Even before Rolex announced its novelties at Watches and Wonders this year, there was plenty of speculation that the brand would release new Explorer timepieces, being that 2021 marks 50 years since the Explorer II watch was launched. True enough, exploration is the central theme of Rolex’s latest releases.

The manufacture’s history with exploration began in the 1930s when it began equipping Himalayan expeditions with Oyster watches. One of these groups was the one that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were part of when they became the first to scale Mount Everest in 1953. The same year, the Explorer was launched.

Oyster Perpetual Explorer: Back to 36mm

This year, the Oyster Perpetual Explorer has been launched in a 36mm case, which marks a return to its 1953 case size. It’s a size that we love and is in line with the prevailing taste for smaller timepieces. Aside from the expected steel (or Oystersteel in Rolex-speak) model, there is also a two-tone variant in yellow Rolesor – that is, steel and 18kt yellow gold.

While the use of precious metals is seen across the brand’s ranges, it has never been used in the no-frills Explorer line. Until now. While some fans might protest this move, we have no doubt that there are many more-than-willing takers who have already put their names down for this new edition.

Rolex Explorer
Oyster Perpetual Explorer 36mm in Oystersteel and yellow gold.

Set against the black lacquer dials of both variants, hour markers and hands that are lit by an improved version of Rolex’s Chromalight lume, which lasts longer and looks brighter and whiter in daylight. (No fauxtina lume here.)

The Explorer is powered by the manufacture calibre 3230, which debuted in 2020. Like Rolex’s other latest-generation movements, this self-winding calibre is more efficient, precise and robust, thanks to features like its anti-magnetic Chronergy escapement. Like all Rolex watches, it bears the Superlative Chronometer certification, which means, among other things, that it has an accuracy of -2/+2 seconds a day. It also has a healthy power reserve of 70 hours.

Oyster Perpetual Explorer II: Same but different

Sliding a few notches east on the size spectrum, we find the two new Explorer II models, retaining the same 42mm Oystersteel case size as the last version, which was launched in 2011. If you take a quick glance at the new and previous Explorer II timepieces in photos, your reaction might well be, “Eh, what’s changed here?”

The changes are subtle but meaningful, and to be honest, that’s what we expect of The Crown – and what we believe have helped to keep its watches, new and vintage, so sought-after through the decades.

Rolex Explorer II
Oyster Perpetual Explorer II

Its overall appearance is retained, including of course its 24-hour display, comprising an engraved bezel and an orange hour hand. While most of us would find this more useful as a second time zone display, the original intention of this display was to enable explorers in extreme conditions to tell whether it is day or night.

Thanks to a redesign that sees the lugs and Oyster bracelet becoming more tapered, you might find that the new-generation Explorer II sits more nicely on your wrist. Adding to that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it difference is an improved polished finish that creates better light reflections to highlight the case profile.

The new Explorer comes in two variants – with white “Polar” dial or with a black dial. The white lacquer dial forms a striking contrast with the matte black hour, minute and seconds hands, as well as the black coating of the hour markers, which is applied using PVD. Like the Explorer, the Explorer II models feature the updated Chromalight lume.

Under the hood, the in-house automatic calibre 3285, first released in 2018, powers these new timepieces. Again, it boasts patented innovations aplenty and features all the aforementioned advantages of the latest Rolex movements: Greater precision, power reserve (70 hours), magnetic resistance and reliability.

What unites all the new Explorer models, too, is of course is the brand’s signature sturdy build: Oyster case with a water-resistance of 100m, and the three-link Oyster bracelet outfitted with the Easylink comfort extension link that allows the wearer to increase the bracelet length by 5mm – handy for those hot days when you’re exploring new frontiers, or just fresh lunch options.