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The story of GMT watches and the rise of the Jet Age

The story of the Jet Age is also that of the rise of the GMT watch, which lets you track upto three time zones simultaneously

A modern Rolex GMT-Master II.
A modern Rolex GMT-Master II. (Courtesy Instagram)

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As a watch afficionado, it often seems to me that in these days of the smartphone, the joys of mechanical watches are purely aesthetic in nature. This seems especially true when it comes to watch complications. After all, when even the most low-brow smartphone can tell you everything, from the phase of the moon to the time in a different time-zone, then why would you need separate watches for each individual function?

There are, of course, watches that combine two or more complications at once. For example, think of a perpetual calendar watch from a Patek Philippe or a Vacheron Constantin or an A. Lange & Söhne, that also combines a chronograph as well as a moon-phase display. These are the so-called ‘Grand Complications’ watches. Such a watch, like the Ref. 5270J (perpetual calendar, chronograph, moon phase) from Patek Philippe, will cost you $168,970. If you’re spending the kind of money that would otherwise buy you a small palace, then you’re doing so for the aesthetics, and the status, not for the functionality.

Also Read: Can you tell a moonphase from a perpetual calendar?

That said, there are certain complications that are extremely useful to have on your wristwatch, whether your watch is mechanical or quartz. One of these is the chronograph, but, again, apart from how freaking cool a chronograph looks, you could easily use a dive watch, with its rotating timing bezel, for most of your timing needs.

Another one is the GMT watch. To put it simply, a GMT watch is one that allows you to track two separate time zones (including, of course, the time zone you’re in) at the same time. And with most, you can even track a third time zone. Now, how is this useful? The most obvious answer is that this complication makes a watch that’s perfect for international travellers (if one lives in a country like the US, with 9 time zones, then it’s great for domestic travel too). In fact, one of the amusing things about the covid-19 pandemic was the eagerness with which watchmakers started unveiling new GMT models as soon as it was feasible to travel again!

Also Read: How nostalgia drives the watch industry

The first watch to popularise the GMT complication was the Rolex GMT-Master. The 1950s was a great decade for Rolex, with the decade marking the launch of it’s three most iconic lines. All of them were sports watches: the Submariner in 1955, the Explorer in 1954 and the GMT-Master also in 1955. Of these, the last one was the most readily useful, especially for pilots. And the story of the GMT-Master, and by extension, all GMT watches, is also the story of commercial transatlantic air travel.

It all kicked off quite rapidly in the early 1950s. In mid-1952, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) flew 36 people nonstop from London to Johannesburg on a De Havilland Comet jet. Two years later, in June 1954, the precursor to the legendary Boeing 707, the Boeing 367-80, made its first test flight in Seattle USA. The so-called Jet Age had begun, although it wasn’t until October 1958 that a Boeing 707 jet, ran by Pan American Airlines (Pan Am), made the first jet flight from New York to Paris.

Also Read: The race to create the world's first automatic chronograph

Four years before this, Pan Am, impressed with Rolex’s advertisements touting the Oyster Perpetual as the watch that summitted Mount Everest in 1953, called on the manufacture to make a watch that its pilots could wear, in order to tell the time in at least two different time zones. Rolex obliged with the brilliant design of the GMT-Master. Visually, not much has changed from the Ref. 6542 from 1955. It had the normal hour, minutes and seconds hands, with addition of a fourth GMT hand. The watch also featured a rotating 24-hour bezel around the dial.

Of course, in keeping with Rolex’s design history, none of the main features of the GMT-Master’s design was particularly original. All these things were present and correct in the Glycine “Airman”, from 1953. What Rolex did was to take the decidedly utilitarian and military looking GMT design from the Airman and give it a very stylish makeover. The black dial, the bold red GMT hand, the iconic blue and black “Pepsi” bezel that differentiated day-time from night-time, the Mercedes hour hand, the high legibility of the hour-markers, and the cyclops date-magnifier: all these things added pizzaz to the GMT-Master. Not only did it become a hit with maverick pilots, but also with the newly prosperous clientele of the Jet Age, turning the GMT-Master into the ultimate travel watch.

Also Read: Why do we wear large watches if we have small wrists?

These days, it’s nearly impossible to get the GMT-Master’s successor, the GMT-Master II (retail price of 8,00,000) even if you have the money. Which is fine, because given the popularity of the complication, you will find that nearly every brand offers a GMT watch. Mechanical GMT movements are expensive, so most Swiss automatic GMTs will cost you north of $1,000. However, with micro-brands, such as Lorier, you can get the GMT-Master experience for less than $1,000. Earlier this year, the GMT complication even more accessible, with Seiko launching its line of Seiko 5 GMTs ( 40,000), and Timex with its quartz Q GMTs (not yet launched in India).

Now, if you’re not an international traveller, why would you need a GMT? Simple. You may need to keep track of another time zone because of the nature of your work, and believe me, it’s much better to glance down at your wrist to get the relevant information than to look at yet another screen. Me, I’d use mine to keep track of the kick-off times of football matches!

Handwound is a column on watches and watchmaking.

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