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Slow & Steady: 20 Years of Methodical Innovation in the Rolex GMT-Master II

By Thomas Hendricks
Slow & Steady: 20 Years of Methodical Innovation in the Rolex GMT-Master II
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Place a Rolex GMT from 2003 and one from 2023 side by side. They may look the same, but looks, of course, can be deceiving. 20 years make a difference in watch design, and if you’re the Rolex GMT, you’ve gone through a skater phase (“Coke”), a goth phase (“Lunette Noire”), a preppy phase (“Pepsi”), and even experimented a bit in college (“Sprite”), all in the last two decades. 

Chrono24 is turning the big 2-0 this year, so in that spirit, we’re going step-by-step through the methodical evolution of Rolex innovations from 2003 until now, with a particular focus on the watch that debuted many of the brand’s features, the Rolex GMT-Master II. If you’ve ever heard terms like gloss dial, super case, Cerachrom bezel, or Parachrom hairspring, and you weren’t exactly sure what they meant, then this article is for you. 

Traveling Through Time: 20 Years At a Glance

It’s the year 2003. Songs like “In Da Club” by 50 Cent, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes and, well, yeah, “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne are at the top of the charts. Johnny Depp made us all laugh in the role of Captain Jack Sparrow. The fifth book in the Harry Potter series, written by J.K. Rowling, was released to captivated readers worldwide. And it was also a time when you could walk into a Rolex boutique and actually buy one of their watches. 

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 16710

At that time, Rolex was selling the ref. 16710. It’s the second generation of the GMT-Master II, which had a long production run from 1989 to 2007. It used a slightly thinner case than its predecessor because it housed the thinner, new caliber 3185. Buyers could choose from three aluminum bezel options: blue and red, black and red, or all black.  

Produced for nearly 20 years, Rolex made a number of improvements during its production run while keeping the reference number the same. For example, the bracelet received solid end links starting in 2000, and Rolex eliminated the lug holes in 2003. The watch used tritium lume until 1997 before upgrading to LumiNova in 1998 and 1999, then switched to Super-LumiNova in 2000. So if you’re a patina fan, this model is great, because you have the aluminum bezels that fade beautifully over time, not to mention the toasty aging of the tritium lume on models made before 1998.  

Rolex GMT-Master II ref 16710 Coke
Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 16710 aka Rolex “Coke”

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116710LN

In 2005, the GMT-Master celebrated its 50th anniversary with the scratch- and fade-resistant Cerachrom bezel, which was featured on a yellow gold watch with an all-black bezel. In 2007, Rolex unveiled its first steel watch with a ceramic bezel in the ref. 116710, even before the Submariner, Sea-Dweller, or Daytona received ceramic bezels. And here’s an interesting side note: this model, called the Lunette Noire for its black bezel, remains one of the better deals for a steel Rolex GMT because it’s often overlooked in favor of its dual-color brethren. The 116710 also featured the caliber 3186 with a Parachrom hairspring, meaning it had greater resistance to shocks and temperature changes. Also, Rolex transitioned from the green-glowing Super-LumiNova to its proprietary blue-growing Chromalight during this time. 

Quick recap: One generation later, we’ve got a new bezel, a new movement, and new lume on the dial. 

Rolex GMT-Master II Ref. 116710LN
Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116710LN

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116710BLNR

For a few years, the all-black Lunette Noire was the only steel GMT-Master available. That changed in 2013 with the introduction of the Batman with a blue and black bezel. Rolex’s patented process took an all-blue bezel made of porous ceramic and added a contrasting black to the nighttime half of it. The speculation among watch enthusiasts is that blue and black were the easiest combination for Rolex to debut with its new dual-color ceramic bezels. Other ceramic color combinations, including the famed Pepsi bezel, would come later.  

The Rise of Batman or: Rolex GMT-Master II Ref. 116710BLNR
The rise of Batman: Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116710BLNR

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116719BLRO

The good news: The Pepsi was back one year later, in 2014! The bad news: It was only available in white gold.

The last time we saw the famous blue and red color combo was on the aluminum bezel that went out of production in 2007. Seven years later it was back with this new reference, albeit at a significantly higher price thanks to its precious metal case. Four years later, the dial was changed from black to blue with the new reference 126719BLRO, which is still in production today.  

Rolex GMT Master 'Pepsi'
Rolex GMT-Master “Pepsi”

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 126715CHNR

The year 2018 brought a few major changes to the lineup. First, we experienced the revival and reinterpretation of the Root Beer GMT. The vintage versions of this watch are super charming to say the least, and now there were full rose gold and two-tone versions with a black and brown ceramic bezel. 

Rolex GMT-Master II 'Rootbeer'
Rolex GMT-Master II “Rootbeer”

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 126710BLRO

And this was also the year of the return of the steel Pepsi GMT icon, the 126710BLRO. Still in production today, it wasn’t just celebrated for its appearance, but for what’s on the inside, too: the caliber 3285 with a power reserve of 70 hours instead of the previous 50 hours, thanks to the patented Chronergy escapement. It was additionally more accurate and more resistant to shocks and temperature variations.  

The new Pepsi debuted on a Jubilee bracelet with the Oysterlock clasp that included micro-adjustment. – If you’ve handled this watch, or if you’ve ever worn a watch in the summer – you know how important this is.  

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 126710BLNR

One year later, in 2019, we got the new Batman GMT, also with the new caliber 3285 and on the Jubilee bracelet. You’ll see this sometimes referred to as the “Batgirl” to differentiate it from the previous version on the Oyster. Now that Rolex offers its steel GMTs on both Oyster and Jubilee bracelets, however, you see people returning to the term “Batman” for all models with a blue and black bezel. 

For Watches and Wonders 2022, Rolex decided to freak it, shocking the watch world with the black and green GMT featuring the crown on the left.  

If nothing goes right, go left – like the GMT-Master II with black and green bezel
If nothing goes right, go left – just ask the GMT-Master II with its black and green bezel

Closing Thoughts

That brings us to the present day. Looking back, we see the brand’s slow and steady approach to technical improvements to the GMT-Master II, and all those changes have added up. In the last 20 years, we have had two new movements with better components and performance each time. We saw five new bezels, including some in new colors, two bracelet styles available, and a micro-adjustment feature. We also had two new kinds of lume, four metal options, and even a left-handed version.  

For watch enthusiasts, small steps like these often elicit reactions of “So what?” But perhaps there’s a lesson here: A “boring” path may not generate the most clickable headlines, but Rolex’s brand image solidifies over time; it frames the models themselves as canonical, even sacred. Dynasties don’t thrive on turmoil, and for Rolex, the crown is stronger than ever.  

About the Author

Thomas Hendricks

I didn’t grow up a watch guy, but a few years after graduating from university, I landed a job at the online publication Watchonista as a writer and marketer. “Welcome to the watch world,” my colleagues told me half-jokingly, “no one ever leaves!” Now at Chrono24, I work as a private client advisor, helping people find the perfect watch for major life moments.

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