Rolex GMT, Master of the Skies

In 1903 the Wright brothers successfully completed four small but quite promising flights. Little did they know that in the next 40 years the industry of aviation would dramatically ameliorate to reach new heights, covering transatlantic trips on an everyday basis. Pan Am, one of the biggest American airlines at the time had already, by 1955 placed an order for the new state of the art Boeing 707 and was in need for a new timepiece that would assist the company’s aviators with keeping track of their travelling schedules. Multiple locations, different continents and numerous time zones created a niche but important need for pilots and aviation professionals. Who better to step in than Rolex, who in association with Pan Am, transformed this need it into one of the most important and renown references: the GMT Master. The watch, would become the official timepiece of Pan Am and multiple other important airlines worldwide. It is believed that the GMT Master played an important role in recovering from jet-lag, since it was the first watch allowing the wearer to instantly check two different time zones. Today, we will focus on the production of the first two references, the 6542 and 1675, whose stylistic identity shaped the design of all subsequent references until today.

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Rolex, “The GMT Tropical ref. 1675” in stainless steel, 1966. Discover more at onlyvintage.com

Introduced in 1954, the GMT Master had two distinctive characteristics: a two-tone bezel, initially in blue and red, marking the day and nighttime, as well as an additional 2nd hour hand with a small triangle at its end. This newly introduced hand was used by pilots to display the Greenwich Mean Time, the international civil time of the era. Due to this function, the name GMT directly derived and was adopted for the model. Later on, in 1972, the international time zone would change to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

The very first reference was the 6542 and up until today it is one of the most vaunted examples of GMT Master. Based on the design of the Turn-o-graph model ref. 6202, it was modified so as to feature a rotatable bezel and a long slim 4th hand (2nd hour hand). Moreover, it showcased a pressure proof of 50m/165ft and was fitted with caliber variations of the initial cal. 1030. The GMT Master ref. 6542 would have no crown guards and would be inserted with a Bakelite bezel, an industrial acrylic material that was practically chosen due to its ability to reduce light reflection but also to create a 3D look of the bezel.

Rolex ref. 6542 in stainless steel with rare red “GMT-Master” writing on the dial, 1955. The numerals 6 and 18 are wholly embodied in the red part of the bezel. Photos from Onlyvintage. 

The 24 hour numerals displayed were luminous, made of radium as did most of the lume parts of watches at the time. In addition to that, there are two variations existing in terms of the numerals: either with the 6 and 18 hours on the same red part of the bezel or divided in half (in between the red and blue parts).

This reference was produced in stainless steel and in some cases in gold featuring a brownish bezel and dial, particularly rare to be found especially for the early generation examples. A quite interesting difference between the steel and gold versions is found on the dial inscription: for the steel versions, we read “Officially certified chronometer” while in the gold versions “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified”.

Rolex, ref. 6542 “Albino” in 18K yellow gold, 1957. Photos from Onlyvintage.

The iconic and widely known reference 1675 made its debut in 1959 and dominated the preferences of professional aviators until 1980. The main difference with its predecessor was found in the absence of a Bakelite bezel, since Rolex decided to replace it due to its fragile nature. In the collector’s language of course, this means that the ref. 6542 is highly collectible and sought-after, especially if found with a great condition of the Bakelite bezel. Moreover, the ref. 1675 introduced crown guards and also the dial inscription, reading “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” in all versions, proudly describing the precision of the in-house movement.

Rolex, “The GMT Tropical ref. 1675”  in stainless steel, 1966. Details of the dial. Discover more at onlyvintage.com

Going further into details, the 2nd hour hand would remain the same until the late 1960s, were it started featuring a larger triangle at its end. In terms of materials, the reference was produced mainly in steel, gold and steel/gold combinations. It is important to mention that although crown guards were introduced with this reference, its gold version did not feature them until only after the first years of its production. In the early 1970s, Rolex produced two more variants of this reference, with total blue or black bezel. It is believed that the examples in blue were made and delivered for the Middle Eastern armed forces at the time.

In terms of auctions, a reference 6542 from 1959 in stainless steel was sold for CHF 255,750 (approx. 235, euros) at the “Important watches” Christie’s auction in Geneva, May 2013. Christie’s also sold a rare example of the ref. 1675 in stainless steel inserted with a blue bezel for CHF 197,000 during the “Important Watches” auction at Geneva, November 2014.

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Rolex ref. 6542 in stainless steel circa 1959, sold for CHF 255,750 (left). Discover more at www.christies.com

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Rolex ref. 1675 in stainless steel circa 1971, sold for CHF 197,000 (right). Discover more at www.christies.com

Moreover, at the Geneva Watch Auction: Two by Phillips, November 2015, a gold version of the ref. 1675 featuring the UAE crest and the signature of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was sold for CHF 167,000 (approx. 154,000 euros). Lastly, during the Geneva Watch Auction: Three in May 2016, an exceedingly rare gold ref. 6542 reached CHF 341,000 (approx. 314,000 euros).

Rolex ref. 6542 in 18K yellow gold, 1958 sold for CHF 341,000 (left). Discover more at www.phillips.com

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Rolex ref. 1675 in 18K yellow gold, featuring the UAE crest and the signature of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 1973 sold for CHF167,000 (right). Discover more at www.phillips.com

The Rolex GMT Master was a reference born to serve the needs of aviation professionals but finally won the hearts of watch lovers all over the world. With a unique heritage deriving from the legendary linear of Rolex “watch tools”, it is a pivotal reference that embodies timeless form and function, enticing a constantly growing audience as years pass by.

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