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Watches - Head-to-Head

Head-to-Head: Rolex GMT Master II vs Rolex Explorer II

The Rolex GMT Master II and Rolex Explorer II are nearly identical twins, but which watch are you better off dropping your savings on?

After a short hiatus, Head-to-Head is back and we’ve got a proverbial beard-scratcher on our hands: two Rolex watches, both with stainless steel Oyster Perpetual cases, both capable of tracking multiple time zones and both coming in under £5,500 on the pre-owned market.

Of course I’m talking about the Rolex GMT Master II 11670LN and the Rolex Explorer II 216570 (i.e. the current models in plain English). These watches differ from other Rolex sport models for their addition of a fourth hand, a 24-hour hand, which circulates the dial once per day and is used to tell the time in a second location (actually, with the GMT Master it’s possible to track three different time zones, but I’ll cover how this works a little later on). The two watches were first marketed for different audiences—the GMT Master II for pilots and travellers, and the Explorer II for cave researchers or adventurous types who might need to know whether it’s am or pm, but can’t easily tell from their environment.

rolex explorer 2 216570 vs rolex gmt master 2 11670LN

At first glance the watches are very similar, but they differ in many subtle ways. Today I’m going to pit them against each other, judging them on looks, functionality and wearability, and work out which one I’d rather spend my money on.

 

GMT Master II 11670LN

Explorer II 216570

Case Diameter

40 mm

42 mm

Case Height

12 mm

12 mm

Material

Stainless Steel

Stainless Steel

Bracelet

 

 

Functions

GMT Hand and 24-Hour Bezel

GMT Hand and Bidirectional 24-Hour Bezel

Movement

Automatic Rolex 3186 Calibre

Automatic Rolex 3187 Calibre

Water Resistance

100 m

100 m

Warranty

5 Years

5 Years

New Price (UK)

£5,600

£5,350

Pre-Owned Price

£5,195

£4,795

 

Aesthetics

 

The most obvious difference between the watches is in the bezel. The Explorer II has a fixed bezel in brushed stainless steel and engraved 24-hour numerals painted black. The GMT Master II comes with a Cerachrom bezel and this, if you like the look of it, has some clear advantages. Ceracrom is a ceramic compound made and developed exclusively by Rolex. It’s almost entirely scratch-resistant and is unaffected by UV rays. It’s being used more and more by Rolex and features in the latest Submariner and the recently released Cosmograph Daytona. The numerals are etched into the bezel and then coated with a layer of platinum for maximum legibility and durability.

rolex gmt master II 11670LN cerachrom bezel black

The next most prominent differences are in the case and dial. Both watches are based on the iconic Rolex Oyster case design. But at 42 mm, the Explorer II is wider than the GMT Master II, which is a more typical 40 mm. It’s also a touch thinner as the GMT Master II has the same beefed up case as the Submariner. Both watches sport black dials but the GMT Master II has a green 24-hour hand, where the Explorer II opts for a broader orange hand. The Explorer II has thicker hands than the GMT Master II. And finally, the words “Explorer II” can be found at the top of the dial underneath “Oyster Perpetual Date”, as opposed to the GMT Master II, which is located lower down and above the words “Superlative Chronometer”. Both names are printed in colours that match their respective 24-hour hands.

The Explorer II and the GMT Master II both come fitted with 904L steel Oyster bracelets, but again there are some minor discrepancies. In keeping with its slightly more rugged look, the Explorer II has a fully brushed finish, whereas the GMT Master II has polished centre links, echoing the high lustre finish of the bezel. While the polished links are a nice design touch, they do tend to show up small scratches much easier than the brushed finish. This is particularly evident on the buckle, where the watch is most likely to be scuffed on desks.

rolex gmt master 11670 oyster bracelet

It’s tough to pick a winner here, but for me it really comes down to the dial design and I’m very much in the Explorer II’s camp on this one. I really like the broader hands and the orange stands out brilliantly against the black dial. I find that the green 24-hour hand on the GMT Master II can get lost in certain lighting conditions due to a lack of contrast with the glossy black dial. The GMT II has a slightly glitzier look to it with the glossy bezel and polished centre links, which gives it a nice presence on the wrist and looks great when paired with smarter clothes. But personally I prefer the brushed finish on the case and bracelet of the Explorer II, as it’s a little more on the subtle side.

Winner: Explorer II

rolex explorer II 216570

*There is, however, an exception. The GMT Master II comes in another variant in stainless steel—the elusive BLNR or “Batman” as it’s known to collectors. It sports a blue and black cerachrom bezel and a matching blue 24-hour hand. I much prefer this over the plain black version but it's scarce to say the least and with that comes a premium—expect to pay at least an extra £1,000 for one.

Functionality

 

Both watches come with useful features such as the screw-locking crowns and quickset hour functions (which is also used to change the date). Both are water-resistant to 100 m and both can be used to give two time zone readings at a time. However, the GMT Master II can give a third reading. Let me explain quickly how this works and why this is useful.

rolex explorer II 216570 24 hour bezel

The Explorer II has a fixed bezel with a 24-hour track laid across it and a 24-hour hand that moves around the track once per day. The regular hour hand can be set independently of both the minute and 24-hour hand to display a second time zone. Now, let’s say you’re flying to New York on a business trip and you want to know the time back home (UK) at a glance. The US east coast is five hours behind GMT, so the first thing to do would be to fully pull out the crown and move the 24-hour hand until it’s showing current GMT (let’s use 6 pm in this case). Once the 24-hour hand and the minute hand are set to the correct time, you can push the crown in a notch and adjust the hour hand back five hours to 1 pm.

The GMT Master II works differently due to the bi-directional (i.e. it can be moved both ways) bezel. You can use it in the same way as above, but by turning the bezel you can track a 3rd time zone. Going back to the New York example; if we set the hour hand to east coast time (1 pm) and the 24-hour hand to GMT (6 pm) and we have, say, a colleague in Hong Kong that we need to contact on the business trip—Hong Kong is 8 hours ahead of GMT—simply turn the bezel eight clicks anti-clockwise and then read which number lines up with the 24-hour hand. Using our earlier example, it should read 2 am, but bear in mind this will be the following day compared to both the UK and New York.

With the added functionality of the GMT Master II, I think it’s a clear winner in this category. Being able to track an extra time zone over the Explorer II is a handy function for regular travellers. Also, turning the bezel gives a very satisfying click each time it shifts to the next hour.

Winner: GMT Master II

rolex gmt master II 11670LN

Wearability

 

As with all Rolex sports models, both the Explorer II and the GMT Master II are a joy to wear. Rolex have done a fantastic job of balancing the watches, both are made from 904L stainless steel (extra hard steel) and have a reassuring weight to them without being too heavy or noticeable on the wrist. The Oyster bracelets are extremely comfortable and don’t pinch the skin. They’re also the most durable bracelets Rolex has ever made and, unlike some previous iterations, the links are unlikely to stretch over time.

rolex gmt master II 11670LN

As I mentioned earlier, the Explorer II wears a little slimmer but is a touch wider than the GMT II, so which one you prefer comes down to personal preference and the kind of clothes you wear. If you tend to wear tighter fitting shirts and jackets, then you might find the GMT Master II more likely to get stuck on your cuffs.

As for a winner, by a hair’s breadth I’m going to go for the Explorer II. I prefer the brushed finish on the bracelet and it’s less prone to showing scratches. I also prefer the slimmer profile of the watch and I would be less worried about catching it on a door or desk.

Winner: Explorer II

rolex explorer II 216570

Verdict

rolex explorer II 216570

For me, the Explorer II’s looks swung it. The more understated brushed finish contrasts with the punchy orange hand and text to create an air of cool that I just don’t think the GMT Master II quite competes with. That said, I’d have a much harder time picking a winner if it were the GMT Master II BLNR, or my personal favourite, the BLRO (“Pepsi” bezel) version—although this one is only available in white gold which puts it out of my reach for the foreseeable future!

With two category wins out of three, the Explorer II is the victor in this battle—but only just! Both watches are great in their own right and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in either to try them both out before making a decision. 

For more information, models and prices, visit our pre-owned and vintage Rolex watches page.