For the past two weeks I’ve proudly worn this last-of-the-glossy-dials Rolex GMT-Master. Before me it was worn by a man named Ernest, who originally purchased it in the Philippines, on December 7th 1966, when he made the final layaway payment. In between us, it’s been worn a handful of times by Ernest’s only daughter, Jenn.
When Jenn told me she had her dad’s GMT, I immediately picked up on her affection for it. Her feelings for it had nothing to do with its sun bleached, naturally faded “Pepsi” insert. Nor did it have to do with the fact that it happens to retain every scrap of paper it came with. She loves this GMT because it’s a part of her dad, the most important man in the world to her, who passed away six years ago. The vignettes of his life that she shared with me reaffirmed what I enjoy most about watches: learning about the people responsible for all the nicks and dings, bracelet stretch and grime caked between the lugs and end pieces of watches.
Every single time I press the clasp closed, I see her dad’s initials (if you look past the swirly scratches and scuffs from desk diving you can still make out “E. P. B.” engraved in calligraphic font). Before I rotate my wrist to admire the crisp, gilt print dial, I stop for a minute and think about Ernest – a man I never met, but after hearing Jenn talk about him, I wish I had the pleasure…
So what did I find out about Ernie? His doting daughter told me, “He was a fun one… a little punk in high school. He got arrested for drag racing and my grandmother left him in jail to teach him a lesson… He got kicked out of college (a couple times).” In Ernie’s defense, he did end up graduating – with an IT degree.
When he wasn’t busy being a rebel, Ernie was a model citizen – literally. He was the first member of his family born in America. When relatives would visit the States – or immigrate – Ernie was the welcome committee at the arrival terminal.
After Ernie graduated high school, he was drafted. He spent four years serving in the U.S. Navy, base-hopping so much he told his family, “he flew over the [Vietnam] War.” While Ernie was fortunate to avoid combat, he did witness some pretty crazy stuff, like seeing someone get burned to a crisp after standing too close to a jet’s engine on an aircraft carrier.
Buying this GMT-Master was a much more pleasant memory from his days in the service. And believe it or not, its functionality and ruggedness weren’t the features that sold him on the model. It was the patriotic blue/red color combo he really dug. Simple as that.
Jenn grew up attached to her dad’s hip, so she couldn’t help but notice his colorful watch. Not a day goes by she doesn’t miss him, so she cherishes her memories. The very first time she spotted this GMT on her dad’s wrist, he was pumping gas – back when a gallon cost 89 cents. She also remembers a trip to California as a teenager and her dad showing her – and explaining – how by twisting the bezel he’d know the time of day in two far away places. Jenn says, “he had such a cool and unusual piece. At that time you saw calculator watches and here was my dad wearing this bright blue-and-red-bezeled silver, chunky thing.”
When Jenn was old enough to wander the mall on her own, she treated herself to a colorful watch all her own. And since this was the ’80s, it should come as no surprise a Swatch was the obvious choice – and she picked one out for her dad too. Now, while I’m not a father (yet), I can imagine the sense of pride felt using (or wearing) a gift from your child. So from the ’80s onward Ernie ended up wearing a chotchkie, plastic Swatch over his Pan Am-approved Rolex GMT, which is part of the reason it’s in such remarkable condition.
The first time Jenn understood her dad owned a “Rolex” she was in high school: a mean girl showed up to class one day wearing a diamond-bezeled Rolex – and made sure everyone knew how much it cost. Even after becoming aware of the value of a Rolex, Jenn never thought of her dad’s GMT as a status symbol. That’s because she never knew her dad to flaunt his Rolex – that wasn’t his style. Ernie got more satisfaction from personally knowing it was a quality watch he saved up for.
Some years after Ernie’s passing, Jenn’s mom took her husband’s Rolex out of their dresser drawer and gave it to her. She knew how much her daughter would appreciate it – losing Ernie was especially hard on Jenn. She was – and always will be – daddy’s little girl. His Rolex can never take the place of him, but it does bring her some comfort when she holds it and looks at it. To her, “it has his character written all over it: a little quirky and so sophisticated.”
Watches I encounter, that I truly know the backstory to, like this GMT, serve as an important reminder to me to be patient when it comes to building my collection. You can buy just about any watch – in any condition – nowadays. But you can’t so easily purchase a vintage watch that comes with a story you know is true. These are the watches I treasure – more so than ones that only have a rare dial or new-old-stock condition going for them. That’s why the later, replacement handset on this GMT doesn’t bother me so much. Just knowing it was worn by a good man – an awesome dad – makes it perfect in my eyes.