despite being larger on paper, so those of you who read 42mm, don’t panic.

    I think over time the “old guard” Rolex fans will welcome the changes just as they have with the DSSD.

    • The Prodigal Fool

      Chris, I don’t think you’re alone at all. In fact, I’ve heard a lot of Rolex fans rave about the new Explorer II. If anything, I would say Six and I are probably in the minority.

      The issue to me – as a bit of a Rolex ‘purist’ is that – even though they are tool watches, Rolex has always maintained, until this generation, good proportions and relatively small sizes to their watches. As a result, as the old ads remind us, they look as good under the sea as under a double cuffed shirt. To my eyes at least, by going over 40mm in case size (and changing the proportions of the watch in the process), this new generation is veering too much towards clunky, blingy tool watch and too far away from go anywhere, all purpose, good for any occasion watch.

    • Boris

      Chris, you make some good points on the ExII, but you’ve got to be taking the p*ss when you say that “the “old guard” Rolex fans will welcome the changes just as they have with the DSSD”

      The Rolex fans community was red hot when the DSSD came out, and the watch was commanding a very significant premium in the 1st 6 months or so (same thing happened when the new Milgauss came out). Then it dropped like a stone and you could see a multitude of them for sale on the various trading pits. People just went to realize its proportions were dead wrong: thick as a stack of pancakes, and a bracelet that tappers way too much towards the clasp. I’m yet to find one of my watch forum buddies who has kept it (3 or 4 of them bought one). The DSSD is, by a measure, the biggest design flaw of their entire new sports line. Gets its fair share of criticism from real divers too, as its bracelet is useless in real diving conditions.

      • Straight-Six

        Hear, hear! The DSSD is truly vile. A friend’s brother has one and went through exactly the same boom and bust post-launch, with so many available now on the market. It’s a catastrophically bad design…

  • Chris Kimmelshue

    I’m not seeing the error in the proportions. If anything, this case shape is more elegant than the SubC (which I own) – especially where the case meets the bracelet. I agree that the additional of the white gold surrounds on the markers makes it a bit more “blingy” than prior generations, but I welcome the maxi dial on this model. The bracelet remains brushed to maintain it’s “tool watch” status – also welcome.

    Prior generations of Subs, GMTs, and Explorers all have their place but, like Porsches 911, it has to evolve to remain relevant. Are modern 911s as classic and beautiful as earlier generations – no – but are they better cars – absolutely.

    Rolex realizes that their watches are most often work by folks who will not use them as they were originally designed and intended for so they have added some “dressy” details such as the white gold surrounds and polished center links. We can equate Rolex’s modern watches to Land Rover’s Range Rover. Today’s Range Rover is infinitely more luxurious than previous generations and 99% of them will never leave the pavement, but today’s modern RR is just as capable off road. This is what I enjoy about Rolex – they may now appear more suited for the boardroom but I can take comfort in knowing that I can still wear my SubC under the sea.

    Keep up the great content on this site. It’s a pure pleasure to follow.

  • Jack

    Ever maintain a Range Rover?

    I truly hope Rolex isn’t going the same way…. They were always expensive, but when thought of as a lifetime investment, the value proposition could be made.

  • Boris

    I’ve got to raise my hand and admit that I was looking forward to the introduction of the new ExII. From the leaked images, I thought they’d kept it at 40mm with a thin case, and just updated the bracelet / dial / hands (all elements which I like in this new version, except the minutes hand I find a tad obese).

    In all fairness, I think that the lugs / case proportions are better than on the GMTIIc and on the new Submariner, but I realize this was achieved just by expanding the case itself by 2mm. I can unserstand why they increased he case diameter: they now have 39mm, 40mm, 42mm and 44mm in their sports range portfolio, so a size for (almost) everyone. But for the life of me, why did they have to make it so thick? It’s not like it is a dive watch, is it? As a result, I suspect it will wear VERY large. Just like a DSSD wears much larger that a Panerai despite being a similar 44mm. Shame.

    Guess I’ll have to cling to my vintage garbage:

    I’ve got to find a plain Jane 16550, whose proportions were just about perfect: 40mm and a slightly thicker case than a 16570.

    As Six says: there are so many good vintage models one can (still) buy…

  • The Prodigal Fool

    What did you do, Boris? Buy the whole shop!?

    Very nice indeed. And I’m digging that IWC Pilot’s Chrono.

  • Mary Paige C

    Ok, so I was sold on buying my husband for turning 50 an Explorer II and now I am confused. I liked it, but what do I know compared to you experts. What do I do?

    • Straight-Six


      No need to be confused, my dear, as this comes down to your hubby’s personal style and taste.

      So, if he prefers something that’s more attention-grabbing, bigger and bolder, then the new line-up from Rolex, including the Explorer II, will hit the spot. If, however, he veers more toward something that’s “quieter” and understated, then your best bet is to pick up the previous generation Explorer II (16570) or previous gen. Submariner (no date model is our pick).

      Good luck and we only wish our wives would be so generous on our 40th, 50th, 60th and even 70th birthdays!

    • The Prodigal Fool

      There are no experts – only watch fans.

      There are no wrongs – only opinions.

      Buy what you like.

      If you like it, don’t hesitate because of anything you’ve read here.

      Oh, and just to reassure you, you can’t go wrong with Rolex. We’re discussing tiny styling details in this thread. Bottom line? The new Explorer II is going to be a huge sales success and, if you like it, I’m sure your husband will be delighted with it too.

      • El”Monte Slim

        Hi All

        I have just purchased a new White Explorer II and I love it… I sold my smaller 2007 white faced Explorer II to get it.
        I have a larger wrist so the new model looks perfect on my wrist, the old one looked like a mid-size.
        Remember this is a tool watch not a piece of yuppie jewelry.. the larger dial is easier to read for my aging eyes and the whole watch is far more robust.
        I believe Rolex chose the right models to upsize… because if you use them for what they were meant for, the larger size is a bonus.
        I love the Prodigal Guide…Keep up the fantasic work.

    • Boris

      Hi Mary,

      I would have the same comment as Six: if your husband prefers something bold, and has a big enough wrist to sport it, the new model is perfectly acceptable. If he wants someting slender and more elegant (but equally tough), the older model 16570 is the one to go for.

      Two other considerations:

      – Availability: it takes Rolex ages to supply the new models they have introduced to their distributors. At best, it would hit the stores end of this year, at worst early next year. the old model should still be available in stores in the next few months

      – Price: I suspect the new model will be a fair bit more expensive than the old one

      • The Prodigal Fool

        You’re right about price, Boris. I think Six told me that his dealer told him the new Explorer II was going to be at least € 6,000. Ouch.

  • Mary Paige

    Thank you for all your input. I understand that they are opinions but when looking at all things being equal it is opinions that sway. I assumed when I was shown the watch at the store that one would be available. Guess I need to make a choice soon. Thanks for all your input, I truly appreciate it.

  • Mary Paige

    You mention it is not available yet in stores… I wonder then if what I was shown actually was the Explorer II?

    • The Prodigal Fool

      If you were shown something in a store it would have been the current generation Explorer II (much smaller hands and dial markers, smaller case). This new one that we’re discussing here was only just announced at Baselworld and won’t be available for a few months.

      We’re big fans of the current generation Explorer II for reasons explained in our post here.

      • Chris II

        As an Exp II (16570) owner, I can attest to the beauty of the watch. It wears extremely comfortably and is relatively unique in the sea of Rolexes you see out there. It is somewhat understated so it wouldn’t be the watch for your husband if he wanted something a bit more showy.

  • Rob Keylock

    My Humble analogy: Consider both the Iconic Porsche 911(993) & equally iconic Rolex Sea Dweller(16600) both companies seem to have cynically & detrimentally blinged & broadened their brands beyond recognition. Aston seems to be following this tend with this Cygnet? Stella-Artois? Powerful and consistent strap line of “re-assurringly expensive” They now do a Cidre available in Tesco £1.39 for 568ml or an imperial pint….

    Is it me?

    • Straight-Six

      It’s not just you. We’re in that place too. But many would argue these companies and brands are making more money than ever before by chasing the new money and the preferences that go with it i.e. show what you have.

      The Stella-Artois analogy made me smile, though, as it’s considered bog-standard here in Belgium! Then again, we do enjoy over 400 beers here…:)

      Thanks for dropping by, Rob.

  • john steppling

    Yeah, it doesnt look right at all. Ive said this before on other threads. Im about to get a black dialed ex 2….the last of the line. But the entire new range is simply a big miss-step. The GMT bezel…while beautiful (the ceramic part I mean) the font for the numbers is ghastly. Sit it down next to the older versions. GMT bezels have a lot of numbers….a lot more than the Subs. So it is really glaring on the GMT. I cant say the green second hand works either. And the shiny middle links……terrible. But that font, that font is killing me. You know, not to get all theoretical…but we learn our visual cues. The cyclops over the date is ugly, but its come to read “Rolex”….and now I really miss it on the no date models. But honestly even the datejust 41mm is grotesque. Its all squared off, and what made those 36mm versions so cool was the roundness…….especially with the jubilee bracelet. Oh well, they will make lots of money…..but i say buy up the old ones while you can.

  • AJja

    “There’s a lot of new money out there that they’re chasing and that money gravitates towards the flashier, bigger, blinger looking product.”

    No. Its just keeping up with the times.

    Rolex as a brand is still subtly styled, its just surrounded by Other makes who sell 40-50mm flashier watches.

  • Trevor

    I’m at that age where close-in vision isn’t what it was. I like a larger diameter watch with bold and easy to read hands. But I don’t like ‘bling’. From what I can see on the Internet the new Explorer II seems to have hit a reasonable compromise. I found the current Explorer II to be just at the edge of not being able to comfortably and easily read. Though I would have to see it in the flesh (so to speak), I think I like the proportions of the new one. The current Explorer II fit on my wrist nicely (but so does my current 46mm watch), and fits comfortably under shirt and jacket (which my current watch doesn’t). I live in Canada and I’m quite active, so a watch fitting under winter clothes is an issue for me.
    So does, if you know, the new Explorer II fit well under shirt and jacket? How thick is it and how tapered? I may have missed it if it was in the review.
    I like the look of the black dial, but from what I can see, the white dial looks much more legible.

  • David

    I hated to new Exp 2 in pictures and from a theoretical perspective, but in the flesh it is, well, different…

    Having spent an hour with old and new together (white) they are both very lovely. As a Submariner owner, I never appreciated how beautiful the bezel was, which is the most compelling feature of both. There is no doubt that the new one has lost subtlety and elegance, and with a suit, it is just too obvious, whereas the older model is perfect. As a more casual wearer, the new model is very nice indeed. Thinking about it, what has changed is the watches fundamental character; if you value restraint and simplicity, the older one is for you, if you want something bolder, then the new one.

    I left the jeweller yesterday with a slight preference for new, only as I have an Sub for when I want to be subtle (a dive watch-subtle!), and the new one is just a bit different. Having said that the £1000 price delta is a good reason to go with the old while I can, as I will always be able to buy the current one.

  • The Prodigal Fool

    David, that’s a great summary.

    “If you value restraint and simplicity, the older one is for you…” Spot on!

  • Knypsterino

    Thank you for a sober thread with good vibes. I bought my first Rolex (The new Explorer II) yesterday. I’m in heaven. Today I find this great site and read your opinions on the bigger and bolder size. I have no new money just a little hard earned cash (until yesterday), but I am 198 cm (6.5 feet) and around 100 kg (220 pounds). The new model was my chance to get an Explorer II that actually fits my size. So I welcome the bigger models.

    I bought the white one but I guess I can buy a black dial to switch now ad then?

    • Straight-Six

      Congrats on your new purchase!

      It’s true that while we strongly prefer the previous gen. for its aesthetic balance and understatedness, we must recognise that larger folk (and wrists) will indeed prefer the Maxi-dial/case of the new one.

      And yes, you can get the dial changed to black.