The Rolex Explorer II is one of the more famous vintage watches, ironically due to being largely ignored when it was originally released. The association with the legendary Steve McQueen has helped it to become almost mythological in collecting circles, despite no definitive answer as to whether he actually wore it in the first place.
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Here’s everything you could possibly need to know about the Rolex Explorer II, from a brief history of the timepiece to an in-depth look at features and the overall design.
Is it worth it from an investment perspective, and why is the watch so expensive in comparison to others released in the same time period? Read on to find out.
Rolex Explorer II ‘Steve McQueen’ (1655): History
Most pieces in the Rolex range have some form of history or providence, and this model is no different. The original Rolex Explorer II wasn’t the most popular timepiece when it was first introduced in 1971, selling fewer copies due to a number of niche features, which we’ll get into below.
A total of five variations were produced between 1971 and ‘85, otherwise known as “Marks”. They vary in terms of overall value and collectibility, but they were all boosted by the release of a new Explorer II 40th Anniversary Model in 2011 (Ref 216570).
As for Steve McQueen, it’s unclear whether he actually held the watch in high regard, despite being an avid collector. A 2009 auction saw 419 of the actors’ watches and memorabilia sold for a total of $5,706,324, with McQueen’s own vintage Rolex, (Ref. 5512) fetching an impressive $234,000–twenty times its estimate and a world record for that reference.
(However, Lot 416, AKA Steve McQueen’s Rolex, is an “Oyster Perpetual Submariner” model with the Ref. 5512, rather than an Explorer II.)
The association is said to stem from an article printed in an Italian journal in the mid-1970s. Others point to a Rolex advertising campaign from the decade in which the watch manufacturer used McQueen’s image to try to boost sales of a model that was predominantly designed for scientists. In any case, there are no images of him wearing an Explorer II.
Whatever the legitimacy of the connection, the nickname has stuck in the present day, joining others like the ‘Pepsi’, or the “Clint Eastwood” GMT-Master 16753. (At least Eastwood actually wears the Rolex named after him.)
Rolex Explorer II ‘Steve McQueen’ (1655): Features and Design
As the name implies, the watch was originally produced with mountain climbing in mind, typified by a highly visible 24-hour hand to ensure that it could be used in the dark at all times. The fixed bezel, coupled with the fact the hands can’t be individually set is the main reason why they sold fewer models compared to the likes of the GMT-Master.
The Explorer 1655 is often referred to by the nickname ‘ II Freccione’ (Italian for ‘arrow’) thanks to its prominent arrow-tipped orange 24-hour hand. By pointing to the fixed 24-hour marked bezel, the colored 24-hour hand serves as a prominent day or night indicator; which can be vital for those who spend extended periods exploring in hazardous conditions and might otherwise become disorientated.
In terms of an updated design, the 2011 model has a larger case (42 mm), a classic dial, and benefits from the addition of new movement in the form of the caliber 3187, featuring Paraflex shock absorbers and a blue Parachrom hairspring. It’s available in black or white dial variations, although many collectors will prefer the classic feel of the 1655 model.
Rolex Explorer II ‘Steve McQueen’ (1655): Price and Investment Advice
As with many vintage Rolex watches, it’s a viable investment piece if you already happen to have one on your wrist. For example, a 1984 version was recently auctioned by the renowned auction house Sothebys, with an estimate set between £9,000 – £12,000. Despite attracting just six bids, it sold for £15,000. That’s a significant profit for the owner who still had the original receipt, and it is one of the more salable watches from the Rolex range. It’s especially true for 1655.
The price has multiplied by a factor of four since the early 2000s, which is welcome news for anyone who decided to pick up a model in the past. The 40th anniversary was also notable in terms of boosting the average price of an Explorer II model back in 2011, and the trend continued over the next decade.
The rarity and the interest surrounding the watches is another reason why they’re so popular in the present day, and it’s likely to continue unabated.
When accounting for 2010 and 2011 models, there are a number of different variants of the Rolex Explorer II to be on the lookout for. As we’ve noted, they’re all slightly different, be it the case, the strap, or even the color of the dial.
The Rolex brand is always strong in terms of resale value, and the Steve McQueen edition is one of the better versions overall.
Rolex Explorer II ‘Steve McQueen’ (1655): Overall
The Rolex Explorer II is an interesting choice compared to the average expensive timepiece from the early 1970s. Steve McQueen’s influence is slowly waning, but he was the biggest star in the world, and his association is just one of many reasons why this is a real collectible and a watch that manages to break away from the chasing pack.
McQueen used to wear his watch on his right wrist. Was it an original Rolex Explorer II? Probably not, in all honesty. However, that hasn’t stopped it from being one of the rarer options from the era, while resale prices are currently through the roof.
At the very least, it’s worth keeping tabs on sales over the next few months, to better judge whether trends are set to continue from 2020 onward. If you want a copy of McQueen’s actual Rolex, look to the Oyster Perpetual Submariner (5512).
What Rolex did Steve McQueen wear?
Steve McQueen's wore a number of Rolex Watches to include the Submariner, Heuer Monaco 1133, and the Explorer 1655 but he is most associated with the Rolex Submariner.
Is a Rolex Explorer II a good investment?
The Rolex Explorer II is a good but not great investment due to the narrow market.
How can I tell if my Rolex Explorer II is real?
To check if the Rolex Explorer II is real check out the engraved Rolex serial number. Every true Rolex watch contains an authentic serial number exclusive to Rolex.
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