Though they may dazzle, many of the blinged out Rolexes seen hanging off the wrists of celebrities are not crafted by Rolex; instead, aftermarket outlets set the watch with whatever a customer wants. While customization is always appealing, not only does this work often require compromising the structural integrity of the watch, but the original value (much less the amount spent on the modification) is rarely retained. Not so with the Rolex factory models: even the most elaborate gem-set timepieces are things of calculated beauty and flawless execution. The Rolex GMT-Master II 116748SARU is an exquisite example of how the brand creates striking gem-set watches while exercising restraint.
Rolex has been setting their watches with precious stones since at least the mid-1950s, when they started replacing hour markers with diamonds on the dials of some Oyster models. While the craft expanded through the 1970s to include pavé dials and gem-set bezels, it was confined to dress watches. In the mid-1980s, though, Rolex blew the lid off the watch world and introduced the GMT-Master II 16758 SARU, bringing its gem-setting acumen to a sports watch. With both a pavé dial and diamond-set center links on the President bracelet, the solid gold watch featured a bezel set with sapphires, rubies, and diamonds, mimicking the popular “Pepsi” bezel. As is its wont, Rolex let the design sit idle, and it wasn’t until 2006 that it was revisited, giving the updated GMT-Master II 116758 the SARU treatment, adding diamonds to the lugs and crown guards. Keeping the glitz and glam to the bezel, the Rolex GMT-Master II 116748SARU is a later version of the 2006 revisit, far less common and with less embellishment.
The 18k yellow gold Rolex GMT-Master II 116748SARU features Rolex’s “maxi case,” with thicker lugs and crown guards and a wider bezel that extends just beyond the edge of the midcase. The style may be the same 40mm as its predecessor, but it has a more substantial feel on the wrist due to those beefier aspects. What’s impressive is how Rolex achieves the same robust finishing on the gold as it does on steel: polished center links on the bracelet, polished sides and crown guards, and well-defined brushing on the rest of the watch. The screwdown crown features the brand’s Triplock system to ensure 100m of water resistance; the Oyster bracelet features a solid gold folding Oysterlock clasp.
The bezel is what makes this piece standout, though. Rolex updated the 1167xx generation to feature a 24-click bezel instead of the 120-click of the previous models—but that’s not why you’re here. The gems are what we all want to know about. Rolex is unrivaled in its gem-setting: it has an entire department devoted to the craft and uses only the finest stones, with no visible inclusions when magnified at 10x. The watch designers and gemology department work in concert to choose the exact colors and cuts of gems to be featured, and the selection of those gems once a design is finalized is meticulous. In the case of the GMT-Master II SARU, baguette cut stones replace the traditional Cerachrom bezel: 18 blue sapphires and 18 rubies, with the hour markers marked out by 22 diamonds. At 12 o’clock, a triangle diamond is present. The effect is stunning, though it should be noted that the ability to track a third time zone at a glance is significantly hampered.
The maxi dial—with larger indices and hands—remains true to the standard models except in one respect. The handset for all yellow gold gem-set GMT-Master IIs are also crafted from 18k yellow gold. They are matched by the index surrounds for a dash of extra warmth and cohesiveness. Of particular note in the GMT-Master II is the independent hour hand used to denote local time. The GMT hand can only be adjusted while setting the time, but the hour hand can be set independently in jumping one-hour increments—without stopping the watch. This makes for what is called a “true” GMT, and it’s incredibly convenient for the frequent traveler: arrive, adjust the hour, and go—no need to tinker with any other setting (the date will jump over with the hour). Completing the dial, of course, is the cyclopsed date window and all the obligatory Rolex dial text, including a pop of green denoting the model name. It’s all protected under a sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating.
The Rolex GMT-Master II 116748SARU is powered by the same movement behind all of the GMT-Master II models of the 1167xx generation, the Rolex caliber 3186. Like all Rolex calibers, the rhodium-plated 3136 is not only Chronometer-certified by COSC, but is put through an additional battery of in-house tests that earn each watch the “Superlative Chronometer” badge on the dial, guaranteeing -2/+2s per day. The automatic module features Rolex’s blue Parachrom hairspring, which is antimagnetic and offers additional shock and temperature resistance. The 3186 features 31 jewels and beats at 28,800 vibrations per hour with a power reserve of 50 hours. It includes a self-compensating free-sprung Breguet balance spring, Microstella regulating screws, and a central hacking seconds device for precision time setting. While it does not feature a quickset date mechanism, it does have a slightly quicker set mechanism, with the date linked to the independent setting of the hour hand.
Versus the Competition
If it’s jewels you want, and you’ll have them at any cost, then the Rolex Daytona “Rainbow” might be the end-all-be-all. With its 36 baguette-cut sapphires creating a rainbow gradient around the bezel, and 11 corresponding sapphires at the hours, this is peak Daytona, peak Rolex, and peak gem-set watch game. A more classic offering would be a Rolex Day-Date with diamond hour markers; it’s a far more restrained option and has deep roots in the earliest Rolex gem-set watches. Maybe diamonds aren’t your thing? Maybe you just want a classic GMT? Well, practically every brand makes one, so there’s no shortage. For the sake of consistency, here’s a Rolex option: the GMT-Master II “Root Beer” with its Rolesor rose gold accents and black and brown Cerachrom bezel.
A gold watch in any form is a statement piece. One that has a jewel-encrusted bezel? Forget about it. That said, the Rolex GMT-Master II SARU is one of the least ostentatious gem-set watches out there. Sure, it’s gold and has sapphires and rubies, but compared to the pavé-all-the-way custom jobs you see, it’s positively austere. There are plenty who want a gold watch with gems, but don’t want the whole shebang—individuals who are comfortable shouting but would prefer to do so at street level rather than from the rooftops. This watch is for them.
The Rolex GMT-Master II 116748 SARU is a stunning piece that offers the opportunity to not only possess a watch from one of the most revered brands on the planet, but to own a piece of craftsmanship a step above that brand’s normal offerings. With it’s elegant sapphire, ruby, and diamond bezel and robust solid gold case, the SARU strikes the balance between purpose and pleasure.