On his never-ending quest to decode and unlock the mystery of gem-set Rolex, Ross Povey’s latest stop is the GMT-Master. Once the humble reserve of the airline pilot, the GMT-Master has been iced more times than an Aeroflot jumbo’s wings. The story started in the mid-1980s…

I’ve been asked a couple of times what SARU means. Ask a Springbok fan what it means and they’ll tell you it stands for South African Rugby Union. In Malay it is a verb that translates to ‘copy’ – an amalgam of the words ‘salin’ and ‘tiru’. In Rolex parlance it refers to those GMT-Masters with bezels that are set with ‘SA’pphires and ‘RU’bies. The iconic and unmistakably Rolex ‘Pepsi’ bezel on its dual-time zone sports watch was reimagined in stone. The blue upper half of the bezel was set with blue sapphires and the red lower half a semi-circle of trapeze-cut rubies. But how to accurately monitor the hours on the bezel? Step forward a trapeze-cut diamond from one to eleven with a triangle-cut diamond at 12 o’clock. Red, white and blue…

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 16758 SARU (Image © Revolution)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 16758 SARU (Image © Revolution)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 16758 SARU (Image © Revolution)
What a Difference a Stone Makes

I have made this point previously when talking about the unveiling of the Homeplate and Monte Carlo Chronos by Tudor in 1970-1972 – imagining the shock of the assembled watch folk when the bright orange and grey and blue dials were first shown; really unlike anything before from the House of WIlsdorf. However, the shock and awe in the room when the cloche was lifted on the SARU GMT-Master would have been nothing short of spectacular. If Instagram had been the horological vehicle of choice then as it is now, it would have quite literally ‘broken the internet’… had there been an internet back then. Rolex was certainly no stranger to gem-set watches, as amply demonstrated by the Day-Date, but a sports watch? This was ground breaking and arguably one of the turning points in how people viewed the sports watch in general. Times, they were a changin’ and the Rolex sports watch really was becoming a fashion statement.

The yellow gold GMT-Master was first introduced in the mid-1950s as reference 6542 and then at the end of the ’50s as reference 1675/8. In 1979 the GMT-Master entered its transitional phase with reference 16758 in yellow gold. Still a plastic glass but with a quick-set date. Then in the mid-1980s they took reference 16758 and gave it the makeover of a lifetime and called it the SARU. And it wasn’t just a tokenistic gem-set bezel, Rolex took the look all the way with a fully paved dial, with blue sapphire hour markers. The finishing touch was a yellow gold President bracelet with 12 brilliant cut diamonds mounted in the centre links. The overall effect was stunning and was truly the first time that Rolex had played with such a masterpiece jewelry and sports watch crossover.

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 16758 SARU (Image © Revolution)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 16758 SARU (Image © Revolution)
Shared Reference

The other well-known gem-set sports watches of this era, that came a little later than the SARU, are the reference 6269 and 6270 manually wound Daytonas. The big difference with these watches was that Rolex gave them their own unique reference. 6269 and 6270 were very specific in being brilliant-set diamond bezel (6269) and baguette diamond bezel (6270) Daytonas. There seems to be a commonly held view amongst collectors and dealers alike that the SARU’s issue is that it has the same reference as a regular yellow gold GMT. It is, therefore, essentially just a dial, bezel and bracelet on a production watch – all of which have been available as service parts. That being said, due-diligence around serial numbers of accepted models can go some way to helping in this respect. But make no mistake, this is a rare watch with no more than three-dozen examples ever being produced.

Two Decades Later

Twenty years after the original SARU was launched Rolex revisited the SARU recipe and the watch was given a 21st century makeover. The GMT-Master 2 was relaunched in 2005 in yellow gold as reference 116518 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the GMT-Master. The then-new GMT was housed in a new case that was still 40mm but had much more robust lugs. This was also the debut of the ceramic bezel, which was an important moment for Rolex. Rolex named the material Cerachrom, which is an amalgam of ceramic and chrom (the Greek word for colour). In 2006 Rolex released the 116758 SARU, this time giving the watch its own unique reference number (the ‘5’ denotes the gem-get nature piece). The SARU bezel featured 18 trapeze-cut rubies, 18 trapeze-cut sapphires, 11 trapeze-cut diamonds as hour markers and one triangle-cut diamond for the 12 o’clock hour marker. The new era SARU was joined by two siblings. The breakdown was as follows:

116758 SARU – Sapphire and Ruby Bezel with brilliant-cut diamond set case
116758 SA – Sapphire and Diamond Bezel with brilliant-cut diamond set case
116758 SANR – Daimond Bezel with Black Sapphire Hours with brilliant-cut diamond set case

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116758 SARU (Credit: The Keystone)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116758 SARU (Credit: The Keystone)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116758 SA (Credit: The Keystone)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116758 SA (Credit: The Keystone)

Not only did the second generation SARU have its own reference, it also had a diamond set case, with brilliant-cut diamonds on the lugs and crown guards. The yellow gold gem-set watches featured a yellow gold GMT hand. The watch available on three different levels (please note these are my ways of describing the levels, not Rolex’s):

‘Basic’ – gem-set bezel and case, with plain dial and yellow gold Oyster bracelet
‘Pave’ – gem-set bezel and case, with pave dial (428 diamonds) and yellow gold Oyster bracelet
‘Full Monty’ – gem-set bezel and case, with pave dial and yellow gold Oyster bracelet with pave-set center links.

In 2007 Rolex repeated the above but in white gold:

116759 SARU – Sapphire and Ruby Bezel with brilliant-cut diamond set case
116759 SA – Sapphire and Diamond Bezel with brilliant-cut diamond set case
116759 SANR – Diamond Bezel with Black Sapphire Hours with brilliant-cut diamond set case

As with the yellow gold model, the watch was available in three stages of bling – ‘Basic’, ‘Pave’ and ‘Full Monty’. The process was repeated in 2019 with the Everose version of the SARU, the reference 126755. The three levels of bling were available but now only SARU bezels were available and not the SA or SANR.

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116759 SA (Credit: The Keystone)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116759 SA (Credit: The Keystone)
Market Masters

Rolex have a track-record of producing watches for specific markets and its my understanding that a small number of GMT-Masters were produced for the Greater China market. They were essentially stripped-back SARU watches that were variations on the theme. In around 2014/15 the reference 116748 came to be. It was a yellow gold watch with plain dial and plain case but featuring the sapphire and ruby bezel. Interestingly this watch has its own unique reference and is a stripped back, dare I say understated, version of the SARU.

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116748 (Credit: The Keystone)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116748 (Credit: The Keystone)

I remember my friend Eric Ku premiering a white gold GMT-Master on Instagram. It was a riff on the incredibly well received BLNR steel GMT-Master, known as the Batman. The watch had a plain dial and plain white gold case but with a bezel that was set with blue and black trapeze-cut sapphires. It was beautiful and had the ‘4’ in the reference of the plain SARU form 2014, but with the full reference of 116749 SABLNR (sapphires bleu et noire). Originally this piece was made in approximately only 20 examples. And it’s nickname? Well if this was the sophisticated side of the Batman, then it could only be known as the ‘Bruce Wayne’.

Rolex GMT Master ref. 116749 SABLNR ‘Bruce Wayne’ (Credit: Eric Ku)
Rolex GMT Master ref. 116749 SABLNR ‘Bruce Wayne’ (Credit: Eric Ku)
Bling King Master

In closing there is one watch that is definitely the most blinged-out GMT-Master…in fact any Rolex sports watch. The reference 116769 TBR is a white gold GMT that is literally covered in diamonds. Rolex tell us it’s white gold, but there is so little metal on show, due to the mass of diamonds, that it could be made out of anything! I was actually lucky enougy to wear one of these watches in Geneva last November when Mr Ku happed to be wearing one. This is serious ice. The whole case is set with diamonds, even the case sides. The entire bracelet is covered in diamonds (paved with baguettes on the center links) – as is the dial. The bezel is set with trapeze-cut diamonds. It’s a serious piece of kit and the current market value is $500,000. A spare link will set you back $25,000. This really is the Ice Master!

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116769 TBR (Credit: The Keyston)
Rolex GMT-Master ref. 116769 TBR (Credit: The Keyston)