Return of the Master

The classic travellers’ watch from Rolex is back in favour

THERE’S an argument sometimes trotted out by fashion “aficionados” that blue and black simply don’t go, whatever the outfit, and should never be worn side by side.

That’s a theory Rolex is putting to the test with the latest update to its long-standing duel time zone watch, the GMT Master II, which now has a two-tone bezel made from a single piece of ceramic. For those who know their Rolex, this is rather a big deal for two reasons. One: ceramic – or Cerachrom, as Rolex likes to call its particular version – is a darned tricky substance to work with, scratchproof and impervious to anything short of a cruise missile impact, but very hard to make in anything other than dull monochrome. So two-tone ceramic is actually scientifically noteworthy. Two, by making that kind of forward progress, Rolex is actually returning the GMT Master II to its classic look – or at least, getting closer to it.

That bi-colour bezel is in fact a rotating 24-hour display, with the colour change splitting it into day and night – this is all about clarity of function, as all the best watch designs should be. The GMT Master was originally launched back in 1954, when the American airline Pan AM approached Rolex with the requirement for a watch that could help its pilots and crews with a new phenomenon born of the age of long-haul jet travel: jet lag. They needed a watch that could allow them to keep their body clocks tuned to their “home” time as they travelled, and an additional hour hand with a rotating 24-hour bezel enabled that. GMT, by the way, stands for Greenwich Mean Time, which acted as the international standard for aviation scheduling.

That bezel was never blue and black though. It was blue and red, originally on bakelite and then with metal inserts. This is known as the famous Rolex “Pepsi” look, for obvious reasons; and later red/black versions naturally became known as Rolex “Coke”. So far, so colourful. But after relaunching the watch as the GMT Master II with upgraded functionality in the 1980s, in 2005 Rolex introduced tough old ceramic as its bezel material of choice. Out went the colours and, for many people, a lot of the GMT Master II’s charm. After all, if you want a rotating black bezel, why go for anything other than a Submariner, since that’s what people will mistake it for anyway?

An interesting thing has happened though. Perhaps as a result of its lost lustre, or because of its qurikiness, the GMT Master has lagged somewhat behind the other Rolex tool watches – the Explorers and in particular the Submariners – in the vintage market. But with prices rocketing on those other options and the return of bi-colour in the new model putting the focus back on the GMT’s charm and history, there’s a sense its moment among collectors is coming. If you own an old one, keep it very close...

Why own a Rolex GMT Master II?
1. It’s more interesting than owning a Submariner, which tends to be the de facto choice for first time Rolex collectors. If you prefer to stand out from the crowd, a two-tone travel watch is a great option, and it still shares that rugged diving watch feel of the Sub. And for now, vintage models have not seen such steep price increases.

2. It’s a genuinely useful complication. If you’re away travelling and you want to call home, you don’t need to work out what time it is there: your watch tells you instantly.

3. It has an interesting backstory. It has the glamour of those original days of Pan Am jet travel, but it was also favoured by troops in Vietnam. And most of all, Magnum PI wore one.