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One of the most distinctive sport watches in the world is the Rolex GMT-Master II with the red and blue bezel which is often affectionately referred to as the “Pepsi bezel” in reference to the soft drink producer’s long standing color theme. Of course, in the mid 1950s when Rolex was designing and first released the original GMT-Master, the theme of their first aviation watch was not cola. Rolex lovers know that in fact the red and blue color should be attributed to PanAm airlines who Rolex worked with during the development of their two-time zone GMT sport watch.
Produced on and off for decades, the red and blue bezel GMT-Master II watch has been absent from the Rolex collection for several years, until 2014 that is. Rolex has finally released a new red and blue bezel version of the GMT-Master II known as the reference 116719 BLRO. It is in its own right a technical marvel, but will be available at a steep price.
Many manufacturers shout about their innovations and patents. This is something that so often grabs attention because of some quirky but nonetheless captivating complication. This is very much not the Rolex way. Rolex innovations are very pointed, highly focused and geared towards making their watches perfect tool watches. One of the earlier reviews that I did looked at Rolex innovations. I am going to borrow some of that review as it crosses over with the GMT. Lets start with the choice of steel for the bracelet. Back in the 1980s, Rolex discovered that watches that had been taken in the sea sometimes had water trapped in some of the caseback threading. Sitting in these threads for years (presumably between services), the chemicals in the water caused a reaction with the 316L steel that was used at the time….causing corrosion and pitting. Rolex tested the steel and found that it was susceptible to certain types of corrosion.
With the Submariner 168000, Rolex moved to 904L, a steel with a different composition – containing more nickel and chromium. Furthermore, 904L is also more resistant to chloride. Since it would be expected that a Submariner would be used in the sea, switching to a steel that was especially resistant to the chloride in the sea seemed straightforward. But actually, it was far from straightforward.
904L stainless steel is harder and much less easy to machine than the typical steels used in most watches. As a result, Rolex needed to redesign all of the tools used in the steel as well as deploy machinery that could machine the harder steel. The 904L is more resistant to rust, corrosion and pitting. Its brush-finish (which also requires unique tools) is also very resistant to scratches. Many watch manufacturers take pride in being responsible for 100% of the manufacturing of their in-house movements. Rolex deals with its steel issues by operating its own foundry, developing its own tools, and using materials which set it apart because going the extra mile on reliability is what Rolex are aiming for. 904L is, naturally, the choice of steel for the GMT Master II. In twenty tears time, the 78300 Oyster bracelet will be looking like new still.
The bezel, however, is what really grabbed my attention. The Cerachrom innovation had, of course, been developed in more recent Rolex watches (from 2005). It is patented specifically to Rolex. As my former review describes, the Cerachrom bezel is made from an extremely hard ceramic material. It is essentially scratch-proof and its colour is unaffected by ultraviolet rays (so it won’t fade with exposure to the sun). To inscribe the numerals and graduations in such a hard material, Rolex developed and patented a unique process. To quote Rolex…..“The numerals and graduations are engraved or moulded before the ceramic is hardened in an oven at 1500 degrees celsius. Then, the Cerachrom bezel is entirely covered with either gold or platinum, atom by atom, and polished until only the precious metal in the numerals and graduations remains, permanently. It takes 40 hours to produce a ceramic bezel.”
Such an innovation for the bezel is, of course, a nice addition to the features of the watch. But, what the vintage collector crew had been calling for was a watch that had echoes of the fabulous GMTs of the past. The 6542 and 1675 two-tone marvels of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Nicolas has done some fabulous reviews of the vintage GMTs. See link:
There is no question that other manufacturers, in fact most of the bigger players, have come to realise that there is a tremendous market for modern tributes to classic and iconic vintage pieces. One only needs to look at some of the major successes for JLC and Tudor to see how warmly modern tributes are received. One should also not forget that whilst Patek Philippe do not release “tributes’, there is nonetheless a high degree of affection for modern releases of watches that carry high DNA traits of vintage classics. Audemars Piguet. Longines. The list is endless. Vintage Rolex is replete with iconic watches. The scope for Rolex to capture some of these historic vintage pieces through a modern take is enormous. It is not surprising, then, that so many vintage Rolex lovers were calling for a two-tone Cerachrom GMT.
The problem for Rolex has been that the Cerachrom bezel doesn’t lend itself too readily to two-tone variation. The nature of the manufacture process makes it extremely difficult to create a two-tone outcome. However, Rolex managed to do so, and in doing so created another patent. Being formed of just one single piece of Cerachrom, the initial material starts out as completely blue. During the earlier stages of production, the Cerachrom is permeable, and so black can be added to it to create a two-tone bezel. Many people have asked if it is possible to create a blue/red bezel. Never say never, especially to Rolex innovators, but since both blue and red are primary colours, it would appear extremely difficult to see how this combination could be achieved. One could, conceivably, see a red Cerachrom that subsequently has black added to it to create a red/black variant, but it seems logical to me to argue that black will always need to be at least one of the two colours. Throughout its vintage history, we have seen various colour combinations on GMTs, but there has never been a black & blue bezel until the release of the GMT Master 2 in 2013. I think it is fitting that this modern marvel has its uniqueness.
With the black & blue embedded into the Cerachrom, the bezel is then allowed to cool. Once cooled, the hourly graduations are engraved into the surface and then coated with a layer of platinum via PVD. The result is a virtually scratch-proof, fade-proof monobloc bezel that will almost certainly look as it does today in 20 years time. No other GMT has had this blue/black combination. On the wrist, it looks fabulous. Ok, it doesn’t have the flamboyancy of the vintage Pepsi GMTs, but I think what it lacks in flamboyancy, it gains in stylishness. It is demure rather than showy. Conservative rather than liberal. Black and blue are highly complimentary colours. They look great together. I could see myself wearing this with a suit just as easily as with a pair of jeans and loafers. Yet, it has enough of a feature with its black and blue Cerachrom to make it distinctive. And fun.
I have thought about this long and hard, which is why I am releasing this review ahead of any new innovations at Basel. For me, I think it is not relevant if a Pepsi version arrives (and I don’t believe it will!). I have come to truly appreciate the allure of the black and blue - night and day. So appropriate for a GMT. I am not convinced that a modern Pepsi would be as attractive. It would need to stand comparison with the numerous stunning vintage Pepsis that abound today. I would find it difficult to love a modern Pepsi dial as much as a beautifully patinated vintage Pepsi. It is not as if vintage 1675s are so high in price that a modern alternative is the only option. The “Bruiser”, on the other hand, has no base of comparison. It is its own identity.
Moving onto the specifics of the watch, the next aspect of it that I like is the case size. For those with large wrists, it is plausible to wear watches at 42mm+ with ease. I have one or two watches in that category. My wrist size is 6.75 inches. I can just about get away with 42mm depending on the depth of the case. With this GMT at 40mm, however, it sits almost perfectly for me. I am not sure what represents the perfect size for a case for me, but i suspect 38-40mm is the range. This one works very well.
The GMT-Master II houses the calibre 3186, which features the Parachrom hairspring. Conventional oscillator hairspings are typically made of ferromagnetic alloy, which leaves them exposed to magnetic fields and shocks. After 5 years of researching the phenomenon, Rolex invented the blue Parachrom hairspring. According to Rolex…”Crafted from a new paramagnetic alloy, this hairspring is unaffected by magnetic fields and remains up to 10 times more precise in the event of shocks.” The Paraflex system that is adopted in many Rolexes aims to create a form of shock absorption that limits the impact of shocks substantially. Again. Rolexes attention to build-quality and reliability stands out.
But with this GMT, there is more. There is the small attention to detail that makes such a difference. Take the bracelet. I appreciate that the steel is no ordinary steel, but the 78300 Oyster bracelet also embraces an Easylink clasp offering a 5-mm comfort extension. For someone with a smaller wrist, such as myself, having the flexibility to make very small adjustments for comfort makes a lot of difference.
Another small detail is the use of blue chromalight lume. It gives it something unusual and interesting. My JLC Navy Seal has a blue hue to its lume and to be honest, it just looks awesome. Having the 24-hour hand matching in blue too adds another attractive aesthetic. Small things matter. The hands are made from 18k white gold. No chance of them showing signs of rust in 20 years time. This is a watch that has been built to last.
I like this watch. I like it a lot. The longer I have studied it and the more often I have tried it on, the more I have come to realise that it offers a great deal as a modern Rolex. I think its black & blue bezel is a perfect discretion. I think the use of Cerachrom adds enormously to its appeal. From the comfort of the bracelet to the innovations of its movement that make it not only superbly well put together but classically Rolex in its reliability. In one sense, the two-tone bezel is a wink to its historical ancestry. On the other hand, this watch stands on its own two feet. It doesn’t need its iconic GMT ancestry to stand out as a superb modern Rolex. Is this the best modern Rolex to have been produced in the last decade? I am rapidly moving to the view that it is. Would I describe it as "great"? No, its not a "great" watch, but it is a very cool, under-the-radar, effective GMT. Not many watches do travel as well as Rolex...simplicity...reliability.
The Rolex GMT Master.
Designed by the ill fated Pan America company (formerly the biggest air fleet in the USA until it went belly up in the 1990's), a combined team of aviation and watch engineers designed this watch in the 1950's as a Pilots aid.
A marvel of engineering, it was the first watch to use a fourth hand as a 24 hour and world time indicator.
The standard hour hand moves around as normal on the 12 hour clock (marked by oversized luminous pips) and the extra hand (the red one) moves around at half the speed telling the time on the 24 hour outer bezel. Therefore, an up-all-hours world traveller such as a pilot will know whether it's AM or PM.
The bezel also rotates, so it can be utilised as a second time-zone by turning to 'local time'.
For example, if you're headed to New York simply turn the bezel back 6 hours (three increments on the 12 hour dial = 6 hours for the 24 hour hand) and your red hand will tell local time on the outer display while the regular hands don't need to be adjusted from UK time (Greenwich Mean Time, hence GMT).
Sounds complicated, but it really isn't. It's a near perfect design which has been copied many times over since its inception and it was another 'first' from the Rolex house!
The watch is a classic size. Huge when it was released, but a 40mm case is fairly standard now and it wears very comfortably despite being quite deep at 12mm. It sits proudly on the wrist, but still slips under a shirt cuff.
Also, despite the bezel being necessarily wide the dial is still a very easy to read 30mm wide and not at all cluttered as some of these pilot watches can be.
I've never struggled with the size at all. Some older Rolex watches are so small in todays market that they actually look like womens watches, in fact I've sold watches due solely to the small dimensions in the past. This is one which stands the test of time, as it's been a solid 40mm case since launch date in 1954.
As Henry Ford once said, you can have any colour - as long as it's black!
Pan Am actually gave their pilots a white dial option, but these are incredibly rare and were never released for general sale.
The dial is black on every variation of this watch apart from the solid gold model, which comes with a green option should you wish to part with close to £25,000!
(I didn't. Black on black for me - cheap and cheerful!)
The bezel on the modern variants is also black, although a blue and red version known as a 'Pepsi' bezel is occasionally seen.
On the original (pre 1980's) GMT watches there is a bronze dial with two tone brown bezel known to collectors as a 'Root Beer' model, and there is a black and red bezel insert known as the 'coke' bezel.
The original branded Pan AM watches came in both Black and White dials and now fetch a real premium if and when they pop up for sale. Don't expect change from £20,000 from one of those!
There are *ahem* 'affordable' models around though. A good looking Root Beer model can be had for around £4000 at the moment, with 1990's standard black dial models fetching £2500+.
Both are collectable and both will hold their money. If I had £4000 spare I'd stick it into a Rolex before considering a bank ISA account.
Well, you don't have to be a pilot!
I took mine on holiday and never once even messed with the GMT settings, just set the time to local as I would with any other watch.
It uses a self winding movement so doesn't need winding or new batteries, it's water resistant to 100m and has a locking screw down crown to prevent water and dust ingress. The glass is super strong Sapphire Crystal and the case and bracelet are made from high grade 904L steel, which is extremely strong, anti corrosive and totally stainless.
Long story short, this watch is perfect for everyday wear whether you use the functions or not! It's built to last and is designed to take a few knocks, (although mine is treated with kid gloves, so I'm a hypocrite)! It never needs to come off your wrist whether you're swimming, rock climbing or digging up the garden.
As mentioned, the watch also comes in steel and gold as well as solid gold, but I struggle to see the point of a gold sports/utility watch. Gold is a very soft metal and the watch usually looks a mess after a few months.
In fact, there are all manner of upgrades with prices stretching to £100,000 and up if you'd like a diamond dial and coloured sapphires around the bezel. Again, fairly pointless on a watch designed to be strong and functional.
Price and availability.
Well, as per the other Rolex watches I have owned I got a good deal on a vintage piece when I bought mine in 2010 and payed a little over £2000. It's currently worth half as much again.
They are a good investment as the prices are constantly climbing. Some models go up in value overnight, while others (like this) creep up gradually.
Still, buying a second hand Rolex GMT is a virtually recession proof and you could easily wear one depreciation-free for a year or more. There is always a collectors market for Rolex, both old and new, so it's a breeze releasing your money if you're in a squeeze.
A new model retails between £6000-£7000 for the steel model, close to £10,000 for a steel and gold model and £23,000-£25,000 for the 18ct gold model.
The steel model holds its value quite well, usually dropping 30-35% as a second hand watch, but with Rolex increasing the prices every few months, it'll probably have a second hand value of what you payed new within 5 years.
The other two drop in value significantly! In fact, a two colour model can be bought second hand for less than a new steel model. They are very unpopular and quite hard to sell which is why I stick to all steel.
If your numbers roll in and you fancy something flashy on your wrist, then diamonds and sapphires can be added just about anywhere you wish, pushing the price up to whatever you can afford!
While this isn't my favourite Rolex watch, it is the best I've ever been able to afford (watches are my only vice - promise!)
It's a great sports watch and the 24 hour/GMT complication is very handy if you travel.
Yes, the price is a bit of a kick in the teeth, but view it as an investment. £3000 spent now will equal the same if not more in 12 months time. Not like spending £500 on a high end Seiko for it to be worth £200 this time next year.
The vintage models are a little easier on the pocket than the new ones and hold their value a bit better too.
If the GMT was still the market leader as far as world-time watches, it'd be 5 stars all day long.
Sadly, a lot of companies offer GMT complications on their watches now and I own a couple that do the same job for under £50.
Rolex are now trading on the name here rather than the technology as they were 50 years back, and the watch isn't worth (in my opinion) what they are asking for a new model.
For that one reason, it drops a star.