Few watches hold as much distinction as the Rolex GMT-Master and GMT-Master II. From the series’ first introduction in 1955 , with the Ref. 6542, to its later transition into the GMT-Master II in 1982 with the Ref. 16760, all the way to today’s modern references, the series in all its adjustments through the years has remained as one of the most iconic “travelers’” watches throughout it all. For this reason, it was no surprise the newest GMT-Master II, the Ref. 126710BLRO, made such a splash at BaselWorld 2018 as it reintroduced a few of the series’ most appreciated features: a “Pepsi” bezel, an accompanying steel case, and the long-missed jubilee bracelet.
The last model of the Rolex GMT-Master II we covered in “Vintage Eye” was the Reference 116710, also known as the “Batman,” so-named for its black-and-blue ceramic bezel. This watch has been the standard-bearer for the series since 2013, and while it has come to be appreciated by many, it lacked the iconic red and blue “Pepsi” bezel that has been a hallmark of the family since its original release. In fact, the iconic feature hadn’t been seen on a steel watch since 2005, when Rolex switched from the aluminum bezel insert it had used since 1959 to the modern ceramic (from 1955 to 1959, a much more fragile Plexiglas insert was used). The explanation for the missing “Pepsi” bezel has been that the red-and-blue ceramic insert was difficult to produce, and so even when Rolex released a watch in 2014 that featured that insert, it had to be released in a white gold case (the Reference 116719), which raised the price and thus stymied demand to an extent.
Meanwhile, the dressier Jubilee bracelet has long been absent from this tool watch in favor of the hardier Oyster style, and hadn’t been seen in the series since the GMT-Master Ref. 16700 produced from 1989 to 2001. In fact, the Jubilee hadn’t been seen in any great quantities since the most popular GMT-Master, the Ref. 1675 produced from 1959 to 1980 (pictured above, via Fratello Watches). Yet this year’s new reference contains each of these elements — the bezel, the material, and the bracelet, and has done so while incorporating other aesthetic statements linking the modern watch to the style and mission of its ancestors.
The newest model is housed in a steel Oyster case with thick lugs, crown guards, and a screw-down crown; like many of the watches through the series’ history, it’s sized at 40 mm. Strapped on a jubilee bracelet, it has a prominent red-and-blue ceramic “Pepsi” bezel— the red symbolizing daytime hours, the blue representing the night— that is bidirectional and assists the wearer in tracking the time in another of the world’s time zones. Within the bezel is an outer ring engraved with repeating “Rolex” wording (common on the brand’s contemporary watches), with a subtle minute ring just inside of it. The black dial is a traditional GMT-Master II configuration, with a white-gold applied triangular hour marker at midnight, rectangles for the 6 and 9 o’clock spots, a cyclops date indicator at 3 o’clock, and applied circular markers for the remaining hours. Sweeping over the Rolex logo at the top of the dial and the additional descriptors toward the bottom are a white-gold “Mercedes” hour hand, sword minute hand, lollipop seconds hand, and triangle-tipped red GMT hand.
Within the monobloc case is Rolex’s new in-house automatic Caliber 3285, which, like all other GMT-Master II movements since 1982, allows the GMT hand to be set independently from the hour and minute hands; the movement has a power reserve of 70 hours and is COSC Chronometer certified. The new watch should become available later this year, and will be priced at $9,250.
We would have trouble attaching the designs of the newest GMT-Master II to any specific historical reference, but we can discuss those traits prominent on the watch and seen throughout the tenure of the series. Foremost is the “Pepsi” bezel on a steel case: these features, however difficult for the brand to procure in the recent past, have long been the trademark of the GMT-Master, which is why their return is so desirable in the eyes of many collectors. Then there is the Jubilee bracelet, and while historically it has been the less popular choice of bracelet for the model compared to the Oyster style, it nonetheless channels an important era for the series and helps distinguish the modern piece. Outside of these key features, you’ll notice the similar dial configurations, 40-mm oyster case, and crown guards — all of which have been consistent elements on the GMT-Master II since its first development, and most of which have been consistent on the GMT-Master since its very first references.
Still, the watch is unlikely to be mistaken as a vintage piece, and has been crafted by the brand to invoke its history while still maintaining its timely individuality. Besides the combination of historical features not seen in decades, with modern Rolex finishing practices to give away the watch as a contemporary reference, there are some other key traits to note. Namely, the bezel insert — like the one on the “Batman” watch that preceded it— is slightly beefier, made of ceramic, and most significantly, engraved, in comparison to the historical versions that were slimmer, aluminum, and printed on the inserts. The dial of the watch is modernized, most obviously by the “Swiss Made” marking at its bottom and outer repeating “Rolex” print on its edges, but also, possibly most importantly, by the lack of a faux-patina accenting so common on watches today — a clear indicator of the piece as a resolutely contemporary object.
Outside of aesthetics, ceramics, and improvements in finishing, the watch also holds some modern technical advancements. You’ll notice these most in the revisited “Easylink” 5-mm extension link on the watch’s “Oysterlock” safety clasp, which allows the wearer to easily extend or decrease the diameter of the bracelet; and also in the movement, which has an additional 20 hours of power reserve over its Caliber 3186 predecessor, seen in the last GMT-Master II iteration. Rolex has mentioned often that the new watch features more than 10 patents in its design, and it does seem to feature some of the brand’s best technical work as of yet.
Like most Rolex watches, the GMT-Master and GMT-Master II series have been marked through the years by gradual changes and improvements on a relatively consistent design. The newest reference is no different in this regard, but it is different that Rolex has explicitly recalled the history of the watch in the modern design. It was only a few years ago the brand seemed adamant against “homage” pieces, but now, after the widely popular — and still incredibly difficult to obtain— vintage-channeling Rolex Cosmograph Daytona released two years ago, and this year’s similar-ethos GMT-Master II, it seems Rolex may have had a change of heart in light of the growing vintage-inspired trend. What this means for the future is hard to tell, as it seems unlikely there will be a full-fledged vintage re-creation in any of the brand’s series any time soon. However, it does seem that Rolex is more open to further paying tribute to its history in newer watches. I might suggest revisiting the Milgauss next with some vintage flair — maybe with an outer red-tipped bezel and honeycomb dial? — but that’s just me.
For the most recent article in the “Vintage Eye” series, in which we compare the Seiko Prospex Diver 300m Hi-Beat SLA025 to its historical counterpart click here.
Caleb Anderson is a freelance writer with a primary focus on vintage watches. Since first discovering horology, he has garnered extensive knowledge in the field and spends much of his time sharing his opinions among other writers, collectors, and dealers. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on many topics, and a casual runner.