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Feature: Rolex GMT-Master Root Beer

The decade of 1950 was a huge turning point in the economy of the developed world. With the austerity of war falling behind and a bright new future shining ahead, it was an unprecedented period of growth in jobs, technology and living standards that gave people more time and money for the finer things in life than ever before. This is the story of the GMT-Master Root Beer, and how it changed Rolex forever.

It’s commonly understood that the revolution in quartz technology in the 1970s gave Rolex the opportunity it needed to dominate the luxury watch market, but the truth is a little more complicated and deep-rooted than that. As a comparatively young brand, starting decades and even centuries later than its counterparts, it was Rolex’s small company flexibility and inclination for risk-taking that sowed the seeds for a takeover of industrial proportions.

Born into an austere world in 1905, one that was blindly heading for war, the next half-century looked to be stacked poorly in Rolex’s favour. Founder Hans Wilsdorf’s gamble on wristwatches in a world of pocket watches looked set to fail, and the news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death in June of 1914 seemed likely to bury the company forever. In a stroke of unexpected opportunity, however, the convenience of Wilsdorf’s wristwatches created unexpected demand in the World War One trenches.

Although this was a long way from institutionalising Rolex as a luxury item, it presented an opportunity for the brand to establish itself as a purveyor of accurate and robust timekeeping equipment. The waterproof Oyster case, the Perpetual self-winding movement, the automatically-changing date—these were all technologies that became the foundation of the world’s most practical and usable timepiece.

But that small stroke of luck wasn’t to hold out; the Great Depression of the 1930s came and went, followed up by a second World War—but then something unexpected happened. Increased automation and productivity necessitated by the supply of wartime materials to the front line filtered into domestic industry. Cars could be built quickly and cheaply, houses too; using techniques for erecting military accommodation, New York construction firm Levitt & Sons was completing one house every sixteen minutes.

Wealth distribution, low interest rates and low oil prices in the 1950s meant that everyone could have a slice of the pie. People not only had free time, but money to spend, and so the leisure industry exploded. Technology that had been developed during the war, from transatlantic passenger aircraft to electronic communications equipment—even underwater breathing apparatus—all became entwined with the pastimes of millions.

This was Rolex’s second bite of the cherry, because it had just launched a watch built on a modular platform that could be adapted to accommodate all these things. It had the water resistance to take diving, could be protected from magnetic fields for engineers developing television, and was even capable of tracking multiple time zones with just a few modifications.

But it was at the end of the boom, in the early 1970s, that Rolex seized its greatest opportunity. Thanks to the prosperity of post-war economics, the time had come at last to bridge the gap between necessity and luxury—and it did so with this, the GMT-Master Root Beer.

In a move that was to set a precedent going forwards, the GMT-Master was the first of the Rolex sports models to be adapted for a new era. What had originally been envisaged as a professional tool for undertaking a skilled job was pitched anew as accessible, attainable luxury, the first Rolex sports watch in steel and gold—and it completely changed what the Rolex brand was all about.

Where the DateJust in steel and gold before it had been a quiet, reserved timepiece, this new GMT-Master was outrageously bold and incredibly striking; it even got a period 1970s colour scheme in fetching brown and yellow to boot. Rolex was no longer just about telling the time—it was about showing it, too.

It’s no coincidence this was the same period that Audemars Piguet launched the shocking Royal Oak; in the face of the rise of cheap quartz technology, both brands were attempting to establish the genre of the luxury sports watch, one adding a splash of gold to its modern steel sports watches, whilst the other moved to steel from a background of traditional gold opulence.

But not for the first time, Rolex was dealt a bad hand. Explosive interest rates and ruinous debt crippled a public used to enjoying wealth and leisure, and did so all the way into the 1980s. Generous government spending had reached breaking point, and fiscal recession dominated once again. The seed of Rolex luxury that had barely begun to germinate fell dormant.

Then, in 1982, the greatest burst of economic activity ever seen began, and that seed finally bloomed. Even in a world rapidly filling with Swatch watches, Rolex had managed to establish its presence as a luxury watchmaker just enough to not only survive, but also to flourish.

And half a century on, the brand continues to flourish, with the GMT-Master introducing the ceramic bezel to Rolex in 2005 and reintroducing the Root Beer colours once again with the 126711 CHNR in steel and rose gold in 2018. The colours may have softened from the 1970s original, tuned to a palette less adapted to the garish décor of the period, but it still serves as a reminder of the daring risks Rolex took to get to the top.

Whether it was savvy business nous or blind luck that helped Rolex hit all the right marks through the years, hit them it did. Whether you like the brand or not, its growth is a masterclass in—to borrow the tedious tech phrase—disrupting an industry, adapting to change and coming out on top, and the best watch to celebrate that with? It’s got to be a Root Beer, of course.

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