Baselworld 2018 was a defining moment for the House of Wilsdorf as the siblings were brought together by three letters – GMT. For many years Tudor has fought to forge its own path and has wanted to distance itself from the older brother. The older brother is, however, rightfully proud of the sibling, and while Tudor is the “Shield that protects the Crown”, this was the time for an aligned adventure. And the joint project was the simultaneous launch of steel GMT sports watches. And they are both beautiful.

Even the most casual observer could not help but have noticed that the big news from Basel this year was GMT. It was Rolex’s flagship novelty and it had been a long-anticipated addition to the horological Goliath’s sports line. The ceramic “Pepsi” bezel first debuted a number of years ago on a white-gold watch. But Rolex fans have a special place reserved in their hearts for the steel sports watches and the GMT in steel didn’t disappoint. The GMT-Master II (to give it its full title) range was actually extended by three pieces this year. The steel – (although it’s not just any steel… it’s now Oystersteel), Everose gold and Rolesor – two-tone steel and Everose. However,a the steel version, ref. 126710BLRO, was the one that people wanted to see. I have always loved the GMT-Master on a Jubilee bracelet and so it was a delight to see that Rolex chose this combination for the new watch. And like all steel sports watches, there will certainly be a long waiting list at all authorised dealers.

Magnum PI
Magnum PI
The 2018 Oystersteel GMT-Master II Ref. 126710 BLRO on the Jubilee bracelet (© Revolution)
The 2018 Oystersteel GMT-Master II Ref. 126710 BLRO on the Jubilee bracelet (© Revolution)

Rumours had been circulating about the Rolex GMT-Master, but the Tudor was a huge surprise. I have seen, on numerous occasions, the comment that this is the first GMT complication from Tudor, but it actually isn’t. During the time that Tudor was absent from the UK and US markets, it had a watch in its catalog called the Aeronaut. It had a GMT function that wasn’t executed with a Pepsi bezel, but rather an all-steel version.

The Black Bay GMT, though, is blessed with the Pepsi bezel and it looks very cool. The all-red 24-hour hand utilises the snowflake seconds hand shape, but the overall look is very familiar. The first surprise for many was the use of the GMT text on the dial. Whilst it is a generic term for dual-timezone timepieces, it is very closely linked to the Rolex watches. But it was a joint launch campaign and this leads to the second surprise.

Tudor Black Bay GMT
Tudor Black Bay GMT

The Tudor press launch very much referenced the launch of the Rolex GMT-Master in 1954 and there was a real focus on the fact that both brands were celebrating the 64-year anniversary by launching their own GMT watches with complementary aesthetics. The Tudor has a more obvious vintage vibe around it, in line with its place in the Heritage collection. An aluminium insert in a steel bezel gives the watch more in common with vintage pieces, too, as does the riveted bracelet and lug bevels. Where the ceramic bezel on the Rolex is vibrant and fresh, the Tudor looks more subdued and mellow. Different watches, but with the same DNA… true brothers.

The GMT-Master saga began, as I mentioned above, in 1954 when Rolex unveiled the ref. 6542. The watch was housed in the classic Oyster case, which was 38mm in diameter and had a 6mm screw-down winding crown. This was one of the first sports watches from Rolex and construction-wise, it set the standard for the foreseeable future.

As with the present-day watches, the 6542 case was essentially of three-piece design. The mid case is what held the movement and dial, onto which a bezel ring was pressed to keep the acrylic crystal in place. The third piece of the case was the screw-on case back. This system, combined with the screw-down winding crown, is what made the Oyster case waterproof and able to withstand more than a slight splash – it was guaranteed down to an underwater depth of 100m.

GMT-Master ref. 6542
GMT-Master ref. 6542

The watch had two innovations that were big news at the time, but are aspects we take for granted in the modern era. The first and less obvious was the date magnifying bubble, or to use Rolex terminology, the “cyclops”. This was a new feature introduced the year before (1953) on the Datejust line. The second was, of course, the dual-timezone complication.

Taking to the Skies

The dual-timezone feature was a useful tool for pilots and those who were travelling, often across different continents. The ability to track local and home time was especially useful for commercial pilots. The American airline company, Pan American Airlines (or Pan Am for short), approached Rolex and asked the brand to create a watch for its pilots. This partnership led to the development of the GMT-Master and in particular the first ref. 6542.

The commercially released watches housed a base Calibre 1030 which was modified to include the 24-hour hand and was given the calibre number 1065. This chronometer-rated movement was a four-hand engine with date function. The 24-hour hand completed one full rotation every 24 hours and the bi-directional bezel could be rotated to allow wearers to monitor the home time once they had adjusted their watch to local time or vice versa.

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This first series of GMT-Master is now extremely collectable as it was produced for only a short period and it features some fantastic details that vintage collectors love. The dials were manufactured using a galvanic process where the text is relief print, i.e. the gold colour lettering is the brass base plate of the dial showing through the black gloss lacquer dial surface. Vintage collectors refer to these as gilt dials and they are beautiful – like a pool of black oil. Some dials change colour and turn different shades of brown and these are known as tropical dials. From dark chocolate to light caramel, tropical dials are each different and highly sought after. The red 24-hour hands on these early watches featured small arrows at the tip and are another detail of these pieces that are important to Rolex aficionados.

Some dials change colour and turn different shades of brown and these are known as tropical dials. From dark chocolate to light caramel, tropical dials are each different and highly sought after (Image: Antiquorum)
Some dials change colour and turn different shades of brown and these are known as tropical dials. From dark chocolate to light caramel, tropical dials are each different and highly sought after (Image: Antiquorum)

The red and blue bezel also made its debut on the 6542. Known to collectors as the “Pepsi” bezel – due to its colour scheme being reminiscent of the well-known cola brand – the blue half represents night hours (18:00 to 06:00) and the red half, day hours (06:00 to 18:00). The 6542 had a steel bezel with an insert manufactured from Bakelite, a very brittle material that was prone to cracking and breaking. Many of these watches had their bezels damaged during day-to-day wear and even at service. It was commonplace to replace these delicate bezels with more robust aluminium inserts at service.

Additionally, the Bakelite bezels had luminous markers that were filled with the highly radioactive radium. In the early 1960s, Rolex began switching to tritium and started a programme of switching out the Bakelite bezels. Therefore, the combination of the insert’s fragility and radioactivity meant that very few survived and so finding a 6542 with an original insert is a real coup.

In addition to the steel 6542, there was also a yellow gold version. Sharing the same case proportions of the steel watch, the gold version also had a Bakelite bezel but instead of the Pepsi colour scheme it was all brown. This was the perfect complement to the matching brown dial and gold hands. The hands were not of the Mercedes pattern hands style seen on the steel version, but a more elegant and dressier version more commonly seen on Datejusts and Day-Dates. The dials also feature applied hour markers in yellow gold with small luminous dots in the middle – now known as “nipple dials”.

Yellow gold ref. 6542 (Image: Antiquorum)
Yellow gold ref. 6542 (Image: Antiquorum)
Bakelite “Pepsi” bezel (Image: Antiquorum)
Bakelite “Pepsi” bezel (Image: Antiquorum)
Close up of Yellow gold ref. 6542 (Image: Antiquorum)
Close up of Yellow gold ref. 6542 (Image: Antiquorum)

Second Wave

In 1959 Rolex launched the second series of the GMT-Master, a reference that would run until approximately 1980, the ref. 1675. This new reference featured the new 1530 series movement, in the case of the GMT-Master: Calibre 1565. The most striking feature of the updated watch was the presence of crown guards. The case had been enlarged by 2mm and was now 40mm (excluding the crown guards) and was again available in both stainless steel (1675/0) and yellow gold (1675/8). Interestingly, until approximately 1967 the yellow gold watch case was without the crown guards. The case was the larger 40mm size but it looked dressier due to this lack of crown guards. Rolex also introduced the aluminium insert as standard on the ref. 1675. On the steel version, the Pepsi bezel was standard and on the yellow-gold watch the insert was brown. The 1675 went through two crown guard versions, too. The first iteration is referred to by collectors as pointed crown guards (PCG) or cornino in Italian. This was due to the thin and sharp profile of the guards. The later version is much thicker and rounded and can be referred to as “rounded crown guards” as per the lingo used for Submariners.

GMT-Masters with rounded crown guards (left) and pointed crown guards (right)
GMT-Masters with rounded crown guards (left) and pointed crown guards (right)
1972 GMT-Master Ref. 1675 Mk2 (© Revolution)
1972 GMT-Master Ref. 1675 Mk2 (© Revolution)

There were two striking additions to the GMT-Master family in the early 1970s. The first was the introduction of a two-tone GMT-Master in steel and yellow gold (ref. 1675/3). This watch was available in two versions – a brown dial with half-brown, half-gold bezel insert and also with a black dial and all-black insert. Both watches were available on two-tone bracelets either Jubilee or Oyster.

The “Root Beer” ref. 1675/3 (left) and the black dial/bezel version of the 1675/3 (right)
The “Root Beer” ref. 1675/3 (left) and the black dial/bezel version of the 1675/3 (right)

The former, with brown and gold insert, is what collectors refer to as the Root Beer and featured the “nipple” dial. The second early-1970s addition to the line up was an all-black insert for the steel watch. In the modern era of collecting vintage watches, there has become an almost as great focus on collecting rare parts; bezel inserts are of particular interest. It makes sense, of course, for the owner of a vintage steel GMT-Master to have both a Pepsi and black insert to give the option to switch between. Two watches and two very different looks for the price of one (and an insert). Who wouldn’t love that?

The end of the 1970s heralded an era now referred to as the “transitional” period for Rolex. The brand began to introduce sapphire crystals, the quick-set date function and a move back to glossy dials but with luminous filled white-gold applied hour markers. The lines that had these features introduced were the GMT-Master, Submariner and Explorer 2. Not every line had them all introduced at the same time, however.

The Explorer 2 got all three in its ref. 16550. The Submariner ref. 16800 got the quick-set date function and sapphire crystal but a matte dial initially (which transitioned to the white-gold surround hour plots eventually). The GMT-Master ref. 16750 was introduced in 1979 and had only the quick-set date function at first. The matte dials were eventually phased over to the white-gold surround hour markers dials but interestingly it was never fitted with a sapphire crystal. Collectors prefer the early 16750s with the matte dial and these watches command a premium over the later versions with glossy dial version.

In the mid-1980s, Rolex began introducing the next generation of sports watches. The old references were replaced with new, for example out went the Submariner non-date ref. 5513 and in came the 14060. The GMT-Master was renamed the GMT-Master II with the new ref. 16760. The watch now had, as standard, a sapphire crystal, quick-set date and glossy dial with white-gold surround hour markers. The big innovation and the reason for the addition of the “II” in the name was a new independently setting 24-hour hand (a quick-set feature).

Ref. 16750 matte dial (Image: Antiquorum)
Ref. 16750 matte dial (Image: Antiquorum)
Ref. 16750 glossy dial (Image: Antiquorum)
Ref. 16750 glossy dial (Image: Antiquorum)
GMT-Master II ref. 16760 (Image: Antiquorum)
GMT-Master II ref. 16760 (Image: Antiquorum)

This was a big development in the line and made the watch a lot more versatile and able to monitor three time zones.  The watch was housed in a much thicker case, to facilitate the thicker movement. Not as thick as a Tudor Big Block, it is still noticeably thicker than previous GMT watches, which have always been slender compared to the Submariner. Collectors have given this watch the nickname “Fat Lady”.  An additional note of interest to collectors is that this watch has an early dial variation, where the word “DATE” is omitted from the upper dial text. Small, but important details… that’s why we love vintage Rolex.