The History and Development of the Rolex GMT Master II

Published on Saturday 27th of November 2021
Rolex Watch History

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The History and Development of the Rolex GMT Master II

 

The modern Steel Sports Rolex is one of the most desirable and difficult to obtain watches in 2021. Playing on the psychology of people who, when told they can’t have something, makes them want it more, Rolex restrict the amount of steel sports watches that are available for sale, fuelling ever growing waiting lists from authorised dealers. This results in an increased demand, which then develops in ever growing waiting lists. Arguably the watch that has the most attention for being subject to this vicious circle of lowering supply to increase demand is the Rolex GMT Master II. With its loud and vivid (for Rolex) colour schemes, and iconic design with a cult following, it's one of the most recognisable Rolex models of all time.

In the 1950s, Pan American Airways were riding the wave of the jet set era. Pan-Am approached Rolex to make a watch for their pilots. The company requested a reliable watch that could display more than one time zone at once for use on transatlantic flights. Rolex answered Pan-Am’s request in 1954, with the Rolex GMT Master, ref 6542. Based on the Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref 6202 from 1953 with its rotatable bezel, the GMT Master had a new movement with a 4th hand to indicate 24 hour time, and most notably the now iconic blue and red bezel. Numbered up to 24, the bezel could turn to offset the difference in time from one time zone to another, allowing the user to tell the time normally with the hour, minute and second hand against the numbers on the dial, and a second time zone with the 24 hour hand against the numbers on the bezel.

The original ref 6542 had a luminous Bakelite bezel insert. As the Bakelite was very brittle, it got replaced by a metal bezel in 1956. The GMT Master ref 6524 was most notably worn by Honor Blackman in the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger. Since then the GMT Master ref 6524 has gained the nickname of Blackmans character, Pussy Galore.

Over the next 29 years, Rolex continued to sell the GMT Master with very few changes to design or function. Subtle updates to the movement and case were made to the two new models in that time, the ref 1675 and ref 16750. The Rolex GMT Master ref 16750 would be discontinued in 1988. In 1983 however, Rolex would make a new model to add to the GMT range that would run alongside the ref 16750 and eventually replace it.

In 1978, Rolex released its first watch to have a sapphire crystal glass, the Rolex Sea-Dweller ref 16660. Rolex eventually introduced this new technology to its whole range, and in 1983 the GMT Master II ref 16760 would be the first watch in the GMT Master Range to feature the sapphire crystal glass. With the new scratch resistant glass, Rolex also made some design changes to the ref 16760, with the thicker case and solid bracelet, (model ref 16760) which has been nicknamed ‘The Fat Lady’. Rolex also did away with the iconic blue and red bezel, replacing it with a new black and red variant. With the blue and red colour scheme being reminiscent of the Pepsi branding, the black and red bezel is commonly referred to as the Coke bezel. Along with cosmetic updates of the ref 16760, The watch housed the new calibre 3085 movement, with the 24-hour hand becoming independently adjustable, allowing for an easier adjustment between time zones.

 

Rolex GMT Master II Pepsi
Rolex GMT Master II Pepsi 

The iconic Pepsi bezel was reintroduced to the range in with the ref 16700, with the model available with the Pepsi or Coke Bezel in stainless steel only, and in 1989 an all black bezel was made available. With the all black bezel, Rolex also introduced the option of a gold and steel case and bracelet (sometimes called the Tigers Eye), or a solid gold case and bracelet.

In 2005, in typical Rolex fashion, Rolex released a special edition GMT Master II to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the watches release, ref 116718LN, this watch was the first time we saw what would be considered the modern Rolex sports model case design. With its wider shoulders, and thicker case, combined with a solid redesigned bracelet and clasp, it made the older, smaller Rolex models feel less solid and cheaper. The biggest change to come with this new design was the new bezel, made of a brand new ceramic material that Rolex call Cerachrom. Cerachrom iss extremely scratch proof compared to the coated aluminium bezels of older models, and its new glossy smooth finish gave the tool watch a new dressed up look. This larger case and ceramic bezel design would go on to influence the design of all new Rolex Professional range watch designs from around 2010 onwards.

The new ceramic bezel found on the 50th anniversary edition GMT Master II, came at a cost for Rolex buyers and enthusiasts alike. Due to the cost of producing this innovative new material, it was only available on an 18ct yellow gold case and bracelet, with a dark green dial. This allowed Rolex to sell it at a higher price point than if it was on a steel watch. The increased price of the anniversary model wasn't the only down side of the introduction of ceramic technology. When Rolex eventually made the Cerachrom bezel available on a steel watch with the 116710LN in 2007, the difficulty in production of a single piece of ceramic with two colours, meant that the all black dial and bezel was the only option with a green 24 hour hand, doing away with the blue and red Pepsi colour scheme that the GMT Master II was famous for.

 

Rolex GMT Master II Pepsi and Batman
Rolex GMT Master II Pepsi and Batman on Jubilee Bracelets

 

With the GMT Master II range looking a lot less colourful than ever before, Rolex were under pressure from fans of the brand and customers to find a way to produce the new 21st century Rolex design, with the colour scheme and nods to its beginning that the customers were crying out for. And so, at the Baselworld Watch Fair in 2013, Rolex revealed the first Cerachrom bezel with two colours. A solid ring of ceramic that, like the original ref 6542 from 1954, was a different colour on the top half to the bottom. With this great technological advancement in production, it was expected that Rolex would give its customers the iconic Pepsi red and blue colour scheme. In an unexpected move, Rolex released the ref 116710BLNR, a GMT Master II, with the new ‘maxi’ case and polished centre link oyster bracelet found on the 116710LN from 2007, but with a blue 24 hour hand against the black dial, and a blue and black bezel. This is the now iconic ‘Batman’.

It would be a year later at Baselworld 2014 that Rolex would finally release a watch with a ceramic bezel in the famous Pepsi colour scheme. The 116719BLRO. This watch was styled like the now very popular ‘Batman’, with a polished centre link oyster bracelet, black dial, and red 24 hour hand to match the bezel. In what seems like a cruel twist from Rolex, and in great disappointment from the majority of Rolex customers, this new Cerachrom Pepsi bezel was only available in 18ct white gold, giving it a much higher retail price than its steel counterpart, again in a effort to recoup some of masses of money Rolex must have spent developing this technology.

 

Rolex GMT Master II Batman and Batgirl
Rolex GMT Master II Batman and Batgirl

 

It wasn't until Baselworld 2018, that Rolex finally released a GMT Master II in steel with a Pepsi bezel, this time only available on a jubilee bracelet, giving the sports watch an even dressier look, and in 2019 the “Batman” joined the trend. With the 116710BLNR ‘Batman’ being discontinued, taking the all black 116710LN with it, they would be replaced with a GMT Master II, in steel, with a black and blue bezel, but also on the much dressier jubilee bracelet to match the new Pepsi. This new 126710BLNR was given the nickname ‘Batgirl’. It seems that even in 2018 the technology allowing Rolex to make a twin colour single piece ceramic bezel was still being fine tuned. Earlier models of the 116710BLRO Pepsi can be seen with a slightly different shade of red in the bezel than the later models, presumably due to some change in the manufacturing process that Rolex thought would go unnoticed, but with the watch being given a mk1 and mk2 title by some online, those earlier models can be much more desirable, and can be considered rarer and more valuable than the newer mk2 with the darker colours.

With these two steel watches now being the only steel watches available in the GMT Master II collection, waiting lists are longer than ever before, and prices on the used watch market are commanding almost double the RRP.

 

Looking for a pre-owned Rolex GMT Master?

Looking for a pre-owned Rolex?

 

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