Exploring the Rolex GMT Master History & Evolution

When people think of luxury watches, there’s no doubt that the name of Rolex will come to mind. From the found in 1905 as Wilsdorf and Davis, the brand has become synonymous with the best in watches. Some might say Rolex is the standard by which all other luxury watch brands are measured.

There have been many illustrious designs offered by Rolex over the years. One that deserves special attention is the GMT Master. As an enduring design, it’s remained a favorite of many collectors as the years pass. If you’re interested in knowing more about how this particular type of Rolex came to be and where it happens to be in its evolution today, read on. You’re sure to gain an appreciation for the GMT and may decide it’s one that you want to add to your collection.

The Beginnings in the Middle 20th Century

The idea for what would become the GMT Master began to take shape in 1954. At that time, Pan American Airways was one of the premier airliners in the world. The company approached Rolex about designing a watch that would be suitable for their crews, especially those who would be assigned to long-haul flights. Part of the motivation for this was to ensure their pilots and other essential crew members had accurate time pieces that would help aid them as they crossed time zones over those long hauls.

In fact, the name for the watch was inspired by this practical aspect. The GMT stands for Greenwich Mean Time (what is sometimes called Coordinated Universal Time). Serving as the basis for keeping time, the design made it all the easier to determine the local time as it related to GMT. This made it all the easier for crew members to adjust as they landed at locations across the globe.

Working together, the plans for the GMT Master began to come together. The result of this effort was first released in 1955. Dubbed the Rolex GMT Master Ref. 6542, the watch was an immediate hit. Key to the design was the ability to display a second time zone, making all the easier for pilots to ensure they were in compliance with their flight schedules.

That’s not all the 6542 had to offer. The original designs ported a stainless-steel case that was made using the Oyster design that Rolex does so well. In terms of water resistance, the watch offered what was then an impressive resistance to depths of up to 164 feet (50 meters). A black dial provided the ideal backdrop, making it easy to see the hour and minute hands as well as the 24-hour hand that was equipment with a triangular tip. There was also a date window placed at the 3 o’clock position. An acrylic crystal included a Cyclops lens that helped to magnify the date window, another feature that made the design more popular with pilots.

One of the truly innovative features of the GMT Master was also one of the most practical. The design included a bi-colored rotating bezel that was marked to 24 hours. Paired with the extra 24-hour hand on the watch, it was easy to use the bezel in tandem with the hand to identify the second time zone. The adjustments was fast, easy, and a great help to the pilots.

The bi-colored design also accomplished something else: telling the difference between daylight and dark hours in each of the two time zones. Red indicated daytime while blue stood for night. Owing to the color combination, the feature was sometimes referred to as Pepsi, after the famous cola brand.

A few minor adjustments occurred in the years following the release of the 6542. One of the first was replacing the Bakelite bezels with aluminum ones. The aluminum was less subject to cracking and held up well. This change occurred the year after the watch’s initial release.

There was also a change in movements during the first four years of production. The Caliber

1036 was replaced by the Caliber 1065, which in turn made way for the Caliber 1066. The latter would remain in use until the first major updates to the GMT Master in 1959.

Launching the Next Generation of the GMT Master: the 1675

By 1959, the original design had provided inspiration for addition changes that would make the watch more practical for commercial pilots. During this time, it had also begun to attract attention among collectors and buyers. The result was the motivation to take what had been a great thing and make it better.

One change had to do with the size of the Oyster case. Adjusted to 40mm, the new design also allowed for the addition of crown guards to the winding crown. Early on, the guards had more of a pointed appearance. These were replaced with straight guards. Thanks to this change early on, The GMT Master 1675 watches with pointed guards became highly popular among collectors.

A new movement also helped enhance the practical aspects of the watch. The newly introduced Caliber 1565 made it possible to enjoy what was referred to as an instantaneous date jump. Precisely at midnight, the day would jump to the next day. This replaced the more traditional movement that gradually rolled the day to the next one in the sequence.

Initially, the Caliber 1565 operated at 18,800 beats per hour. That could chance by the middle of the next decade, when the movement was replaced with the Caliber 1575, which was enhanced to operate at 19,600 beats per hour. This movement underwent another change in 1971, when the 1575 was updated to stop the second hand in place while the winding crown was in the pulled out position.

Later in the 1970s, an all-black bezel was offered alongside the traditional red and blue one that has prevailed since the 1950s. There were also some more luxurious versions that included the key features while also offering the casing in yellow-gold with bronze bezels.

All told, the GMT Master 1675 would remain in production for 21 years. Thus far, that span has served as the single longest-running GMT Master in the series. 

Ready for the Eighties: The Introduction of the Rolex GMT Master 16750

The beginning of the new decade saw production of the 1675 come to a close. In its place, Rolex introduced the GMT Master 16750. Available beginning in 1981, a number of features carried over from past designs. One thing that did change was the water resistance of the watch. It now doubled to 328 feet (100 meters).

Rolex also updated the movement found in the 16750. Offering the highest operation thus far at 28,800 beats per hour, there was also an enhancement to the date feature. It was now possible to change the date separately without the need to keep turning the center hands past midnight until the right date was displayed.

There were also changes to the order of the hands found on the dial. The older watches followed a GMT hand, hour hand, minute hand, and second-hand sequence. The 16750 changed this slightly, using an hour hand, GMT hand, minute hand, and second-hand sequence.

Some elements that had distinguished the GMT Master remained. That included the red and blue Pepsi bezel, as well as the more recently introduced black bezel. There was also the 16753 version that offered the steel and yellow gold combination with a black bezel or the bronze bezel that had been introduced in the past.

One of the final versions in this run, the 16758, included the use of what’s known as nipple dials. There were also the options of going with a Serti dial that included diamonds and other gems, including rubies and sapphires.

The GMT Master 16750 was not destined to enjoy the same life span as its predecessor. By 1988, there were plans to discontinue this version and prepare for the launch of a new one.

The Introduction of the Rolex GMT Master 16700

Launched later in 1988, the 16700 was only made available with a stainless-steel casing. This design did still offer customers a choice between the original red and blue Pepsi bezel and the all-black version that had been present in the previous two incarnations.

The newest version did retain the Caliber 3175 movement that had been introduced with the previous one. None of the specs for the movement were changed. This was assumed by many to be due to the fact that Rolex also began offering what was known as the GMT Master II watch, which sported the ability to read three time zones rather than the traditional two. This led to the 16700 being considered the more budget-friendly option in the line.

Even so, the 16700 did offer some enhancements. The acrylic crystal was replaced with a sapphire crystal and included white gold surrounds on the dial’s luminescent indexes. Originally using tritium for the dials, this was changed to Super LumiNova in 1998.

While in production longer than its predecessor, the 16700 was phased out in 1999. The goal was to make more room for the GMT Master II, which would remain as is until the GMT Master II 116710 made its debut in 2007. Today, this version continues to thrive as a watch that commands attention from flight professionals as well as collectors around the world.