As with pretty much any innovation, a brand new product rarely hits the ground running. A manufacturer can test and retest their latest creation for only so long before they have to release it out into the wild and let its intended audience decide on its effectiveness and desirability.
Rolex is no different, and watches which now stand at the pinnacle of what can be achieved in terms of design and engineering prowess didn’t just arrive there by luck or magic. They are the result of a never-ending dedication to incremental progress, stretching sometimes over generations.
However, with some of the brand’s biggest names, there is often one reference you can look to where you can say, this is the point at which they perfected the basics, and everything that followed is building on that essential blueprint.
For the Submariner, there’s an argument for that model being either the ref. 5512, which saw the introduction of crown guards, or even the ref. 1680 which brought us its first date function. With the Daytona, it might well be the ref. 16520 and the debut of an automatic Zenith movement bringing some self-winding convenience to the famous chronograph.
As for Rolex’s iconic pilot’s watch, the GMT-Master, the model that formed the underlying architecture for every iteration that followed was the ref. 1675 launched in 1959.
In For the Long Haul
One measure of the success of a design is the length of time it remains in production, and the ref. 1675 had an incredible run of some 21 years.
Unlike other Rolex big hitters, such as the Sub, which went through nearly a dozen tweaks and different reference numbers before landing on the ref. 5512 early in its career, the ref. 1675 was only the second version of the GMT-Master, taking over from the original, the ref. 6542.
A popular watch from the outset, and one that had been around for five years when it was superseded, the ref. 6542 had first put the piece on the map, even finding its way on to the wrist of James Bond’s easily swayed female adversary in Goldfinger. Known for eternity as the Pussy Galore (stop sniggering at the back), it had set an impressive benchmark for those that came after, but the fragility of its Bakelite bezel proved its downfall. Examples sent in for servicing post-1956 were returned with an aluminum replacement, one that didn’t crack in the heat or have numerals filled with Radium, the harmful effects of which were just becoming known.
The movement too was due an overhaul. Rolex had swapped and changed the caliber inside the 6542 three times in its short reign; the Cal. 1036, Cal 1065 and Cal. 1066. With the release of the ref. 1675, they introduced their legendary 1500 series to the range. Launched initially with the Cal. 1565, it earned the new watch the right to include the Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified text on its dial for the first time, having passed the stringent tests for accuracy laid down by Switzerland’s COSC.
The 18,000vph caliber was itself surpassed in 1965 by the updated Cal. 1575, bringing with it a swifter frequency of 19,600vph and, a few years later, a hacking function.
External Changes (and that bezel)
Any Rolex watch that stays in production for two decades is going to have all manner of tiny variations to its theme, whether intentional or not. Some are noticeable immediately, others take some looking for, but none of them are major enough to warrant updating the reference number.
With the ref. 1675, there are a host of alterations and revisions that can be used to date a particular example with, obviously, the older and rarer versions commanding the higher resale prices.
By the time of its introduction in 1959, the practicality of crown guards had been realized and the new GMT-Master was fitted with the same style of protective shoulders as its counterpart the Submariner. Nicknamed El Cornino, due to their resemblance to a pair of horns, they were phased out on both the GMT and its underwater cousin by 1965 to make way for the more rounded versions we are used to seeing today.
The dials, too, went through a series of different types in the first five years of production, before settling down somewhat after 1964. In the archives, if you’re lucky, you will find chapter ring dials, Swiss dials, the incredibly rare double Swiss and underline dials, along with the exclamation mark dials signifying the reduced use of Radium on the hour markers.
After the first few years, Rolex replaced the gilt faces with matte due to the complex process of producing the glossy version, as well as endowing the ref. 1675 with a thicker, more robust case—underlying its tool watch credentials.
The hands too changed during its run; or rather, the red GMT hand shifted in size, from a small, arrow-tipped version in the beginning to a significantly larger one as the later, matte dial types were introduced, all in an effort to make the globetrotters friend as legible as possible.
Pepsi Vs. Root Beer
But these details aside, any GMT-Master is all about the bezel. The two-tone color scheme was adopted from the very beginning, a practical as well as aesthetic detail, with the original red and blue, or Pepsi, livery being used to help travelers visualize whether they were going to be landing in the daytime or at night.
The brilliantly simple and elegant solution also sets the watch apart from not only its own stable mates but anything else available to buy from any other manufacturer as well.
It was the element that identified the GMT from across a crowded room and had been responsible for much of the model’s success and, even today, makes it one of the most recognizable watches in the world.
Yet Rolex outfitted their aviator’s companion with a number of other surrounds during its lifetime. In the early seventies, an all yellow gold version with a completely black bezel was released—an odd decision, as it not only missed the point of the bi-color border but also made the GMT almost indistinguishable from the gold Submariner at first glance.
There was, similarly, the option of a solid blue bezel, nicknamed the Blueberry, but your only real chance of obtaining one of these staggeringly rare beasts was to either order one specially through the likes of Tiffany or Cartier, or be a serving member in the French or UAE Air Force.
Much easier to get your hands on, if it was to your taste, was the Root Beer. Introduced early in the run, around 1963, it occupied the middle ground between the utilitarian steel and the opulent gold examples; a two-tone yellow Rolesor creation with an unusual, and polarizing, brown bezel and dial.
One you either loved or hated, it, like Steve McQueen’s Explorer and Paul Newman’s Daytona that preceded it, claimed its own slice of Hollywood patronage when Clint Eastwood wore one in several of his starring roles. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot it on his wrist in movies from Firefox through to In The Line of Fire.
Opinion dividing though it was, the color scheme persevered past the ref. 1675’s run and was still available until the late nineties on its replacement, the ref. 16753. Also featuring an all brown bezel to begin with, the later reference eventually sported a split toned brown and gold.
One immediately noticeable difference between the ref. 1675 Root Beer and its subsequent version is in the earlier piece’s hour markers. Known as the ‘nipple dials’, the indexes are formed of small cone-shaped points, topped with a spot of lume.
Buying a GMT-Master ref. 1675
A popular watch with a long life span equals a lot of models to choose from on the pre-owned market and, while certainly not cheap, a good example of this iconic piece with a Pepsi bezel can still be surprisingly attainable.
As is the way with vintage Rolex, and the cyclical nature of things in general, the initially far less popular Root Beer versions are fast becoming highly sought after, as fans look to shake up their collections with the rare and unusual.
From the very start right through to the present day, the GMT-Master series has been one of Rolex’s most prominent success stories; a watch born out of necessity that has gone on to become a legend.
The ref. 1675 is an enduring masterpiece in the brand’s lineup and an attainable gateway into the world of vintage Rolex.