I knew I wanted a Submariner and a Lotus Elan by the time I was 10. If you were a kid in the 1970s, you’ll remember the Rothmans ad. You could stand, looking up at the billboard, and see the driver’s Sub just visible under his shirt cuff as he changed gear in his Lotus, presumably on the way to Le Mans with his gorgeous girlfriend in the passenger seat. I couldn’t have cared less about the ciggies, but who wouldn’t be hooked on that watch?
I’d press my nose against Mallory’s window in Bath and gaze longingly at the Subs, Datejusts and Explorers. But slowly, the more I looked the more I came to realise that the watch I really wanted was the GMTII.
The staff at Mallory’s were kind to a brassic, watch-obsessed brat. After being nose-to-glass for half an hour or so I’d eventually pull up enough courage to go in. As the door closed behind me, the noise of the traffic faded to the ticking of clocks and the smell of leather and expensive carpet. With 50p a week pocket money (earned the hard way from cleaning my somewhat OCD father’s car), it was an intimidating silence.
They seemed a little surprised at a 10 year old watch tyro asking if they could spare a Rolex catalogue, but they not only handed one over, they found a smart bag, added a few Omega brochures too and patiently answered my questions. The watches themselves seemed too remote, too special, to even ask to try on, but I was in heaven.
Once at home, I’d carefully cut out the lifesize picture of the stainless (never the two-tone or 18ct) GMT II and try it on for size. Sitting at my desk in my bedroom I vowed that, one day, I would own the real thing.
It wasn’t a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”.
Sat there at my desk, I promised myself that I’d get my Rolex GMT-Master II when I graduated. But, after the A levels and degree work, that date came and went. With a nasty beer and guitar habit, I’d left college with something of a debt to pay off. I had barely enough to pay the rent, let alone buy expensive watches.
Then it was when I got my first pay cheque. Then my first promotion. Then when I realised I wasn’t cut out for being an employee and started my own business. Then it was when we’d survived a year. Then it was the first ‘real’ client we closed. Then it was the five year anniversary of the firm. Then it was surviving the recession. I kept rushing past the milestones but none seemed big enough for my GMT.
Finally, it was just because the right watch was there and I decided the time was right. I spotted ‘my’ Rolex GMT-Master II on a watch forum and dived in. No, the Oyster bracelet wasn’t original, but I’d have happily put it on a NATO and still grinned. I had the watch I’d dreamed of for 33 years.
In 1954, back when the first GMTs – the 6542s – rolled out of Rolex, they were the preserve of the smart set. Pre-cheap flights and package holidays, there was little point in a watch with a second time zone – the GMT’s reason for being – if you were travelling between Walsall and Eastbourne. Instead, GMTs were snaffled by pilots, aircrew and businessmen, lending them an almost unfeasible air of cool.
The second timezone worked with a typically Rolex simplicity. You set home time using the 24 hour hand and moved the 12 hour hand to local time. Then you simply read home time from the bezel and local time from the dial as usual. If you were terribly important and needed a third timezone, you could just adjust the bezel again to suit.
The original bezel – along with the 24 hour hand, the distinguishing feature of the Rolex GMT-Master II – was not only Bakelite but luminous, because of the radium-filled numerals. But Bakelite bezels didn’t survive the sort of abuse regular travellers can dish out, so in 1956 Rolex switched to aluminium. They only replaced the metal in 2007, giving the 116710 a practically indestructible Cerachrom insert. Not that anyone complained about the perfectly good aluminium bezel.
Over the years, the movements evolved. From the first 1036 that also featured in the Submariner, Air-King, Explorer and Oyster Perpetual through the hacking, quickset 3085 that powered the 16760 and, today, the modern 3186, running a parachrom hairspring with a Breguet overcoil.
Like every other sports Rolex, the GMT was designed to survive pretty much what any owner would throw at it. After all, 1954 aircraft cockpits weren’t exactly friendly places. So the oyster case is properly waterproof and cut from a block of 904L stainless. Unless you fancy a bit of bling, in which case you can have stainless and yellow gold, If sir or madam desires the full-on wrist-monument experience there are 18ct gold versions and even the Patriot; the equivalent of wearing a small Swiss bank account on your wrist. There have only ever been 20 Patriots; solid gold cases with pavé diamond-set dials, baguette diamond, sapphire and ruby bezels and gold President bracelets also diamond-set. Subtle they are not. But they are rather wonderful in a completely OTT “I’m so loaded I don’t care” way.
Mine is altogether more subtle, although, to be fair, it would be hard to out-state a Patriot. It’s a 16710 with a cal.3185 movement, tritium dial and a rather beaten-up old Oyster bracelet. It arrived in a Rolex service box with a service certificate and that was it. And I was smitten as soon as I lifted the lid.
After a little research and checking serial numbers with reference tables I realised my GMT dated from 1989, the first year Rolex made the 16710. That explained the tritium dial, one of the last. But it was a date that had a rather more personal resonance for me. I’d graduated in 1989. So it seemed I finally – and quite unintentionally – had my graduation present GMT. It was just 20 years late.
I thought the Mallory’s story and this unintended coincidence might raise a chuckle or two even in such a serious place as Geneva’s Rue François-Dussaud, so I wrote a letter to Rolex’s chief exec at the time, Bruno Meier. I explained that I’d recently realised a dream, that I’d wanted a GMT since I was kid and that I was absolutely delighted with my watch.
And, in the meantime, I carried on enjoying my Rolex GMT-Master II; buying a black bezel to replace the Pepsi. It looked simple enough, but it’s pretty intimidating to be faced with a sharp, flat-bladed knife, a newly-beloved and rather valuable GMT and a replacement bezel. Then, once I’d realised that popping off the bezel to change it didn’t mean trashing my watch, it was fine. And I kept looking at my wrist even when I didn’t need to know the time.
When the phone rang at the office early one Tuesday morning, a couple of weeks later, I assumed a client needed something on a short deadline. Instead, a voice introduced himself as Rolex’s Marketing Director, explained that Mr Meier had passed my letter on and it had reached his desk. He said he was delighted to hear the story and suggested I hang onto my watch as, in his opinion, values were only heading one way. We chatted for a few minutes, then he wished me well and rang off.
I stood looking at my phone and wondering how many other marketing directors from the watch business would take the trouble to call a customer who’d bought a second-hand product and wish them well.
Since then other watches have come and gone but the Rolex GMT-Master II has always been somewhere in the watchbox. The second timezone has been very useful indeed and it’s done plenty of travelling. Watches are for wearing, so it’s done thousands of motorcycle miles, been on my wrist as I’ve rebuilt engines and never been babied or treated specially. But it looks no different today from the day I took it out of the box. It’s not the most exciting or valuable of Rolex’s offerings but it has a value to me well beyond its collectability.
Most mornings, the 10 year old and the present day me put on our watch and smile. Watches often tell a great deal more than the time.