Loyal readers will remember that in mid-2017, I made a fairly big trade with another collector that sent my Heuer Autavia reference 2446 away in exchange for an Omega Seamaster SM3oo and a Rolex GMT Master. The GMT, as it so happened, was originally discovered in an estate sale and is a fantastic example of a gilt-dialed reference 1675.
The GMT Master was introduced in 1954 in collaboration with Pan American Airways as a means of helping pilots keep track of multiple time zones simultaneously on their international flights. Like many other purpose-built watches of the era, a design originally rooted in functionality ended up planting the seeds for a genre-defining watch, as the distinctive two-tone bezel, red GMT hand, and ever-reliable Oyster case created a package that has become synonymous with travelers and watch lovers alike. I knew for a long time that I wanted a GMT Master, but constantly debated which reference and price point to target. The devil is always in the details with vintage and it’s no different when it comes to GMT Masters, as you can choose between a reference 6542 (if you’re made of money), a gilt dialed 1675, a matte dial 1675, a 1675 with an “all-red” GMT hand, a reference 16750 with quick-set date, etc. etc. The iterations are damn near endless (and daunting), and none of that even captures the educational process needed to ensure that the whole package (bezel, hands, dial, date wheel, etc.) is period-correct and matching. For a long time, the answer was to keep kicking the can down the road in hopes that I’d find “the one” in a lucky situation. Thankfully, finding the perfect trade partner for my Rindt satisfied that pipe dream.
Without having an “in the metal” basis for comparison between all the variations listed above, I decided to just leave my options open and see what walked into my life at the right price point. Prior to the trade, I was targeting a reference 16750 with nice patina, largely due to that reference’s matte dial and practicality of the quick-set date. Since making the trade for my gilt-dialed 1675, however, I’ve changed my tune considerably…gilt dials are simply magical. If you don’t know or care about the difference between matte dials and gilt dials, bear with me for this quick digression.
The picture above demonstrates the reflective effect of the gilt dial (the light portion between 11 o’clock and 2 o’clock is the window that I was shooting the watch next to), and a quick tilt of the wrist allows the text and markings to (literally) shine. Early gilt dials were also produced in a rather extraordinary way – while many people probably think the lettering / markings are printed on the black glossy surface, it’s actually the opposite. The manufacturing process was quite complicated and can be summarized in three main steps (explained more eloquently by my friend, Andrew, here):
- A copper plate was used as the base, with markings and words “printed” on the circular plate.
- The plate was then dipped in a galvanic substance, allowing an electrical current to flow that “raised” the stampings from the prior step.
- The plate is then coated in a lacquer and luminous material applied to the relevant indices.
The result is captivating and results in far more wrist-staring than ever occurred with similar matte dials that I’ve owned. If all things are considered equal and you’re debating a gilt-dialed watch versus a similar matte-dialed watch, you at least know where I now stand. So…ehrm…you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.
The Fine Print
When judging condition in today’s minefield of vintage Rolex, this is exactly the type of GMT that I would suggest seeking out – a watch in great overall condition, but one that has been clearly loved and worn throughout the years, without a 100% perfect gilt dial and with clearly pronounced (but not “mint”) beveling on the lugs. I’ll start with my comment about not seeking a spotless gilt dial. One of the most common issues with gilt dials is degradation of the lacquer over time, which leads to cracking, pitting, or even bubbling when untreated. If you examine the dial here, you can see a small marking below the base of the hand stack, as well as a small marking above the 8 o’clock lume plot. In my mind, these are completely acceptable “flaws,” as the lacquer is still smooth and there’s no bubbling around the plots. Am I saying that a perfect gilt dial is re-done or fake? Of course not! Just make sure to use your head, especially at the prices these are now commanding.
The second point I raised above was about the condition of the lugs. One of the most common offenses I seem to witness more and more often on 1960’s Oyster cases is the theme of re-cut cases being passed off as unpolished or original. Again – use your head. If I was evaluating this exact same example, but it had a flawlessly polished case with perfect bevels, my immediate thought would be “how did the bezel fade and collect scratches, but the case avoided any and all scuffing?” If the seller were to represent that the bezel insert was original and corresponded to a perfectly beveled / unpolished case, that incongruity alone would likely lead me to walk away or negotiate a significantly lower price. Every single detail matters when you’re taking the plunge on vintage Rolex in this stratosphere, so stay vigilant.