The Rolex GMT-Master series has been the last word in luxury travel watches for more than six decades. Created in 1955, at the request and with the cooperation of Pan Am Airlines, it was designed to help the company’s pilots stave off the worst effects of jetlag by allowing them to keep track of both GMT time (UTC) and the local time in their eventual destination.
To do so, Rolex borrowed the rotating bezel concept they had introduced on their Turn-O-Graph a couple years before, marking it with a 24-hour scale, and fitting the dial with an additional hour hand, geared to run at half speed. On the earliest generations of the Rolex GMT-Master, the two hour hands were directly linked to each other, meaning they couldn’t be set separately. To read a second time zone, the bezel had to be turned to line up the numerals with the GMT hand.
However in 1983, Rolex launched the ref. 16760, the debut GMT-Master II, sometimes known as the Fat Lady. The reason for its unflattering nickname was the thicker and wider case needed to accommodate the Cal. 3085, the movement which uncoupled the hands for the first time. Now, not only was setting the watch to display two time zones easier, it could actually be used to show a third.
While the movements have been changed and upgraded since then, the basic principle is still the same. The contemporary versions of the GMT-Master II, as well as being among the most desirable and difficult to acquire Rolex watches, also have an extremely practical complication for use in everyday life.
Below we take you through the process of setting up the Rolex GMT-Master II to display three time zones.
How to Set the Rolex GMT-Master II
First off, there are two terms we’ll be using throughout this article that you need to know: ‘home’ time and ‘current’ time.
Home time is the time where you live. As a side note, many purists believe the watch’s GMT hand should always be left on Greenwich Mean Time, still the standard for time measurement the world over, regardless of where you live. This makes it easier to quickly reference multiple different time zones since you just need to remember the number of hours offset (ahead or behind) they are from GMT.
During the flight, to help the body acclimate to the time difference, Rolex GMT-Master II owners can set the regular 12-hour hand to the time in their destination (current time), and leave the 24-hour GMT hand set to display the time in their home city (home time). They can then read the current time normally off the dial, and their home time off the corresponding numeral that the 24-hour hand points to on the bezel.
All the hands are adjusted using the winding crown, which has four positions; 0-3.
- Position 0is the crown fully screwed in, where it should always be when not setting the time to ensure the watch stays water resistant.
- Position 1 is the position that the crown naturally pops into once unscrewed. This position allows for manual winding, but not the adjustment of any hands.
- Position 2 is when the crown is pulled out to the first notch. This gives control over the main hour hand, which jumps forwards or backwards in one-hour increments. Additionally, the date window will change forwards or backward as the hour hand passes midnight; however, it is worth noting that Rolex GMT-Master II watches don’t have a Quickset date function, which would give the ability to change the day of the month in the three o’clock window by just turning the crown.
- Position 3 is when the crown is pulled all the way out, and provides access to the traditional time-setting functions, where the seconds hand stops and both hour hands plus the minute hand can be adjusted either forwards or backwards by rotating the crown.
So reading two different time zones really couldn’t be any simpler. But how do you read three?
Reading the Third Time Zone on a Rolex GMT-Master II
Although all Rolex GMT-Master II watches can be used to display a third time zone, it should be noted that only two can be read simultaneously.
For example, if a person who lives in California is currently in New York on a business trip, they can read the current time in New Yorkon the dial as normal, while the 24-hour hand shows them the time back home in California against the accompanying 24-hour scale on the bezel.
If they then decide that they want to find out the time in London, and know that London is 8 hours ahead of their home time in California, all they will need to do is rotate the bidirectional bezel 8 hours ahead and the time in London will be indicated by the numeral that the 24-hour hand points to on the bezel.
However, since the bezel has been rotated, the 24-hour hand no longer displays the time in California since the Rolex GMT-Master II does not have a secondary 24-hour scale printed on the dial. So while the watch can’t show all three zones at once, it is a rather quick and easy task to switch it to reference a third.
It is the rotating bezel that puts the Rolex GMT-Master II a step above its close cousin the Explorer II. The pair of watches shared a movement throughout most of their respective histories, right up until their most recent iterations. But while the Explorer II can also set its two hour hands independently of one another, the fixed bezel means that it cannot be used to read a third zone.
So there we have it, how to set the Rolex GMT-Master II to show three time zones. If you are not used to reading a 24-hour clock, it can take some getting used to; however, those distinctive split-tone bezels are not just for show. The two colors are chosen to represent day and night hours, allowing the wearer to differentiate at a glance.
Now available with a black and brown surround commonly called the Root Beer), blue and black (the Batman) or the original red and blue (the Pepsi), the GMT-Master II is among the most recognizable Rolex watches in the brand’s catalog, along with being some of the most iconic timepieces in the entire luxury watch industry.
An absolute legend in the industry, there is no better travel companion than the Rolex GMT-Master II.