Is the Rolex Explorer II a GMT Watch?

Rolex Explorer II 216570 and 226570

Designed for pilots, the Rolex GMT-Master line of watches is undoubtedly the most popular line of Rolex GMT watches to date. Pilots, travelers, and businesspeople love the watches’ ability to track multiple time zones with ease, not to mention its stylish design.

However, the GMT-Master line isn’t the only Rolex range that can accomplish this task. At first, the Explorer II line wasn’t capable of tracking more than one time zone, but additions and alterations to the watch turned it into another GMT-capable watch in the mid-80s.

What makes a watch a GMT watch?

Rolex Explorer II 216570Rolex Explorer II 216570

GMT is the acronym for Greenwich Mean Time. One of the reasons the GMT Master line of Rolex watches became so popular with Pilots is the ability to track time on a 24-hour scale. Pilots and the military avoid any confusion by differentiating between A.M. and P.M. through the use of a 24-hour time scale.

The second was the capability to track multiple time zones. GMT watches are often referred to as dual-time watches. Greenwich Mean Time was the standard aviation time, or whatever the local time was at the Prime Meridian that runs through Greenwich, England. All time is then compared to the distance from the Prime Meridian, or 0 degrees longitude.

Eventually, the acronym ‘GMT’ was replaced by UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time, but the watches maintain the GMT standard. With the advances in aviation in the 50s, pilots started to fly greater distances and in a shorter amount of time, and it became imperative that they tracked the time through multiple time zones.

Rolex GMT Master II Sprite Bezel Oyster Steel Mens Watch 126720Rolex GMT-Master II Sprite 126720

As such, the famous Pan Am airline approached Rolex about providing pilots with a solution to this problem, and the GMT-Master watch was born in 1954. A GMT watch allows the pilots to track the GMT reference time using a fourth hand that tracks the 24-hour scale along the bezel. At this stage, both of the hour hands were synced and could not move independently of each other.

The GMT-Master set the stage for all GMT watches. Rolex took it a step further in the 80s with the GMT-Master II and changed the movement in the watch to allow the two-hour hands to move independently of each other. With this small change, the GMT watch could now track three separate time zones: reference or GMT time, their local time, and a third time zone. Between the independent hour hands and the rotating bezel, more opportunities were opened.


The Rolex Explorer II did not begin as a GMT Watch

Rolex Explorer II ref 1655 Steve Mc QueenThe First Rolex Explorer II was made in 1971 

The first iteration of the Rolex Explorer II (made in 1971) at first glance might seem like a GMT watch, but it wasn’t. The original Rolex Explorer was created for the British-led expedition to Mt. Everest with visualization in dark locations being the top priority. The entire Explorer line is developed for just that — adventurers and explorers. The Explorer II added a 24-hour bezel to allow easy tracking of day and night when exploring places like caves, where you can’t just look outside and see what time of day it was.

While it possesses a 24-hour bezel and a 24-hour hand, the bezel is fixed, and the hour hands are synced and cannot move independently. The original Explorer II could track time on the 24-hour scale, but couldn’t track time in another time zone for you. This did not allow it to qualify as a GMT watch.

In the mid-80s, the development of the Rolex Caliber 3085 allowed Rolex to de-couple the two-hour hands on the Explorer, officially making it another GMT watch option from Rolex. The Explorer II could now track two time zones thanks to the independent 24-hour hand.


How to Use the Rolex Explorer II as a GMT Watch

Rolex Explorer II 226570Rolex Explorer II 226560

To track multiple time zones on your Rolex Explorer II is a simple task. Your hour hand on the dial shows you your local time, or the time at your destination if you prefer. You can then change the independent, arrow-tipped hour hand to point to the bezel and reflect either GMT time or any other time zone that you wish to track.

The Rolex Explorer II offers another common GMT watch function. You can jump the local hour hand forward or backward by an hour without altering the location of the other hands of the dial. This is an especially popular function with frequent flyers as they can jump time zones with ease.



Setting the GMT Hand

A typical Rolex with a date function (like the Explorer II) has a two-position crown. In position 1 the turning of the crown sets the time, and in position 2 it changes the date. The  Explorer II is a little more complex than that.

How to set the time on a Rolex Explorer II

The positions of the crown on an Explorer II (photo: Rolex)

Position 0

The crown of your Explorer II is unlocked. Rotating the crown in this position only allows you to manually wind your watch. This is useful if your watch has been sitting for a day or two and has stopped.

Position 1

This is the first point of resistance when you pull the crown out. This position rotates the hour hand around the dial. No other hands will move in position 1. The second hand will continue to tick and maintain time. Rotating the hour hand will allow you to set the date.

Position 2

This is the furthest point the crown will pull away from the case. Pulling the crown this far will stop your second hand from ticking. This is a good sign that you found position 2. Position 2 rotates the minute hand for setting the exact time, and the 24-hour hand, or GMT hand. While the Explorer II was designed to track 24-hour time for you, using position 2 will allow you to set the GMT hand to a different time zone.


Rolex Explorer II as a GMT Watch: Final Thoughts

To answer the question, yes, the Rolex Explorer II is a GMT watch. However, it wasn’t, originally. If you want the functionality of the true GMT watch then look for modern Rolex Explorer II models – specifically from reference 16550 onwards.

Whether you want the ease of tracking three time zones, or the simple functionality of the Explorer II, check out our wide variety of Rolex Explorer watches available at

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