In Watch and Firearm Collecting, Details Matter
by James Rupley
Two weeks ago, I purchased a new Rolex GMT Master II “Batman” directly from an authorized Rolex dealer (“AD”). After photographing the watch in my studio, I was surprised to see a production error that I had never seen before. In the “8” in the “18” on the bezel, the top circle is blue, while the bottom is black.
From my experience photographing and publishing books on vintage firearms, I have learned that small details matter. They add character and collectability. Despite the seemingly different nature of the watch and firearm community, the two passions have much in common. Collectors of both disciplines pore over the most minute details, serial numbers, condition reports, and provenance to determine collectability.
Was this new-to-me Rolex extremely collectable? Or is it sort of normal? To find out, I looked at the situation through the lens I know best–collecting vintage firearms.
Detail of blue over black color error
Does Rolex make mistakes?
Over the decades, Rolex has established a reputation of perfection, built on the ethos of Swiss precision and excellence. As such, it’s possible to assume that Rolex doesn’t make mistakes. But that simply isn’t that case. Rolex certainly makes “mistakes” from time to time. Was this particular “error” a simple slip-up at quality control? If so, this is likely an embarrassing discovery for Rolex, but for enthusiasts who appreciate detail, it’s fascinating. And in today’s world of Rolex uniformity, any kind of imperfection can be very exciting news to collectors.
I photograph and publish books on firearms, generally collectable small arms of historical significance. Watch enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that there are numerous analogues between collecting vintage small arms and vintage watches. Authenticity is paramount in both hobbies–and fakes are common in both. Below I’ll give some background on both worlds of collecting and highlight my own experience finding similarities between the two.
In Vintage Watches and Firearms: Originality, Authenticity, and Condition Matters Most
The GMT-Master II I received clearly had a variation that doesn’t exist on “standard” models–so what does it all mean?
As with watches, collectors of vintage firearms must constantly be on guard for modifications to the weapon that make it different from the way in which it left the factory – as “factory original and period correct” is the ideal condition in the eyes of a vintage firearm collector. A collector will cross-reference the unique serial number of a firearm with known serial number ranges to assess that the features of that item are correct for the period. This is no different than looking at a vintage watch and comparing it to known factory examples to ensure it’s entirely original.
In both small arms and watches, anything from a non-conforming marking, font, location of marking, color, or other feature can easily be a red flag to identify a part as a replacement or be used to bring the authenticity of the entire item into question.
However, in my particular experience, I’ve come to believe that there are items that leave factories in configurations that don't always agree with the published tables and established knowledge bases. But they are authentic nonetheless – and that is a hard truth for many people to accept. We don’t like to acknowledge that there isn’t one, monolithic benchmark of perfection. It makes the whole entire pursuit even more difficult.
I’ve seen “lunchbox” 1911 pistols that must have been smuggled out of factories during the Second World War, and I’ve seen late-generation firearms (from multiple different manufacturers) that were clearly produced (at least in part) by using earlier generation components that were left over from prior production. A lot of things go on in factories that we can’t explain and that weren’t recorded. Firearms and watches have traditionally been tools, and the companies that have produced them focus on providing customers with products that work–and sometimes that means older, leftover parts. It doesn't affect the functionality of a firearm or a watch, so in the manufacturer’s eyes, it’s just fine. The people who collect things and the people who make the things that people collect often have very different approaches to this topic.
Caption: Excerpt from “Vickers Guide: 1911 (Volume 1), 2nd Edition”. The pistol featured here was built during the Second World War by Ithaca Gun Company on June 19, 1944, but exhibits changes and modifications made to it at the hands of the U.S. government over the course of more than 30 years. There are numerous modifications that were made to this pistol which are specific to target shooting, and others that are specific to U.S. special operations. Ultimately, it is possible that the only component original to the 1944 Ithaca production is the frame, which itself has been significantly modified. This is an example of an item that most collectors would view as very valuable, yet it has all sorts of purity “issues” present.
Refinished firearms and polished watches
One classic peril in firearm collecting is the case of the refinished firearm. The stress-bearing parts of a vintage firearm are most often made from steel, and the steel must be given a surface treatment (or “finished”) in a way to protect it primarily from moisture which will cause it to rust. As part of the surface treatment process, steel is typically “blued”.
Caption: Gorgeous blueing still present on Colt Special Army Model of 1911, serial number 5. This serial number 5 is the very pistol that won the U.S. pistol trials in 1911 to allow the model to become the new service pistol for the U.S. Army.
Blueing can be considered a “weak” or imperfect treatment for steel, as blued firearms can easily scratch and will inevitably discolor over the years. As a result, some owners will opt to “refinish” (strip the original finish and apply a new treatment in its place) a firearm to restore its original aesthetic. Dare I say that some sellers will also refinish a firearm prior to resale to make a vintage firearm appear in better condition than its then-current form. To a collector, refinishing a firearm is perhaps most analogous to polishing a vintage watch case. Polishing a watch case can be a legitimate act to restore its vibrance, particularly when done with care and attention to the details. Yet for a collector buying originality in a watch with history, this otherwise reasonable act can be viewed with disdain.
I don't consider myself an expert in establishing watch provenance, but I understand the process. To identify a polished case, a watch collector will typically start by looking at the sharpness of the edges of the case, and the nature of the edge bevels and chamfers (when they are supposed to be present). For firearms, a collector will typically have to rely on their knowledge of finishes to make an initial determination if the finish looks correct. A collector will then typically need to analyze several other features to assess originality, such as the characteristics of the markings present on the firearm.
Vintage Coke, Pepsi, and Root Beer.
Wilderness of Mirrors - Rolex GMT Master II
I set out some time ago to procure a Rolex GMT. I love the entire class of GMT-Master watches, but the GMT-Master II in particular checks a lot of boxes for me. Something about looking down at the watch and seeing those two contrasting colors on the bezel puts a smile on my face. And seeing that GMT hand seven hours ahead makes me think of far off and often exotic places – places where I might soon be.
Author with the Tudor Black Bay GMT en route to Rome, Italy.
I had just about given up on ever getting a call from the AD. So I did the second best thing to satisfy the longing for my watch–I studied the 16710 BLRO GMT-Master II with anodized aluminum bezel insert – specifically the “Pepsi”, with its blue and red bezel. There are plenty of this type on the market, and I set out to educate myself on many of the relevant details.
Something that I realized very quickly is that the GMT bezel inserts are the Wild West of the Rolex watch world. Rolex produced the GMT-Master II, and the bezel–whatever color combination it may be–was installed right at the end. The serial number of the watch doesn’t necessarily correlate to the bezel color. There’s often no telling how it left the factory. Furthermore, I don’t know if they were envisioned by Rolex from an early date as swappable/user-customizable items for owners of the GMT, but the bezel inserts on these pre-ceramic watches have proven to be relatively simple for people to swap.
W.O.E.’s 16710 “Coke”
While the days of easily swappable bezel inserts are long gone today with the modern ceramic bezels, vintage bezel swapping continues unabated on the secondary market. That 16710 Pepsi that I was lusting after online might (probably) have a “new” service replacement bezel. That Pepsi might (probably) not even have been “born” a Pepsi. It might (probably) have been born as a Coke.
1980s reference 16710 with Tritium indices marketed as a “Pepsi”. Did this specific example leave the factory as a Pepsi? For a watch pre-dating the internet as we know it today, what are the available means to accurately answer this question? How much do swapped parts matter?
Does that matter to me? It does, but for a reason I can’t articulate. In any event, Pandora’s box opened, and I learned a lot about Rolex bezels, and the fonts and color transition lines and locations. Too much. And I didn’t like what I was seeing on the market, for one reason or the other, and I happily walked away from the vintage 16710 world. But it made me pay attention to the bezel, perhaps the aspect of the GMT-Master II that I’m most interested in.
Fast forward a few months, and I actually got “the call” from the AD – for a GMT 126710 BLNR (“Batman” – don’t you call it a “Batgirl”!). It is glorious, and I must remind myself not to stare at it while I’m driving, when the light from the sun catches it just right.
I do one thing that very few people do with their watches. And I do it in the dark, when no one else is around or looking. That’s when I photograph them under professional lighting with a macro lens on a very high-resolution camera. In fact, I’ve been fortunate to photograph a number of watches that have appeared on Watches of Espionage. I then like to take those photos and clean them up in Photoshop and display them on my large computer monitor.
And in doing this, I found something interesting.
The Motley 8 Error Bezel?
After photographing this new Batman, my first takeaway was: what a gorgeous watch it is, and what a shame that it has zero military provenance, so it will never end up on W.O.E.
But that thought was overshadowed the second I noticed something strange. What the heck is going on with the “8” in the “18” on the bezel? It was practically invisible to the naked eye, but after I first saw it, it was all I could focus on. The top circle in the 8 is blue, while the bottom is black. I had never seen that before – neither on vintage, nor on current production Rolex GMT watches.
Author’s 126710 BLNR with blue over black in the “8” of the “18” on the bezel
So what did I do? I cruised the internet all night looking for every decent photo of ceramic-bezel GMT watches that I could find, including looking at Rolex marketing materials. And I hit the books too. And all the examples I saw had a single matching color for both the top and bottom sections of the 8 in 18. The next thing I did was message my friend “W.O.E.” for a second opinion, and it ended up as a Dispatch that functions as a dissertation on the beauty of watches, firearms, and abnormalities.
Photos of 126710 BLNR currently on the Rolex website showing black over black in the “8” of the “18” on the ceramic bezel
Based on my research, it appears that this error bezel might indeed be one-of-a-kind. But I bet that there are more examples out there. It’s just that most people aren’t photographing their watches the way I am. If not for the fact that I do this type of photography, I easily could have gone my whole life without noticing it.
Rolex has earned its reputation for perfection, and it has done an incredible job building it. But the fact is that they do, albeit rarely, make mistakes. And when they do, these errors can be coveted by collectors. Adrian Barker recently highlighted a one-of-a-kind Error dial on a Rolex Explorer on his YouTube channel. There is also the case of the unicorn “Double 9” Rolex Air-King.
“Double 9” Rolex Air-King (Photo Credit: Watchfinder & Co.)
Blemish vs Error vs Variant
The discovery of the Motley 8 Batman Error Bezel has gotten me to think a bit about the differences between a “blemish” and an “error”. If this is the only such example found, is it just a strange curiosity? How many would need to be found to become a new “variant”? I would propose the following definitions:
- “Blemish”: Unintended imperfection on the watch, akin to a stain or scratch.
- “Error”: The result of an intentional act, but nevertheless a mistake on the part of the watch builder or technician.
- “Variant”: A quantifiable segment of production produced with a particular aesthetic feature, which is subsequently (or previously) changed.
The oft-cited Rolex GMT-Master II Reference 16710 “Error Dial” (or “Stick Dial”) is definitely a “Variant” and is incorrectly described as an “Error” based on my proposed definitions. The Batman Bezel covered in this Dispatch is believed to be an “Error”, as it is so perfectly colored that it must have been the result of an intentional act, albeit a mistake. If it turns out that there are many other bezels like this one, then it would probably be better classified as a new “Variant”.
All this to say that I love my error bezel. It’s small enough not to notice, large enough to point out, and just different enough to perhaps be one-of-a-kind. So now I brag to anyone who will listen that I have the rarest GMT of them all – you just need excellent light and a good jeweler’s loupe to see it.
**** If you believe that you have a Rolex with a similar bezel error, please contact us.
This Dispatch is authored by James Rupley. James is a founding partner of two separate publishing companies – Vickers Guide (in partnership with U.S. Special Operations combat veteran Larry Vickers) and Headstamp Publishing, which have published a combined total of over 30 books. James has also served as a firearm subject matter reviewer and proofreader of the four most recent novels by New York Times Bestselling Author, Jack Carr: Savage Son, The Devil’s Hand, In The Blood, and Only The Dead. He is also a regular photographic contributor to Watches of Espionage.