Rolex GMT-Master. The watch that helps aircraft to avoid each other.
Wherever in the world you fly, your pilot and the ground controllers with whom he or she is communicating pretend they’re in Greenwich, London, when talking about what time it is.
This way, everyone is using the same measure – they have synchronised watches, if you like – and there’s less chance of confusion when planning who is going to be exactly where, exactly when.
Why Greenwich? Well, because when the earth was divided up into lines of latitude and longitude, the line of 0 degrees longitude was set to run through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. (This was when Britain was a tad more important than we are now.) Then, in 1884, an international conference – called to rationalise the many versions of time that the world was using – decided that noon at Greenwich should become the point in time from which to set everyone’s clock.
The time zones we now use sprang from this decision. In most of Western Europe, for example, noon arrives an hour before it does in Greenwich, so their time is said to be GMT+1 (Greenwich Mean Time plus one hour). In New York, noon arrives 5 hours later than it does in Greenwich, so their time is said to be GMT-5.
So what has Rolex got to do with all this?
Well, in the early 1950s, as air travel distances became greater and aircraft were regularly crossing multiple time zones in one flight, Pan American Airlines asked Rolex to produce a watch for their pilots that could show two times simultaneously – local time and GMT.
Rolex added an extra hour hand and a rotating bezel to an existing watch model and asked Pan Am to try it out. The result was remarkable; time confusion was almost eliminated and international flight became a little bit safer at a stroke.
When Rolex started making the production version of the two-time-zone watch, they naturally called it the GMT-Master.
Today, that is still the name of this iconic and useful watch, even though GMT is now a bit of an old-fashioned term and Coordinated Universal Time replaced it in 1972, when we needed things to be a bit more accurate than someone watching the sun pass a line on the ground around lunchtime in South East London.
So should you buy a GMT-Master? If you’re a pilot, yes, of course. If you’re interested in the story of time, the story of flight or the history of the British Empire, yes again. And if you just love beautiful engineering, you should also think seriously about splashing out on one of these important bits of kit.
If you’re not short of a few bob, you could buy a new one – but if you fancy a GMT-Master that’s actually seen a few time zones in its time, think about a pre-owned model from Albemarle & Bond. They’re equally suitable for gents or ladies, incidentally.
You’ll save a few thousand, which is always worth doing, and you’ll also have the use of a superb watch that, over the years, could retain its value or even appreciate a bit.
You’ll also be in good company.
Chuck Yeager is a GMT-Master fan, of course. (You wouldn’t want to break the sound barrier with anything else on your wrist now, would you?) Fidel Castro and Che Guevara wore GMT Masters when plotting and leading their revolutions. More recently, Daniel Craig and Clint Eastwood have been seen sporting the watch and if you look closely at Dustin Hoffman’s wrist next time you see him, that’ll be a GMT-Master that’s peeking out from his cuff.
In some circles, the watch has a nickname – Pussy Galore. This is because the character of that name, played by Honor Blackman, wore a ladies GMT-Master in the 1964 James Bond film ‘Goldfinger’.
Different versions of the watch have earned other unofficial designations. Models with a blue/red bezel are known as the Pepsi; and ones with a red/black bezel are called the Coke!
The GMT-Master II, introduced in 1983, had a thicker case than before and therefore became known as the Fat Lady.
So let’s talk specifications. The Rolex GMT-Master uses an Oyster case with a date window and the Cyclops magnifier we first met when talking about the Datejust. It has a self-winding chronometer movement and both the Jubilee and the Oyster bracelet have been fitted in the past, so the one you settle on from our pre-owned stock could have either. Cases have been steel, white gold or yellow gold, and the dial colour could be white, black, gloss or matt.
…and that’s another joy of buying pre-owned. You’re buying a unique timepiece, with its own specification and combination of options, and a backstory that may well involve high adventure. Flying doctors in the Australian outback wear GMT-Masters. Alaskan tundra pilots wear them, too, as do air ambulance pilots in Africa and the UK.
Who might have worn yours? Where have they been? What have they done? You may never know, but the fact remains that the chance of an exciting past is a lot greater when you choose a pre-owned GMT-Master than it would be with almost any other prestige watch.