It was 1954. Pan American World Airways – the little airline that had started in Key West with regular flights to Havana – had just opened up direct intercontinental flights to Europe. All of a sudden, it took 6 or 7 hours to get to Paris, not 13 or 14.
The most immediate – and unanticipated – result of these flights was a new phenomenon called jet lag. In order to combat the associated fatigue – at least with their pilots, Pan Am decided to keep them on “home time.” That way, sleep cycles would not be messed up.
Pan Am needed a watch their pilots could use to know the time at home (to stay on their sleep cycle) and locally (for their work). So, as with the Milgauss, a call was made to Geneva. A developmental team was formed and a watch was quickly produced. The GMT-Master, ref. 6542.
Based on the Turn-O-Graph, the new GMT-Master sported a new, additional hour hand directly driven by the hour wheel at a 1:2 ratio (the additional 24 hour hand could not be independently set).
The 6542’s plastic bezel was laid out in a 24 hour pattern, and it rotated so the wearer could set the second time zone appropriately. It’s instantly recognizable because it has no crown guards. Odds are against you seeing one in the wild however. It was only produced until 1959.
In 1959, Rolex released the watch that many collectors feel defines the GMT, the ref. 1675. 2mm larger, and with a crown guard and painted 24 hour bezel, the 1675 was the current production reference until 1980.
There were, of course, many color variations and combinations. Several were named for soda – Pepsi for blue and red, Coke for black and red, and root beer for brown and gold. and there’s the all-green Hulk, for the comic book character. Precious metals have always been part of the lineup too.
The GMT-Master II came along in 1983 with ref. 16760. A major difference between the GMT-Master and the GMT-Master II was the ability to independently set the 24 hour hand. The then- current reference of the GMT-Master, the 16750, remained in production until 1988. That was followed by the ref. 16700, which remained in the lineup until 1999.
A little confused that both the GMT-Master and the GMT-Master II were in production for so long? Yes, we are too. The independent quicksetting 24 hour hand ultimately won out. It was much more popular, and frankly, was a much more logical tool for the traveler.
The much beloved “Pepsi” blue and red bezel was discontinued in 2007. Collectors clambered for a revival, and Rolex relented in 2014. At Baselworld, Rolex released the ceramic-bezeled ref. 116710 (which had debuted in 2007) in a new, high-tech ceramic Pepsi bezel version, albeit in white gold only (for now).
And there’s the saga of the little-discussed relationship between NASA, the American astronauts, and the GMT. The Omega Speedmaster gets a lot of press for being first on the Moon, and timing rocket burns that saved Apollo 13 from total disaster. But Jack Swigert also wore a GMT-Master on Apollo 13. Years later, he framed the watch along with a photo, a mission patch, and a dedication note, and sent it to his friend René Jeanneret at Rolex. It hangs on a wall with several other photographs of NASA astronauts, who each wore Rolex GMT-Masters.
Ever wonder about the backstory of your favorite Rolex? Well, stick with us. This is the fifth in a series of posts featuring histories of significant Rolex models. In all, Rolex has introduced nearly three dozen models since 1950. Over the next several weeks, we’ll touch on each. You’ll find all the reference numbers connected with each model here.