A Brief Guide to the Rolex Explorer II 'Polar'

A Brief Guide to the Rolex Explorer II 'Polar'

| 03.16.23

So you’ve decided you want a Rolex. You’ve smartly visited the Analog:Shift website and browsed the list of models. You’ve considered the Submariner, the Explorer, and the Daytona, but you find yourself looking for something else — something a little more playful and unique. You’re searching for a watch that flies under the radar (to the extent that a Rolex can) without sacrificing the heritage that has made the brand such a success. You want to wear one that may not be the flashiest in the collection, but will still turn heads among those in the know. Then you finally find what you’ve been searching for: the Rolex Explorer II with white dial. 

The Explorer II 'Polar' is the perfect watch for a person who wants a Rolex that is truly high quality without being ostentatious or pretentious. (Simply put, the same collector likely wouldn’t consider a 'Polar' and a Daytona 'Eye of the Tiger!') Originally devised for spelunking, the Explorer II is an idiosyncratic tool watch through and through, and the 'Polar' version is unique in the Rolex oeuvre as one of the brand’s only white-dialed tool watches. (A white dial was first introduced in 1985 and has been featured in an array of Explorer II references since.) Each reference has its own details and idiosyncrasies and each is best for a different person. 

Collecting Rolex is all about details, as the brand generally makes subtle refinements from year to year rather than radical redesigns. (If you find yourself obsessing over the details between vintage references, you are not alone — welcome to the club!) Today, we will examine the evolution of the Rolex 'Polar' Explorer II since its introduction, identifying the subtleties that distinguish each generation from the previous so that you can find which is best for you.

NOTE: The price ranges we quoted are accurate as of publish, but markets are of course subject to change. Check our listings frequently for examples of current pricing.

Significant References

Explorer II Reference 16550 (1985-1989) 

1984 Rolex Explorer II 16550  ( image: Tropical Watch )

Price Range: ~$15,000 to $35,000

Although the Explorer II debuted in the 1970s with the Reference 1655 (1971-1984), it wasn't until the 1980s release of the Reference 16550 that Rolex offered a white-dialed 'Polar' version. The Reference 16550 replaced the Caliber 1575 from the previous model with the newer Caliber 3085, and featured a redesigned handset to match the other Professional Series models. The Caliber 3085 allowed the 24-hour hand to be adjusted independently from the hour hand for the first time, making the Explorer II capable of displaying a second time zone rather than just a day/night indication. 

Further changes introduced on the 16550 were the shift from matte dials to glossy ones, and the addition of indices with white gold surrounds. Rolex lengthened the GMT hand and made it slightly thinner as all the Rolex pieces in the collection began to shift upmarket towards a more "luxury market" positioning. Similar to the 1655, the 16550 maintained a drilled-lug case (as was commonplace on tool watches), and finally, replaced the lines for the odd hour markers on the bezel with arrows, a detail that remains present in the modern collection. The 16550 is now considered a transitional reference, situated between the 1655 and the 16570.

Certain 16550s feature what collectors refer to as ‘cream dials’ — due to a defect in the paint used on 'Polar' variants with white dials, these turned a cream color over time. Rolex eventually corrected this defect, but cream-colored 16550s have become fabulously collectible since then.

Explorer II Reference 16570 (1989-2011) 

Rolex Explorer II 'Polar' 16570 circa 2002

Price Range: ~$10,500-$12,000

 The Reference 16570 was the natural continuation of the 16550 design, with the same general features: it maintained the 39mm case, elongated GMT hand, 100m water resistance rating, and fixed 24-hour bezel of the previous generation — however, white gold surrounds gave way to black surrounds on 'Polar' variants. Certain later examples of the 16570 did away with lug holes for the bracelet attachment for the first time (a 'no-holes' case), while the majority of the earlier versions featured the punched case design ('holey' lugs). Punched lugs began to disappear completely from the Rolex catalog around the turn of the 21st century. 

16570 'Holey' Lugs  vs. 16570 Solid Lugs 

The earliest 16570s had tritium lume, but by 1998, Rolex had shifted to non-radioactive Luminova. An easy way to distinguish between models with tritium and models with Luminova is by examining the base of the dial: Tritium models are marked "SWISS-T<25", whereas the Luminova models say "SWISS" if produced between 1998 and 1999, or "SWISS MADE" if they feature SuperLuminova and were made between 1999-2011. 

LEFT- Rolex Explorer II 'Polar' 'Swiss Only' Dial' circa 1998   RIGHT- Rolex Explorer II 'Polar' 'Swiss Made' Dial circa 2003

A few highly rare examples exist that are marked "SWISS-T" but nonetheless bear Luminova lume. Such 'TritiNova' watches were made during a short window in which Rolex had leftover dials with Tritium markings, but had discontinued the actual use of tritium. 

Tritium Dial on a 1995 Rolex Explorer II 16570 ( image: Tropical Watch )

Due to the long run of the 16570, the reference used more than one movement: Prior to 2005, it housed the Caliber 3185, after which it was replaced with the updated Caliber 3186, which brought a Parachrom hairspring and tighter tolerances to the GMT hand. These later examples also featured solid end links on the bracelets, which contributed to a more robust and substantive feel on the wrist.

Explorer II Reference 216570 (2011-2021) 

Rolex Explorer II 'Polar' circa 2019 

Price Range: ~$15,000+

By 2011, the long-running Reference 16570 gave way to the refreshed Reference 216570. This new reference was released to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Explorer II, with a much wider and bolder handset and the return of the orange GMT hand. Featuring the large 42mm 'Super' or 'Maxi' case redesign of early 21st-century Rolex Professional Series watches, the Explorer II also received an updated movement, the Caliber 3187. 

The 216570 replaced green SuperLuminova with blue, Rolex-developed Chromalight lume, which shines brighter and clearer. Those who enjoy robust bracelets will certainly gravitate towards the 216750, whose Oyster bracelet is more substantial than that of any previous reference, and whose Oyster clasp also allows for micro-adjustments on the fly. 

Explorer II Reference 226570 (2021-Present) 

Rolex Explorer II Ref. 226570 ( image: Phillips )

List Price: $9,650

Released in time for the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Explorer II, the Reference 226570 only slightly changed the successful design of the previous models: The white dial became enamel, adding a level of shine and further leaning into the luxury persona of Rolex’s modern reputation. 

The 226750 remained 42mm in diameter, but Rolex increased the width of the bracelet and decreased the size of the lugs to slim out the appearance of the case silhouette. (Similar changes were made with Rolex’s shift from the Submariner references 116610 and 126610.) 

The largest update the new model received was the transition to the modern Caliber 3285, which now affords 70 hours of power reserve rather than the 50-hour power reserve of the previous movement. The newer technology also incorporates greater anti-magnetism enhancements. To some, the 226570 continued the legacy of the Explorer II well by respecting the design, while others wished for a more groundbreaking reimagination, perhaps with use of ceramic for the fixed bezel.

An Under-Appreciated Rolex?

There’s no doubt that the Explorer II is continually growing in popularity, yet the collection still often flies under the radar when compared to the Submariner, GMT-Master II, and even the original Explorer 'Explorer I' models. As Rolex has shifted even further up-market, many of the brand’s sports pieces have taken on more precious metal and more flash. The Explorer II has largely remained unchanged, made only in steel with an unostentatious, almost humble appearance. 

The only non-Daytona Rolex tool watch available today with a white dial, the Polar Explorer II deserves much more attention. Early 16550 models are most collectible due to their relative scarcity, and references such as the 16570 are available in abundant quantities and are the most recognized pieces in the model line. There is no doubt that the Polar Explorer II is one of Rolex’s most time-tested designs, and as collectors continue to warm up to the model, the Explorer II is likely to experience a renaissance in the coming years.