The Future Grail Watch Series: Fat Ladies and Polar Explorers

To run alongside our series on the Rolex holy grail watches, those extremely rare and, usually, incredibly valuable pieces that you might come across once or twice in a lifetime, we’ve decided to root through the brand’s extensive archives and take a look at some of the models that are most definitely heading in that direction. Already highly desirable examples that are only becoming increasingly so as time goes on, with their numbers dwindling on the vintage market and their prices soaring.

Rolex Explorer II 16550

The pre-owned luxury watch industry is enjoying its golden age right now, with more and more people choosing to collect classic timepieces either for the love of horology or as an inflation hedging investment. The real trick is knowing which ones to look out for, the ones that are going to perform the best in the long run.

This is, of course, a game with no rules. No one is able to reliably predict which piece is going to appeal most to future buyers at some unknown point down the road, human nature and fashion trends being the fickle beasts they are.

It would be a great super power to have, being capable of spotting with absolute certainty the next essential must-have for the world’s vintage watch fanatics. Forget the ability to fly or turn invisible; buying up armfuls of Paul Newman Daytonas back when dealers couldn’t even give them away would have made you richer than Batman today.

However, there are a common sense set of guidelines that can go some way to relieving a little of the guesswork. Rarity value is an obvious trait to look out for—a short production run keeps the pieces available to buy at a premium. Within that run, if there were examples with either intended or unintended quirks, little details that further differentiate one subset from another, all to the good. And if the watch in question introduced a new feature or functionality to the range that subsequently became commonplace, it achieves a historical significance that can pay off later on.

Rolex GMT-Master II 16760

Even with all those factors in place, there is still no guarantee any piece will take the leap from collectible to grail. The great thing about Rolex, which is practically unique among top-end watchmakers is, regardless of the model you choose, you would have to be very unlucky to lose money on it over the long term.

Rolexes retain their value better than just about any other luxury goods out there, so they offer a certain peace of mind for those new to collecting.

Dual Time Duo

To kick the series off, we are going to look at two of the most interesting GMT references from the Rolex back catalog. While from very different ranges and aimed at completely different groups, on paper, there are striking similarities between the pair. They share both a case and a movement, but each represents its own interpretation on the dual time zone concept.

They also tick many of the boxes needed to meet future grail status. Only produced for a relatively short time, each brought new features to their respective lineups and a ‘flaw’ in the manufacturing of one of them has seen it elevated even further up the wish lists of many collectors.

The GMT-Master II ref. 16760

When the first of the GMT-Master watches emerged in 1953, the Rolex creation, in collaboration with Pan-Am Airways, became an instant hit with both pilots and well-heeled travellers.

In fact, with its eye-catching bi-color surround and the usefulness of its extra hour hand, it proved so popular that the original series, in an updated form, was still being produced as late as 1999. It actually ran concurrently with its eventual replacement for around 15 years, standing as the cheaper alternative of the two.

The first of the next generation GMT Master IIs debuted in 1983, with the ref. 16760. It arrived sporting a host of upgrades on its predecessor, introducing important advances in functionality as well as a fresh new color scheme.

Rolex GMT-Master II 16760

Replacing the blue and red ‘Pepsi’ bezels of the original series, as well as the brown and gold ‘Root Beer’ surrounds that appeared in the sixties, the ref. 16760 brought us the first example of the Coke bezel, a black and red arrangement that was better suited to its true purpose. With transatlantic flights becoming more commonplace in the fifties when the first of the GMTs was born, crossing several time zones was starting to be a source of confusion for air crew as well as their passengers, and knowing whether they were about to land in daytime or at night went a long way in combatting the mental effects of jetlag. With the two representative colors on the GMT’s bezel, it was now possible to tell at a glance what part of the day it was at their eventual destination—but while the blue half of the Pepsi bezel could arguably be either, with the new Coke model, black was most definitely for night.

As well as different coloring, the GMT-Master II also put on some weight. Its bulkier crown guards and more muscular lugs soon earned it another, less flattering nickname, the Fat Lady. Rather than being just an aesthetic choice to give the watch more presence, which it certainly did, the stouter dimensions were required in order to house an all new movement, the Cal 3085. Now, for the first time, the GMT hand could be uncoupled from the hour hand, allowing it to move independently. As a result, setting the watch to a second zone was instantaneous and it was even possible to keep track of a third by reading it off the rotating bezel. For the ultimate traveller’s watch, it was an invaluable and logical addition.

Along with these other innovations, the 16760 became the first in the series to be fitted with a sapphire crystal, replacing the former acrylic, and white gold was now used to surround the hour markers to prevent them from tarnishing.

Rolex GMT-Master II 16760

Nevertheless, even with all these major advancements, the Fat Lady didn’t sing for long. By 1988, just five years later, it was superseded by the ref. 16710, with another new caliber that, while identical in functionality, was appreciably smaller and allowed a return to the watch’s former trim bodywork.

Today, the ref. 16760 is often seen as the ideal gateway into vintage Rolex collecting. Even with its limited run, finding pre-owned examples for sale is not difficult, although examples in good condition are more few and far between. Prices start at the surprisingly attainable, helped by its exclusively stainless steel construction—there was never a precious metal option.

Depending on your definition of the word, the Fat Lady has only been a true vintage watch for about 10 years; purists tend to reserve the term for pieces older than 25. But as time goes on, the Rolex’s from the eighties, especially the important historical models such as the ref. 16760, gain ever more significance.

A true perennial brand favorite and an accepted part of the horology landscape, adding a GMT-Master to your collection, or starting with one, is a savvy move. As for future grail status, only time will tell. But, with its provenance and scarcity value, along with its distinctive styling, it wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Coke (wait for it!) is the real thing.

The Explorer II ref. 16550

While the GMT-Master and its glamorous jet-setting lifestyle has secured it legions of loyal followers, the Explorer series has always been the under-represented dark horse of the family.

Even the 1971 release of the first Explorer II, similar to the original Explorer in no way whatsoever, did little to elevate it to the same level as the rest of the professional sports range.

The problem has never been one of quality. It is as well made, reliable and accurate as anything that wears the Rolex badge. Its main drawback is its image. Whereas the likes of the Daytona or the Submariner convey associations of danger, excitement and adventure in the high octane environments of the race track or the thrills of underwater discovery, the Explorer II was targeted at spelunkers.

For those not sure exactly what a spelunker is, which could well be everybody who is not actually a spelunker, it is the official name for cave divers. Why they might need a watch all to themselves is a question for the Rolex decision makers, but to give them their due, they very much cornered the market. I, for one, cannot name another dedicated spelunker’s watch.

Rolex Explorer II 16550

Over its lifetime, the Explorer II has only had four different versions, starting with the ref. 1655. Sometimes known, incorrectly, as the Steve McQueen Rolex, its nickname was based on one candid and indistinct photo of the Hollywood great wearing what could have been an Explorer but what was much more likely to have been his favorite Submariner ref. 5512. Regardless, the name stuck and the brand, wisely, did nothing to correct the oversight.

That was followed up in 1985 with what in Rolex-speak is known as a transitional reference, the ref. 16550. Transitional models are brought out to bridge the gap between two very different versions of the same series, keeping aspects of the preceding piece while also introducing new elements of a future design, to soften the changeover from one to another. By their very nature only produced for a short time, they can be an excellent target for aspiring collectors.

The ref. 16550 is one such piece, acting as middleman between the 1655 and the 16570 released in 1989. Based along the same lines as the Fat Lady above, the 16550 was fitted with an identical movement, the Cal. 3085, to disengage the 24-hour hand and make it a true GMT watch, but the lack of a rotating bezel meant it couldn’t track a third time zone. It was also the first Explorer to feature the scratch-resistant sapphire crystal and it brought with it a choice of dial color, black or white.

And that’s where things start to get interesting for the Explorer II. Black dial 16550 models, with their newly introduced Mercedes-style hands and long, thin arrow-tipped GMT hands (as opposed to the famous orange Freccione of the original) are still sought after on the vintage market, in their typically quiet, understated way. However, early run examples of the white, or Polar, dials are a different story, and all because of something that really doesn’t happen very often at Rolex; a mistake.

Rolex Explorer II 16550

A fault in the paint used for the Polar dials has caused them to fade to a rich creamy color over time, creating extremely rare versions of an already uncommon watch. It is one of those defects that is so loved by vintage collectors and which puts large premiums on asking prices. The problem had been fixed by the end of its short run, but those initial examples are among the most treasured and desirable of the Explorer II range.

Another variant to keep your eyes open for, even more subtle than the shift in coloring, is what is known as the rail dials. With these pieces, the text at the six o’clock position, ‘Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified’ has the two capital ‘C’s lined up with each other. Again, this kind of scant occurrence can take an otherwise run-of-the-mill piece onto another level.

The ref. 16550’s race was run by the end of the eighties, and it had done nothing but reinforce the Explorer’s reputation as the forgotten Rolex. But, as always seems to happen, that position as the perennial underdog has started to come full circle, and enthusiasts are beginning to seek out the rarer models to add to collections.

While black versions of the transitional Explorer are certainly worth an investment, it’s the flawed Polar dials that are far more likely to achieve future grail status, bringing with them the sort of scarcity value that can only increase in the future.