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For those familiar with Rolex, nicknames are part of the game. From the Hulk and Batman to the Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, plenty of Rolex watches have picked up pet names along the way. One example is the Rolex Explorer II “Polar,” which is one just one reference, but in fact, three of them. Let’s dig into the details.

Rolex Explorer II Polar
Rolex Explorer II Polar

Brief History of the Explorer II

In 1971, Rolex unveiled the Explorer II watch for the cave exploring crowd. The first reference was the Explorer II ref. 1655, which sported a 38mm steel case that housed a black dial. That black dial was home to a pair of hour hands—one traditional 12-hour hand and one arrow-tipped orange 24-hour hand. As always, the traditional hand served to indicate the hour. However, the orange hand pointed to the fixed bezel marked with 24 hours to indicate whether it was A.M. or P.M.—essentially telling the time on a 24 scale rather than the more ubiquitous 12-hour scale.

The first Explorer II model, the ref. 1655 only came with a black dial

The thinking behind this functionality was that since spelunkers spent long days in dark caves, a watch that could differentiate between day and night would be a practical one. The Explorer II ref. 1655 was in production until 1985, and then it was replaced by the Explorer II ref. 16550. The ref. 16550 ushered in a new look for the Explorer II model—a larger stainless case, a redesigned dial, and an upgraded movement. Rather than just a day/night indicator, the Explorer II was now a GMT watch thanks to the decoupling of the duo of hour hands. As such, the 24-hour hand could be set independently to indicate a separate time zone—making the Explorer II a robust travel watch for adventurists.

While the case remained in stainless steel it grew to 40mm. Furthermore, the dial design was now similar to other Rolex sports watches in that it included Mercedes style hands and lume-filled round/rectangular/triangular hour markers. Another fresh feature of the Explorer II dial was the revamped 24-hand, which was now thinner and red instead of orange.

The Evolution of the Polar Dial

Also new to the then-new generation of Explorer II was the option of a white dial to sit alongside the customary black dial. This crisply colored version eventually became known as the Explorer II Polar thanks to its white hue. Every Explorer II reference since the ref. 16550 has offered the option of a white or black dial.

  • Explorer II ref. 16550: 1985 – 1989
  • Explorer II ref. 16570: 1989 – 2011
  • Explorer II ref. 126570: 2011 – Present

All white dial editions are nicknamed the Polar, regardless of the specific reference.

Rolex Explorer II Polar
The Rolex Explorer II Polar 16570 with black surrounds

While they all share the same nickname and color, there are some dial variances between all the Explorer II Polar watches to note. For example, it turns out that the Explorer II ref. 16550 had a paint defect, which has caused the white color to turn into a cream shade over the years. As is customary with Rolex anomalies, vintage Explorer II ref. 16550 Polar examples with “cream dials” command significant prices in the secondary market.

By the time Rolex introduced the Explorer II Polar ref. 16570, the defect was not only remedied but yet another update appeared on the dial. The white dial versions of the Explorer 16570 now included black frames (often called black surrounds) around the luminous hour markers. Also important to note is the depending on the production year of a specific Explorer II Polar ref. 16570, it can have tritium lume, Luminova lume, or SuperLuminova lume.

Rolex Explorer II Polar
The current-production Rolex Explorer II Polar 126570

Seeing as 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the Explorer II model, Rolex saw it fit to release a brand new reference to celebrate the occasion. Therefore, the Explorer II ref. 126570 made its debut and featured a larger 42mm case size. Dial wise, changes included a return to the orange 24-hour hand in honor of the very first reference, which pops beautifully against the white Polar dials. What’s more, the Explorer II ref. 126570 uses a luminous material called Chromalight, which glows blue in the dark instead of green.

The Rolex Explorer II Polar

In short, the Rolex Explorer II “Polar,” is the white dial version of the ref. Explorer II ref. 16550, Explorer II ref. 16570, or Explorer II ref. 126570.

The black dial vs. white dial “Polar”

Since Rolex does not use white-colored dials often on its sports watches, the Explorer II Polar stands out from the rest. It has become a favorite with Rolex fans that want a watch that’s different from the rest and the fact that it has a super useful GMT function doesn’t hurt either!

Written by

Celine Simon

Celine is a freelance luxury watch writer who has enjoyed working in the horology industry for over ten years. Like many of the high-end timepieces she writes about, she comes from Switzerland—the heart of fine watchmaking. From Singapore to Montreal to Geneva to Dubai, Celine has lived all over the world but now calls Southern California home.