Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and a decade without a red-and-blue-bezeled GMT-Master has left Rolex enthusiasts thirsting for Pepsi. Some experts were convinced that it would never return, citing Rolex’s apparent distaste for nostalgia and any celebrations of the brand’s heritage. The unveiling of this new GMT-Master II (Ref. 126710 BLRO) at Baselworld 2018 is a happy course correction, and reaffirms the model’s crucial place in the Rolex pantheon.
The story of the GMT-Master began with a request from Pan Am, the world’s premier airline after World War II. With the increasing speed and range of aircraft, the American carrier needed a watch that could help its pilots keep track of separate time zones. To meet Pan Am’s requirements, Rolex designers refined its tool watch concepts (introduced in 1953 with the Explorer, Submariner, and Turn-o-Graph), while incorporating a fourth hand that rotated once every 24 hours. Lastly, the watch would have a 24-hour-marked bezel that could be rotated to match the pilot’s local time. Utility was further boosted by the inclusion of a date window—a feature that would not appear on the Submariner until the late 1960s. For nearly seven decades, the GMT-Master, and the GMT-Master II that followed it, have been big hits.
The 3rd generation GMT-Master II (Ref. 116710) marked Rolex’s first use of the watch world’s new wonder substance, ceramic. The non-metallic bezel insert was designed to be resistant to scratches and the fading effects of UV light. But ceramic can be a difficult material to work with, and expanding its color palette beyond black has been tricky for Rolex. Each new hue of Cerachrom represented years of R&D, and combining two colors on a one-piece insert presented its own set of problems. A less meticulous company would have glued half-circles together, but Rolex developed a process that would add pigmentation for both colors to a single piece of ceramic before it was fired. This process was first showcased on the black/blue “Batman” (Ref. 116710 BLNR), but in 2013 Rolex had not yet formulated a stable red pigment.
So how does the latest GMT-Master II compare with its legendary ancestors? Let’s return to the headline feature: All eyes gravitate toward the bold colors of the BLRO (BLeu/ROuge) bezel. The bezel insert is the same as it was on the white-gold model of 2014 –a monobloc, two-tone ceramic piece with platinum-filled numerals that are bold and exceptionally legible. It is a stunning return of much-missed colors that, despite their familiarity, remains cheekily conspicuous. Set against stainless steel, they are a reminder of the model’s utilitarian roots.
Uniquely for a Rolex sports watch, the GMT-Master II is paired with the Jubilee band. This normally complements a dress watch like the Datejust, but from the early 1970s to the mid-2000s the Jubilee was offered as an option, often taken. Incredibly, this preferred pairing has never appeared in Rolex advertising or catalogs, so it is a small surprise to see the company officially acknowledging its popularity. The solid half-moon links are arguably the most comfortable among Rolex bracelet types, while the Oysterlink clasp incorporates the convenience of the 5mm Easylink extension.
It would be easy for Rolex to raid its parts bin for the case and call it a day, but the return of the stainless-steel Pepsi demands more. The 40mm Oyster mid-case has been subtly remolded to be less blocky than its immediate predecessor, and more like the graceful GMTs of old. This comes as a relief to fans of classic Rolex and slim cases. The dial remains unchanged, with a deep gloss-black surface behind the plots and text. Maxi Submariner hands are joined by the classic red GMT pointer.
To further prove that this new GMT-Master II is more than skin-deep, Rolex uses the occasion to debut Calibre 3285, replacing the previous Cal. 3186. The new automatic movement incorporates advances such as the nickel-phosphorus Chronergy escapement, which is 15% more efficient than the previous generation. In conjunction with the revised mainspring barrel, the power reserve stretches from 50 hours to 70. Less immediately evident are the improved anti-magnetic and anti-shock properties, greater reliability, and increased accuracy. While it shares the “Superlative Chronometer “ designation of past GMT-Masters, its daily variance of +/-2 seconds means this timepiece is twice as accurate as a passing-grade chronometer.
For those wanting a GMT-Master II that is more subtle and precious, Rolex now offers variants in Everose (rose gold) and two-tone Everose Rolesor. What sets these new watches apart from both the classic “Root Beer GMT” and current yellow-gold variants are their own two-tone, one-piece ceramic bezel inserts. Instead of the gold/brown hues of Root Beers past favored by 80s-era stars like Clint Eastwood and Peter Weller, these are formed in brown and black Cerachrom. Under certain lighting conditions, this new “Root Beer” almost looks like a Pepsi GMT behind a sepia tone filter. It is a unique appearance unlike any GMT-Master before it, straddling the line between sporty and dressy.
The Pepsi GMT is an icon. It is one of the most recognizable Rolexes, and one of the most famous sports watches in history. If an aficionado were forced to choose just one Rolex to wear for the rest of his life, the GMT-Master II makes a strong case for being that single watch. Functionally, it packs more into a 40mm case than any of its stablemates. Aesthetically, there is much to please both contemporary and vintage-leaning tastes. The problem is scarcity: Anyone interested in this watch should have been on a waiting list immediately after the Baselworld 2018 announcement. More circumspect individuals may be in for a very long wait for one tremendously desirable Rolex.