Master Stroke — The Rolex GMT-Master: Part IIBy Ross Povey
Read Part I of this story here.
The last installment of our GMT story ended with the first of the new generation: the GMT-Master II. The birth of the GMT-Master II in 1983 heralded a number of new innovations to the line that still stand today, 35 years later. The first and arguably most important was the introduction of an independently settable 24-hour hand. This enabled the wearer to quickly move the 24-hour hand forwards or backwards (via jump hours) independently of the hour hand. In conjunction with the rotating bezel, this meant that the watch could track time in three time zones. The first using the regular hour and minutes hands and the second by monitoring the independent 24-hour hand. If you wanted to monitor a third, it could be done by rotating the bezel and monitoring a third time zone against the bezel markings.
The GMT-Master II (GMT2) story begins with ref. 16760, powered by the new Caliber 3085, which was based in the Caliber 3035. It was the first GMT-Master to have a sapphire crystal and where other sports references had received sapphire crystals during their transitional models, the transitional GMT-Master (ref. 16750) had an acrylic crystal. Sapphire crystals were, by this time, fitted to the Explorer 2 also, as they were much more hard wearing and helped with waterproofing qualities. Interestingly, the Explorer (ref. 1016) and Submariner non-date (ref. 5513) continued to use acrylic until the late-1980s. The ref. 16760 was housed in a particularly thick case with thicker crown guards, hence its nickname “Fat Lady”. Collectors have also dubbed this watch the “Sophia Loren”, due to the exaggerated lines and curves of the case shape… you just can’t get away from these Italian nicknames with vintage Rolex.
Ring the Changes
Up until the GMT2, Rolex had offered two bezel insert variations, “Pepsi” and all-black. The new line of watches was offered with a third option that kept with the cola-flavored drink theme, this time a black and red “Coke” insert. These inserts are totally interchangeable and so collectors can easily get three different looks from one watch by simply switching inserts. I must, however, urge some caution in suggesting “simply” switching bezel inserts. It is, in fact, quite an easy task to complete and takes only a few minutes, but the cost of Rolex parts seems to have skyrocketed in recent years and so be aware that buying spare inserts isn’t as cheap as it used to be. It is, however, still cheaper than buying another watch!
Six years later Rolex updated the GMT-Master II line with the ref. 16710. This watch featured the new Calibre 3185 (based on the base Calibre 3135), which was very similar to the previous calibre. The most noticeable difference with the updated model was the slimmer case. This change in profile of the watch was welcomed by buyers, who had felt that the thickness of the Fat Lady’s case was too much. The watch was a huge success and remained in the brand’s line up for 18 years until 2007.
This series also saw a return of the two-tone and gold versions of the GMT-Master. The gold watch was ref. 16718 and was available as a black dial with all black bezel insert and also as a brown dial with bronze colour bezel insert. Each watch has its own unique character and the two variations are strikingly different on the wrist. The two-tone watch was similarly available as either black dial and black bezel insert or brown dial and bronze and gold insert – the “Root Beer” GMT. The soleil or sunburst finish on the brown dial gave the watch an added dimension and when these dials catch the sun… wow, there’s nothing quite like it.
The Devil in the Detail
I often say this and it’s never been truer than it is at the moment – Rolex collectors love the detail. Every letter, dash, font size, coronet variant all matter and enable collectors to keep an overview of the chronology of each reference. An 18-year long run meant that there were a number of changes and variances to the 16710. Rolex began giving the steel watches codes depending on the bezel inserts fitted at the factory. The letters A, B and N were used to signify Coke, Pepsi and black respectively. So, there was now a 16710A (Coke), 16710B (Pepsi) and 16710N (black); triplets in the family but not all identical.
There were also changes in the luminous material used on the dials and hands. In 1989 tritium was still the compound used by Rolex for their lume. It is a very low risk substance, but is still radioactive and so the dial had to be marked as such. Until around 1997 the bottom edge of the dial was marked “SWISS-T<25” The “<25” signified that the present tritium was emitting less than 25mCi. Towards the latter part of 1998 Rolex moved to using a compound called LumiNova.
LumiNova was invented and patented by a Japanese company and it was entirely harmless due to the fact that as opposed to being radioactive, it was photoluminescent. These dials were only made for approximately 18 months and can be identified by the use of just the word “SWISS” on the bottom edge of the dial. By 2000 a new photoluminescent compound had been developed called Super-LumiNova. These dials were marked “SWISS MADE” at the bottom edge. These three different markings are how collectors refer to each dial version and due to the extremely short production run, the LumiNova Swiss-only dials are considered the most rare.
The 16710s were, in my eyes, one of the last Rolex sports models with what we now refer to as the ‘vintage’ look. It was the last generation of GMTs to have the classic case proportions, especially when looking at the lugs, before the beefed-up cases of the current GMT2s. These watches were also the last to have fully brushed bracelets, before the introduction of the polished center links. The 16710 GMT2 was available with the classic steel Jubilee bracelet ref. 62510, which was the standard 20mm bracelet for a large number of Rolex watches at the time.
When it came to Oyster bracelets, the standard clasp ref. 78360 was available as was the flip-lock clasp bracelet ref. 93150, most commonly seen on Submariners. There was another Oyster bracelet with a shorter flip-lock clasp ref. 78790 that sat well on the GMT2. There were also the two-tone equivalents of all four references (62523 Jubilee, 78363 Oyster, 95153 flip-lock Oyster and 78793 short flip-lock Oyster). For the gold iteration, there were the gold equivalents of the aforementioned alongside a Superjubilee with concealed clasp.
The introduction of the ref. 16760 Fat Lady wasn’t the death knell for the non-independent 24-hour hand, as many people had assumed. In a twist to the GMT tale, at the same time as the 16710 was introduced in 1989, Rolex also unveiled the ref. 16700. Aesthetically almost exactly the same as the 16710, the 16700 was powered by the Calibre 3135 movement and had a non-independent 24-hour hand. The acrylic glass 16750 with non-independent 24-hour was kept in the catalogue alongside the Fat Lady and so the 16700 was the sapphire successor to the 16750. The 16700 was cheaper than the 16710 and so there were two price points at which one could enter the steel GMT-Master line. The watches were only available with either Pepsi or black inserts and there were no two-tone or gold equivalents ever released.
The third generation of the GMT-Master was unveiled in 2005. The gold GMT-Master 2 ref. 116718 was a considerable departure from its predecessors with a remodelled case profile, with much heavier lugs and crown guards. The aluminium bezel inserts of the past 50 years were gone and in its place was a new all-black ceramic insert with gold numbers. The watch was available in either black dial or green dial. A new green 24-hour hand on the black dial version complemented the “GMT-MASTER II” text that was also green. On the green dial the text was all in gold and was complemented by a gold 24-hour hand.
The new watches were powered by the Calibre 3186 that had powered the later years’ models of the 16710. The launch of the gold watch in 2005 was quickly followed up in successive years by the two-tone 116713 in 2006 and the steel 116710 in 2007. Both were only available with black dials featuring the green 24-hour hand and green “GMT-MASTER II” text. The new “super case” GMTs were now firmly established and as you would have guessed, the waiting list for the steel version was significant. These watches were available on Oyster bracelets with polished centre links (PCLs).
The development of the ceramic bezel was a big deal for Rolex and it took many years to perfect. Rolex named the material Cerachrom, which is an amalgam of ceramic and chrom (the Greek word for colour). The insert is baked at over 1600 degrees Celsius where it transforms into one of the most scratch and UV light resistant materials on the planet. One of the reasons that Rolex developed the Cerachrom inserts was to avoid the light-induced fading that had always occurred on their aluminium inserts on Submariners and GMT-Masters.
Vintage collectors love nothing more than a faded insert on their watch to add to the patina and unique look of their watches. Rolex, however, engineers each element of the watch to the very highest standards and the old aluminium insert was always a weak link in this respect. The manufacturing process of Cerachrom was very complex and, for the first five years, Rolex was unable to make the solid bezel in two different hues and so the initial bezels were mono coloured. They made them in black, blue and greeen for the Submariner, blue for the Yachtmaster 2, black for the Daytona and Sea-Dweller and brown for the platinum Daytona.
At Baselworld 2012 Rolex unveiled the 116710 BLNR with black and blue Cerachrom insert, where the black half represented night hours and the blue daylight. Finally, the brand had found a way to create a two-tone bezel. It was a huge success and like so many steel sports models the waiting lists were, and continue to be, significant. The black and blue worked well together and Rolex was proud of the achievement of mixing the colours, which was a significant technological feat that no other brand had managed to do. The watch was given a couple of nicknames by the collector community – The Bruiser and The Batman were the most popular.
Now Rolex could mix the colours, surely it was only going to be a matter of time before they cracked the code of the Pepsi bezel. One year later the dream was realised and the Pepsi bezel debuted in the 116719BLRO – a white gold GMT-Master II that really did have the heritage look of the Pepsi bezel in a very modern sports watch. Those who wished for the steel version had to wait until Baselworld this year when Rolex unveiled the latest and what I believe will be there most successful GMT2 yet, the steel 126710BLRO. The watch is exactly what collectors have been crying out for and vintage fans got an extra surprise when it was unveiled on a Jubilee bracelet. It seems a fitting note that as our story concludes, the GMT-Master line has come around again to the beginning; the true roots of the watch’s lineage. Red and blue Pepsi bezel, red 24-hour hand, Jubilee bracelet all wrapped up in a steel case. It’s time to travel.
The Root Beer
The Root Beer GMT-Master has become something of a cultural icon. For many years it was the unloved member of the GMT family. It was neither Arthur nor Martha; a hybrid that didn’t know its place in the horological hemisphere. Not as esteemed or luxurious as its gold brother and not as much a cool tool as its steel sibling. And let’s not forget, it was born in the 1970s when styles were all over the place.
The two-tone GMT story is one of two halves – the black dial and black bezel combination and the brown dial with bronze and gold bezel. It’s the latter that seems to have had something of a renaissance over the past few years, culminating in a superb re-launch of the Root Beer at Baselworld this year. All browns, black, gold and steel in the context of the new super case GMT-Master 2 and with the Cerachrom bezel, it was one of the big hits of the show this year. Will it be as popular as the steel Pepsi? Probably not, but those that know… well, they just know.
The 16753 from the 1970s has the nickname Clint Eastwood, as it is reputedly one of the actor’s favourite references. The so-called nipple dial (due to the shape of the applied hour markers) gives the Root Beer an edge over other two-tone watches and the softness of the brown dial against the washed-out look of the bronze and gold bezel insert make this a watch to watch. If it’s good enough for Clint then, for sure, it’s good enough for any of us.
Rolex is renowned as one of the best gem-setters out there with its high-end wristwatches, with some of the finest specialists carrying out this work at the Rolex factory. One of the most interesting moves the brand made was to set their sports watches with precious stones. The Submariner, GMT-Master and most famously Daytona have all been adorned with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. And serious collectors love them.
The first and still one of the most sought after is the ref. 16758 SARU that was the first bling GMT, launched in 1979. The pavé-set dial was set with sapphires at the hour markers. The bezel, in keeping with the “Pepsi” theme was half set with sapphires and rubies, with diamonds to signify the hour markings. The practice has continued with the third generation GMT-Masters in both yellow and white gold. Sapphires, rubies, diamonds and black sapphires are all options on the GMT2 as are pavé-set cases and even pavé-set centre links on the Oyster bracelets. It’s a serious bling thing.
And the rarest? Probably the 116749SABLNR, a white-gold case GMT2 with black and blue sapphire set bezel made in 20 pieces for the Chinese market. And its nickname? The Bruce Wayne, of course.