Rolex Submariner vs. GMT Master II: Small Differences, Difficult Decision
by Raman Kalra
Raman Kalra is the founder of The Watch Muse blog and has kindly agreed to share some of his articles with us here on Quill & Pad.
Rolex Submariner or GMT Master II? This is not an easy question and veryone will have their own opinion on which of these two iconic watches is their favorite. I imagine that many considering owning a Rolex will start with these two models. This is the same whether you are just getting into watches or considering your next purchase.
Despite all their similarities, there are a few differences that are worth highlighting between these two.
I would happily own either, but my head and heart pull me in two different directions.
Background and Specs
Both the Submariner and GMT Master were created as tool watches with a defined purpose for professional use (hence the Rolex Professional name). The Submariner was designed for divers and the GMT for pilots.
The Submariner was initially released in 1953 with 100-meter water resistance and a rotating 60-minute bezel. The watch also featured lume on the dial to maximize low-light legibility (especially underwater).
The Submariner initially came as a time-only watch in stainless steel with a black dial and bezel. Since then, Rolex has evolved the design to incorporate crown guards (1959), a date function (1969), precious metals (1969), improved steel from 316L to 904L (1988) and a Cerachrom bezel (2010) to name just a few.
The GMT Master was developed in cooperation with Pan-Am. The aim was to create a watch that could tell the time for multiple time zones at a glance.
Rolex achieved this second time zone function with a fourth hand on the dial, as well as a 24 hour bezel. Pilots would set this fourth hand to the GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) time zone, leading to the GMT name.
In 1972, pilots switched over to using UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as their reference, but the GMT name for the watch continued. The first reference (ref. 6542) was released a year later than the Submariner and was based on the Turn-O-Graph, although it had a different bezel and movement.
As with the Submariner, since the GMT’s launch, there have been numerous updates such as the aluminum bezel (1956), crown guards (1959), precious metals, oyster and jubilee bracelets, and different colored bezels. Not forgetting the larger jump from GMT Master I to GMT Master II which brought a new movement that allowed for the GMT hand to be set independently of the other hands.
The modern iterations look extremely close to the originals when you consider it has nearly been 70 years! This is a testament to how good a design they both are, but also a large reason as to why they are iconic. While the similarities between the Submariner and the GMT Master II are not difficult to spot, I want to draw attention to very minor details differentiating these watches.
What are the differences?
Despite looking extremely similar, there are several differences between the Submariner and GMT Master II. Let’s start with the most obvious and then dig deeper.
The GMT Master II is defined by its GMT function – this requires a different movement to include the fourth hand whose color depends on the model you go for. In addition, the bi-directional bezel displays a 24 hour scale as opposed to 60 minutes, and the color is split in half on some models (blue and red, black and red etc.) to reflect night and day.
This gives the GMT Master II its distinct look and led to its iconic nicknames such as “Pepsi”, “Coke” and “Batman”.
The GMT Master II is also offered on two different bracelets – Jubilee and Oyster – which have polished center links, making the watch feel less rugged than the Submariner.
Both watches have Rolex’s Super Case, launched on the GMT in 2005 and the Submariner in 2008. These cases have a larger silhouette than the classic cases thanks to broader lugs, a wider Cerachrom bezel, and a thicker profile.
The Submariner was updated in 2020 with a new case size of 41mm vs. 40mm found on the GMT. Since the introduction of the Super Case, which removed the larger case differences, Rolex has been working on differentiating the two watches more obviously. On the GMT, you will only find the Jubilee bracelet, more precious metal variants, more color options, and there was even a left-handed case introduced in 2022.
Starting with the dials. There are four lines of text found on the Submariner as the classic “1000ft = 300m” is included. Text on the dial is a sensitive topic as some people find it is too busy, but I do not mind it.
The hands on the Submariner are slightly different. The hour hand is slightly more pointed than the one on the GMT, the minutes hand is narrower, and the lollipop second hand has slightly less lume.
The differences are subtle, but once you notice them, you can’t unsee them.
I find it surprising that the Submariner has less lume on the minute and second hand given the primary purpose of the watch is being visible deep in the ocean, but on the wrist it is a very minor variation.
The bezel (apart from the more obvious differences mentioned above) has smaller, squarer numerals on the Submariner, separated by batons at the 5-minute marks resembling the baton indices found on the dial.
Again, I was surprised when considering this given bezel legibility is a key aspect of the Submariner – you would think it would have had the larger numerals of the two models.
Moving on to the bracelet, the lugs of the Submariner have recently been updated and are now narrower. Regardless of this, the bracelet is 1mm wider on the Submariner at the clasp, which is also slightly larger than the one on the GMT.
Finally, the case back of the Submariner is ever so slightly thicker due to it having triple the water resistance of the GMT. This all creates a sense of ruggedness with the Submariner, keeping it closer to a pure tool watch.
At first glance, the two watches seem to be extremely similar, however, on further inspection, a few more differing details emerge. Individually, these differences are trivial, but adding them together further characterizes the two models.
My Head: GMT Master II
If I am listening to what my head is telling me between the two, the choice for me would be the GMT Master II for several reasons. First and foremost, the GMT complication is far more usable. We are lucky to live in a world where global travel is relatively easy, and I love traveling. Being able to track my “home time” while abroad is extremely useful.
Even if you aren’t traveling, you can have a second-time zone set that is important to you, perhaps you have family abroad or you work with people in different locations. Next, the polished center links and clasp give the watch a more formal look and that makes the watch more versatile. Here you have a relatively large sports watch, but with those polished touches, it can also fit a more dressy situation better than the Submariner.
The GMT can be a more complete one-watch collection.
Then there is the GMT’s bezel. It is iconic. The two colors representing day and night started with the GMT Master in 1954 and have been used on countless other Rolex GMT watches since. In a way, the red and blue bezel is one of the most emblematic features of Rolex.
Finally, there are more options for you to choose from with the GMT: multiple bezel colors and bracelet options on the stainless steel models e, and further variety in precious metals, including different dial colors.
The logical/intelligent pick for me is the GMT. It ticks so many boxes and provides a complication I can use. In a vacuum, this could be the perfect watch. But it isn’t in a vacuum – there’s the Submariner.
My Heart: Submariner
The Submariner boils down to emotion for me. So that might apply to the GMT for you, or neither of these two at all, and that will influence your preference. I never thought anything of the Submariner. It was just a Rolex to me. But this all changed when I first tried one on. I realized that it wasn’t just a Rolex, it was “THE Rolex” in my eyes. The Submariner was the definition of luxury watch for me.
When I was growing up, the Rolex Submariner was the definition of success. However, I did not realize that until it was on my wrist. Spotting someone wearing a Submariner does not feel special and brings little reaction, but when experiencing the watch for myself, my adoration comes about.
Stepping away from what the Submariner represents to me, those small differences that we touched on earlier go a long way. I find the Submariner more aesthetically pleasing because it is cleaner. There is better balance with the bezel given the spacing between the numerals. It looks less (dare I say) cluttered. I find that it gives the watch a sense of elegance despite the fact it lacks the polishing of the GMT on the bracelet. And the brushed finish on the bracelet is another aspect that I like – it covers up the day-to-day wear and tear better and it is less ostentatious.
The Submariner fits my personality more while the GMT complication is more practically suited to my lifestyle.
Rolex Submariner or GMT Master II? It is all very subjective and you may disagree with me completely. There is no right answer here. Both of these watches are iconic for a reason. I would hppily own either of them. There is enough between them that, if money permits, owning both is not a crazy idea. The GMT Master II would give me more value for money as it is closer to a one watch collection and I would use the complication.
However, the Submariner lights a spark inside me because it represents the image of a luxury watch that I grew up with. For this reason, I would first own the Submariner, specifically the no-date version for the extra clean and symmetrical look.
What is your preference between these two almost-perfect watches?
You can read more articles by Raman Kalra at www.thewatchmuse.com.