The GMT Master by Rolex is nothing if not an icon in the watch world. Some dislike the term, thinking it a little clichéd, but there simply is no other word for this celebrated timepiece. Here we take a look at this model, its genesis and uses, and discuss its unusual original bezel.
The 1950s saw Rolex release many of the watches that have become their famous staples, those timepieces synonymous with the brand as a whole. During that decade, the Explorer, the Submariner, the Day-Date, the Milgauss and of course, the GMT Master, were all released. Each of these very specialised watches relied on the ‘Oyster’ case. First released in 1926, this waterproof and watertight case has been central to the success of Rolex as a brand. Their ‘Perpetual’ movement followed soon after, in 1931, and like the Oyster case, is still in use to today (both of course are now in much advanced iterations.)
Whereas the Oyster case and Perpetual movement have wide-ranging uses, the watch models that house them, are mostly very specialised. The GMT Master model 6542 is a tool watch; one that has a specific purpose that goes further than just telling the time. In 1954, well before quartz (battery) and digital multi-display watches, the GMT Master (a mechanical watch) was produced specifically with pilots in mind.
It was designed in conjunction with Pan-Am Airlines and its focus is the display of the time in a second time zone, readable at the quickest of glances. This allowed pilots to keep track of their ‘home’ time, as well as that of their current location or destination. The bezel to the GMT Master features two colours, one for night and one for day, and has the 24 hours of the day denoted at 2 hour intervals. There is an additional hand to the dial that is set to the correct hour on the bezel for this second ‘home’ timezone. It is a surprisingly simple way of displaying two time zones without having to have an entire additional dial.
As well as being highly efficient, the two-tone GMT bezel, originally red and blue, has also played a pivotal role in the recognisability and popularity of the watch, with countless homage watches created in the now classic combination. It is nicknamed the Pepsi bezel and, going further, the watch itself is often just referred to as the ‘Pepsi.’ The GMT Master II, first released in 1983, came with another bezel and another nickname – the ‘Coke,’ in black and red.
The original GMT bezel lends itself to much discussion, not just in terms of colour and design, but also in its materials. According to a Rolex advert/notice from 1959, 605 of the original model 6542 GMT Master watches featured the GMT bezels made from Bakelite and these were exported to the USA for sale there. Many other watches of the period also used Bakelite, including examples from Bulova and Omega. This early plastic, developed by Leo Baekeland in 1907 in New York, proved revolutionary in the world of manufacturing industries. Made from substances including phenol and formaldehyde, it was heat-resistant and non-conductive of electricity. Soon after its invention, it was used to create boundless objects, from radios and kitchen utensils to jewellery and toys.
To the Bakelite, Rolex added radium, a commonly used substance on watch dials throughout the earlier 20th century. Radium ‘glows’ or emits light in lower light levels. Adding radium to numerals on watch dials, or to those on the bezel in this case, made the watches far more legible in the dimmer conditions, like a plane cockpit. However, the Bakelite began to prove less than resilient to use in this context however, in comparison to larger household objects. Many bezels began to crack and along with this, there was concern over the levels of radium as it is of course, radioactive. Rolex recalled the affected watches in 1959, offering to replace the bezels with aluminium versions, free of charge to the owners.
As with any product recall, it onus is of course on the owner of the given object to return it to have the necessary changes made. Many do not, and did not in the case of the 6542 models with Bakelite bezels. A quick look online and you can find a number of these early models, with Bakelite bezel intact, for anywhere between £20,000 and £90,000 in retail contexts. The reason for these high price tags is simple, and predictable, in the wider context of the watch world and the world collectible vintage luxury overall. GMT Masters with the Bakelite bezel are rare; apparently only 605 were retailed initially and this is a very small number when we consider the levels of production for Rolex in the present day – around one million watches per year. Not only are they rare, they represent a kind of connoisseur piece – if you know, you know. On the wrist, the Bakelite dial is markedly different from all of the later iterations and materials. Now comparatively muted, and dark, they demand a second look that confirms, yes, that’s the rare one.
In some cases, it is those watches that look exhausted that draw out the most enthusiasm in the die-hard collector community. Rolex watches with completely ‘tropicalised’ dials come to mind; those that started life black but have faded to a satisfying chocolate brown over the decades. If you read any article offering advice on getting started in collecting vintage watches, they will tell you condition is key. ‘Condition’ can be a fairly broad term but mostly pertains to the physical appearance of the watch – is the dial faded for example, or is the bracelet heavily worn. It can however also focus on originality. The dial might be bright and crisp but is it a service (later) replacement? The bracelet too? The perfect spot will be, for many, a watch that manages to show its age and often therefore its value, through knocks and fading here and there, but has all original parts, importantly the dial and hands, and is not over-polished.
Our Select Watches auction that took place on 30th March 2022 featured one of these early GMT Master 6542 models. At a glance, yes this watch is tired, but wouldn’t you be if you had been worn regularly for 50 years? The Bakelite bezel is there but again shows it age with a little cracking and a small loss, as well as those characteristic muted colours. It does feature a later dial and handset, from the 1960s, but that all-important bezel is there. The watch was consigned to auction by a gentleman who recently inherited it from his father. His father spent a lot of time in the USA, where he believes he purchased the watch in the late 1950s. He also bought another Rolex, an Oyster Perpetual Date model 1501, in the early 1960s. Both watches, the vendor recalls, were worn very regularly and were well-loved.
So what next for this rare Bakelite bezel watch? If it is returned to Rolex for a service, they may want to replace the bezel, in line with that promise from back in 1959. My bet would be that the buyer of this piece will do anything to keep the bezel, as alluring as it is, and with the historical (and monetary) value it bestows.
Lyon & Turnbull’s Watch Auctions department is a dynamic one with significant expertise, hosting diverse watch auctions featuring fine, rare, modern and vintage timepieces.
Watches are sold in our Select Watches auctions that take place in London gallery and along with jewellery at our prestigious Edinburgh salerooms. These two focused categories allow us to place your timepieces into the auction context that will be the most profitable for you as a vendor.
Watches are marketed alongside other sales including contemporary art, whisky and, of course, jewellery, ensuring maximum exposure for all. Our watch collections are amongst the most well-travelled of the goods we sell – we have in the past viewed collections in New York, Philadelphia, Hong Kong and throughout the UK including London, Edinburgh and Glasgow - maximising viewers and competition.