Then and Now: The First Rolex GMT-Master vs. The Current GMT-Master II

As passionate Rolex enthusiasts, we spend a lot of time studying the evolution of Rolex models throughout their history. On the one hand, Rolex is known for adhering to fundamental design codes, thus paving the way for some of the most recognizable watches on the planet. On the other hand, Rolex ensures that a significant improvement—whether exterior or interior—is present with each new version of a particular model to make the new edition worth noticing. To investigate this balance between core characteristics and continuous improvement, we’re going to be comparing the first references of a particular Rolex watch model with its most current edition in a series we’re calling Then and Now. And today we start with the first Rolex GMT-Master vs the current GMT-Master.

The First Rolex GMT-Master

As many of you already know, the GMT-Master watch made its debut in 1955. This particular Rolex watch was made at the request of Pan Am because the airline was in need of a tool watch for their pilots. Specifically, the pilots needed a watch that would keep track of two time zones—one reference time (GMT or home time) and the other the local time of their destination.

Rolex GMT-Master Ref. 6542
Rolex GMT-Master 6542 (Credit: Rolex)

The very first Rolex GMT-Master was the GMT-Master ref. 6542. Based on the Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202, the GMT-Master ref. 6542 includes a red and blue luminous Bakelite rotating bezel marked with 24 hours. Not only is the bezel is used in conjunction with the extra 24-hour arrow-tipped hand on the dial to indicate a second time zone, but its two-color scheme differentiates between AM hours (red) and PM hours (blue). The combination of the blue and red on the bezel later became known as the “Pepsi” bezel and is the quintessential GMT-Master bezel. While Rolex has kept the red and blue color scheme for the GMT-Master collection over the years, Bakelite as a material for the bezel was too fragile and was eventually replaced with aluminum—which decades later was replaced by ceramic.

The inaugural GMT-Master watch sports a stainless steel 38mm Oyster case, no crown guards around the winding crown, and is fitted with a steel Oyster bracelet. The black dial is characteristic of a Rolex sports watch with its round lume plots, luminescent Mercedes-style center hands, and a date window at 3 o’clock with the Cyclops magnification lens on the acrylic crystal above it.

The vintage Rolex GMT-Master 6542 was in production until 1959 and during that time, three different automatic movements were used to power the watch. First, there was the Cal. 1036, then the Cal. 1065, followed by the Cal. 1066. That first GMT-Master ref. 6542 had a water resistance rating of 50 meters.

The Newest Rolex GMT-Master II

Fast forward six decades and Rolex made big news at this year’s Baselworld with a brand new GMT-Master II ref. 126710 BLRO. Remember, the GMT-Master was eventually replaced with the GMT-Master II after some overlapping years in the 80s and 90s—the first indicates two time zones while the second indicates three thanks to the independent 24-hour hand.

The new stainless steel GMT-Master II ref. 126710 takes many of the beloved characteristics of that first Rolex GMT pilot’s watch but, of course, built to modern standards.

Rolex GMT-Master II 126710 BLRO
Rolex GMT-Master II 126710 BLRO (Credit: Rolex)

There’s the 40mm Oyster case with the crown guards topped with the famed red and blue “Pepsi” bezel in scratch and fade-resistant Cerachrom ceramic. Plus there’s the now-standard black “Maxi Dial” with large white gold-surrounded circular indexes, along with the luminescent Mercedes hands, red 24-hour hands with a luminous arrow-tip, and the date window. However, the Cyclops lens is now affixed to a sapphire crystal—the crystal material of choice for the GMT-Master I/II since the 1980s.

The 2018 GMT-Master II ref. 126710 is fitted with a Jubilee bracelet. Interestingly, while this is indeed not the first time the GMT-Master comes with the Jubilee bracelet, the ref. 126710 is the first ceramic GMT-Master II to have it. It’s also worth noting that ever since the launch of this new GMT-Master II Pepsi, Rolex refers to their steel as Oystersteel.

Aside from the highly attractive exterior design details of the new steel GMT-Master II, the watch also runs on a brand new Cal. 3285 automatic movement with an increased power reserve of 70 hours. Like all Rolex watches made since 2015, the Cal. 3285 has an accuracy rating of -2/+2 seconds per day. And like all modern GMT-Master II watches, the ref. 126710 is water resistant to 100 meters thanks in part to the Triplock screw-down winding crown and screw-down fluted caseback.

The Rolex GMT-Master Journey Then and Now

While the watches that make up the Rolex GMT-Master I and GMT-Master II collections have certainly undergone massive technical and design improvements (not to mention a slew of other material options and bezel color choices) over the last 63 years, it’s remarkable to see just how similar the first and latest models are!

Stay tuned for our next chapter of our new Then and Now series where we’ll compare the very first Submariner with the latest Submariner.