November is National Aviation History Month. So in honor of that, we take a look at some aviation inspired timepieces from Rolex. From the Turn-O-Graph to the GMT-Master to the Sky-Dweller, Rolex’s history has been closely linked to the story of the skies.
While the Rolex Turn-O-Graph may fly under the radar, it’s nevertheless an important part of the brand’s link to aviation. In fact, it may come as a surprise to some, but the Turn-O-Graph was Rolex’s very first pilot watch. Making its debut in 1953, it came before the more known GMT-Master. Its rotating bezel allowed pilots to execute imperative navigational calculations.
Furthermore, in the late 1950s, the pilots of the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbird aerobatic squadron used the Turn-O-Graph to assist with their navigation. Thus, it was an official military watch. This is why Rolex began referring to the Turn-O-Graph as “Thunderbird” — a name that is still in use today.
Rolex stopped production of the original Turn-O-Graph collection, only to bring it back in the 2000s. Unfortunately, probably due to a lack of interest from consumers, production of the Thunderbird stopped in 2011. While it’s no longer part of the company’s current catalog, the Turn-O-Graph was a significant part of Rolex’s contribution to aviation.
One of the most famous pilot watches ever, the Rolex GMT-Master saga began in the 1950s. During the jet age, planes were flying further distances, therefore requiring pilots to deal with things like jet lag and multiple time zones. So, the leading commercial airline of the times, Pan Am, commissioned Rolex to create a watch that could help pilots track of dual time zones simultaneously. In 1955, Rolex delivered upon its promise and unveiled the GMT-Master.
The new Rolex built specifically for pilots was actually a modified Turn-O-Graph and it was the ref. 6542. It featured a fourth GMT-hand, which as its name indicates, was used to indicate Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) by pointing to the 24-hour scale on the bezel. This was in addition to the time indicated by the hour and minute hands, thus, inspiring the name of the watch—GMT-Master. What’s more, the bi-color bezel allows the differentiation between day and night hours where red means daylight and blue means nightfall. While the original bezel of the GMT-Master was red and blue (aptly named the “Pepsi”), there have been plenty of options since then including, black and red (“Coke”), brown and gold (“Root Beer”), black and blue (“Batman”) in addition to singular color ones.
A truly practical tool watch created for a purpose, the GMT-Master has seen countless iterations throughout its history. This includes the introduction of the GMT-Master II collection, which is the model that survives today. Moreover, the GMT-Master is available in different materials like stainless steel, gold, and well as two-tone steel and gold options. The biggest addition to the newest GMT-Master II models is the ceramic bezel.
The GMT-Master is a living legend in the world of pilot watches and the core of the Rolex connection to aviation.
Rather than a timepiece for pilots, Rolex created the Sky-Dweller with the avid traveler in mind. Not only is the Sky-Dweller the newest Rolex collection, taking off in 2012, but it’s also ultra expensive and quite complex. In terms of design, Rolex exclusively uses 18k gold to construct the Sky-Dweller with a choice of yellow, white, or Everose gold.
In regards to complications, the Sky-Dweller is much more complex than other Rolex models in the current lineup. It boasts the center hour, minute, and seconds hands, a 24-hour disc, a second time zone, an annual calendar, and a month indicator dotted behind the 12 hour-markers. Whether flying commercial, private, or piloting your own plane, the Sky-Dweller is an exceedingly luxurious wing man to have by your side.
Still in its infancy, the Sky-Dweller is the latest, highly ambitious, chapter in Rolex’s aviation-inspired tale.