A true icon of the watch world that can look back on almost 70 years of history: We’re talking, of course, about the Rolex GMT-Master. When the Genevan manufacturer first introduced the ref. 6542 on behalf of American airline Pan Am in 1954, it was just one of two wristwatches that could display a second time zone (the other being the Glycine Airman). The Rolex model stood out with its unique bezel color scheme featuring a red and blue 24-hour scale and a red additional hour hand. Also of note: Even the earliest versions of the GMT-Master were certified by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC).
Due to the bezel colors being reminiscent of a well-known soft drink logo, the first reference of the GMT-Master quickly earned the nickname “Pepsi” among fans. For many years, the GMT-Master was the tool watch of choice for pilots and flight crews of international airlines. Today, the watch – and its successor, the GMT-Master II – are particularly popular with well-to-do frequent travelers. While collectors delight in this model’s history, some speculators only have eyes for its market performance, which isn’t really surprising, seeing as prices for well-preserved examples have been consistently on the rise.
So, let’s take a closer look at the visual, technical, and performance details for some of the most important references from the GMT-Master lineup.
The GMT-Master ref. 6542: Commissioned by Pan Am
The first Rolex GMT-Master, the ref. 6542, was produced from 1954 to 1959. It is very difficult to find well-preserved copies of this rare reference today, and if you do, prices are steep. These early models feature bezel inserts made of Bakelite, one of the first synthetic plastic materials ever made. While Bakelite is resistant to heat and pressure, it is very brittle, meaning that many of the early GMT-Master bezels shattered under undue force. Watches with original, intact Bakelite bezels are, therefore, significantly more valuable.
The stainless steel watch measures 38 mm across and lacks a crown guard. It is powered by the chronometer-certified, automatic Rolex caliber 1030. This movement beats at the leisurely pace (by today’s standards) of 18,000 vph.
There are a number of different versions of the Rolex GMT-Master ref. 6542 available, including some made of 18-karat gold with a brown or black bezel. In addition, the dial inscriptions vary between different versions. The very first example bore the watch’s depth rating, “50 m – 165 ft,” above the GMT-Master logo, but most of the models you’ll find today feature the GMT-Master lettering on its own.
Prices for this reference are largely dependent on the watch’s overall condition, any accessories, and the bracelet pairing; ideally, you want a watch on an original Oyster bracelet. You can find listings for the ref. 6542 starting at just over 20,000 USD on Chrono24. The average list price on the platform is closer to 45,000 USD, while some particularly fine examples are priced over 100,000 USD. As is the case with many rare and coveted collector’s items, these are purely “collector’s prices.” Back in the mid-1950s, you could buy a ref. 6542 for 240 USD.
The GMT-Master Refs. 1675 & 16750
In 1959, the GMT-Master ref. 6542 was replaced by the ref. 1675. Rolex produced this successor model until 1979. Given the relatively long production period, there are significantly more examples of this watch available on the market today. The ref. 1675 was the first GMT-Master to come with a crown guard, and its case grew by 2 mm, bringing it up to the 40 mm size that remains standard to this day. This reference also featured a so-called Pepsi bezel, but this time it was made entirely of aluminum. Starting in the early 1970s, you could also purchase variants with solid black bezels. Over the course of the production period, the luminous material tritium replaced the previously-used radium on the indices. Watches with the new material are recognizable by the addition of the letter “T” to the right of “Swiss” below the 6 o’clock marker.
Up until the mid-1960s, Rolex outfitted these watches with the caliber 1565, which features a Breguet overcoil and, like its predecessor, runs at 18,000 vph. The successor movement, the 1575, entered the scene in 1965, running at 19,600 vph. Another update followed in the early 1970s and saw the addition of a stop-seconds mechanism.
Over the years, there were numerous small changes made to the hands, dial text, and crown guard, making some versions of the ref. 1675 quite rare and, thus, correspondingly more valuable. There are scads of real and self-proclaimed Rolex GMT-Master experts who can run you through the different dials and their inscriptions. The dials are either gilt, matte, or glossy. So-called “Maxi” dials have extra-large indices, while the middle line of the “E” in Rolex is slightly extended on so-called “Long E” dials. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of variations, but we don’t have the scope to cover all the minute deviations here. In short, the dial variations are distinguished by the labels Mark 1 to Mark 8.
The average price for a stainless steel GMT-Master ref. 1675 with a Pepsi bezel – regardless of the movement or other special features – is just over 21,000 USD (as of March 2022). This is around 1,100 USD more than a year ago. That being said, very rare examples like the so-called “Quraysh Hawk” manufactured for the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Defense can exceed the 100,000 USD mark.
Thereplaced the 1675 in 1979 and continued to be produced until 1988. The most significant difference here is the caliber 3075, the first in this series to beat at 28,800 vph. Another new feature was the quickset date, which meant the date no longer gradually turned over between 9 PM and 12 AM, but at midnight, sharp. Like its predecessors, the ref. 16750 is equipped with a hesalite crystal, while featuring an improved water resistance of 100 m (10 bar, 328 ft), up from 50 m (5 bar, 164 ft). This reference was offered with your choice of an Oyster or a Jubilee bracelet.
Special editions aside, the average price for a GMT-Master ref. 16750 with a Pepsi bezel is around 16,500-17,500 USD. This represents an increase of more than 4,000 USD over the past two years. However, full sets with the original box and papers can cost double that.
The GMT-Master Ref. 16753: Two-Tone With 80s Charm
The ref. 16753 marked the first time Rolex offered GMT-Master models that clearly veered from the usual framework thanks to their color combinations. The two-tone version of this reference, which has gone down in history as the “Root Beer,” has earned as many fans over the years as it has critics. The watch earned its nickname due to its golden brown dial and bezel hues that are reminiscent of the popular American soft drink. This variant of the Rolex GMT-Master, produced between 1979 and 1988, perfectly reflects the 1980s zeitgeist. Inside, you’ll find the well-known caliber 3075 ticking away.
Rolex also produced a gold GMT-Master “Root Beer,” the ref. 16758. There are other variants that feature a so-called nipple dial, which has smaller indices that stand higher than the traditional hour markers. Both references are available with brown or black dials.
The average price for a Rolex GMT-Master Root Beer ref. 16573 on Chrono24 is around 15,500 USD. Again, this is an increase of around 4,000 USD since this time last year (February 2021).
If you really want to make a statement, check out the solid gold version. The average price for this variant is around 42,000 USD, which is a marked increase from last year when the same watch was selling for closer to 26,500 USD. As of February 2022, there is a NOS (new old stock) model from 1978 without box and papers listed for some 75,000 USD.
The Best Rolex GMT-Master
So, which is the best Rolex GMT-Master? Well, there is no easy answer to that question, because each and every GMT-Master has its own unique character and charm. The question you should really be asking yourself is why you want to buy a GMT-Master in the first place. If you are looking for a rare collector’s item and one of the first ever GMT watches, the ref. 6542 is the watch for you. Is this a pick you could wear day in, day out? Probably not. Its suitability for everyday use is limited, and will only be more so if its value continues to increase.
Things get more interesting with the refs. 1675 and 16750 as far as everyday use is concerned. This era of GMT-Masters offers the opportunity to research to your heart’s content and seek out particularly rare specimens. A watch like this is probably suitable for weekend use or for special occasions. In any case, it is definitely a worthy addition to any collection and very likely to retain its value or even appreciate. If, however, you are looking for a robust daily wearer that can withstand a bit more activity, your best bet would be to check out the Rolex GMT-Master II.