A true sign of the times, transatlantic travel necessitated the creation of a benchmark in horological history. Until 1954, a watch with dual time zones did not exist. That year, Rolex answered the call from Pan American Airlines to create another purpose-built or “tool” watch, this time for pilots (and world travelers trying to avoid jet lag) who needed to track a second time zone. James Bond fans will recognize the 1958 reference 6542 as the watch worn by Pussy Galore (portrayed by Honor Blackman) in the 1964 film, Goldfinger.
This past April 5th, Honor Blackman passed away in the UK. A remarkable woman, she will be missed. Her iconic turn as a Bond Girl now stands in memorial to her and was uniquely atypical in that she stood apart from the mold as a strong female character. A woman without need of a defining male presence, Pussy Galore stood alone; fierce and bold in every way (all the way down to the now eponymous Rolex GMT 6542 she wore), her performance then at 39 years old now endures. The 6542 watch reference was 10years old at the time of the movie release, and up until that moment was felt to be intrinsically a “Man’s watch;” Pussy Galore says otherwise and Honor Blackman pulled it off. Cheers to you, Ms. Blackman. Well done.
So why do I get so excited about 1950s Rolex GMTs in particular? First, they are exceedingly hard to come by, and in good condition, can fetch obscene prices. I recently came across a listing online for a 1958 Rolex 6542 complete with all associated materials for $145,000. Ridiculous? Think again; it sold a week later. Another reason is they showcase an evolution of prowess at Rolex. The original release of this watch featured a Bakelite bezel. While this afforded Rolex an easy way to add the three colors to the bezel, it was also very un-Rolex in its execution, proving to be terribly fragile. Not the best idea for a “tool” watch. Shortly after its introduction, Rolex fitted the 6542 with an aluminum tricolor bezel insert, thereby solving the fragility issue of the Bakelite (but forfeiting the practical, albeit radioactive, luminous radium numerals). Consequently, (in my estimation) for a GMT to be considered an “original” it must have the following three features: Reference 6542, Bakelite Bezel, and Manufactured in 1954-1958. The third point deserves a bit of clarification. The inaugural movement included with the 6542 was a 1036 movement, available until 1959. Other movements (1065, 1066) were concurrently available in the 6542 starting in 1957 until the arrival of the 1565 movement in late 1959 for the reference 1675. However, starting at some point (1957/1958), this reference came with a factory installed aluminum bezel. There is debate about this date, with some sources reporting the bezel transition came in late 1956/early 1957, however there are genuine examples of original Bakelite bezels on 6542s from 1958.
Regardless of year, bezel material or movement, these watches are the essence of cool. To hold one (with an understanding of what it actually is) is no less inspiring than being in the presence of the Apollo 11 space module or Burt Munro’s Indian Scout Bonneville racer. In this niche of collecting and hobbies (Read: addiction), true rarity can be had by four means: limited original production, limited overall survival, unique patina, and/or scarce market availability. The latter of these four points acknowledges the inverse relationship between price and availability. (Scarcity means higher prices, higher prices mean less accessibility, and usually vice-versa). In addition to the first three points, there is no way to accurately estimate the true number of reference 6542s produced by Rolex, as The Crown does not release those details. We are again left with the subject of market availability, and for as long as I have been looking, reference 6542s are a rare bird indeed; rare enough to “GMT” chills when they come up for sale.