The history of the Explorer II 1655
How a mountaineers watch got named after a racing driver
For collectors of vintage luxury watches the Ref. 1655
of the Rolex Explorer series is more than just an insider tip. It is the expression of taste, expertise and a certain amount of courage to not limit yourself to commonly known watch models. Although today there is a certain hype about the "Steve McQueen", the watch used to be more of a shelf warmer before it got the name of the famous actor.
The – rather young – history of the Explorer II began in 1971, when the first model of the series, the Ref. 1655, was introduced. It had the same calibre 1575
as the current GMT Master 1675 at that time, a watch series whose further development would always have an impact on the Explorer II. However, the major difference to the GMT Master was the fixed monochrome bezel with 24-hour engraving. Unlike the Explorer and Explorer I series it does not have Arabic numerals nor a date display at 3 o'clock. The special feature that made the Explorer II break new ground, was the combination of the bezel and the orange hand
circling the dial within 24 hours.
This detail was the source of the reference's first nickname "Orange Hand
". It was intended to help speleologists and other people staying in dark environments for a long time to keep track of time. Moreover, it was possible to keep an eye on two time zones simultaneously. In 1985 the production of the Ref. 1655 was stopped to be replaced by the new series with the reference number 16550. This led to an enormous increase of the value of the Ref. 1655
during which even inexpensive watch models of the new reference were equipped with “Orange Hand” components in order to resell them at higher prices.
When the public saw the American actor Steve McQueen
wearing a Ref. 1655 privately, the Explorer II models of this reference eventually became an absolute favourite within the watch community. Since then the former "Orange Hand" was called "Steve McQueen".
Optical and technical features of the Rolex “Steve McQueen”
Can you tell why a watch is so popular among watch enthusiasts by simply looking at it? At first sight, the Explorer II Ref. 1655 is a perfectly crafted luxury watch. The dial is black with white, luminescent indices and hands, which provides excellent readability. At 3 o'clock there is a cyclops lens highlighting the date window. The orange hand used for the 24-hour display is very prominent. Like all Rolex watches, the bracelet is made of Oyster steel.
So, all the same with Rolex? Not at all. Special features of the "Steve McQueen" are the details that changed the look of the watch during the production between 1971 and 1985. Watch collectors, especially those of vintage Rolex models, pay particular attention to details. Obviously, there is no difference when it comes to used Rolex Explorer II models. With the Ref. 1655 there are a few details you should pay attention to. The first two versions of Ref. 1655 still had needle-shaped second hands. Starting in 1978, the second hand was equipped with an illuminated dot and counterweight. Also in the year 1978, the previously folded Oyster bracelet was replaced by a more massive one. The fixed bezel also went through a development process over the years. The first version still had the numbers close to the inner edge of the bezel, but in the years 1973/74 they were put closer into the middle. Up to case number 3.5XX.XXX, the case was thinner, which can be seen at the crown protection on the thinner case that runs towards the crown (looked at from 6 or 12 o'clock).
How much costs a pre-owned Explorer II Steve McQueen?
Explorer II references at a glance
- This model of the Rolex Explorer II (Ref. 1655) from 1971 is in a very good condition. The dial, especially the hands, have a very nice vintage look though. A detail also confirming this is the lettering “T SWISS T” on the lower side of the dial, which shows the luminous mass on the tritium dial. According to its condition the model costs 20,030 €.
- You can also get a pre-owned Ref. 1655 from 1972 at a lower price. At Watchmaster you can get this Rolex Steve McQueen for 19,270 €. The case and bracelet of this Explorer II are in good condition with hardly visible traces of usage. The numbers on the bezel are colourless and blend in very well with the overall design of the watch.
- The current Explorer II collection has the reference number 216570 and is available with a black or white dial. After the Explorer II Ref. 16570 with hands and dial in uniform white, the new Explorer II is now focusing on the early days of the series. Again, the 24-hour hand is orange and thus imitates the design of the Ref. 1655. The 3187 calibre was developed and manufactured entirely by Rolex. The Paraflex anti-shock system offers the highest level of protection against shocks and other challenges one may face. This makes the 216570 appear more massive on the wrist, although, with a case diameter of 42 mm, it is smaller than a new Sea Dweller watch. For a new Explorer II, Rolex recommends a retail price of €7,350. Used but in very good condition, the watch is already available for 6,590 € in the Watchmaster shop.
Further interesting Rolex series
At Baselworld 2019, Rolex unveiled several new models of its popular series: A new generation of the Yacht Master, GMT-Master II and the Sea Dweller.
- Rolex launches a new model for its Yacht Master series with a 42 mm case. The Yacht Master 42 (Ref. 226659) is characterized by a high wearing comfort thanks to the Oysterflex wristband. Due to the Oysterlock safety folding clasp, the watch can be adapted to any wrist, diver or business suit. The large indices with luminous material ensure excellent readability even in the dark. The Yacht Master (Ref. 116622) or the Yacht Master II (Ref. 116680) make an equally reliable and high-quality impression.
- Along with the GMT Master II (Ref. 126710 BLNR and Ref. 116710 BLNR) come two new features. The iconic two-tone bezel of the 2019 model is made of blue and black ceramic. It expresses the company's commitment to constantly strive to develop new materials that will enhance the durability of its watches. Rolex has also made a point of paying tribute to the past with this model by equipping it with a Jubilé bracelet especially designed for the Oyster Perpetual Datejust in 1945.
- The watches of the Explorer series are the result of many expeditions that Rolex equipped in order to test them under real conditions. The vintage design refers to the watches worn during the conquest of the "third pole" - the Mount Everest. The current model (Ref. 214270) is slightly smaller than the Explorer II models with 39 mm and has a very elegant exterior that offers good readability. The built-in calibre 3132 is COSC certified and guarantees absolute reliability.
- The Sea Dweller series was introduced in 2019 in Rolesor Yellow. Rolesor is a combination of stainless-steel, Oyster-steel and 18 carat yellow gold. A helium valve is built into the Oyster case to balance the decompression pressure during diving. The watch is water-resistant up to 1,200 meters, which is achieved by its solid construction. This robustness has its price though.
Famous owners of the Explorer II Ref. 1655
Steve McQueen, the daredevil of Hollywood, is one of them and gave the watch its nickname Explorer II "Steve McQueen"
. There's no image to confirm this rumour, but perhaps that's what makes it so attractive for many watch enthusiasts to wear this model in memory of the famous actor and racing driver.
A mountaineer and explorer watch eternally associated with the name of a racing driver? Perhaps as a nickname, but the watch was present on a memorable mountain expedition. As the only companion, so to speak, an "Orange Hand" reached the summit of the Nanga Parbat with Reinhold Messner. It was the first solo ascent of the eight-thousand. The successful mission and the impeccable functioning of Messner's watch clearly demonstrated the outstanding durability of the 1655 series.