First Rolex GMT-Master, Reference 6542, And Why The Gold Version Is Much More Desirable
by Paul Altieri
In recent years, the vintage Rolex GMT-Master with its multi time zone display has become one of the most desirable Rolex watches to own.
The very first GMT-Master, Reference 6542, is easily the rarest and most sought after of all the vintage GMT-Master references. With a production period that lasted only a short handful of years between 1954 and 1959, Reference 6542 is immediately identifiable to a trained eye by its 40 mm case diameter, thin 24-hour hand, and lack of crown guards.
As the vintage Rolex market continues its unbelievable expansion, I believe this timepiece gets elevated to a whole new level for its rarity compared to other GMT-Master references. While the majority of this reference was made in stainless steel, the yellow gold example shown here is an even rarer bird.
Since its introduction in 1954, Rolex’s GMT-Master line has undergone a number of changes and updates throughout the years, most recently reflected by brand-new Reference 126710BLRO, the “Pepsi” GMT-Master II in stainless steel announced at Baselworld 2018.
However, the original GMT-Master Reference 6542, possesses a number of distinct features that have not been repeated since.
Notable features of Rolex GMT-Master Reference 6542
Most notable among this reference’s traits is the bezel, which originally had an insert crafted in Bakelite, an early plastic, with luminous radium numerals set into it.
Due to the brittle nature of Bakelite inserts and their relatively high levels of radioactivity thanks to the radium, Rolex stopped using this combination altogether and switched to aluminum bezel inserts that did not glow.
Durability issues and the exceptionally short window of production of original Bakelite inserts have made them incredibly rare, and it is getting increasingly difficult to find a Reference 6542 GMT-Master that still has its original Bakelite bezel insert.
The vast majority of Reference 6542 GMT-Master watches were manufactured in stainless steel and fitted with black dials and red/blue bezel inserts that fans have nicknamed “Pepsi” bezels.
However, a very small number were crafted in 18-karat yellow gold and received distinctive brown dials and matching brown Bakelite bezel inserts.
Unlike the black dials on the stainless steel versions, the gold Reference 6542 watches received “nipple dials” with applied, yellow gold hour markers filled with luminous material.
Additionally, to match the more ornate and luxurious appearance of the watch, the 18-karat gold version of Reference 6542 received “alpha” or “leaf” hands rather than the “Mercedes-style” hands that can be found on the stainless steel variant of the same reference.
Brown and gold: a very Rolex combination
The brown and gold “root beer” color profile that is often associated with all-gold and two-tone versions of Rolex’s GMT-Master line was brought back at Baselworld 2018 with the announcement of the Reference 126715CHNR GMT-Master II.
While the color brown has returned, it is limited to only half of the bezel insert on this new watch, compared to the all-brown Bakelite insert and matching brown “nipple dial” on the 18-karat gold version of Reference 6542.
Additionally, instead of traditional yellow gold, the new “root beer” GMT-Master II reference is crafted in Rolex’s proprietary 18-karat pink gold (“Everose” in Rolex jargon) combined with stainless steel for a contemporary twist on a classic Rolex aesthetic.
Due to their short period of production and relatively early place within Rolex’s history, all Reference 6542 GMT-Master watches are now considered quite rare and valuable; finding one at all – let alone one of the few made in full 18-karat yellow gold – is becoming an increasingly difficult task.
Additionally, for one of these watches to still have its original Bakelite bezel insert means that not only was the watch manufactured during the first couple years of the GMT-Master’s history, but that it has also managed to survive for well over half a century without sustaining any significant damage to the notoriously brittle, and virtually irreplaceable, bezel component.
As far as vintage Rolex GMT-Master watches go, a Reference 6542 in yellow gold with this hand shape and an original Bakelite bezel insert is about as rare and collectable as it gets.
Any Reference 6542 GMT-Master with a Bakelite bezel insert is considered a “grail watch” by many collectors; however, one of these early GMT-Master watches in 18-karat yellow gold elevates it to an entirely new level of value, rarity, and collectability.
Quick Facts Rolex GMT-Master Reference 6542
Case: 40 mm, yellow gold with Bakelite bezel insert
Movement: automatic Caliber 1036; 2.5 Hz/18,000 vph frequency, chronometer certified
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date, GMT
Years of production: 1954-1959
Paul Altieri is the founder and CEO of the popular pre-owned watch site Bob’s Watches.