The Rolex Explorer II reference 16550 is a reference that, for many flies under the radar. At the same time, It is part of one of Rolex’s most popular model lines - a model which has been around for several decades.
The first Rolex Explorer II was released in 1971 and was specifically developed for spelunkers, cave explorers. With that said, the name of this model reveals what this watch is all about. This is a model that is, just like most of Rolex’s watches, built for a purpose. Over time, Rolex has also widened its marketing campaigns to not only include spelunkers (after all, it is, in general, a rather niche activity), to include many different types of exploring activities such as hiking, mountain climbing, and more.
The Explorer II has a few key features that make it stand out and which are also crucial for spelunkers. That is, excellent lume which enables the wearer to read the time in a cave, a robust case that can handle damp spaces, and of course an additional GMT hand with a 24-hour bezel which helps the wearer distinguish from day and night.
Over the years, Rolex has released numerous iterations of the Explorer II - revising and building upon its model in traditional Rolex fashion by following its winning formula ”evolution, not revolution”.
In this article, we are looking closer at one particular reference of the Explorer II, specifically the Rolex Explorer II 16550, often known as the cream dial.
Rolex Explorer II 16550 Cream dial - a complete guide
The Rolex Explorer II 16550 is the second generation Explorer II following the first model reference 1655. The Explorer II 16550 was originally released in 1985 and is now known as a transitional reference. The reason why it is called a transitional model is that it bridged the gap between the 1655 and 16570.
In addition, the 16550 would only come to be in production for about 4 years until 1988 when it was discontinued and replaced by the reference 16570. As a result of its short production period and for being a transitional reference, there are relatively few pieces made in comparison to the 16570. This has led it to become more of a collector’s reference than many others. At the same time, it is a less popular and less-known reference amongst the general public. This means that technically, it is one of the rarest Explorer II references today.
The predecessor, reference 1655 had a case with a diameter of 39mm, but the new 16550 introduced, for the first time, the 40mm case to the Rolex Explorer II model. Following this, Rolex would hold on to the 40mm case for another 40 years.
This model also introduced several different changes and improvements from the predecessor, including a sapphire crystal, a revised dial, as well as a new caliber, the caliber 3085.
Also, the 16550 was also available with either a black or white dial - an option that Rolex has continued with to this day.
The new movement was an important upgrade to the Explorer II as the caliber 3085 now enabled the wearer to adjust the 24-hour hand independently without adjusting the regular hour hand. This meant that the Explorer II would no longer only indicate night and day but was also able to display a timezone - similar to a GMT watch. As a result of this, the Explorer II was no longer only useful for spelunkers, but also to a wider audience of wearers, such as mountaineers, explorers, and travelers. The Caliber 3085 that was used for the 16550 is also the same movement that was used for the GMT-Master 16760.
Visually, Rolex introduced several changes from the predecessor. The dial is certainly one of the key changes, which we’ll go into detail about further on, but another key change was the bezel. For the 16550, Rolex changed from the ”lines” between each hour marker on the bezel and replaced it with arrows for a sportier look.
Rolex Explorer II 16550 dials and cream dial
Rolex also made a number of changes to the dial for the 16550. First and foremost, you now have the ability to choose between either white or black dial.
Furthermore, Rolex now introduced lume-filled hour markers with metal frames rather than painted lume on the dial. It still follows a similar theme of using a triangle at 12 o’clock and rectangles, but Rolex did remove the lume markers between each second, which could be found at the very edge of the dials on the 1655s.
The 16550 would also come to introduce the Mercedes-style hands compared to standard sword-shaped hands. This allowed for a sportier and, at least by now, a more iconic and distinct appearance.
The 16550 is often referred to as the ”cream dial”, and the background behind this is actually very interesting. But note that this only relates to the white dial version and not the black. If you look at the white dial 16550s today, you can see that these dials are not really white but rather cream-colored with a brown/yellowish/ivory//cream-color hue to them. This is actually not done by purpose, but rather the result of a paint defect in Rolex’s white paint that was used. This cream color only developed after some time. Since Rolex is all about making perpetual products that remain the same for generations to come, the cream dials can be seen as a great failure by Rolex, but the fact is that the 16550 cream dials command a huge premium on the market today and have become true collectibles for this reason.
What is interesting is that during the production of the 16550, Rolex realized this color defect, and as soon as they did, they corrected this mistake, which was towards the end of the 16550 products. This can be seen by the fact that the white dials fitted in the 16550s towards the end of the production also have black surroundings for the markers rather than metal (the same as in the 16570 that followed). As a result, you can find 16550s with white dials that both have and do not have the cream dial paint error.
Also, because the cream dials were seen as a mistake and error, Rolex also offered clients with cream-colored dials to change their dials as a repair. In hindsight, this was a great mistake by the owners who did, when looking at the great collectibility of the cream dials. This also means that fewer watches with the cream dials now remain on the market, making them even rarer.
Explorer II 16550 black dial
The reference 16550 was also made with a black dial, and there is a huge difference in price between the black dial versions and the white cream dial versions.
And since the black dials didn’t use the white paint, they didn’t develop an issue. The black dial used is a gloss dial with hour markers and hands featuring metal frames.
Worth noting is that both the black and white dial versions also have so-called ”rail dials” which were used during parts of their production. The rail dial versions are another detail that affects their prices and commands a premium on the market.
Rolex Explorer II 16550 Specifications
- Production: 1985-1988
- Caliber: 3085
- Diameter: 40mm
- Dials: black & white (both cream and non-cream) and rail and non-rail dial versions
- Functions: hours, minutes, seconds, GMT-Hand with individually adjusted hand for timekeeping of multiple Time-zones, date window
- Crystal: sapphire