In its most contemporary reference, the Rolex GMT-Master II 126719 is one of the most sought after luxury wristwatches in the world. Likewise, vintage examples of the same family are some of the most coveted timepieces a collector can hope to own.
And yet, it is neither the oldest, nor the most complicated, nor the most luxurious, nor the largest, wristwatch that has made it to the Geneva watchmaker’s catalog.
So, what makes the GMT-Master, in any of its iterations, such a memorable timepiece to own?
By reviewing its history on this page, we aim to answer just that.
Overview Of The GMT-Master’s History
The GMT-Master’s history, while not as complex as some other Rolex model families, can be quite extensive. For the sake of brevity, we’ve segmented it into the following sections:
Browse Bob’s Watches Rolex Catalogue
While the name Pan American Airways is not one that resonates often in airport terminals today, in the second half of the 20th century Pan Am was arguably the face of luxurious intercontinental travel. Constantly pushing the boundaries of flight throughout its existence, Pan Am and their pilots encountered an issue in the early 1950s.
With all the continent-hopping they were doing, Pan Am pilots needed a way of keeping track of two time zones simultaneously on their wristwatches. This was due to the fact that air travel is based on GMT (now UTC) time, which is essentially the time in London. Therefore, transcontinental pilots needed to have both the local time as well as GMT indicated on their timepieces.
The First GMT Master
Rolex responded to Pan Am’s concerns in 1955 with a watch that, whether they realized it at the time or not, would go down in history – the GMT-Master.
The first GMT-Master ever received the reference number 6542. The ref. 6542 featured a 38mm stainless steel Oyster case, a bidirectional Bakelite bezel (more on this below), four center hands, a date with cyclops, and a riveted Oyster bracelet. It also lacked crowned guards, though this was standard for the time.
The 6542’s bezel was crafted in Bakelite, literally plastic, as it allowed the 24-hour scale to be luminous thanks to radioactive radium. Unfortunately, Bakelite proved a poor material choice as bezels would constantly crack.
Subsequently, these bezels would be produced until 1956 when they were replaced with metal, though non-luminous, counterparts. As we’ll see later, this style of bezel would not change until 2005 when Cerachrom was introduced.
It’s worth noting that the rotating bezel on a Rolex watch was not a new concept; in fact, just two years before the GMT, Rolex had debuted the Turn-O-Graph and, soon after, the Submariner. Both had bidirectional bezels with metal ‘scale’ inserts. To this day, many collectors out there argue that the Turn-O-Graph was a direct prelude to both the Sub and the GMT at hand.
Nevertheless, the 6542’s bezel was different in that it had two colors, red (day) and blue (night), as well as a 24-hour scale. The bezel was to be used in conjunction with with the red GMT hand, yet another novelty in a Rolex watch, to track the second time zone as originally requested.
Imparting the GMT’s additional function was a Rolex Calibre 1036, essentially a modified Datejust movement, which would itself be replaced by a Calibre 1065 and then a 1066 within the 6542’s 5-year lifetime.
If you’re interested in learning how to use a GMT watch and how the GMT-Master II is able to track three time zones, make sure to check out our guide at the previous link.
The Pussy Galore Rolex
The GMT-Master ref. 6542, aside from having earned the title of official watch of Pan American Airways, can also boast about its 15 minutes of fame on the big screen.
In 1964’s Goldfinger James Bond movie, 007’s ‘friend’ Pussy Galore can be spotted wearing one throughout, except hers was not steel but full yellow gold with a a black face, gold printing, alpha hands, and a black Bakelite bezel. As a result, gold and even steel 6542s earned the moniker “Pussy Galore”.
The 1959 GMT-Master Reference 1675
The first series of GMT-Master watch proved successful and, not ones to sit on their hands without constantly tinkering to improve their watches, Rolex forged ahead.
In 1959 the ‘OG’ reference 6542 GMTs were discontinued and in turn replaced by the GMT-Master reference 1675. The longest-running GMT-Master even today, the 1675 would see many subtle changes to its design until it was finally retired in 1980.
The earliest ref. 1675 GMT-Masters possessed a larger 40mm case, matte black gilt dials, painted tritium (not radium) hour indices and hands, crown guards, and a new Rolex Calibre 1565. Most importantly, this improved engine permitted instant date changes at midnight as opposed to the gradual turnover of its predecessor.
Throughout its lifespan, the 1675 would undergo various modifications which included a change in shape of its crown guards, a transition from a gilt (gold) print dial to white print, and a replacement of the GMT hand with a larger variant. The movement would also be upgraded in 1965 to Rolex’s latest, the Calibre 1575, which featured hacking seconds that allowed for precise synchronization of the watch.
Towards the end of its life, in the 1970s, Rolex began to let on a bit as to their vision for the GMT-Master. The steel GMT, which was originally offered only in the “Pepsi” version, was expanded to include a black-bezel option along with a two-tone variant.
The 1981 GMT-Master Reference 16750
One year after the 1675 exited the main stage, its successor would appear in ’81 as the reference 16750.
The 16750 was almost exactly like the 1675 except that its movement, the newest Rolex Calibre 3075 of the time, featured a quick-set date. A simple yet incredibly convenient improvement, the quick-set function undoubtedly played a part in the shift of the GMT-Master from the professional realm into the world of the everyday commuter.
The 16750 also served to introduce another distinct feature of modern Rolex watches: the applied hour index. Previous to this time, steel GMT-Masters (and many other model families) employed ‘painted’ hour indices. That is, the luminous material was placed directly on the dials which were matte black.
With the transition to a glossy black dial also came applied hour indices, indeed ones quite similar to those used in Rolex sports models of the modern day. Applied indices had been encountered previously in the gold versions of the GMT in the “nipple” style, but never in the steel model.
A more premium dial construction, the applied hour indices did for the steel GMT-Masters what they had previously done for the gold GMTs – added a simple yet noticeable bit of elegance to the watch’s face.
Before being replaced in 1988 by the 16700, the 16750 series saw the introduction of the first Root Beer GMT-Master in the reference 16753. Renowned (and later imitated) for its gold-and-brown bezel insert, the Root Beer GMT-Master ref. 16753 possessed the aforementioned bezel in gold along with a steel case and a two-tone Jubilee bracelet.
The First GMT-Master II
If an upgrade to the Calibre 3075 merited a new reference number in the 16750, we can comprehend how significant Rolex believed their next technological innovation to be, given that they decided to create a new model (sort of) just for it.
The first GMT-Master II was released in 1983 as the reference 16760 and with it came many important changes that remain a staple of the GMT-Master family in the modern day.
First, the 16760 was equipped with a new and improved Rolex Calibre 3085. Why was this movement so monumental? Well, for the first time ever, the GMT hand could be set independently of the hour hand. This allowed for the tracking of three separate time zones: one with the hour hand, a second with the GMT hand, and a third by offsetting the bezel.
The new movement architecture forced the case of the GMT to grow, not in diameter but in depth. Seen as a “fatter” case than that of previous GMTs, the 16760 GMT-Master II earned the nicknames “Fat Lady” and “Sophia Loren”.
The 16760 “Sophia Loren” marked various innovations for the GMT family with its Coke (black/red) bezel, applied white gold indices, and scratch-resistant sapphire crystal.
The Last Of The GMT-Masters
The second-to-last GMT-Master ref. 16750 was offered concurrently with the GMT-Master II 16760 until 1988 when the last GMT-Master reference, the 16700, was released.
Sticking to tradition, the last GMT-Master model in history was produced only in steel and only with a black or Pepsi bezel. It possessed few differences from its predecessor and would not make it into the new millennium as it was retired in 1999.
The 1988 GMT-Master II Reference 16710
The same year that Rolex introduced the GMT-Master 16700 (to replace the ref. 16750) mentioned previously, they also released the GMT-Master II 16710 as a replacement to the first GMT-Master II, the ref. 16760.
The new model was once more marked by a new movement, the Rolex Calibre 3185 that imparted the same quick-set and independent GMT hand functions while also implementing the brand’s latest anti-magnetic and shock-resistant technologies.
Unlike any GMT-Master (I or II) that came before it, the 16710 was offered with a black, Pepsi, or Coke bezel insert. It also served as the platform for many gradual changes to the GMT-Master line including the use of Super LumiNova instead of tritium, the use of solid end-links on the bracelet, the end of lug holes, and the addition of Rolex’s crown etched into the sapphire (as a counter-counterfeit measure).
The 16710 was the most up-to-date GMT-Master offered by the brand until 2005, when the first ceramic-bezel GMT-Master II was released. To date, it’s also the last GMT-Master to employ a Coke bezel. Strangely enough, it had a bit of overlap with the beginning of the ceramic GMTs, from 2005 until 2007, when the first ceramic-and-steel GMT-Master 116710LN was released.
The Ceramic GMT-Master II
At Baselworld 2005, Rolex introduced a GMT-Master II that signified a turning point not only for the model family but for the brand as a whole – the age of ceramics, super cases, and maxi dials.
While the previous 16710 was still in production, the GMT-Master II 116718 came on the scene with its newly-designed Oyster case (super case) in 18K yellow gold, a ceramic bezel insert (Cerachrom), and a matching Oyster bracelet with polished center-links. Intended to mark the GMT-Master’s 50th anniversary, the watch was offered with either a Rolex-green or more traditional black dial.
Although it could be a mere coincidence, it speaks volumes that Rolex used their GMT-Master II line to debut their most advanced materials technology and design themes, ones which arguably define Rolex in the present day. For instance, the super case is an aesthetic that now spans the Submariner, Datejust, Day-Date, and even Explorer II lines, and it all started with that first gold-and-green GMT.
Two years later, in 2007, the steel GMT-Master received the same upgrades in the reference 116710LN (replacing the 16710), though at first it was only offered with a black bezel. The two-tone bezels of the past were yet to make their return…
The Two-Tone Bezel GMT-Master II
2013 brought with it the debut of the GMT-Master II “Batman” ref. 116710BLNR (Bleu Noir) at the annual Baselworld fair. By that time, vintage Rolex Daytona models had already given the watch industry a taste of what a large demand and very limited supply could produce at auction.
Yet it was the Batman GMT that is often remembered as the first watch to spark a frenzy for modern steel wristwatches and, in particular, steel Rolex sports models.
Perhaps most surprising about the Batman was the fact that Rolex released it in steel first, whereas they usually debut novel features like a two-tone bezel in a precious metal case and later adapt it to a steel version.
The Present-Day GMT-Master II 1267XX
Along with the debut of the Pepsi bezel on a steel GMT-Master II and the return of the Jubilee (now “Super Jubilee”), Rolex also rolled out their latest generation of GMT movements, the Calibre 3285.
This new movement is now the standard in the contemporary GMT-Master II family which has grown to include rose gold (Everose) and meteorite-dial options.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single factor as being the sole reason for the current GMT-Master fever spreading through the watch world.
The 1955 GMT-Master aesthetic remains very much alive in the modern catalog even when one takes into account how much it has evolved over 50+ years. Whether Rolex got it right from day one, or whether watch fans have become indoctrinated into seeing Rolex as the authority on what a luxury watch should be, is a discussion for another day.
If nothing else we can all agree that the GMT-Master boasts a timeless style that, coupled with a simple and useful complication, results in the perfect choice for those who are concerned about what’s on their wrist as well as those who ultimately are not.
So, what’s next for the GMT-Master line? It’s difficult to predict. It seems only a matter of time before the Coke bezel makes a return in a modern GMT, but only time will tell if this possibility is just around the corner, or simply wishful thinking by anxious watch collectors.
Therefore, until this question is finally answered, we recommend checking out some of our other popular watch guides below:
- History Of The Rolex Submariner
- A Recap Of The Other Rolex Pilot’s Watch, The Air-King
- An Overview Of Rolex , The World’s Most Recognized Watch Brand
- The Rolex Models That Could Become The Investment Of A Lifetime
- The Most Affordable Rolex Watches On The Market Today
"In my mind, the GMT-Master is the perfect watch. It has the looks, the elegance, and the quality to prove it... what else do you need?!"Rating: 5.0★★★★★