Understanding The Rolex GMT-Master
One of the crowning achievements of humankind in the last century was the mastery of flight. When the Wright Brothers launched their Flyer into the seaside breeze of Kitty Hawk, N.C., a door was opened onto possibilities previously only imagined in myths or dreams. The first scheduled commercial flight took place in Florida a little more than 100 years ago, from St. Petersburg to neighboring Tampa. And the subsequent popularization of commercial air travel in the 1950s and '60s allowed civilians to go places with greater speed than any previous generation. But while the possibility to arrive on another continent in mere hours was certainly game-changing, it created problems too, imitation watches particularly as it pertained to keeping and adjusting to time.
There was no longer just the time. Rather, there was the time where one was and the time where one was going. This was a daily concern for the commercial pilots crisscrossing the world's time zones in the nascent commercial aviation industry. One of the great American companies of the last century, Pan American World Airways, partnered with a Swiss watch brand by the name of Rolex to see if it could make them a watch capable of telling the time in more places than one. It is from this overture that came one of today's most collectible, historically important, and iconic Rolex sport watches: The GMT-Master.
The Albino Dial GMT-Master Ref. 6542 hublot replica
The first GMT-Master was a large-for-its-time 38mm in diameter with a legible dial created for Pan Am Pilots. It is believed that at least some of these supplied watches featured unusual white, or Albino, dials. The name is appropriate in more ways than one. Such examples of the 6542 are, truly, white whales. In 2015, HODINKEE had this very watch in the office, and Ben went hands-on with it.
The GMT-Master didn't come from a blank slate. We can trace its roots back to other classic Rolex sport watches, perhaps starting with the Rolex Zerographe reference 3346 circa 1937 with a rotating bezel, but continuing to the Submariner and Turn-O-Graph models that Rolex introduced in 1953. These watches featured rotating aluminum bezels for timing elapsed minutes, and they served as the platform upon which Rolex was to develop the first GMT-Master. To this day, if you think of a watch made for tracking time in more places than one, there is a very good chance that the blue-and-red bezeled Rolex GMT-Master, graduated for 24 hours, is the image that appears in your mind's eye. What started as a purpose-built tool for pilots has transcended that role to become a totem of a cosmopolitan, urbane, and well-traveled life. As such, it's been worn not just by pilots and navigators, but by famous actors, entertainers, artists, thinkers, and musicians – the people whose personalities and style influence us on a daily basis.
The watch collecting community continues to show great interest in the GMT-Master's vintage references. And the current collection of GMT-Master IIs accounts for several of the most sought-after watches at retail. The Rolex GMT-Master is, in all its many forms, quite simply the most famous travel watch the world has ever seen.
Wherever possible, I've provided production dates for the references in this article. It is crucial to understand that what the numbers on the inside caseback tell us regards the case production, but that watches were often not assembled until a year later and then sold after that, sometimes many years later. In the mid-'70s, Rolex ceased printing case production dates on the inside of casebacks. For those watches, the serial numbers printed on the case between the lugs offer the best insight into when a watch was made, but this too is something of an imprecise science.
It's been 65 years since Rolex launched the first GMT-Master, and in that time, there have been a great many variations if you take into account all of the gem-set examples and different strap / bracelet configurations. Showing you every single one of them would probably have been impossible, so instead we've decided to focus on the watches that we think tell the story of the world's most famous travel watch, from 1955 to the present.
In order to do this, we've once again tapped Eric Wind, former HODINKEE contributor and the proprietor of Wind Vintage. Eric reached well into his network of friends and collectors to bring us more than 30 world-class examples of the Rolex GMT-Master to include in this article.
While the Bakelite bezel of the 6542 has come to be known as the reference's defining feature, it proved problematic for two reasons. First, it was prone to cracking and was therefore replaced with a non-luminous metal insert toward the end of the 6542's run. Second, the radioactivity of the bezels was the source of controversy in the United States when, in 1961, an American Naval officer and his family sued Rolex, claiming that his 6542's luminous bezel had caused cancer.
Rolex recalled these bezels and replaced them with anodized metal ones. Owing to these factors, examples of the 6542 with original Bakelite bezels are exceedingly rare.
Over the course of its five years in production, from 1955 through 1959, the 6542 used a 38mm Oyster case and three different automatic GMT-Master movements. First, there was the cal. 1036, then the 1065, and finally the 1066.
The very earliest examples of the ref. 6542 feature the words "GMT-Master" written in pink and are rare, with at least one example known to feature the depth rating of "50m = 165ft" on the dial in red above the pink GMT-Master text. Very early examples might also have a long-neck Mercedes hour hand similar to the Submariner reference 6200, which was also from that period.
The steel 6542 cases had some variation over the years, with some having narrower chamfered edges/bevels and some having very broad chamfered edges/bevels. There were also variations in the placement of the red and blue on the bezel. For steel 6542s, there are also some examples with fully lumed tips of the GMT hands and others, like the ones featured in this story, that have lume inside a small triangle.