As with the waterproof watch, the self-winding watch, the watch with date function, the chronometer-certified watch, you name it, one watchmaker was there first: Rolex. And when it came to the world time-telling GMT, the Swiss brand struck again with its GMT-Master of 1955.
Local time display, a secondary, arrow-tipped ‘GMT’ hand that completes a sweep of the dial every 24 hours, plus a 24-hour bezel that rotates should you want to set a third time reference. It’s a simple set-up that’s barely changed since, just tweaked and fine-tuned as is Rolex’s want, unhampered by competition, and right all along.
If you’re in the market for a GMT, chances are you’ve come across this fabled model once or twice, not least because the most recent iteration is a belter.
Not sure if you want one? Read on to learn about its heritage, the newest model and just what makes it so special.
Why Is the Rolex GMT-Master II So Good?
Despite being a byword for luxury watches – the one brand everyone knows – Rolex has never strayed from its singular, and surprisingly affordable mission to make the finest, most reliable ‘tool watches’ on the market. Just as well, because our fine planet boasts a total of 38 timezones, meaning other finicky worldtimer watches can barely keep up technologically, let alone squeeze Nepal (+05:45) or the Chatham Islands (+12:45) onto their dials.
Rolex meanwhile has stuck stoically to keeping pilots on schedule, guilty businessmen aware of another missed bedtime and watch collectors rabidly obsessed over those tiny iterations. But it’s not just globetrotters that are drawn to this unique piece. As 2018’s boom in GMT watches proves, it’s a particularly popular tool for the everyman, and one that will always be wedded to its nostalgic nomenclature.
Rolex GMT-Master II
Sure, you can whip out your iPhone for guaranteed accuracy wherever you’ve touched down, but how many fiddly taps will it take to work out whether it’s too late to phone the office back home? A GMT watch takes just a flick of the wrist. Not only that, but the variety of creative, colourful ways to display that second time-zone means a world of different looks. And Rolex’s new blue-and-red ‘Pepsi’ configuration is the ultimate; the reference among time references if you like.
Its Mid-Century Roots
It was the ref. 6202 “Turn-O-Graph” of 1953 that almost nonchalantly coined the enduring tropes of Rolex’s modern-era sports watches, switching up the famous screwed-down Rolex Oyster case construct of 1926 with a broad rotating timing bezel, screw-down crown ensuring 100m water-resistance and bold luminous numerals. It’s easy to see how the Submariner tumbled out of this the following year, but it’s especially impressive that just another year later, Rolex thought to adopt and adapt the dive-time bezel as the defining feature for its new GMT-Master.
Not only could you set the normal hours hands and arrow-tipped GMT to local time and home time (or actual GMT) respectively, but if you could trust your ability to read the GMT hand according to its position around the dial, you could then adjust the GMT bezel to a third time-zone, reading that from the GMT hours hand again.
Rolex advertising booklet from the 1950s
Unlike the Turn-O-Graph and Submariner, the bezel was bidirectional for added ease of adjustment. Rolex even developed a bezel rotation system with a spring that allows the bezel to be turned crisply and securely in either direction, locating with a positive click in each of the 24 different hour positions. The first bezel configuration was rendered in blue-and-red tinted Plexiglass, but switched day-and-night colour combinations forever onwards, earning plenty of nicknames as a result.
The Rolex GMT-Master II Iterations
Launched in 1955, the Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master witnessed the rapid expansion of intercontinental travel in the latter half of the 20th century. It even became the official watch of Pan American World Airways, better known worldwide as Pan Am, the most prominent American intercontinental airline at the time. Three years later, the bezel also switched from Plexiglass to anodised aluminium – aluminium being easily coloured in an chromatic electrolytic solution, an oxidation process that also increases the metal’s scratch resistance.
Fast forward to 1982 (see, we told you things happened gradually at Rolex) and a new movement was introduced that allowed the hours hand to be set independently of the other hands, earning a suffixed ‘II’ to the GMT-Master name.
Ref. 16760 ‘Fat Lady’
On the original GMT-Master, the conventional hours hand, the minutes hand and the 24-hours hand were synchronized; you had to pull the crown out to the ‘second’ position and rotate the hours and minutes hands to set the date and the 24 hours hand, then pull the crown out to the third and final position to set the local hours hand.
But now, with the GMT-Master II, in the third position you set the GMT hours and minutes, then push the crown to the ‘second’ position to set the local hours and date – a far easier and more intuitive mode of operation. Come 2005, a major upgrade: Rolex replaced the aluminium bezel with its high-tech, in-house ceramic, Cerachrom.
While ceramic in watchmaking had long been mastered by the likes of Rado and Chanel (no, really, Chanel) the fact Rolex managed to make it work for the GMT-Master II is unprecedented for two reasons: the sheer variety of colours where anything beyond black and white commands serious know-how; plus the ability to produce a monobloc circle of ceramic in two contrasting colours, which interface crisply at 0600 and 1800.
Rolex GMT-Master II
In March 2018, at the watch industry’s annual jamboree that is Baselworld, the Pepsi embarked on its latest and greatest generation, in proprietary ‘Oystersteel’, on the fine-linked retro ‘Jubilee’ bracelet, with the new-generation calibre 3285 movement (chronometer rated to above-and-beyond precision, as per). Oh, and there’s a new brown and black bezel combination, too.
Not a lot has changed in this latest and greatest model, to be fair, but Rolex doesn’t go for revolution, just steady evolution. There’s a few snazzy new colourways on offer – including the iconic ‘Pepsi’ iteration – and the multi-linked Jubliee bracelet is once again back in vogue. It’s the colourful bezels that have got the watch folk chatting though.
All The Colours (And Nicknames) Of The GMT-Master II
The original and favourite colour combo of 1955 and 2018, the 24-hour bezel’s blue sector denoting night hours from 1800 to 0600, red denoting daytime from 0600 to 1800.
‘Bruiser’ or ‘Batman’
This black-and-blue GMT-Master II bezel combo launched 2013, as has since been given the nickname ‘Batman’ by fans. Its dark colour combination gives off a moody look befitting of the caped crusader it’s named after.
The famous black-and-red GMT-Master II bezel combo was first produced 1982. You’ll notice a subtle difference in the size of the crown guards when compared with newer models.
‘Root Beer’ or ‘Dirty Harry’
Another name for the ‘Root Beer’ colour-scheme GMT-Master ref. 1675, famously worn by Clint Eastwood, is the ‘Dirty Harry’, even though his most famous character sported a Timex as he blew away the bad guys.
The Ref. 16760 GMT-Master II was made between 1983 and 1988 with a red and black bezel, was named for its case being 1mm larger than its counterparts – it’s a hit with collectors today as a result of its rarity.
‘Black & Tan’
Suggestions still being taken for the nickname of this year’s black-and-brown bezel combo. Be warned, ‘Black and Tan’ may be a beer cocktail, yes, but it’s also a highly controversial force recruited during the Irish War of Independence by the British, so best move swiftly on…
The latest GMT-Master II is kitted out with Rolex’s Calibre 3285. With 10 patent applications filed over the course of its development, this self-winding mechanical watch movement is a consummate demonstration of Rolex’s rock solid, future-forward, lifeproof technology, with fundamental gains in terms of precision, power reserve, resistance to shocks and magnetism, convenience and reliability.
Rolex’s 3285 movement
For a start, Calibre 3285 incorporates Rolex’s patented ‘Chronergy’ version of the Swiss lever escapement (the tiny, ticking mechanism that ekes out the energy running through the gear train – a watch’s pendulum if you like). Made of nickel-phosphorus, it is also insensitive to magnetic interference. An optimised blue Parachrom hairspring is fitted to the oscillating balance wheel, the true beating heart of the watch. Manufactured by Rolex in an exclusive paramagnetic alloy, it is up to 10 times more precise than a traditional hairspring.
What’s more, thanks to its new winding barrel architecture and the escapement’s superior efficiency, the power reserve of Calibre 3285 extends to approximately 70 hours. More than enough to still be ticking come Monday morning, after an inert weekend on your bedside table.
How Did The GMT Watch Come About Anyway?
One sunny day in Washington DC in 1884, the International Meridian Conference decided to chop the Earth into 24 segments – each running an hour ahead of its westerly neighbour. It was about time, so to speak. The rise of global telecommunications and long-distance travel meant we all needed to be on the same page, whether phoning each other at the right time or to avoid crashing one’s train into another.
But where was ‘zero hour’ to be? That, at least was simple: given that zero degrees for longitude’s 360º sweep of Earth’s circumference – the ‘Prime Meridian’ – was pinned to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, it made sense to lever our entire planet around this leafy south London suburb and its gently ticking precision timekeepers.
Rolex advert, 1969
The ‘Greenwich Mean Time’ reference and every relative time-zone thus cemented, the great and the good threw themselves into newfangled intercontinental travel, whether by Pullman carriage or Cunard cabin. Unsurprisingly, by the 1930s their accompanying wristwatches started featuring elaborate ‘worldtimer’ complications, telling the time in Calcutta or Rio de Janeiro with suitably romantic enamel dials.
But once jet travel became the norm in the 1950s something more business-like was needed – especially by the airliner pilots, who just needed a dual-time display: a fixed GMT time reference, with a local time display to adjust with every hop of a time zone or date-line. And thus, the GMT wristwatch was born.