Rolex GMT-Master vs vieux nouveau
When Hans Wilsdorf first set out to build a watch company in 1905, he set himself a goal: to make the world's best watch. Early Rolex promotional material boasted the number of ways Wilsdorf's watches were tested in, the amount of accuracy records they'd beaten, their waterproof, dust proof and anti-magnetic capabilities—anything and everything. Of the GMT-Master, Rolex promotional material declares, 'If you were flying the Concorde tomorrow, you'd wear a Rolex.' With both supersonic passenger jets and mechanical wristwatches obsolete, can the modern Rolex GMT-Master collection still live up to Wilsdorf's goal of being the best?
Watch our video review of the Rolex GMT-Master 1675 and GMT-Master II 116719 BLRO
To a casual observer, Rolex is the king the of watchmakers. It's easy to see why—the brand logo is a crown for a start, and the marketing is unlike anything else in the industry. But the truth is a little different, a little more intricate. You see, 1905 was very late to the game to be starting a watch company. Blancpain, the oldest watch brand still ticking, was founded nearly two centuries earlier. Omega, likely Rolex's biggest competitor, had a head start of over half a century.
So, when you don't have heritage on your side, what do you do to make a name for yourself? You do what all young, hopeful entrepreneurs do—you innovate by doing the unexpected, breaking the mould. The fastest way to innovate is by taking existing ideas and using them in new ways.
The classic GMT-Master 1675 embodies the innovative attitude of Hans Wilsdorf's Rolex
That's what a 24-year-old Wilsdorf did. At the time, pocket watches were distinctly for men and wristwatches—known then as 'wristlets'—for ladies, but that didn't matter to him. Instead, he sourced the smallest movement with the best performance—from a company called Aegler, which Rolex bought outright in 2004—and set about entering it into all of the big precision awards. Because wristwatches had never previously been submitted, they were deemed the most accurate—by default.
Next, he set about developing a headline-grabbing case with the same leftfield thinking: while watches that exhibited water resistance weren't new, they weren’t particularly well thought-out. Push fit seals, clamping covers and locking secondary cases were prevalent. Some watches were closer to the mark with screw down bezels, screw down case backs or screw down crowns—but never all three. The Rolex Oyster case was the first to combine them all.
The small GMT hand, pointed crown guards and gilt dial are collectible details worth having
Even the marketing stunt where the Oyster was displayed merrily ticking away, submerged in fish bowls in jeweller's windows wasn't new—the first known waterproof pocket watch was displayed in the same way at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.
Many of Rolex's other innovations were approached in the same way: the self-winding movement already existed, but Rolex perfected it with the freely-spinning rotor weight; the perpetual calendar had been used for centuries, but Rolex was the first to build a watch with just the date; 24-hour pocket watches were not uncommon, yet Rolex was the first to combine a 24-hour hand with a standard 12-hour set.
This is why Rolex is the king. Like Apple, it's a brand that takes unpolished idea fragments and combines them to create simple, elegant results, the kinds of things that makes you slap your forehead and say, 'Now, why didn't I think of that!'
No vintage collection is complete without a stunning example of a GMT-Master
Question is, is the Rolex of today the same innovator as the Rolex of yesteryear? Comparing this 1960s 1675 to a modern 116719 BLRO, it could be easy to dismiss the slick, glossy finishes of the modern counterpart as a transition from function to form. Trouble is, technology has left the mechanical wristwatch behind, leaving companies like Rolex in a void between the past and the present. How can you really innovate something that's already outdated?
A piffling matter like that wouldn't have stopped Wilsdorf, and it won't stop Rolex now, either. The difference is this: in the absence of a technological pinnacle to maintain—that's long gone in favour of computing—Rolex can set itself its own challenges instead. In the pursuit of excellence, it can lay down its own gauntlet to achieve the previously unachievable.
Who would have thought that this could boil down to something as simple as a bezel? It's been a sticking point for the GMT-Master since the beginning with the inaugural 6542. That watch had bezel made from the precursor to plastic, Bakelite, but it was just too fragile, too brittle. The aluminium bezel we know and love replaced it and served Rolex well for decades, but by 2005, the game had moved on. The GMT-Master II 116718 LN received the first ceramic bezel to grace a Rolex watch.
The modern GMT-Master II is refined and substantial, thanks to modern production processes
All in black, this ceramic bezel boasted scratch resistance, fade resistance and impossibly crisp numbers filled with a dusting of gold. Nice, for sure, but pretty ordinary by this point, and a far cry from the bold red and blue bezel of old.
This presented Rolex with a juicy challenge to sink its teeth into. A two-tone ceramic bezel could easily have been made from two halves glued together—that's how the fakes are made—but that just didn't sit right with the king of watchmakers. No—Rolex wanted to fashion two colours from one bezel. The Bakelite and aluminium bezels were formed of a single piece, and so would this.
The two-tone bezel is made from one piece, using a clever technic developed by Rolex
The first step was to figure out the transition between the colours, which Rolex did with the 2013 black and blue 116710 BLNR, but the real challenge was yet to come: how to combine the red and blue. You see, the ceramic bezel starts off as a pale, minty green colour, to which pigment is added. Simply colouring each half of the bezel separately would be virtually impossible without having alignment issues such as an overlap of colour, or worse—a gap.
So, with the BLNR, Rolex divided the pigmentation process into two steps: the first, to colour the entire bezel blue, and the second to colour just the top half in black. Black being darker than blue means the blue pigment doesn't show through. Problem is, that wouldn't work with two colours that are of a similar tone like the blue and the red—the additive colour would be purple.
It may be a different era, but the GMT-Master II 116719 BLRO is every bit a Rolex as the 1675
As with all Rolex innovations, the solution seems simpler than it should. The resulting process saw the red laid on first in whole, in a shade that had some blue in it already. That way, when the blue was laid on top, it retained a shade that was more blue than purple. Look closely at the bezel and you'll see that the red has some blue in it and the blue some red, but seen as a whole it works incredibly well. It's a very neat solution. Very ... Rolex.
Compared to Hans Wilsdorf's go-getter attitude, some could say the Rolex of today is resting on its laurels, but that's a little unfair. It's a very different industry today, that fulfils a very different need, and Rolex simply wouldn't be able to survive with the same cavalier approach of old. With gems like the Sky-Dweller and its clever movement, the Deepsea and its near-on indestructible case and the GMT-Master II and its two-tone ceramic bezel, it seems that Rolex is still figuring out ways to do things differently without upsetting the applecart. Better that than endless limited editions of the same watch ...
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