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The Rolex GMT-Master II is one of the most coveted luxury travel watches on the planet, and its predecessor, the original, non-numerical GMT-Master, basically established the template that other dual-time zone timepieces have been following for more than half a century. Here is a detailed look at the history and evolution of the GMT-Master II, from its aviation-inspired beginnings in 1954 to the iconic status it enjoys in the modern era, with all the major models spotlighted in between.
Rolex, the luxury watch firm founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf, achieved one of its many milestones in 1953 with the launch of the Oyster Perpetual Submariner, the first serially produced wristwatch with a case water-resistant to 100 meters and hence one of the first and most influential watches purpose-built for diving. If the watch community was wondering what Rolex could possibly do for an encore, they didn’t have long to discover the answer. The following year, 1954, saw the introduction of another trend-setting, genre-defining timepiece, the original Rolex GMT-Master (Ref. 6542, which actually hit the market in 1955), the first watch capable of displaying the time in two separate time zones thanks to the clever addition of a fourth, central 24-hour hand and a bidirectional rotating 24-hour bezel. The initials in the watch’s name signify “Greenwich Mean Time,” the system of world timekeeping based on the calculation of mean solar time from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London.
The dual-time functionality of the GMT-Master was an innovation devised for, and developed in cooperation with, the original watch’s intended users: the pilots of Pan American Airlines, at the time one of the U.S.A.’s leading commercial carriers. In that so-called Golden Age of commercial aviation, the growth of long-haul and international flights prompted the desire for a tool watch upon which a pilot could keep track of the time in both his home city, and his flight’s destination city, anywhere in the world. While other watch manufacturers, before and since, have established various ways of displaying and tracking two or more time zones, it is Rolex’s design that has proven the most impactful and enduring, and the one most emulated by other brands looking to entice world travelers.
The first-generation GMT-Master Ref. 6452 — which was based in part on an existing watch in Rolex’s portfolio, the Datejust Turn-o-Graph, the brand’s first watch with a rotating bezel — had a steel Oyster case measuring 38mm in diameter, a black dial with Rolex’s now-hallmark “Mercedes” handset, a 3 o’clock date window under a magnifying “Cyclops” lens, and most remarkably from a historical standpoint, a bidirectional bezel with an insert made of Bakelite, graduated to 24 hours and divided into two equal sectors of red and blue, a clever and eye-catching visual shorthand to identify daytime and nighttime hours on the 24-hour scale. Because the original Bakelite bezel insert proved to be brittle and prone to cracking (and because its luminous, radium coating was mildly radioactive), it was replaced by an anodized aluminum version in later versions of the Ref. 6452, which was produced through 1959, and in all subsequent models throughout the 20th century. The movement in Ref. 6452 was Caliber 1036, Rolex’s first GMT-enabled movement, in which the GMT hand was connected to the central 12-hour hand, necessitating the use of the rotating bezel to read an additional time zone.
The red-and-blue coloration of the original GMT-Master’s bezel — which was, as one might logically expect, actually inspired by Pan Am’s famous red-and-blue livery — brought to mind for many the logo of a popular soft drink of the time, forever tagging the model with the nickname “Pepsi.” Much like the Submariner that preceded it to market, the GMT-Master would also find itself linked to the James Bond cinematic canon after a legendary onscreen appearance: actress Honor Blackman, as Pussy Galore, wore it in 1965’s Goldfinger, and her character’s double-entendre name would enjoy an enduring identification with the model as well. The GMT-Master was also, notably, the first Rolex sports watch to be offered in gold versions, which swiftly followed the steel originals.
The Ref. 1675 version of the GMT-Master, which replaced the 6452 series, had a long production run from 1959 through 1980, and introduced gilt dials (in addition to matte versions), new dial detail variations, new crown guards on the case, and a new generation of movements to the collection (Calibers 1565 and 1575, the latter adding a quick-set date). Some rare and collectible models (and their accompanying nicknames) emerged from this era as well. There was a version in the late ‘60s, nicknamed “Pink Panther” by collectors (below), that used a bright fuschia, rather than the standard red, for the daytime sector of the bezel; and an all-gold model with a brown-colored bezel whose luxurious character led to its being dubbed “Concorde,” after the supersonic, transatlantic airliner flown by the Jet Set. All of these models, including the Ref. 16750 that followed on the heels of the 1675 and had its moment of fame as the watch worn by Tom Selleck in the hit 1980s series “Magnum, P.I.,” set the stage for the first major technical and visual evolution of the Rolex GMT-Master, which arrived in 1983.
The Ref. 16760, also known as the first GMT-Master II (below), ushered in the modern era for the watch industry’s most historically significant traveler’s watch. Its 40mm steel case housed Rolex’s new Caliber 3085, which boasted a subtle but technically sophisticated upgrade: it decoupled the arrow-tipped GMT hand from the main (local time) hour hand, enabling the user to independently adjust the latter in one-hour increments without interfering with the seconds, minutes, or GMT hands, resulting in an easier adjustment of the local time and the ability to read a third time zone on the rotating bezel in addition to a second one. Most significantly, the GMT bezel sported a new color combo — red for daytime hours, black for nighttime — and a new soda-inspired nickname: “Coca-Cola” or “Coke.” The reference is also known to Rolex cognoscenti as the “Fat Lady,” for its thicker case to accommodate the new movement; or (somewhat conversely) the “Sophia Loren,” for the case’s redesigned, more ergonomic curves. The GMT-Master II Ref. 16760 was also the first Rolex to use white-gold for dial details like the indexes, a practice which is now common throughout Rolex’s line. The 16760 begat the longer-running 16710 model series, which was produced up until 2007, when the next level of Rolex technical innovation arrived to transition the 1950s descendant into the modern era. The now functionally humbler but still beloved original GMT-Master would end its run at the cusp of the new millennium, in 1999, with the Ref. 16700.
As Rolex became a more vertically integrated watch manufacturer in the first decade of the 21st century, updates to both the interior and exterior of many of its iconic watches started coming fast and furious. For the GMT-Master II, these changes began in earnest with the version released in 2005 — not coincidentally, the original model’s 50th anniversary on the market. It had a larger case (40mm), customary of that era, in gold, and its new Caliber 3816 movement incorporated Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring, which rendered it more resistant to shocks and temperature variations than its predecessors. The case featured the waterproof Triplock crown that Rolex had previously used in its Submariner and Sea-Dweller dive watches and was attached to a more luxurious bracelet with polished center links and a machined clasp. The bezel, for the first time, was in a scratch-resistant ceramic called Cerachrom and came in one color: black. In 2007 came the first steel models with Cerachrom inserts, heralding the permanent replacement of the aluminum bezel inserts across the line with new ones made of the ceramic material. The decision also meant that the bicolor bezels that had for so long defined the GMT-Master models — particularly the history-steeped “Pepsi” and “Coke” iterations — were phased out indefinitely, as neither Rolex nor any other watchmaker at the time had the manufacturing capacity to make them out of ceramics; developing satisfactory ceramic parts in a red color was particularly difficult.
Rolex achieved the next milestone in 2013, producing the first two-color bezel insert in Cerachrom and debuting it, appropriately, on that year’s headliner model, the GMT-Master II Ref. 116710BLNR. The watch’s color combo of black for night and dark blue for day was a first for the long-running series and ultimately inspired yet another now-famous nickname for a GMT-Master model: “Batman” (after other early monikers like “Bruiser” and “Phantom” failed to stick). To create the bezel, Rolex developed a patented process in which a single piece of blue ceramic has black color added to half its surface area while the ceramic is still permeable; the 24-hour gradations, engraved into the ceramic after it has hardened, are coated with a thin layer of platinum and then the entire bezel is diamond-polished to a high gloss. The process ensures that the bezel’s colors won’t fade (or “tropicalize,” to use the watch collectors’ jargon) over years of exposure to ultraviolet rays but remain vibrant. Rolex’s continuing push into patented technologies and luxurious materials were also evident in the “Batman” model, which had white gold hands sweeping over a black lacquered dial, Rolex’s blue-glowing Chromalight substance on the hands and indexes, and, ticking inside, the automatic (“Perpetual”) Caliber 3816 with a COSC chronometer certification and a 48-hour power reserve.
It was only a year after "Batman's" debut that Rolex’s braintrust managed to solve the vexing problem of creating a red-and-blue bicolor ceramic bezel, which famously made its debut on the GMT-Master II Ref. 116719BLRO, which marked both the return of the crowd-pleasing “Pepsi” model and the first GMT-Master in a case made of 18k white gold. Rolex consulted with a team of scientists in its quest to develop the in-house, patented process that produces the bezel, which adds chromium oxide, magnesium oxide and rare earth oxide to the ceramic’s aluminum oxide base to achieve the red color that was heretofore next to impossible to replicate with natural pigments. The expensive process, and the years of intensive R&D that went into perfecting it, meant that the "Pepsi" bezels would initially only be available in a white-gold version, which by its very nature would be limited in production.
Four years later, however, Rolex finally gave the clamoring hordes what they wanted: a GMT-Master II with a Cerachrom Pepsi bezel and a case made of 904L stainless steel (which Rolex calls “Oystersteel”), which was mounted on the five-link “Jubilee” bracelet (created for the Datejust in 1945) rather than the now-standard three-link Oyster bracelet. The watch (Ref. 126710BLRO) served as the centerpiece to a big year for the GMT-Master II in 2018, which marked the most recent update of the model’s movement and also introduced yet another highly coveted bicolor bezel treatment.
Rolexophiles (who count among their ranks many fans of sugary drinks, apparently) first used the nickname “Root Beer” in reference to a watch from 1970 (Ref. 1675/3), which had a bicolor brown-and-gold-colored GMT bezel and became somewhat famous as the personal watch of actor/director Clint Eastwood, making appearances on screen in several of his films. In 2018, the name was resurrected for the GMT-Master II Refs. 126715CHNR and 126711CHNR (the former in Rolex’s proprietary Everose gold alloy, the latter in two-tone steel-and-gold “Rolesor”), which were distinguished by black-and-brown Cerachrom bezels.
With both the Oystersteel “Pepsi” and the Everose gold and Rolesor “Root Beers,” Rolex marked yet another technical milestone: starting with those 2018 models, all GMT-Masters going forward, including the “Batman” on a Jubilee bracelet that followed in 2019, would be equipped with the in-house Caliber 3285, which boasts no less than 10 patent applications. Among its technical talking points are the aforementioned blue Parachrom hairspring, the energy efficient, magnetic-resistant Chronergy escapement, and the increased power reserve of approximately 70 hours. As of 2015, Rolex has established its own “Superlative Chronometer” certification, which is touted on the watch’s black lacquered dial; its criteria of -2/+2 seconds per day of precision is even stricter than those necessary to obtain the prestigious COSC chronometer certificate.
At Watches & Wonders 2022 in Geneva, Rolex took advantage of its very first participation in that international luxury watch fair to unveil the latest — and probably most unexpected — version of the GMT-Master II, with the crown, crown guards, and Cyclops date window all shifted to the left-hand side of the case. It’s one of the still very rare luxury watches aimed at left-handed wearers, and the first one from Rolex to enter mainstream production. Of course, such a milestone couldn’t be celebrated without a corresponding new colorway, and Rolex delivers that with the watch’s green-and-black bicolor Cerachrom bezel, which tops the 40mm, 100-meter water resistant Oystersteel case.
The left-handed orientation meant that Rolex had to revise its Superlative Chronometer testing process for the Caliber 3285 that beats inside, ensuring that it offers the same elite levels of precision, robustness, and power reserve as it does in the right-handed models. The watch (Ref. 126720VTNR) comes on an Oyster bracelet with the patented Oysterlock safety clasp, which prevents accidental opening, and the Easylink extension device, which can adjust the bracelet length up to 5mm for wearing comfort. At the moment, Rolex says, the green-black color combo will be exclusive to this special southpaw edition. The only open question regarding the latest addition to the GMT-Master II family seems to be about what lasting nickname will be bestowed upon it by Rolex fandom. “Hulk” and “Kermit” are already spoken for by green-dominant models in the Submariner range. I’ve seen “Sprite” proposed, as per the enduring soda theme, but the colors aren’t quite right, and even “Starbucks,” though those logo colors are green and white rather than green and black. The jury remains out, though I remain partial to the possibility I heard bandied about during the watch’s introduction in Geneva. We have a “Coke,” a “Pepsi,” and a "Root Beer;" maybe it’s time to look beyond the soft drink menu and order a “Heineken.”
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