A Moment in Time: Rolex GMT-Master II Ref. 116719BLRO
Disclaimer: From July to August 2015, I worked at Sidney Thomas Jewelers. This is not a paid promotion.
For sixty years the Rolex GMT-Master has remained the iconic jet-setting watch seen on the wrists of pilots, airmen and frequent fliers the world over. The latest iteration brings together all six decades of history into one watch, the Ref. 116719BLRO
The story of the GMT-Master actually starts wit the release of the Ref. 6062 Turn-o-graph in 1953. I'll be honest and say up until I started researching the Ref. 6542, I had no idea about the Turn-o-graph which looks like a smaller, nerdier sibling to it's younger brother, the Submariner that would be released a year later. The aeronautical routes of the GMT-Master started here as the Turn-o-graph was given to USAAF pilots upon their return from the Korean War and it was around this time when Pan-Am asked Rolex to make a watch that could display multiple time zones at once. The ever-quickening pace of technological progress was marching forward and transatlantic flights were becoming more and more common so the need for pilots to know the time in multiple time zones became more important.
This partnership would result in the release of the Ref. 6542 in 1954, the first Rolex GMT Master and the first Rolex to display multiple timezones at once. Whilst colloquially the iconic red and blue bezel would be known as the "Pepsi bezel", the color scheme was chosen as it was the same as Pan-Ams logo colors at the time. I heard rumors among my fellow sales assistants that they heard from a friend that if a Rolex rep caught you acknowledging the Pepsi slang term, they would forbid you from selling Rolex! The first two years of production had the bezel be made from bakelite but in 1956 it was changed to a metal bezel because of how notoriously delicate the bakelite was. An original bakelite 6542 came up for auction at Watches of Knightsbridge a few months ago and sold for just over $48,000.
The 6542 was a huge hit and even graced the wrist of famous Bond Girl Pussy Galore in 1964's Goldfinger even though at the time it was "the old model" as the Ref. 1675 came out in 1959. This reference would be made for twenty one years with only minor changes in that time which is a huge testament to the enduring quality of Rolex and their design. I don't think we can quite comprehend as to just how much the world changed from 1959 to 1980; in that time there were six new presidents, three different James Bonds, the development of quartz movements, man landing on the moon yet all throughout the 1675 remained almost unchanged.
There were two different calibres that saw the inside of the Ref. 1675 with the later 1575 introduced stop seconds and a higher oscillating frequency of 19,800bph in 1971. The addition of crown guards made it the watch more durable and it is not too difficult to find a 1675 in decent condition for a 'reasonable' price. The Ref. 1675 was also the first Rolex watch to be available on either an oyster or Jubilee bracelet. In 1981 the Ref. 16750 upped the water resistance from 50m to 100m and was the first GMT-Master to have a quick set date with the introduction of the 3075 Calibre. This newer calibre also beat at a higher rate of 28,800bph.
The first GMT-Master II came out in 1983 in the form of Ref. 16760 which has been nicknamed either the "Fat Lady" or the "Sophia Loren" for it's larger case and bigger curved crown guards. The Fat Lady brought about many changes to the GMT Master line with sapphire crystal instead of acrylic, white gold hour marker surrounds and for the first time an independently adjustable twenty four hour hand. This feature however was only able because the Calibre 3085 didn't have a quick-set date option. The Fat Lady was only available in a new color combo bezel of red and black which I'll admit I have never been a fan of.
The closer we get to the present day the shorter the lifespan of the GMT-Master with it finally ending in 1999 (Or 2001, sources differ). The 16710 GMT-Master II would last from 1989 to 2007 and would see a lot of changes during it's time on shelves with the tritium dial being replaced by superluminova, the introduction of solid end links and it was the last GMT Master II to have an aluminum bezel.
The Rolex GMT Master II Ref. 116719 BLRO is a testament to Rolex's sheer force of will to provide only the best materials and quality manufacturing to their clients. In 2005 Rolex introduced Cerachom, a patented Rolex ceramic that will remain virtually unaffected by ultraviolet rays so even decades later the colors will still be as bright as the day it was made. The introduction of a ceramic bezel led to a problem with the GMT-Master II and it's famous two-tone bezel as producing a single block of ceramic with two colors wasn't possible and producing a red ceramic was thought to be impossible. Red is difficult to manufacture in ceramic as lighter colors tend to fade away during the baking process. Rolex took impossible in their stride and in 2013 released the 116710 BLNR (Blue Noir) which marked the first time a single block of ceramic was two colors. The one year later Rolex released the BLRO.
There is no need to mince words, the red/blue Cerachom bezel is amazing. It has so much vibrant color that it screams GMT-MASTER II from across the room at a volume almost terrifying. The twenty-four hour markers are bigger and bolder than ever before and have been engraved into the ceramic and then coated in platinum. Looking at them at an angle shows just how deep the engraving is and how prominent they are. The bezel is also thicker and more prominent that ever which is why the watch feels so large on the wrist, despite it being the same size as previous references. It turns beautifully in one hour increments making setting the alternate time zone a breeze.
Just like the Explorer II Ref. 216570, the GMT-Master II isn't so much a reimagining of a classic reference but instead is the end point of small changes that have taken place over the last sixty years. The crown is far larger than any of the previous models, the guards are more guard-like and whilst the case is the same Rolex sports case we've seen for decades but in white gold you can really feel the weight behind it. The lugs and outer links have a matte finishing with the case sides and center lugs having a high polish finish. As I'm sure you can see from some of the photos, the high polish does show up fingerprints quite nicely. I'll make sure to wear gloves next time. There is a slight disconnect for me between having the sporty Oyster bracelet in white gold, a metal whilst being resistant to corrosion is not renowned for it's durability and toughness. This is why I and many other are holding out hope for a steel option sometime in the future.
The GMT-Master II has a trip-lock crown, as indicated by the three dots underneath the Rolex logo on the crown) and is water resistant to 100m. I find it amusing that watch steeped in such jet-setting history is water resistant to 100m as if your plan is underwater you have more pressing concerns than worrying about your watch seals. I suppose it goes with the territory of the all practical Rolex sports watch but if reducing that resistance down to 50m would have shaved a few millimeters off the case height I'd be even happier. The contrast between the black lacquered dial and the bright white hour markers make the dial instantly legible and the independent twenty-four hour hand is easily visible at a glance. The ever-present cyclops is there and it's only when you look at the date wheel from the side do you realise how much magnification it provides. I've never been a huge cyclops fan (My wife jokingly calls it the old man bubble) but at this point it's part of the Rolex DNA so there is no point in complaining.
What is so interesting looking about through the references of the GMT-Master is how much the watch industry changed. For periods of twenty years Rolex kept the same references around with only minimal changes and I don't think we are ever going to see a period of that length ever again. The development of new materials, new techniques and competition from cheap quarts and smart watches means that if any company tries to hold their ground for too long they will get swept up off their feet. Take Omega for example and how fast their have turned over their Co-Axial calibre movements. From adapted ETAs with Co-Axial escapement to full Co-Axial Calibres to Master Co-Axial and now Master Chronometer all in the space of 6 years and with very little overlap, especially in the same models.
As we're talking about developments and industry and seeing as how Baselworld is only a week away I think some completely unsubstantiated speculation/dreaming is in order. The biggest questions to ask if will Rolex release the 116719BLRo in stainless steel at a price comparative to other sports models? The answer is I dunno?! Hopefully? It wouldn't be a completely unprecedented move as the Yachtmaster II was initially launched in precious metals and over several years made it's way over to steel. With Rolex now on Instagram maybe they will be teasing us with short clips of steel draped in shadow with only the smallest glimpse of red and blue needed to turn the watch world upside down.