At the end of his long, arduous journey, we find Phileas Fogg desperately apologizing to his fair companion, Aouda, because he had been unable to complete his endeavor in the stipulated time, and for the unfortunate adventure he had subjected her to. Or perhaps not so unfortunate, considering she was drugged and about to be murdered at the time when he found her. But alas, after bearing all the costs of his conquest, Fogg was now destitute, incapable of providing for Aouda as he would’ve once been able to. At this moment, Aouda stuns Fogg by instead confessing her affections for him and asking him to marry her. Fogg is elated that the tides have taken such a turn and immediately instructs his valet, Jean Passepartout, to arrange for a minster to officiate the matrimony.

What madness possessed Jules Verne to subject his readers to such a disappointing defeat toward the end of an otherwise enthralling 80 days around the world? You see, in his massively acclaimed classic novel Around the World in Eighty Days, Verne subjects his affluent protagonist Phileas Fogg to taking up a challenge issued by his friends, in which he is to complete a journey around the world in no more than 80 days.

With £20,000 wagered, Fogg grabbed Passepartout and left his starting point, London, by train at 8:45pm on Wednesday, 2 October 1872. This meant that in order for him to win the wager, he would have to return to London by Saturday, 21 December, in that same year (before 8:45pm).

In the minutes after the earlier dramatic scene between Fogg and Aouda, Passepartout contacts the minister on what is to his knowledge the evening of Sunday, 22 December, and makes necessary arrangements for the wedding on Monday morning. But it is then that it dawns upon him that when the pair traveled eastwards on their adventure, they had actually gained a day — which equated to the present evening being Saturday, 21 December!

Atlantic Records

The wager was won (with seconds to spare) and Fogg married Aouda, becoming a man who had attained more in life than simply the destination to his journey. It leaves me to wonder, though: would poor Fogg have been subject to the trauma of his own miscalculation if he had an instrument that helped keep track of the multitude of time zones he crossed in his 80 days around the world?

The challenge of keeping track of multiple time zones presented itself in reality — a little under a century after the completion date of Fogg’s fictitious journey — in the Jet Age. The behemoth that was the Pan American World Airways, Inc. (Pan Am), was exponentially expanding its business of transatlantic flights then. In its foresight, Pan Am, whose pilots represented some of the best in the profession in the 1950s, saw it necessary to have its transatlantic-flight pilots adequately equipped to track time zones as they flew back and forth over the Big Pond.

And so, the then best airline in the world turned to the reigning crown of Swiss watch companies, Rolex, to develop a watch that would enable Pan Am pilots to keep track of time zones. Rolex, of course, being the ingenious industrial machine that it is, delivered the most elegant of solutions — one that didn’t require them to even reach for their drawing boards.

Rolex turned to an introduction they had made at the 1953 Basel watch fair, the Turn-O-Graph (ref. 6202). You might be thinking right about now that the ref. 6202 looks more like the great-grandfather of Rolex’s Submariner than anything else — which it does, but the GMT-Master, too, finds its roots here.

The Pussy Galore (ref. 6542)

The 38mm Rolex GMT-Master (ref. 6542) was introduced in 1954, and it was then the first of its kind. Using the Turn-O-Graph as a template, it took on a coloured bezel (blue for hours marked 19:00 to 05:00, and red for hours marked 06:00 to 18:00), along with a fourth hand that tracks the hour on the bezel’s 24-hour scale. It also had a date aperture, with Rolex’s cyclops lens fitted on its acrylic crystal. The GMT function works via a fourth GMT hand that moves in sync with the standard hour hand. In order to track a second time zone, the wearer can turn the 24-hour bezel to set the GMT hand to the time zone required.

The ref. 6542 was the only production GMT-Master that had luminescent numerals on the rotating bezel, on top of the general luminous treatments on the dial itself. But it was thus for just the first two years of its production. From 1954 through to 1956, the ref. 6542 had a bezel made from Bakelite, with radium-painted numerals. However, Bakelite turned out to be terribly brittle and Rolex found itself constantly having to replace damaged bezels on their customers’ watches. A painted metal bezel was then used to make the necessary replacement, and from 1956 onwards, Rolex did away with the Bakelite bezel in favour of the hardier metal bezel on their production line.

The ref. 6542 is also identified by what enthusiasts so lovingly call the “gilt dial”, a deep, glossy black face with gold-toned printing. The last two things to point out about the ref. 6542 is that throughout its production, from 1954 to 1959, the watch didn’t have a crown guard; and secondly, that the timepiece made an appearance on the silver screen, on the wrist of a Bond Girl, no less. In the 1964 film Goldfinger, Bond’s lady interest (one of many), Miss Pussy Galore, is seen sporting a ref. 6542 for most of her screen time. Hence, you’ll often hear vintage-Rolex enthusiasts referring to the ref. 6542 as the “Pussy Galore”.

Longest-Running GMT-Master (ref. 1675)

The ref. 1675 was in production from 1959 all the way to 1980. But, as is often the case with Rolex, there were subtle adjustments to the watch from the time of its introduction to its discontinuation. When it replaced the ref. 6542, Rolex did away with the mildly radioactive radium luminescent markers in favour of tritium. The watchcase was now larger at 40mm, and it has retained its dimensions ever since. Pointed crown guards were introduced, and then replaced with rounder crown guards from the mid-1960s onwards. After the late-1960s, a larger GMT hand was incorporated.

The mid-1960s also bade farewell to the desirable gilt dials, making way for the matte-black dials with white printing, which remained throughout the model’s remaining years. But then in 1971, the ref. 1675 received a new calibre that brought hacking seconds into the equation. The last interesting thing to note about the ref. 1675 is that toward its last decade, Rolex started revealing to the world that it was getting ready to offer more variations of the GMT-Master. There was an all-black version introduced in the early 1970s and a rather handsome gold-and-steel dual-tone model (ref. 1675/3), with what is known as the “nipple dial”.

The ref. 16750 and the Sophia Loren (ref. 16760)

For the watch nut that I am, it’s really quite a thrill to know that
the GMT-Master was not only alive and kicking throughout the Quartz Crisis, but that it was actually then that the watch started maturing. In 1981, Rolex replaced the ref. 1675 with the ref. 16750, which was largely akin to its predecessor, with one leap in terms of functionality. The ref. 16750 was the first GMT-Master to have the quick-set feature, meaning wearers were able to directly adjust the date wheel rather than having to turn the time mechanism enough times before the desired date was displayed. Earlier editions of the ref. 16750 had matte dials; later, they were fitted with glossy dials (circa mid-1980s) that used white-gold borders around the tritium indices.

Like the ref. 1675 in its later days, the ref. 16750 also had a few variants that were concurrently in production. Overlapping the production of these watches, Rolex also introduced the GMT-Master II (ref. 16760) in 1983 with a black and red GMT bezel (also known as the “Coca-Cola bezel”). On top of the quick-set function, the ref. 16760 was the first iteration of the watch to have an independently adjustable GMT hand. The new functionality added to the thickness of the movement and the case that housed it. Because of its wide, curvy side profile, collectors often refer to the ref. 16760 as the “Fat Lady” or the gorgeous and voluptuous “Sophia Loren”.

Rolex GMT-Master

Into the 1990s (ref. 16700 and 16710)

The ref. 16750 was succeeded by the ref. 16700 in 1988, and a year later, the ref. 16760 was updated with the ref. 16710. The difference between the two new introductions was that the ref. 16700 didn’t have an independently adjustable GMT hand, but the ref. 16710 did. The ref. 16700 also bore a more affordable price tag, when compared to the ref. 16710. The revisions that both watches shared were the use of sapphire crystals, an updated case design and, after 1998, both watches started using Luminova.

The ref. 16700 was produced with options for a Pepsi or all-black bezel, while the ref. 16710 had three bezel variations: the “Pepsi” (blue and red), the “Coca-Cola” and the all-black version. However, production of the ref. 16700 ceased in 1999, leaving the GMT-Master  II ref. 16710 as the sole successor, well into 2007.

As is common with Rolex, updates were again made to the ref. 16710 throughout its lifetime. Some landmark years were: 2000, for the introduction of Super-LumiNova and the new solid end-link bracelet; 2003 saw the addition of the laser-etched crown and the omission of the holes on the case’s outer edge. More luxurious variants of the ref. 16710 were also made available with an all-yellow-gold rendition and a yellow-gold-and-steel dual-tone version nicknamed the “Tigerauge”.

Coming of age

In 2005, Rolex dramatically redesigned the GMT-Master II, with a look and feel that fit the early years of the 21st century to a T. Coincidentally, 2005 also marked the 50th year since Rolex’s collaboration with Pan Am to produce the first GMT-Master ref. 6542. In celebration of such a milestone, Rolex presented a redesigned GMT-Master II in yellow gold, with an all-green dial (ref. 116718LN). In the following years, Rolex rolled out a yellow-gold iteration with a black dial, then a dual-tone model (steel and gold, ref. 116713LN), and finally in 2007, a steel version with a black dial (ref. 116710LN).

On top of the redesign, several significant technical improvements were also made to the GMT-Master II. For example, the Triplock crown replaced the Twinlock ones in the older models. The cyclops lens was now treated with an anti-reflective material. But the greatest of the technical leaps was the introduction of the blue Parachrom hairspring and the Cerachrom bezel in 2005. With the use of the latter, the numbers on the bezel were now engraved and filled in with either gold (for gold, dual-tone models) or platinum (steel version).

With the history of the watch, it came time for Rolex to also have a bit of fun and push the limits of its creativity by offering the watch in several diamond-paved iterations.

Rise of the Dark Knight

In 2014, the GMT-Master turned 60. And even though Pan Am had ceased to exist for some 24 years by then, the GMT-Master still stands tall as one of Rolex’s strongest offerings. An offering the brand established as perhaps one of its best contemporary sport watches, when they introduced the GMT-Master II ref. 116710BLNR with a blue-and-black bezel at Baselworld 2013 – affectionately termed the Batman.

At Baselworld in the following year, in 2014, to the delight of GMT-Master lovers everywhere, Rolex introduced the ref. 116719BLRO, a marvellous tribute to the original ref. 6542. Presented in white gold, with a novel method of chemically colouring half of an otherwise red bezel blue, the watch truly represents Rolex’s heritage, respectfully updated with their continual technical innovation.

While there’s much to be gained in the radiance of Rolex’s most recent GMT-Master II offerings, the venerable brand will not simply stop there. If we could speculate on Rolex’s next step (or perhaps this is simply my wishful thinking), it would be a steel GMT-Master II with luminous numerals on a Pepsi bezel. What an homage that would be to the first ref. 6542 with the luminescent Bakelite bezel. It’s not all that preposterous a wish, for Rolex’s sister company, Tudor, already has such a treatment on the ceramic bezel of the Pelagos, and it is simply breathtaking.

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