016 - never stop exploring
Rolex's 1991 Polar Explorer II never looked so 2021.
Before the multi-million-dollar sponsorships and Fifth Avenue flagships, many of the world's finest luxury brands made their names as purveyors of function over flash - Hermes, for example, started off making riding harnesses in the mid-1800s.
While the name "Rolex" today conjures images of Roger Federer hoisting the Challenge Club at Wimbledon (or Drake hoisting a bottle of DP at TAO), the brand initially made its mark on the wrists of the greatest explorers of the 20th century - from Jacques Cousteau's exploration of the ocean's depths to Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mount Everest.
In 1926, Rolex introduced a world-first: a fully waterproof & dust-proof wristwatch, dubbed "Oyster", which could maintain accuracy across the harshest conditions imaginable. To convince a skeptical public, Rolex even displayed the new model submerged in fish tanks in their boutique windows. The following year, Mercedes Gleitze became the first woman to swim across the English Channel - all while wearing an Oyster on her wrist - thus becoming the first official Rolex ambassador and inaugurating a long line of boundary-pushing athletes and explorers with "A Crown for Every Achievement".
Fast-forward to 1989, when Rolex released the Explorer II Ref. 16570. Introduced as a watch for spelunkers, the addition of a 24-hour hand and fixed bezel made it possible for the wearer to discern between day and night while exploring pitch-black caves or in the permanent dusk of Arctic winter. Its light weight and high legibility quickly made it the timepiece of choice among explorers and weekend warriors alike.
With a 40mm case and 3185 movement, the Explorer II was manufactured with a standard black dial as well as a special white dial "Polar" edition - the latter of which especially has seen a huge surge in demand since its discontinuation in 2011.
While the reference number remains the same across its production lifetime, certain key differences give the Polar II a distinctly different character from year to year - this 1991 version, for example, utilizes a tritium lume (ie. radioactive paint) for its "glow in the dark" functionality, which maintains a consistent glow rather than slowly waning after sun exposure. Over time, the tritium also develops a natural discoloration ("patina") which highly coveted by collectors, giving each individual piece its own history and unique appeal.
This Polar II is my first foray into the world of Rolex, and I couldn't be happier. It's a fantastic daily-wear timepiece that is both sporty and elegant - it's much lower-key and less expensive than other Rolex models, but is sure to catch the eye of those truly in-the-know. It's about as versatile as a watch can get and is also exceptionally light and comfortable, making it the perfect watch for long drives or flights (remember those?).
Despite being nearly three decades old, the Polar II looks as current as ever, and I'll rock mine proudly heading into 2021 - and while I don't plan on doing any spelunking, it's always good to know I have the option.