Sunday Morning Showdown: Rolex Explorer II Vs. Grand Seiko Evolution 9 GMT
Another Sunday, another showdown! This time, we are covering watches for globetrotters. This is the battle of the sporty steel-bezel GMTs, the Rolex Explorer II versus the Grand Seiko Evolution 9 GMT. Jorg will defend the Japanese contender, and Thomas will take the Swiss corner. If you are in the market for a high-end steel travel watch, this one is for you! Oh, and if you’re not, you are still welcome to vote!
But, of course, before we get into all of that, we have to look at last week’s battle of chronograph giants.
Omega Speedmaster vs. Rolex Daytona
Last week, RJ and Daan pitted the current Speedy against the current Daytona. Granted, this may have been a home game for the Speedmaster since we have quite a Speedy-minded following. But still, the result left little to the imagination. Although, on closer inspection…
The Omega Speedmaster won with 69% of the votes. We couldn’t have picked a more beautiful number for the watch that, in 1969, touched down on the lunar surface. I know we have a tiny fraction of readers who enjoy questioning our motives at every opportunity. If this result doesn’t trigger conspiracy theories, I don’t know what will.
In all seriousness, the result is quite clear. The Fratelli, by and large, have more sympathy for the Omega Speedmaster than the Daytona. It is hard to judge how much of that sentiment is down to other things than the watches themselves. Had both been readily available at retail without any connotations of being a commodity, perhaps the voting results would have been closer. As it stands, the Speedy takes the victory! Now onto today’s Battle Royale — a much less hyped Rolex versus a Grand Seiko. Let’s go!
Thomas: Rolex Explorer II ref. 226570
Sometimes we have lengthy debates about who defends which watch. This time, however, was a little different. As you may know, my Rolex Explorer II is currently the watch that gets, by far, the most wrist time. After a slightly awkward honeymoon phase, we clicked. I absolutely love this watch now. Mine is a 2004 Rolex Explorer II ref. 16570 with a black dial. This is the generation I would recommend as later ones get a little odd in terms of scale and, importantly, proportions.
They’re still amazing watches, though, if you like the bolder aesthetic. So I am happy to defend the current Explorer II ref. 226570 despite my strong preference for the five-digit references.
This brings me to my first point. The Explorer II is a watch with a lineage. It all started with the amazing reference 1655 in 1971. With its pure ’70s aesthetic, it is an absolute outlier in Rolex’s history. The later 16550 can now be found with beautifully discolored dials, fetching absurd prices as they are highly coveted by collectors. So whether you want a grail-level vintage watch or a rock-solid modern piece, the Explorer II has you covered. I like to think that my beloved 16570 sits slap-bang in the middle of those extremes.
The Explorer II is all of the good and none of the bad of Rolex
I know some of you have a complicated relationship with Rolex. In fact, I do too. There is just so much going on “around” the watches that distracts from how good they truly are. The hype, the status symbolism, availability, and AD shenanigans… Just the other day, I was watching the latest Benicio del Torro film Reptile. How did the makers reveal that there was something fishy about a corrupt cop? By making him give away a Rolex like it meant nothing. I have yet to see a film where a Jaeger-LeCoultre — or a Grand Seiko, for that matter — is used to signify someone’s guilt like that.
In my eyes, the Explorer and Explorer II are somehow free of that stigma. You just get the heritage, the build quality, and the simple, spot-on design that Rolex is admired for, sans the BS. Which is one of the first models beginning to become available at retail again now? Right, the Explorer II!
The Rolex Explorer II is the right level of rugged
What I love about the current Rolex Explorer II ref. 226570 are its very functional technical advancements. It is much simpler than the Grand Seiko. That is a good thing because there is less to go wrong. I like it when things are as simple as possible.
Yet, technically speaking, the current generation is no slouch. Compared to my 16570, these innovations make a difference. The bracelet, for one, is fantastic. It isn’t just the features, such as the toolless Easylink system. More importantly, it is the build quality that makes it great. The combination of tightness and suppleness is miles ahead of the GS.
The movement’s Parachrom hairspring and 70-hour power reserve also feel like great evolutions from earlier generations. They just add to the worry-free experience of wearing one of these for decades. At no point will you ever be left wanting for anything from a technical perspective. It may not have something fancy like Spring Drive technology, but then ask yourself: do you really need that?
The Rolex Explorer II is cool
The following is subjective, but I think the Explorer II is simply extremely cool. Alongside the Air-King and Milgauss, it is one of those odd choices within the Rolex catalog. The original 1655 was nicknamed the “Steve McQueen.” There is absolutely zero evidence that McQueen ever wore one, but be honest: you could see it on him, right?
When I wear mine, I often get an approving nod or a remark from other watch geeks. Contrastingly, I never hear anything about it from non-watch people. I know that is a terrible cliché, and it is pretentious to consider us somehow elevated over people who buy high-end watches uninformed. But, at the same time, it is kind of cool. It makes the Explorer II ref. 226570 a bit of an insider’s choice.
Now, the Grand Seiko Evolution 9 GMT is certainly an insider’s choice too. As much as I admire it, though, it is a cognitive admiration, not one of the heart. I find it a little too techy, too geeky. The design is just a little too involved, with too many little details going on. But let’s hear from Jorg now. I am sure he has a thing or two to say about his pick, the Grand Seiko Evolution 9 GMT. Take it away, Jorginho!
Jorg: Grand Seiko Evolution 9 GMT
Thanks, Thomas! I appreciate reading your thoughts on the current-generation Explorer II. I agree that the Explorer II has a certain cool factor that is not defined by its glitzy presence. On top of that, there is still a certain attraction to that spelunking story that Rolex injected it with that makes the Explorer II a pick for those in the know. And I love that, just like you do. But while the two Evolution 9 GMT models lack the history and lineage, there is still plenty to talk about.
Of the two Evolution 9 GMT variations, the SBGE285 “Mist Flake” was love at first sight, so that’s the one for me. Now, for the sake of making this an even battle, we’ll also bring the black-dial SBGE283 into the equation because the pair is a great match for the two Explorer II models. But my overwhelming sentiment was the result of seeing the press images of the Mist Flake. Its monochromatic presence with the stunning dial and modern case design was a love arrow straight to the heart. It’s not often that I am so immediately impressed as I was with the Mist Flake. And it’s hard to rationalize a design that I love so much, but I’ll give it a try.
The Evolution 9 GMT is a refined statement
Thomas, you mentioned that the proportions and scale of the current Rolex Explorer II were a bit “odd.” And indeed, with the 42mm case size, it becomes a somewhat overwhelming statement. My main gripe is that the 24-hour numerals on the bezel are too “loud” and fight with the elements on the dial, mainly the indices.
Enter the case, dial, and bezel of the Evolution 9 GMTs. The proportions between the different elements are completely different. Overall, they feel more balanced. Elements are not fighting with each other. Let’s start with the modern 41 × 13.9mm case that looks as if it were sculpted by a highly talented artist. The angular lines in combination with the intricate finishing make for a far more exciting design than the Explorer II’s Oyster case. It’s a modern statement that sets the tone perfectly.
A hierarchical symphony in watch design
The slim bezel and the dial are perfectly in sync. Unlike with the Explorer II, there is no misunderstanding that the 24-hour scale on the bezel is of secondary importance to the brilliant dial. That is the main focus, and the bezel supports the GMT function rather than distorting the view. And that’s good because the dial provides more finger-licking goodness. As Lex explained in his love letter to the Mist Flake, the watch’s dial is a poetic grayish-white. There is something mystical about the color in combination with the texture. It is the perfect backdrop for the hands and indices.
Just look at the combination of the cut-off hour hand and the razor-sharp minute hand. Talk about a statement! They are accompanied by a graciously thin seconds hand and a functional GMT hand. They all hover over the dial with its stunning indices. If there’s something that stands out every time I see the watch, it’s those applied hour markers. In particular, the double marker at 12 o’clock is impressive. The power reserve indicator was a visual nuisance for me in the past, but it blends in perfectly here. Could the dial do without it? Yes, definitely. But the designers solved the puzzle better than ever. The same goes for the date window. It stands out when you need it to but blends in when you don’t. And luckily, it doesn’t have the visually distracting, ever-present magnifier that the Explorer II does.
The Evolution 9 GMT is a confident modern statement
I could go on for hours about why the Evolution 9 GMTs are simply more visually exciting than the current Explorer II for me. But on the technically exciting side, the Spring Drive caliber 9R66 with its smoothly sweeping seconds hand is silent proof of the excellence of Grand Seiko. It has the same flyer GMT function at the Explorer II’s caliber 3825 and a similar (though slightly longer) 72-hour power reserve. However, this movement provides a superior accuracy of ±15 seconds per month. Talk about being capable!
Overall, I do not agree with you, Thomas, that this is a “techy” or “geeky” watch. If I see someone wearing an Evolution 9 GMT, the last thing I think about is those two words. I mostly think that the person wears a very cool watch, a deliberate choice that is a refined statement and oozes confidence and capability. And the current Explorer II shouts just a bit too loud to be the winner in this matchup if you ask me. I like it a lot, but I just don’t love it, so it would never be the one Rolex model I’d pick. By contrast, I adore the Evolution 9 GMT Mist Flake, and it is the one Grand Seiko that I’d pick every single day of the week, especially on Sunday.
Time to vote!
There you have it, folks — another Sunday battle with two very capable GMTs going toe to toe for the win! Will Thomas’s Explorer II ref. 226570 get your vote, or are you a passionate proponent of Jorg’s Evolution 9 GMT? Make sure to vote for your choice below, and also let us know why you picked it in the comments. See you next week for another installment of Sunday Morning Showdown!