02/28/2023
 7 minutes

Rolex Explorer II vs. GMT-Master II: the ultimate GMT comparison?

By Chrono24
Rolex-GMT-Master-II -vs-Explorer-II-2-1

by Owen Davies

The Rolex GMT-Master II and Rolex Explorer II are nearly identical twins, but which watch is worth dropping your savings on?

Without a doubt, the GMT-Master II and the Explorer II are two of the most sought-after GMT watches, which means we’ve got a proverbial head-scratcher on our hands: Two Rolex watches, both with stainless steel Oyster Perpetual cases, both capable of tracking multiple time zones, and both with a history of extreme price fluctuations in recent years.

For this review, I’m talking about the Rolex GMT-Master II 116710LN (produced 2007-2018) and the Rolex Explorer II 216570 (produced 2011-2021). These watches differ from other Rolex sports models in that they feature a fourth hand, namely a 24-hour hand that revolves around the dial once per day and is used to tell the time in a second time zone. (Actually, the GMT-Master can track three different time zones, but I’ll cover this a little later on.) The two watches were originally marketed to different audiences; the Rolex GMT-Master II was aimed at pilots and travelers, and the Explorer II at speleologists, spelunkers, and other adventurous types who might need to know whether it’s AM or PM but can’t easily tell from their environment.

What is the difference between the Rolex Explorer and GMT-Master II?

At first glance, the watches look very similar, but they actually differ in a number of subtle ways. Today I’m going to pit these timepieces against each other, and judge them on looks, functionality, and wearability, to work out which one I’d rather spend my money on.

  Rolex GMT-Master II Rolex Explorer II
Ref. 116710LN 216570
Case diameter 40 mm 42 mm
Case thickness 12 mm 12.5 mm
Material Stainless steel Stainless steel
Functions GMT hand and 24-hour bezel GMT hand and bidirectional 24-hour bezel

1. Aesthetics: Rolex Explorer II vs. GMT-Master II

The Bezel

The most obvious difference between the watches is the bezel. The Rolex Explorer II has a fixed bezel in brushed stainless steel, with 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. Cerachrom is a ceramic compound made and developed exclusively by Rolex. It’s extremely scratch-resistant and unaffected by UV light. Cerachrom is being used more and more by Rolex and features in the Submariner and Cosmograph Daytona. The numerals are etched into the bezel and then coated with a layer of platinum for maximum legibility and durability.

The Dial

The next most prominent differences can be seen on 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. Although the GMT-Master II has the same beefed-up case as the Submariner, the Explorer II is a touch thicker (by 0.5 mm). Both watches sport black dials, but the GMT-Master II has a green 24-hour hand, while the Explorer II boasts a broader, orange hand. The Explorer II has thicker hands than the GMT-Master II. Finally, the words “Explorer II” can be found at the top of the dial underneath “Oyster Perpetual Date,” while the name of the GMT-Master II is located lower down, above the inscription “Superlative Chronometer.” Both model names are printed in colors that match their 24-hour hands.

The Bracelet

The Explorer II and the GMT-Master II both come fitted with Oyster steel bracelets, but with 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 center links, echoing the high luster finish of the bezel. While the polished links are a nice design touch, they do tend to show small scratches more easily than the brushed finish. This is particularly evident on the clasp, where the watch is most likely to get scuffed.

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 Rolex 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 Rolex 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 its glossy bezel and polished center links, which give the watch 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 Aesthetics: Rolex Explorer II*

*There is, however, an exception. The Rolex GMT-Master II comes in a stainless steel variant: the elusive BLNR or “Batman,” as it’s known to collectors. It features a blue and black Cerachrom bezel and a matching blue 24-hour hand. I prefer this version to the plain black version, but the Batman is hard to come by, to say the least, and comes with a price tag indicative of the model’s scarcity.

The Rolex Explorer II is the second famous GMT watch created by the brand with the crown.  
The Rolex Explorer II is a beautifully designed sports watch.

2. Functionality: Is the Rolex Explorer II a real GMT watch?

And is it as good as the GMT-Master?

Both the Rolex Explorer II and Rolex GMT-Master II boast useful features such as screw-down crowns and quickset hour functions (also used to change the date). Both watches are water-resistant to 100 m (10 bar, 328 ft) and can be used to track the time in a second time zone. However, the Rolex GMT-Master II can display the time in a third time zone as well. Let me explain how this works and why it’s useful.

The Rolex Explorer II has a fixed bezel with a 24-hour track and a 24-hour hand that moves around the track once a 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 at a glance. Let’s say home is Central Europe. New York is six hours behind CET most of the year round, 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 time in Central Europe, let’s say 6 PM. 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 six hours to 12 PM.

The GMT-Master II works differently due to its bidirectional bezel. You can use the bezel in the same way as above, but by turning the bezel, you can track time in a third time zone. Take the same business trip to New York: If we set the hour hand to New York time (12 PM) and the 24-hour hand to CET (6 PM), we have two time zones covered. But let’s say we have a colleague in Hong Kong that we need to contact while we’re in New York. Hong Kong is seven hours ahead of CET, so simply turn the bezel seven clicks anti-clockwise, then read the number that lines up with the 24-hour hand. It should read 1 AM, i.e., seven hours ahead of Central Europe, and thirteen hours ahead of New York.

With the added functionality of the Rolex GMT-Master II, I think it’s clear that the Rolex GMT-Master II has a more versatile GMT function than the Rolex Explorer II. Being able to track an extra time zone is a handy function for international travelers. Also, turning the bezel produces a very satisfying click each time it shifts to the next hour. However, it’s important to remember that the Rolex Explorer II is indeed a real GMT watch and can indicate two different time zones, just not three, like the Rolex GMT-Master II.

Winner Functionality: GMT-Master II

The Rolex GMT-Master II has been an icon for decades.

3. Wearability: Two Rolex GMT Classics

As with all Rolex sports models, both the Explorer II and GMT-Master II are a joy to wear. Rolex has done a fantastic job of balancing the watches. Both are made from 904L stainless steel (an extra hard steel, called Oyster steel) and have a reassuring weight, without being too heavy. 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. As I mentioned earlier, the Rolex Explorer II is a little thicker and a touch wider than the GMT II. In terms of dimensions, it’s all about personal preference and your wardrobe.

As for choosing a winner, I’m going to go for the Rolex Explorer II. I prefer the brushed finish on the bracelet, which is less likely to show scratches.

Winner Wearability: Explorer II

The Rolex Explorer II (ref. 226570): An Overview
The Rolex Explorer II (Ref. 226570): An Overview
The Rolex GMT-Master II (Ref. 126710BLNR): An Overview

Overall Rolex GMT Winner: Explorer II

For me, it was the look of the Rolex Explorer II that tipped the scale. The watch’s understated brushed finish goes well with the punchy orange 24-hour hand and inscription to create an air of cool that I just don’t think the GMT-Master II can pull off. That said, I’d have a much harder time picking a winner if it were down to the GMT-Master II BLNR, a.k.a. “Batman,” or my personal favorite, the BLRO with the blue and red “Pepsi” bezel.

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


What do you think about this article?


About the Author

Chrono24

The team behind the Chrono24 Magazine consists of Chrono24 employees, freelance authors, and guest authors. They're all united by a passion for anything and everything…

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