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Review: Rolex GMT-Master 126720VTNR

It’s been a very strange year for the watch industry and we’re barely over halfway. First we had a plastic quartz imitation of the Speedmaster selling for as much as a Speedmaster, and then we had this: the Rolex GMT-Master II 126720VTNR. Is it worth the hype?

It seems the GMT-Master has long been a bit of a guinea pig for Rolex, a testbed for ideas that could make or break the company. Throwback to 1954 when the GMT-Master first came into the world, a collaboration with PanAm to furnish its international pilots—very publicly, of course—with watches that were capable of tracking several time zones at once.

Seems like a no-brainer decision associating a brand that wants to be seen as the tool of the professional with a major commercial airline, but back then the decision wasn’t so clear cut. At the end of the 40s, wartime aircraft development meant people could start to travel across the Atlantic by plane instead of boat, albeit in cramped, uncomfortable conditions. Rolex banked on the growth of that industry and its uptake by affluent travellers, and sure enough, with the introduction of the jet engine, air travel soared.

To use a modern, trendy term, Rolex was agile enough to take risks like that. The first GMT-Master was very basic, the GMT hand simply geared to turn once every 24 hours alongside the other hands. Not a major addition by itself, and not hugely useful either. But by switching out the sixty-minute bezel of the Turn-O-Graph it was based on with a 24 hour one, Rolex very cleverly refocused the watch for a new market with minimal effort. From there on in it was just a case of fixing what didn’t work and improving what did.

The first bezel was made from Bakelite, a precursor to plastic that was just too brittle. That was swapped out for the same aluminium used in other period watches like the Submariner. A quickset date feature was then added so date-changing was less of a chore. By 1983, the second iteration of the GMT-Master, the GMT-Master II, finally gave users the ability to set the GMT hand independently, offering more flexibility than ever before. It was, in essence, perfect.

Where do you go from there? With improving technology, the answer is digital. A basic Casio can do everything the GMT-Master does and a whole bunch more. These days, the phone in your pocket is even more impressive yet. The days of the mechanical watch were over.

The GMT-Master, however, didn’t follow the same trend. It brushed its hair, had its teeth whitened and put on its best suit. It’s a pretty thing now, the introduction of the ceramic bezel in 2005 on a full gold version of the watch not only setting the tone for a new era of Rolex, but once again unofficially crowning it as the brand’s guinea pig

It worked. For sure it worked. The GMT-Master is one of Rolex’s most popular watches, the variety of colour combos have renewed its focus as an immediately recognisable and desirable piece of jewellery. It’s coming up on two decades since it last risked life and limb to test the next great Rolex idea, and for 2022, it’s at it again.

So, what’s changed for the 2022 Rolex GMT-Master II 126720VTNR? On the one hand, not a lot really. It still has the 40mm case with the wider lugs that the Submariner abandoned in 2020. It still sports the green GMT hand it first debuted in 2007. The bezel is two-tone ceramic, a 2013 technological upgrade from the single piece black item that resulted from an eight-year struggle to figure out how to pigment a single piece of ceramic with two colours.

On the other hand—quite literally—this is a first in the modern era of Rolex that caters for left-handed owners. This isn’t the first left-handed Rolex, mind you. There have been left-handed versions of popular models like the Datejust, Submariner and even the GMT-Master in the past, plus unique left-handed only models like the King Midas.

Nevertheless, for the Rolex of today this is a landmark moment that the GMT-Master has once again been squared up in the firing line for as chief guinea pig. If it’s successful, expect to see left-handed versions of other Rolex watches appear. If it’s not … it will be successful so we don’t need to bother talking about that.

In practice, you’re basically looking at an upside-down watch here. The crown and all its settings work as though they were upside down, and I expect many right-handed owners of this watch will wind and set it as though it were still right-handed. The instant date change means you can’t see that it’s going the other way, so that doesn’t really matter.

The dial, however, is different. In the past, Rolex would have used the same dial and kept the date window on the right-hand side, since the date wheel goes around the entire movement anyway. Here Rolex has chosen to move the window to the left-hand side of the dial, keeping it next to the crown, which means printing a different date wheel arrangement too. Not a big deal for Rolex I’m sure, but still a little more effort than the barest minimum, done most likely to realise the emphasis of this crucial but surprisingly subtle difference.

Not so subtle, however, and so far unique to the 126720VTNR is the green and black bezel that gives the watch its VTNR reference. That’s verte noir in French, in case you were wondering, a colouration that harks back to that first steel and ceramic GMT-Master of 2007. The green matches the familiar GMT hand, both of which borrow from the watchmaker’s famous brand palette.

How should this watch make us feel? In the literal sense, for ten percent of people who are left-handed, perhaps a bit more comfortable. What’s more likely is that right-handers might find the not-unsubstantial crown being moved to the left-hand side a bit less of a nuisance. To be honest, the GMT-Master has never been bulky enough to have the problem of an uncomfortable crown anyway.

So where does that leave us? Well, it was never going to be a moment of any great enlightenment. Rolex has simply made a new version of a popular watch with a different colour thrown in to spice it up a little. But as we know with the GMT-Master’s prototypical past, usually the consequences for meddling with this hallowed model are far-reaching and impactful in a way we can’t often see. Do I expect to see more left-handed models? Yes, but I wonder if this is telling of something else as well.

Many players in the luxury market offer more than just a collection of off-the-shelf items. Take Porsche for example, which allows its customers to choose from a wide array of options to create something close to unique. I wonder if we are beginning to see an influx of options that allows a customer to craft the watch as they want it, instead of choosing from a couple of core variants. This would elevate the Rolex brand to a new level of bespoke luxury and customer service.

The last clue in the puzzle is this: a three-storey Rolex showroom has just been announced in London. This is a brand with no watches to sell with a selection barely large enough to fill a room, let alone three-storeys. Perhaps those rooms will be filled with an interactive watch-designing experience, where a customer can tailor their next purchase step-by-step, further enhancing the anticipation of waiting. You get the call, you spec your watch, you wait another six months. Just a left-handed GMT-Master? We’ll see!

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