As any vintage Rolex fan knows, a reference with a short-lived production run in any of the brand’s model ranges is likely to become a highly sought-after piece. If the model range in question is one of the most popular and iconic in the catalog, and the particular reference represents the very first in the series, all the ingredients are there for the sort of grail-like offering that causes collectors, and their bank managers, heart palpitations—for different reasons.
The GMT-Master ref. 6542 is a grail watch in the truest sense of the word. It emerged as Rolex’s answer to a question posed by Pan Am Airways; how to aid pilots in their fight against the new phenomenon of jet lag.
As the post-war economic boom of the 1950s took hold, and advances in aviation technology opened up the possibility of transatlantic travel for a new generation, tourists and flight crew alike were suddenly exposed to the realities of crossing multiple time zones.
What was a mere inconvenience for vacationers was a far more pressing matter for those charged with delivering them to and from their destinations safely. Having a simple and efficient way to visualize what time of day they would be landing in had proven to be an effective method for pilots to combat some of the neurological effects of jet lag.
Rolex’s solution was as stylish as it was effective. By taking the rotating graduated bezel concept they had pioneered with the Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202 from 1953, introducing a two-color scheme to it to differentiate night from day, and adding a fourth hand on the dial, the newly-formed GMT-Master could track both home and local time zones simultaneously.
Debuting in 1954, the ref. 6542 was an immediate success, ranking alongside the recently introduced Submariner in its popularity and advancing Rolex’s reputation as manufacturers of the ultimate tool watches—a revolutionary new field that Rolex themselves had established.
The Bakelite Bezels
However, admired as they were, the initial examples of the GMT-Master were about to run into trouble. That distinctive bezel, in the red and blue livery that quickly earned it the nickname the ‘Pepsi’, had two glaring problems.
Firstly, the material. Formed from one of the earliest types of plastic—Bakelite—it was far too fragile to hold a place on a watch touted as a sturdy companion for hard-working professionals. In hot tropical climates especially, it was prone to cracking so badly that it would be rendered essentially useless.
And secondly, the luminescent paint used on the hands and hour markers, and the bezel itself, proved to be dangerously radioactive, leading to a recall of every one of the 605 original GMTs that had been imported into North America.
While today the effects of radiation poisoning are well known, in the 50s Radium was considered not only safe to use as lume on watch dials but it was also added to certain types of water, chocolate and other consumables for its supposed health-giving properties. There was even Radium-infused toothpaste, said to give your teeth an extra radiance.
By 1956, just two years after the ref. 6542’s introduction, and following testing by the Atomic Energy Commission, Rolex was forced to issue a return on their new model. The brittle Bakelite surround was replaced with a plastic insert, and the much safer Tritium provided the glow rather than Radium.
All that means that first run GMT-Masters with their Bakelite bezels still intact are among the most coveted vintage timepieces from Rolex or just about any manufacturer, and they have price tags that reflect their rarity.
Features and Variations
Much like the early Submariners, the ref. 6542 is unique in the GMT series for its lack of crown guards. It wouldn’t be until 1959 and the second generation ref. 1675 that the protective shoulders for the winding crown made their first appearance.
Another trait shared with the Sub, on the very earliest steel versions of the GMT at least, are the long neck hour hands; a distinguishing feature that gave way to the more recognizable Mercedes-style post 1957.
The extra hour hand used to mark the second time zone came tipped with a small triangle at the end and was bright red in color to separate it at a glance from the others. And the seconds hand, white on the first models before changing to gold to match the main hands, had its own lume dot so it could be seen in the dark.
There are, of course, this being Rolex, some hyper-rare exceptions to the rules. 18k gold models appeared, with brown bezels and dials and sporting ‘alpha’ style hands—dagger-shaped hour and minute hands and a straight seconds hand without the lume.
However, there is another variant so scarce that it has almost entered mythology. About 200 special white dial gold GMTs were produced, the so-called ‘Albino’ models that were given exclusively to Pan Am executives. Possibly the rarest sports Rolex of them all, you would be hard pressed to even find anyone who has seen one, let alone track down an example of the watch itself.
The Dials and Calibers
As is the way with classic Rolex, there are further tiny variations in the dial make up that can add huge premiums to the price of vintage models.
The earliest pieces went through several phases; some with all their text written in gold to match the gilt dial, to limited numbers with the ‘GMT-Master’ name picked out in pink and even smaller quantities with a pink name and a red depth rating.
Yellow gold models were fitted with ‘nipple’ style hour markers, concave applied indexes that look a lot like…well, you know. And every iteration of the ref. 6542 featured a chapter ring, the graduated circle on the outside of the dial that Rolex doesn’t seem to favor anymore.
As for the movements, there were three in service in the GMT’s five year run. Starting with the Cal. 1036, it was joined by the Cal. 1065 and the Cal. 1066 around 1957.
Automatic, 18,000vph movements with date function and, of course, the fixed 24-hour hand, all three calibers were used interchangeably in the final two years of production.
Buying a ref. 6542
The first of the GMT-Masters has the same problem today as it had 60 years ago; namely the bezel.
Between the majority of them being replaced by Rolex because of the radioactivity scare, to the highly breakable nature of the ones that remained, coupled with the fact that the 6542 is a particularly rare beast anyway, and the selection on offer on the vintage market is sparse. And sparse in this instance is another way of saying expensive.
To give you an idea, an original Pepsi Bakelite bezel sold at auction in 2014 for $32,500. Not a watch. Not a bezel and, like, a car. Just a bezel.
It is fair to say the condition of that bi-color surround on the ref. 6542 is what dictates the price. A watch can be flawless in every other respect, but if the bezel is substandard, collectors will tend to walk away.
That’s not as strange as you might think. It is, after all, the defining feature of the GMT-Master, the crucial extra selling point that secures its place in the Rolex lineup. Even though the Sky-Dweller, introduced in 2012, is ostensibly the brand’s new flagship aviation-inspired model, with its highly impressive complications and annual calendar, it can’t match the GMT for user friendliness.
That elegantly ingenious response to Pan Am’s plea created a modern legend; an all out tool watch sophisticated enough to grace any wrist, and the one that started it all is at the top of every grail hunter’s wish list.