The Rolex GMT-Master
Its position may change from time to time, but no list of the top five most popular Rolex watches can be complete without including the GMT-Master.
Like all of the brand’s most iconic models it was created for a definite purpose, and in the GMT’s case it was to help solve a problem no one had ever experienced before.
It is a watch conceived back when both air travel and Rolex themselves were enjoying their respective golden ages. The massive leap forward in aircraft technology, born in the desperate scramble for wartime supremacy, had given rise to the Jet Age, ushered in by Boeing’s 707.
The first commercially viable long haul airliner saw service initially with Pan American Airways, but making the world just that little bit smaller also came with a significant downside. Crossing several time zones at approaching the speed of sound played havoc with the internal body clocks of not only Pan Am’s passengers, but also, far more critically, their pilots.
Recognizing the potentially disastrous repercussions of a jetlagged flight crew, the airline commissioned research into the phenomenon, the conclusion of which found that being able to keep pilots on ‘home’ time while still being aware of the hour at their eventual destination offset much of the psychological effect.
It was a short logical step from that finding to sourcing a manufacturer that could custom-build them a watch that displayed two time zones.
Back then, much as today, the finest tool watches in the business came from Rolex. Company director Rene P. Jeanneret, the man who had brought the Submariner into being 12 months before, worked in conjunction with a Pan Am team on the challenge, headed up by legendary navigator Captain Frederick Libby. Libby was both a highly decorated WWII veteran as well as one of the original Skygods, the name given to pilots who had flown for the airline before the war.
Together, they came up with the GMT-Master, a simple solution to a complex problem and one that developed on elements from an already existing model in the lineup. The ref. 6202 Turn-O-Graph was about a year into its perpetually underperforming run, the first serially produced watch to use a rotating bezel. It was that feature which was to form the basis of the GMT’s functionality, swapping its 60-minute gradations for a 24-hour scale.
With a moveable surround to indicate the time, all the GMT needed was an additional hand to point to it, geared to run at half the speed of the regular hour hand so that it revolved around the dial once a day rather than twice.
Rolex used their Cal. 1030 caliber as a base, adding another driving wheel and date indicator and renaming the result the Cal. 1036.
To further differentiate their new model from the other similarly styled pieces in the catalog, as well as to make reading the second time zone more convenient, the brand added a bi-color scheme to the bezel—the bottom half between 0600 and 1800 was painted red to indicate daylight hours, the top half between 1800 and back to 0600 in black for the nighttime.
When it was released, like the majority of Rolex’s output in the 1950s, it was an instant success. The combination of the watch’s practicality in the face of the new era of international travel, coupled with the bold aesthetic of the two-tone bezel, propelled the GMT-Master forward as one of the most respected and sought after watches from any manufacture.
It is a reputation it still holds today. Its dual time party piece may have been long since superseded by all manner of electronic wizardry, but the style with which it delivers its information has never been bettered, and it continues to be the inspiration for a countless number of homages from just about every watchmaker on the planet.
Over its more than 60 years of unbroken production, it has evolved from an indispensible pilot’s companion into a luxury travel watch and discreet status symbol, available in all manner of golden getups and with a range of color schemes to appeal to all.
It remains an emblem of the most successful watch brand of all time, and an obvious first choice for every Rolex collector.
Below, we’ll look at the GMT-Master in more detail and see how you can take ownership of a piece of horology history.
As is to be expected of a watch with such a long history, and one which has been produced in so many different guises, the price range for a vintage GMT-Master runs the complete gamut from highly attainable to staggeringly expensive.
Also par for the course with classic Rolex, and a trait that many collectors in the know are starting to take advantage of, is the fact that it is the traditionally less popular two-tone Rolesor versions of the watch which represent the buy-in point. The blend of steel and gold has been a brand signature since the 1940s, enjoying its heyday in the 70s, and is now starting to make a comeback. This resurgence was evidenced when Rolex released an all-new steel and Everose gold version of their dual time zone piece recently to great acclaim.
For those looking for the easiest way into GMT-Master ownership, an 80s or 90s Rolesor model, with yellow rather than red gold and an all-black bezel, can be had for as little as $7,000. Not as cheap as a simple three-hand Rolex such as the Air-King or Explorer, but still something of a bargain for a watch with so much history as well as the extra complication.
Unusually, an all-steel example, again paired with the black surround, costs only slightly more—unlike some of the other professional collection, where a steel case can add a huge premium.
With the GMT, it is the bezel coloring that most affects the price, and the iconic blue and red of the so-called Pepsi or the black and red of the Coke can easily put an extra 20% on top, even at the low end.
At completely the other end of the scale, an early ref. 6542 with its Bakelite surround still intact is the most sought-after, mainly as the material was so brittle the vast majority of them were either replaced by Rolex themselves after a recall, or got damaged beyond repair. Securing an example of the first GMT ever made, in its original condition, can approach the six-figure mark.
In between, you will find plenty of models at every price point, the watch’s popularity right from the outset meaning it was made in huge numbers, consequently keeping costs, for the most part, realistic.
So whatever your budget, there is a GMT-Master to fit it, with the additional advantage of being able to get your hands on one straight away on the pre-owned market, while waiting lists for some of the brand new pieces in the catalog have started to reach Daytona proportions.
Initially conceived as a hardy tool watch and released exclusively in stainless steel, the GMT-Master soon made the changeover to unabashed status symbol, with all yellow gold and Rolesor versions available since the watch’s second iteration.
More recently, white and Everose gold pieces have joined the lineup, meaning it is just platinum, as yet, missing from the options list.
The case metal has always dictated which of the bezel’s color schemes will be used. A solid yellow gold GMT, for instance, fitted with the eye-catching Pepsi or Coke surrounds, would be too much of an assault on the senses. So Rolex have used either an all-black insert for those examples or else a more subdued two-tone livery which is also enjoying a recent renaissance—the brown and gold, known colloquially as the Root Beer.
The current collection also includes one further variant, a blue and black version released in 2013, which quickly became known as the Batman.
The bezel has itself gone through several materials in the watch’s run. Starting off with the short-lived Bakelite, the first synthetically produced plastic, it was quickly replaced with painted aluminum for more strength. In 2005, Rolex chose the GMT-Master to unveil their new scratchproof, fade-proof and shatterproof ceramic insert, Cerachrom. Curiously, at the time, the brand had yet to formulate a way of adding two colors to their latest brainchild, so the first Cerachrom bezels were uniformly black. As the watch’s main USP has always been its use of a bi-color surround, why they chose the GMT for the debut is anyone’s guess, but within a few years they had worked out the process, and the Batman was to become the first two-tone Cerachrom surround.
With very few exceptions, the GMT’s dial has always been black, the first examples with a glossy, or gilt, finish which then changed to matte in the mid-sixties. There are a couple of special cases where the dial changed color; one being the watch’s 50thanniversary edition, a solid gold model with a face of Rolex green released in 2005. The others are the incredibly rare pieces of the initial reference, the ref. 6542, with white dials made especially for Pan Am executives. Known as the Albino GMT, there were only around 200 ever made and they come up for auction once in a blue moon.
The hour indexes have likewise barely changed throughout the six decade history of the watch. No numerals, just the typical mix of round lume points, with batons at the six and nine and a large inverted triangle at the twelve. In the seventies, the gold and Rolesor models were outfitted with a different style, what came to be known as the Nipple dials. These had small, cone-shaped markers that gave a distinctive look, and are now a real collector favorite.
As for the bracelet, until a decade into the second generation’s run, the GMT was only offered on the utilitarian Oyster, joined in 1968 by the more elaborate five-link Jubilee as well as a leather strap option, making it the first in the sports range to be available on all three.
And finally, the handset has stayed consistent throughout, with Rolex’s trademark Mercedes hands for the standard hours, minutes and seconds. The main difference with the fourth, or GMT, hand came in the 1970s, when it switched from being topped by a small triangle to a larger one.
Upon its introduction, the GMT-Master followed the template for most of the rest of Rolex’s professional range of the period and contented itself with a 38mm case. What might seem particularly small for a tool watch these days was comparatively large at the time.
Its development during its early phase of production actually mirrored the Submariner to some extent, with the release of the second reference, the long running ref. 1675, unveiling not only larger 40mm dimensions but also the addition of crown guards, as did the Sub.
The watch has stayed the same size, on paper, ever since—but not all 40mm pieces are created equal.
In the mid-eighties, the first of the GMT-Master IIs emerged, an almost identical looking model, but one with the overdue advantage of being able to set its two hour hands independently of each other (and we’ll get onto that in a bit more detail in a minute). The upgraded caliber performing the task, the Cal. 3085, had a touch more heft to it than previous movements, leading to the watch needing a thicker case. Although still technically 40mm, the ref. 16760 had gained some noticeable curves, earning it the nicknames The Fat Lady, or alternatively, The Sophia Loren.
And the latest generation of the GMT-Master II are all housed in Rolex’s Maxi case, with lugs and crown guards which are almost twice as chunky as previous examples, giving it the look of a much bigger watch, more in keeping with modern tastes.
Rolex unleashed the first ever true GMT watch in 1954. In keeping with the brand’s overriding philosophy, it found the most elegantly ingenious way around the challenge of displaying two time zones simultaneously. Rather than relying on outlandish complications, Rolex instead added just two unique and relatively simple elements to their already existing design base; a second hour hand and a rotating bezel.
With the GMT hand slaved to the main hour hand, but running at half the speed, wearers could set the watch to display a second time by rotating the bezel to line up with it and reading off the engraved 24-hour scale—a brilliant concept at the time, and one that is still used extensively today.
It was also good enough for the GMT-Master for the first 30 years of its run, until the one obvious shortcoming was solved in 1983 with the debut of the sequel, the GMT-Master II.
This reference, or more accurately, its movement, uncoupled the hands completely and allowed for them to be set wherever they were needed, in the process giving the ability to read a third time zone via the bezel.
Beyond that, the watch has had only modest revisions throughout its history.
Its balance frequency rose from 18,000vph with the original Cal. 1036 to 19,800vph when it was replaced with the Cal. 1575 in 1965. That was the movement which also brought with it a hacking feature in 1971 to stop the seconds hand for more accurate time setting.
It wasn’t until 10 years later and the first of the 3000 series of calibers, the Cal. 3075 in the ref. 16750, that the watch was brought up to speed with Rolex’s standard 28,800vph—the rate it has remained at since. The date feature has been a constant from day one, a pretty much mandatory feature for the ultimate traveller’s watch, and it was this caliber that also added the convenience of a Quickset feature.
The usual incremental improvements have followed, focused entirely on squeezing the very last drop of performance and accuracy out of the mechanisms.
The Cal. 3186 introduced the Parachrom Bleu hairspring in 2005, giving the watch a greater all round resilience and precision, and the caliber as a whole provided a smoother adjustment to the hour hand, eliminating the shudder of the previous Cal. 3185.
As for the most up-to-date versions, the latest six-digit references have a Triplock crown as opposed to the Twinlock of earlier models, along with the aforementioned Cerachrom bezel, now geared to 24 clicks rather than 120.
As is the way with those watches that make up the core of Rolex’s offerings, the GMT’s basics were pretty much nailed from the very first, leaving nothing to do past tightening up the different elements until they were the best they could be with the technology of the era.
There are plenty of more complex and mechanically flamboyant dual time zone models out there, Rolex’s own Sky-Dweller being one of them, but nothing else has the heritage or the sheer class of the originator.
Its long long history, together with the number of well known variations to its coloring, have made the GMT-Master one of the most collectible models in the Rolex stable.
While the watch has been made in vast numbers over the last six decades, there are of course several references, and minutely different versions in amongst those references, that are rarer than others—with the corresponding increase in prices.
The ref. 6542, the very first example, is among the most sought out. Of those, the ones with their Bakelite bezel still present symbolize the holy grail for many collectors. Introduced in 1954, it was soon found that the plastic insert would easily crack in the heat. To make matters worse, the numerals were painted with luminous radium, the dangers of which had yet to be fully understood. But understood they were two years later when Rolex ordered a recall of all 600 or so ref. 6542 models that had been bought in the U.S. Those that were returned to the brand had their bezels swapped with an aluminum replacement. But it is the examples not returned, still with the original surrounds, that can attract significant sums of money.
As is the way with vintage watch collecting, the signs of a life well lived add even more of a premium. A faded bezel and a dial with an attractive patina tell the kind of story that every Rolex aficionado wants to hear, and prices for these ultra scarce examples are usually at the very top of the range.
The follow-up reference, the 1675 released in 1959, had the longest run out of all the different generations, lasting up until 1980. Certain models can represent the entry point of GMT ownership, particularly the Rolesor versions we looked at earlier. But any Rolex in production for more than 20 years is always going to come with a number of little details added or taken away over that time which will make them less or more desirable. In the 1675’s case, one of the most easily identified is the shape of its new crown guards. Until 1964/65, the guards were pointed, what came to be called El Cornino, after the Spanish word for horns. From the mid-sixties onwards, these were changed to the flatter, squarer shape we are familiar with today. Finding an early 1675 with El Cornino guards that are still sharp, as in, haven’t been over polished, is a real labor of love for collectors.
Around the same period as the crown guard change, Rolex also swapped the original small-arrowed GMT hand for a much larger one, in an effort to improve legibility. And it was at this time the glossy gilt dials with their chapter rings carried over from the 6542 changed to a matte finish as well. All of these little details identify especially rare examples of a much loved watch, and the cost of acquiring one goes up proportionately.
This is also the reference that saw the introduction of the solid black bezel for the first time in the early 70s, as well as seeing in the Root Beer in 1963. The ref. 1675/3 featured the Rolesor case and bracelet but, in the earlier versions, had an all brown bezel and brown ‘nipple’ dial. Later models had the two-tone brown and gold surround. Otherwise known as the Clint Eastwood (because if there’s one thing the GMT-Master series is crying out for, it’s a few more nicknames) it lasted until 1977. It was reintroduced on the follow-up ref. 16750 a few years later; same bi-color bezel but with more standard hour markers.
One other super rare 1675 worth mentioning is what is called the Blueberry. Only available through a special order from the most exclusive jewelers like Tiffany or Cartier, or else issued to military powers such as the French or UAE Air Forces, these GMTs with an all blue bezel are very seldom seen and are subsequently lusted after.
The first of the GMT-Master IIs, the ref. 16760, or The Fat Lady, was only in production for five years and is the first model in the series to feature the black and red of the Coke surround. Inexplicably though, the cost of these little slices of history is still extremely sensible, considering their legacy. Think in the higher four figures, bordering on five. Its follow-up, the ref. 16710, with its slimmed down profile, is even more reasonable.
Strangely, both ranges, the GMT-Master and GMT-Master II, ran concurrently for many years. The final reference of the original series, the ref. 16700, sold almost as well as its supposed successor, due to its practically identical aesthetics and lower price point. It stayed in production all the way up to 1999 and it too is a surprisingly attainable watch on the pre-owned market.
The Rolex GMT-Master Timeline
The first GMT-Master, the ref. 6542, started life in 1954 and met with an immediate success to almost rival the all-conquering Submariner, released around the same time. A variation on the Turn-O-Graph theme, it coincided with the dawn of the jet age, capturing the imagination of not only a new breed of traveler, but also Hollywood. James Bond’s easily swayed female adversary in Goldfingerwore one as she went about her nefarious business. The original GMT is often referred to as the Pussy Galore.
Only in production for an eventful five years, it went through three different calibers in that time; the Cal. 1036, Cal. 1065 and Cal. 1066. The model was issued a recall in 1956 to have its brittle and radioactive bezel replaced.
The follow-up piece, the 1675, stuck around a lot longer—21 years to be exact. It brought the watch into the much more accepted design language of the brand, upping the dimensions to 40mm and introducing crown guards. This is the reference that offered up a number of variations over the previous watch’s exclusively steel case and Pepsi bezel.
The 18k gold ref. 1675/8 with an all-black surround and the Rolesor ref. 1675/3 with brown bezel and dial emerged in the early seventies. It was also the first time the watch’s movement; the Cal. 1565 to start with, switching to the Cal. 1575 in 1971, had gained COSC certification.
The next generation, the ref. 1675X series, was launched in 1981, raising the balance frequency to 28,800vph from the previous 19,800vph, and introducing a Quickset feature for the date. While that model stayed in production until 1988, midway through its run the first of the GMT-Master II references was unveiled.
Introduced in 1983, the ref. 16760 brought individually adjustable hour hands, along with a black and red ‘Coke’ bezel and a sapphire crystal—all making their debut. The extra thick case, only available in steel on what is essentially a transition reference, earned it the nickname The Fat Lady.
In 1989, both the current models of the GMT-Master and GMT-Master II were upgraded.
The ref. 16700 would be the last of the originals, running until 1999, and had a slightly redesigned case and the first sapphire for the series. This too was a steel-only model, with either a black or Pepsi bezel, and proved a popular and cheaper alternative to the new sequel.
The GMT-Master II ref. 16710 came with the updated Cal. 3185, a slimmer mechanism that brought back the watch’s leaner profile. It had a relatively wide choice of bezels and metals. The steel pieces could be had with the Pepsi, Coke or black surrounds. The gold version, the ref. 16718, only came with the all-black, while the ref. 16713 Rolesor had the brown and gold of the Root Beer, sometimes called the Eye of the Tiger (last nickname, I promise).
The current generation started in 2005 with the green-dialed, solid gold 50thanniversary edition, with a black bezel.
It has been followed up with the largest range of models yet, many of those drawing heavily from the vintage archives. There are two Pepsi models, one in steel, the other white gold, along with two Root Beers (of sorts) in all Everose gold and an Everose Rolesor. Perhaps the most popular of the latest breed remains the Batman, a striking steel piece with a blue and black Cerachrom bezel.
The GMT-Master is one of those watches that seems to have always been with us. Its creation helped to further cement Rolex’s reputation as the finest manufacture of them all, and its natural evolution has taken it from indispensible tool watch to ultimate travel companion.
Luxurious and unassuming, no collection is complete without the longtime fan favorite.