The Rolex GMT Master Through Time Zones Part 1 – Vintage

The Rolex GMT Master is arguably one of the best known models within the brand, occupying territory along with the Submariner and Daytona as one of the three kings in “professional” line. Its history from conception to present day is a fascinating insight into the development of watches with purpose. 

In 1954 Pan American Airways, known as Pan Am, approached Rolex and asked them to design a watch which would display multiple timezones at a glance. They planned to issue this watch to their pilots as they had started to operate trans Atlantic flights. Research had shown that the ability to read home time and local time had positive effects on the reduction of jet lag. Something which was definitely useful when navigating approximately 670 tonnes of Boeing through the skies. A video of the Stratocruiser can be seen here –

Rolex designed and produced the “Rolex GMT-Master” reference 6542.

The 6542 was the official watch of Pan Am and had a red GMT hand, a 38mm case, plexiglass crystal, hands and markers with radium paint, gilt print glossy dial, and the most recognisable feature of the GMT watch – a blue and red moveable bezel showing 24 hour markings which were also applied with radium for maximum visibility in low light conditions. The original bezel was made from “Bakelite”, an early form of plastic used in telephones and electrical equipment. It was soon discovered that Bakelite was too brittle to be used for the GMT bezel as it was prone to cracking, particularly in hot climates, so this was eventually replaced by aluminium.

The fragile Bakelite wasn’t the largest worry with the 6542. The Radium used on the bezel, hands and indices was found to be highly radioactive, which came as a surprise since it had been considered harmless to the extent that Radium infused toothpaste was on the market at the time which promised to give an extra radiance and glow to teeth. As a result of this new information regarding toxicity, all 605 GMT Masters that had been imported to North America were recalled and tested by the Atomic Energy Commission. Radium painted GMT’s were declared unsafe and were promptly re-issued by Rolex with Tritium providing the warm but no longer unhealthy glow. This reissue means that the first run of Bakelite/Radium GMT Masters are exceptionally rare and highly coveted by collectors.

A Rolex recall letter sent out to customers regarding radium, and the GMT Master.

It would be reasonable to think, given Rolex collectors habit of nicknaming some of the references, that the 6542 would find itself with the moniker “Pan Am” or something equally suited to its purpose. However, this reference is known as the “Pussy Galore” due to being worn by Honor Blackman who reprised the role in the James Bond film “Goldfinger” (while Bond himself wore the Rolex Submariner 6538)

Pussy Galore was Goldfingers personal pilot, so it makes sense that she would be equipped with the cutting edge aviation related watch of the time.

The Goldfinger 6542 on Pussy Galore was the first time in history that a women was ever filmed or photographed wearing a “mans” wristwatch. 

A clear shot of the watch!

In its cockpit environment.

And typically falling for the charms of Mr. Bond.

The GMT-Master reference was made until 1959 before it was replaced by reference 1675.

The GMT Master 1675 was increased in size from 38mm to a 40mm case and benefitted from the addition of crown guards. It was the first professional model to be made available with both Oyster and Jubilee bracelets and had a matte dial with Tritium markers. Its aluminium bezel was swiftly nicknamed “Pepsi” due to sharing its colour scheme with the famous soft drink, a name which has endured to present day when describing blue and red Rolex GMT bezels. By this time the GMT Master was not only being worn by Pan Am pilots, but had won over jetsetters and travellers across the board from business people to military personnel.

It was also made utterly famous by “Magnum P.I” when Tom Selleck wore his 1675 for the duration of the series. He still wears it, although freely admits that it sees more wear on his avocado plantation these days rather than gracing the interior of a Ferrari.

Selleck as Thomas Magnum (P.I) wearing his GMT-Master

GMT-Master 1675 “Pepsi”. The bezel on this piece has pleasingly faded to a raspberry colour.

Che Guevara wearing his 1675. Said to be a gift from Fidel Castro.

The 1675 was not only available in steel. It was also made in yellow gold, and two-tone steel and gold. The two tone GMT Master 1675 was called the “Root Beer” in keeping with the soft drink coloured theme as it sported a gold and brown bezel colour scheme. It was the favoured and owned watch of Clint Eastwood, and is sometimes referred to by his name. He wore it in three of his movies – Firefox, Tightrope and Line Of Duty.

The Root Beer / Clint Eastwood GMT Master 1675. The referred to as a “Nipple Dial” for obvious reasons. These indices can only be found on vintage yellow gold and two-tone Rolex GMT’s and Submariners.

Clint Eastwood wearing his own GMT Master 1675 in “The Line Of Duty”

The 1675 enjoyed a fairly long production run from 1959 to 1980 when the reference 16750 replaced it.

The 16750 had an upgraded movement (calibre 3075) featuring the quick-set date mechanism. This meant that the date could now be advanced by pulling the crown out 1 click and advancing the date rather than using the hands alone to wind round the dial and forward the date. This was a complete pain if your watch stopped on the second and it was the first of the month. The 16750 is considered a “transitional” reference as it began with the matte dial and unadorned markers of the 1675 but ended its production run with a glossy dial and white gold surrounds on the indices. 

16750 with matte dial and plain tritium markers.

Post transition, when the 16750 was fitted with a glossy dial with white gold surrounds.

The 16750 was produced for 8 years until the introduction of reference 16760, which brought some fairly radical changes (by Rolex standards)

The radical change in this instance was the introduction of the GMT Master II in reference 16760 which was also known as the “Fat Lady” due to its beefed up (Submariner-esque) case or “Sophia Loren” as it was thought to have curves in all the right places.

The 16760 came with a black and red bezel ONLY. This became known as the “Coke” to complete the soft drink lineup of GMT bezel nicknames. It had a new movement (calibre 3085) which could advance the hour hand independently, thus enabling time to be tracked over 3 separate timezones rather than the 2 zones afforded by the GMT Master. It was also the first GMT to come equipped with a sapphire crystal.

Coke bezel on the 16760, the beefiest of the older GMT’s. Photo by Bobs.

Because it wouldn’t be fair to not include a photo of Sophia Loren

I am unable to think of a better way to leave the vintage time zone of the Rolex GMT-Master.

Part 2 covering later references to follow.