My Rolex Explorer II - Ref. 16570
When I got this watch Instagram wasn't a thing. I couldn't do an unboxing video and taking a wrist shot was the furthest thing from my mind - not that my Blackberry wasn't more than capable, it did have a trackball after all... Yeah, I've owned this Explorer II for a minute (since 2010 to be precise). I'll come right out and say it: I'm damn proud that I bought it before social media took over our lives, when really, only watch forums and timepiece magazines were around.
Sometimes I'll catch myself grumbling about the way things used to be - when watches weren't such a trophy or commodity. A time when I didn't think about having a collection or buying watches for the flip opportunity. But truth be told, I'm kinda glad we are where we are today - even if that means owning a Newman probably ain't gonna happen. Ever the searcher of the silver lining... I tell myself that without the Internet and all the hoopla surrounding vintage watches, I probably wouldn't have come to appreciate them, and that would be a shame.
But I digress. Back to the story of how I got my modern Expy II. Leading up to my decision I had been wearing my first Rolex, a steel Datejust, almost exclusively for over a decade. During that stretch, my world centered around worthy pursuits like academics, landing and keeping a job and enjoying life with my girlfriend (now wife). Sure, watches crossed my mind, but I didn't spend every waking moment thinking about them like I do today. (Sometimes watches even make a cameo in my dreams... I'm not the only one right?) Ten years ago I got my fill of watches seeing them in jewelry store display cases, on people's wrists in public and digitally, lurking on Timezone. And it's painful for me to acknowledge this, but despite having James Dowling's book, "The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches," on my shelf back then - chock-full of vintage Rolex imagery and history - I had no interest in (nor the foresight) to collect vintage Rolex. On that note, here's a random watch memory from that time period in my life:
A couple years before I bought my Explorer II, I had the chance to buy my coworker's matte dial, reference 16750 GMT-Master, which belonged to his dad. The price swirling around was like thirty-five hundred bucks. I didn't pursue it hard. I know my ambivalence had nothing to do with having qualms about the case's condition or dial originality. (For all I know the case was unpolished, all parts correct and beautifully patina'd.) I wasn't checking for that stuff - proof I had yet to be bitten by the vintage bug. I must've just thought the price was too high...
Needless to say when I pulled up Timezone, I wasn't educating myself on the finer points of vintage. What I mostly remember about my visits to TZ was clicking on posts for their visual stimulus. And the posts that always got a click through were ones with a mention of "16520" or any other modern Daytona keyword. That's the watch I had the hots for back then. Unfortunately a Zenith Daytona was out of my reach. Or rather, whatever 16520s went for in 2010 (easily half what they go for today), the amount was more than I was comfortable dropping on a watch. (Now I contemplate cashing-out some of my 401k to buy a vintage Daytona... until I snap back to reality.)
Waiting till the time was right to get a Daytona wasn't gonna scratch the itch I had for a new watch. A purchase I was justifying as a little reward to myself for being in the midst of a good run at work. The disposable income burning a hole in my pocket was around three grand and change. (Yes yes I know I know, what I could've gotten that vintage GMT for...)
Now, as unbelievable as it may seem, I sincerely don't recall researching or hunting a specific model. I just remember knowing I wanted another Rolex, but a sports model this time. And I'd be lying if I said a Panerai wasn't in close competition.
I also didn't make a conscious decision to buy preowned vs. new. I was definitely poking my head into boutiques around this time, so I must not have ruled out going the AD route (I remember test driving the Milgauss). Besides checking out watches in the metal, I explored them virtually, on Timezone's Sales Corner. One night, scrolling through listings, one in particular had two intriguing descriptors that jumped out at me: "mint" and "box and papers." Little did I know the watch loading onto my laptop screen would set a lot of wheels in motion - namely my love affair with Explorers... It was a reference 16570, A-serial, black dial Explorer II. To this day what stands out about that moment was being taken aback by the photos. The shots were professional grade, not the usual snaps people took on their dimly lit kitchen tabletop or back deck with the sun blaring. (I actually managed to dig up the listing. Pretty cool going down memory lane...)
I don't remember scrutinizing the watch like I would today. I really just think I went off the vibe I got from the pictures. And the watch came with boxes and paperwork to match its new-old-stock condition. It was basically a brand new watch, which if I'm being honest, is something I was looking for (why else was I pestering salespeople at ADs and letting vintage GMTs get away?). I went to bed that night with this watch on my brain... I could dig the model. I could swallow the price. I slept on it. When I woke up the next morning, it was still on my mind, it felt right, so I called the number in the listing.
When I got ahold of the seller, I mispronounced his name, calling him [Jay-Sek]. He politely corrected me and we chatted about the watch. Today, the man on the other end of the phone is someone who needs no introduction to most watch guys. But I'm not so sure this was the case eight years ago. I like the fact that I bought a watch from H.Q. Milton before they were H.Q. MILTON. Back to the call... I didn't ask Jacek questions we might raise today: Has the case been polished/recut? What's the bracelet code? I probably asked about its service history. What I was mostly concerned with was the price. Was there any wiggle room? (I think he knocked off a hundred bucks or offered to ship for free). I hung up agreeing to get the watch...
After doing my first ever wire transfer, I anxiously waited for a package to arrive... Before our phone call, I'd never heard of Jacek or H.Q. I took Jacek's word about his background and H.Q.'s reputation. I definitely didn't visit H.Q.'s website (if they even had one back then). I might've searched Timezone to see his older listings and read what people had to say about dealing with him. So you can kinda understand why I kept saying to myself, "did I really just buy a watch from someone over the Internet?"
The moment of truth arrived in a day or so. I got the FedEx package from our doorman. Riding the elevator up to our unit, I remember how light the package felt and that it looked too thin to fit a watch box inside... I sat down at our kitchen table and cracked it open. A mental sigh of relief came over me as I coaxed out a green granite-like box. When it came to the reveal, I let my girlfriend do the honors. (It's important to me that my wife - and now my son - share in as many of these watch moments as possible.) As she lifted the creaky lid of the green leather box, I remember her reaction being something like, "it looks nice..." (I was hoping for a little more excitement.) She handed it to me. One look and I was satisfied. It looked as good in person as it did in the pictures. I'm sure I resized the bracelet before putting it on. Next, we headed out the door to enjoy our day off... Back then I didn't hang out with friends who had watches, so no quick text message pic to anyone.
Every time I wrack my brain, I come up empty. If you put me under oath, the truth is, I can't say I was on a mission to buy an Explorer II. I'd have to say it was more along the lines of an impulse buy. Nevertheless the purchase couldn't have been more perfect.
Now, maybe I'd say the same thing about a Sub or GMT (or Milgauss) if that's what I'd ended up with... All I know is something sealed the deal for this Explorer. Those pictures, absolutely. The price, sure that helped. But also, there had to be a physical attraction and maybe something deeper... I believe we all have a soul mate on this earth. I found mine - my wife. And as far as watches go, I found it too - my Explorer II. Just like you don't know the person you just met is the person you're gonna live happily ever after with, similarly, when I bought this watch I didn't realize I'd get along so well with it - that it would become a keeper.
A few details about my Explorer II...
Knowing what I know today - thanks to Instagram, studying H.Q. Milton Sold listings and all my watch-loving friends - I can say unequivocally that my Explorer II was (and still is) a superb example. Looking back, I could've ended up with one with chamfer-less lugs... Again I wasn't grilling watches like I (we) do today.
Back then, I'd say I was a sucker for the photos and the full-kit package, which I think ultimately made me pull the trigger. Only later, possibly years later, did I start to really appreciate the attributes of my Explorer II. Not just the usual features we collectors go crazy for, but Explorer-specific aesthetics that lovers of the model find endearing.
As you can see in Jacek's photos, the watch was in immaculate shape. The paperwork was filled out, indicating it was originally bought from a California AD back in 1999. I don't know the story with it leading up to me getting it... Was it truly new-old-stock? (Doubtful.) Was it worn a few times before being tossed in a drawer or safe deposit box? If this is the case, and there were some desk diving swirls on the clasp or a deep scratch on the side of the case, the polishing job was done by a technician with the hand of God.
Even after all the wear I've put on it - and boy have I put it through the ringer - the integrity of the case is intact. Beneath all the scrapes and dings, the original, factory finishing is still all there to ogle at. The lust-worthy curves and edges are thick and sharp. Sometimes I lightly drag my fingernail atop a lug and relish feeling the ripples of the grain. I always find myself entranced by how the angles and raw surfaces glint and shimmer in different lighting. I love the chiseled exterior, which to me exudes a toughness, like a weathered adventurer with stories to tell of heartache and triumph.
In my mind, this is how a watch should look. Battle scars will never take away from a watch's beauty.
I've come to the realization in the past year or so that smooth, all steel bezels are my 'steez. All I really had to do was look at my watches - they all have smooth bezels, from my Datejust to my Sandford (even my vintage Seamaster since it remains one of life's great mysteries when I'll get the bezel back). Why have I gravitated toward steel bezels? I might be subconsciously attracted to them because I have a tiny wrist... This svelter look works really well for me (not that I couldn't get used to the faded "Pepsi" insert of a 1675). But it's more than wrist presence... If you know me, you know I love to see scratches on watches, so I love the extra vulnerability of a steel bezel.
The sunburst-finished bezel of my Explorer II is extra steel canvas to paint the story of my life - depicted through scratches picked up though my daily grind, my travels, my stumbles, my celebrations. I'm still stuck on these watches being tools, companions in life, more than them being showpieces and alternative assets.
Seeing the before shots, man I've done a number on this watch - and I wouldn't have it any other way. The slips and falls, bumps and bangs my Explorer's endured aren't from mountain climbing. They're bruises from doing chores and projects around the house, road rash from working in a shoe store for over a decade. I don't treat my watches badly. I don't go out of my way to smack them against the wall. I respect them (I wouldn't take my old Seamaster for a dip in the ocean). But I do wear them and that means inevitably I'm gonna whack 'em into a doorframe or knock against the edge of a table. To me this is how I bond with a watch - wearing it, it getting nicked up. This is how it becomes a keeper.
At some point - definitely post purchase - I realized my Explorer II's dial is a "SWISS" Only variation. What's this mean? It's a transitional dial you'll find on a fair amount of sports models with A-prefix serial numbers, which corresponds to 1999 production. "SWISS" Only dials are the first to use luminova (the beginning of the end for tritium). I'm not a lume guy at all. I could care less if my watch glowed in the dark. So, just like I wholeheartedly believe I didn't seek out an Explorer, I didn't seek out a watch with a luminova dial. It was an easter egg I discovered. Today it's a talking point that distinguishes my Explorer II a little from the rest.
I'll say this last thing about my watch's dial: As far as it being black - I think that just happened to be the color dial this particular watch had. If this exact condition watch, along with all the bits and bops it came with, had a white "Polar" dial - I think I would've still bought it. Unlike today, back then, the dial wasn't a make or break detail. And just like I've come to love my Explorer II, I've come to love its black dial - even though fingerprints and smudges on the sapphire crystal really stand out against it.
Wearing my Explorer...
When it comes to my Explorer II, some might say the heavy-ish, 40mm slab of a case eats up my child-like wrist. Not helping people's perspective is that I only wear it on its hollow end link, fliplock clasp, Oyster bracelet - a bracelet which I wear a tad loose (probably one link too many). So throughout the day, especially when my wrist is contracted from the cold, my Explorer II shimmies and resettles constantly, and overall, has a tendency to sag toward the ground. Yet despite it wearing like a bangle at times - and draping my wrist - it's comfortable as hell. I barely notice I have it on. It always feels like it's hugging my boney wrist.
The comfort I speak of can partly be attributed to the design of the case and bracelet. But I think more so, the comfort comes from the fact the watch is so broken in (it's easily logged over 10,000 hours of wrist time). Like a pair of good leather shoes conform to the nuances of your foot after miles of wear, I feel like the bracelet links, lubed with my sweat, have learned and adapted to the unique curvature of my scrawny wrist.
Besides how it physically feels on my wrist, how it makes me feel is also a big reason why I love my Explorer II - why I'll never let it go. A lot of my closest watch friends (and Instagram followers) probably assume a grail I recently acquired, my vintage Explorer II, is my favorite watch...
A self-confessed Explorer lover, the reference 1655, "Orange Hand" was a must have (as are several other Explorers I'll mention shortly). It's the very-first Explorer II - the genesis of the line. I'm proud to show it off and share the story how it found me: It was a once in a lifetime experience, as I was fortunate to purchase it from the grandson of the original owner (a story for another day).
I'm certainly in awe of my Orange Hand every time I wear it, but it has a long (long) way to go before it can hold a candle to its grandson - if ever.
First, I don't have the same comfort level with my vintage Explorer that I do with my modern. We've done it all together - I know what to expect from it. It's a comforting feeling being supremely confident your watch can handle whatever you throw at. I can roll around the floor and wrestle with my son and know the bracelet isn't gonna dislodge from the case. The hands and dial remain unphased when I wear it going crazy - high-fiving and slamming my fist - watching the Patriots.
My vintage and I just don't have enough history together. I haven't worn it enough (tested it enough) to say what degree of hand clapping it can withstand (I'm a little paranoid the tritium will fleck off). I know my old Explorer has survived this long and endured much worse treatment... But still, we don't have years of rapport - so I'm only just forming a sense of assuredness wearing it (we'll get there I'm sure).
To me, nothing beats patina you put on a watch. Only if you've owned a watch a long time, worn it hundreds if not thousands of times, do you get what I mean. As gorgeous as the dial is on my vintage Explorer, I find the pockmarks on my modern more captivating.
I remember my best friend's toddler being intrigued by the shiny object on my wrist. Naturally, I took my Explorer off and let him investigate it... That divot you seen on the 10 o'clock lug - it's from him hammering it into the asphalt of their driveway.
I don't know the story behind each and every scar (I have no idea how that gash on the bezel at 7 o'clock came to be)... What I do know, what's important, is this watch has been on my wrist for a good chunk of my life. I can hold this watch, stare at it, and random memories pop into my head (like wearing it while struggling to reel in a hammerhead shark deep sea fishing in Miami). I could go on an on, but you get the point. I've bonded with it, it's stuck by me, so it has no competition, it's going nowhere.
How I use it...
If you know your Explorers then you know my reference 16570 Explorer II followed up the 16550, which was the first Explorer to have an independent hour hand - allowing a second time zone to be tracked. (The first Explorer II, the reference 1655, could only tell you military time or indicate whether the time was AM/PM - indispensable info for spelunkers).
I love that my Explorer II has a GMT function (my favorite complication). It's not just the fact that it adds another dimension to the watch design-wise (an extra, colorful hand, numerals engraved on the bezel). It's also that having a watch with the capability to tell the time, simultaneously, in any two places on Earth is a cool concept (and a practical one).
In addition to being a big proponent of people wearing their watches, I like to see people use them. When you see shots of my watch on Instagram you'll usually notice I have the home time set to Central European Time (GMT +1). I do a fair amount of business in Europe, so it helps to know, at a glance, if a vendor or customer is sipping a coffee, ordering a cocktail or is passed out asleep.
My Explorer also provides an escape from the daily grind. One way I calm down and relax is by thinking of fond memories or daydreaming about the future... When I look at that red hand, which happens to point to Paris time, memories of my vacations to the City of Lights are instantly triggered. My Explorer II, by way of the GMT function keeps me connected to this special place - where I not only bought my first Rolex, but also where my wife and I honeymooned (and it reminds me we have to take our son there someday - hopefully soon).
For the life of me I really don't recall setting out to buy an Explorer. (Maybe that's a sign I'm getting up there in years...) The way I remember it, getting it was eerily similar to the way I bought my Datejust: I wanted a Rolex, I had a budget and I trusted a salesperson.
Speaking of my Datejust... I was asked during an interview for Oak & Oscar's Watch Table series, "what's your favorite watch?" I replied rather quickly, "My Datejust." I think my sentimentality for my first Rolex has been forcing me to answer this way. I'd like to take this opportunity to take back that answer. If we did a second take of that segment, my answer would be, "My modern Explorer II." After really thinking about it, writing this piece, I'm certain this is the watch, as I said in the interview, "I'd still have on if I was broke, divorced and living out of a cardboard box on the street..."
Why is my Explorer more of a keeper than my Datejust? Well for starters, it has everything going for it that my Datejust does (and then some)... Similar to my DJ, it was a pre-Instagram purchase, we have a long history together (almost 20 years) and I'm comfortable wearing it everywhere, doing anything. Where it separates itself is its functionality and design. Compared to my Datejust, it's a more engaging watch. Where my Datejust is sorta bland (all steel and silver), my Explorer is flavorful. The red 24-hour hand kicks the watch up a notch and besides its practicality has a side benefit - a reminder to travel. If it's pointing to the time in London, at the very least, I can escape there mentally.
This Explorer II will never develop the type of patina characteristic of vintage watches. The luminova hour markers won't turn creamy, the crystal will never need Polywatch, (my bezel definitely won't turn "ghost"). But that doesn't mean it won't have patina... It'll just be in the form of scuffs, dings, and dents, which to me, is just as beautiful as a tropical dial.
So what's next...
Clearly my modern Explorer II has made an impression on me. I mean... it's officially taken the place of my Datejust as my favorite watch - my ultimate keeper. It's also had a profound effect on shaping my collection. I want more Explorers... In the coming months I'll write about my vintage Explorer II, the purchase of which was the polar opposite of my modern (drawn out, overanalyzed, friends weighing in). I can't help but to overthink watch purchases now, which is a good thing when acquiring vintage.
And speaking of "polar" - a "Polar" Explorer is definitely on my wish list, but not just any one... The missing piece to my Explorer II collection is a reference 16550. And the one I want is the early white gold surround, rail dial turned cream variation with the signature, boxier font on the bezel. The likelihood that one will find me - like my '78 Explorer II did - is pretty low. I see myself studying up on the model and enlisting a dealer for help.
The other void in my Explorer collection is a 36mm one. The modern, reference 14270 my wife wears doesn't count. That's hers - a gift from me so we could have his/hers Explorers. I need one of my own. Actually I need two - a vintage and a modern.
Where a modern is concerned, lately I've been toying with the idea of getting a reference 114270. I think I'm leaning this way because I like the idea of having newer Rolex features represented in my Explorer collection, without going too far (I'm way too much of a purist to ever get a 39mm Explorer and the new Explorer II is too massive and exaggerated all around). The 114270 is the end of an era. I'd argue its design and proportions remain faithful to the original. And it's enhancements I can live with (Super Luminova, SEL bracelet). Simply put, a 114270 would add depth - comprehensiveness - to my Explorer collection.
As for the vintage one, I'm determined to hold out for one to find me (hey, my 1655 did). Unlike cream, rail dial 16550s, I believe there's lots of 1016s out there still in possession of original owners or their family. This is what's most important about my future 1016. I honestly have no preference if it's a gilt gloss dial or later matte (it could even be a little polished). What really matters about this one is that it's an honest example and I know the provenance. It's exciting to wonder when and how a 1016 will become mine... And what it'll be...
I don't know if any of these three Explorers will be checked off my list this year, next year, five or ten years from now... In the meantime I'm happy as a clam wearing the ones I have. And the Oyster that makes me happiest is my modern Explorer II.
* photo credit H.Q. Milton (you can tell which ones are theirs)