You Know Rolex Makes Something Called a "GMT.” But What Is It, Exactly?
In the 1950s, air travel was pure glamour: then-mighty international airline Pan Am offered swanky lounges, pin-up stewardesses, and mid-flight cigarette breaks. Yes, it was all marvelous—until the plane landed and disorientation set in: a completely foreign place, different language, and no grasp on time as hours evaporated during flight. This was especially problematic for Pan Am’s pilots and crew members, whose job was to bounce between different time zones. So the airline partnered with Rolex to create a watch that could track the clock at both departure city and destination. The Rolex GMT-Master was born.
The Rolex GMT launched in 1955 with a bold-for-its-time red and blue bezel, (the outer ring of the case the numbers are affixed to). The colour combination earned it the nickname “Pepsi.” (In the early ‘80s, Rolex threw a bone to more modest dressers with the red-and-black “Coke” bezel). The GMT followed the lineage of Rolex’s other so-called “tool” watches—timepieces that serve some function. The “Submariner” was the first watch that could travel 100 meters underwater; the GMT was made specifically for air travel.
Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex’s founder, came up with a pretty elegant solution for Pan Am’s time-warped travellers. The GMT comes with the standard hour, minute, second hands, but what sets the watch apart is a fourth hand. It’s set to Greenwich Mean Time, which is the standard against which all time zones are decided. The bezel rotates so the wearer can set it against GMT. So, if you’re in London but travelling to the Big Apple (GMT-5), you’d rotate the bezel counter-clockwise five clicks.
The invention of the watch wasn’t just helpful for Pan Am workers, it was a pretty good day on the job: they were all furnished with the new tricked-out timepieces. But the watch wasn’t just for those trained in the art of safety demonstrations. Soon, it was turning up on a who’s who of 20th-century icons: Dizzy Gillespie, Marlon Brando, Pablo Picasso, Hunter S Thompson, and Eric Clapton. Even Che Guevara and Fidel Castro wore GMTs.
Of course, carrying around a watch that can tell the wearer two different time zones doesn’t feel very advanced today. But for collectors, the watch marks a milestone in human history: the moment we started traveling around the world on planes. There’s historical heft and significance there for people who obsesses over watches and Rolex in particular. “A lot of [the adoration is motivated] by nostalgia,” says Jake Ehrlich, the founder of Jake's Rolex World and Rolex Magazine. “The same reason people like Disneyland: it takes you to this simple place.”
Because the watch market is so heavily influenced by squishy qualities, like a piece’s history and story, the GMT is climbing in value. James Lamdin, who owns the Manhattan-based watch shop Analog/Shift, says the value for GMTs started climbing three or four years ago. In 2015, the reference number 1675, which was the model Rolex made for about two decades and is the one Lamdin considers the measuring stick for GMTs, would have sold for around $5,000. Now, he says, the value’s tripled to around $15,000. “The meteoric rise was a collector-community-wide realization that these watches were way too inexpensive,” says Lamdin.
The irony, of course, is that Pan Am no longer exists. Neither does the glitzy world for which the GMT was tailor made. But while the airline went bankrupt in 1991, the watch it commissioned has remained strong, a last vestige of the days when legroom existed and fliers didn’t wear sweatpants—they wore suits. And a Rolex.