Rolex GMT-Master II 116758 SA
Before we even begin, let's get one thing clear about this particular Rolex GMT-Master II: it's not going to please everybody. It probably won't even please the majority. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this watch will only please a small handful of people in the entire world. There's no two ways about it—this watch demands ... a very particular kind of palate to enjoy, or even not find completely repulsive. But here's the thing—this just might be one of the most impressive watches Rolex has ever made.
Watch our video review of the Rolex GMT-Master II 116758 SA
There's something that intrinsically binds humans to the gemstone. For millennia, people have worshipped stones, feared them, used them to bring luck, protection, social status, and even healing. Practitioners of astrology today believe that different stones bring different medicinal properties, using rubies for curing rheumatism, emeralds for jaundice, diamonds for diabetes and yellow sapphires for—you won't ever guess—trapped wind.
This crow-like fascination with the shiny dates as early as mankind itself, and provides a fascinating insight into the abilities of the people of the time. The older the jewellery, the more malleable the materials used, with soft metals like gold predating just about everything else.
The traditional techniques used for gem setting are prevalent here
While prehistoric man used fragments of stone, shell and bone to adorn his jewellery over 75,000 years ago, it took another 70,000 years for humans to master the ability to fashion coloured glass and semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, turquoise and carnelian. Another 2,500 years passed before the Greeks figured out how to shape harder precious stones like emerald.
In India, meanwhile, diamonds were being realised for their potential as metal engraving tools, and were set in their natural state into jewellery, but it was as late on as the 1300s before the first attempts at shaping it were made. By shaping it, I mean giving it a bit of a rudimentary polish. A further century was needed to acquire the technology to produce any kind of facet. After all, how do you cut the hardest natural substance known to man?
The answer was quite simply with more of the hardest substance known to man. While diamond is hard, it is also brittle, and can be crushed into dust with ease. With the rise of continuous rotary motion in tools in the 15th century, craftsmen were now able to apply the kind of working needed to produce a properly faceted diamond.
How does that translate to this GMT-Master II? For that we need to go inside the smallest of Rolex's four production facilities in Chêne-Bourg, Switzerland. I say smallest—it's a ten-storey building that's half-buried underground. This is where the dial production and gem-setting happens.
The crown guards get gems set in them too
The 116758 SA's case—in 18-carat gold, of course—comes across from Rolex's own foundry at the Plan-les-Ouates central laboratory—Rolex's largest building—where the company produces its own brands of 904L stainless steel, gold—including the secret rose gold blend the company calls Everose—and ceramics, which have become a de facto material in the industry over the last decade.
The precious stones that will decorate the watch are selected deep underground, from a collection numbering some hundreds of thousands. They are all internally flawless. Not close to flawless—completely flawless. With this level of stock, the risk of receiving a fake or lab-grown stone is very real, and so Rolex has a machine that uses light to filter the good from the bad that costs some £35,000. The number of stones it filters? One in ten million. Still, better to be safe than sorry.
With the gems selected, it's off to the gem-setters. There are 20 of them to the 800 people working at Chêne-Bourg, and all their work is performed by hand. While a typical dial takes about 25 minutes to produce, the 116758 SA's dial has 400 diamonds—yes, I counted them—squeezed onto it. It takes days to set them all.
All the diamonds used are internally flawless
If you've never looked closely at a diamond setting, you probably won't know how it works. In a solitaire ring, for example, the diamond sits in a cradle while several claw-like prongs pinch around it to hold it in place. The pavé setting seen here on the dial works in much the same way, except it is significantly harder to manufacturer.
Once the gem setter has chosen the stones to suit the design, they must prepare the dial by drilling small holes—smaller than the diamonds they will seat—into the dial, one for each diamond. This is known as mitraillage—French for strafing, the dial looking somewhat like the target of a bombing run at the completion of this stage—and of course requires extreme precision as this will determine the final resting place for each stone.
Then, the holes are widened to become a perfect fit for each diamond, with no room to spare. This is done with a ball burr, a rounded grinding tool that provides a smooth finish. Great care is taken not to oversize each hole—if that were to happen, then the dial would be scrap.
The 59 stones in the bezel all fit perfectly
The really tricky bit begins once the gem setter is happy with fit of the diamonds. While the stones sit snugly in their recesses, they still need to be properly secured or they will simply fall out. Glue is out of the question of course, so the gem setter uses a very sharp graver—a scraping implement used for engraving metal—to slice the small pillars of material left between all the drilled and burred holes. One pillar is divided into four, each acting like the claws on the solitaire ring. A beading tool—a punch-like implement with a fine, concave tip—is used to press each claw into place to secure the diamonds, with the concave tip providing an attractive spherical finish.
This is done for every stone, 400 times.
The same process is used for the lugs and crown guards. The setting can be seen more clearly there.
And the channel-set gems in the bezel are equally impressive in their precision, with not a gnat's whisker between each stone. While Rolex does not cut the stones in-house (one of the very few things it doesn't do), the task of selecting the exact stone to provide the perfect, seamless join is equally as arduous and time consuming. These are natural stones and so the colours can vary—someone, somewhere at Rolex has the extremely unenviable job of rooting through thousands and thousands of gems to find the best 59 for each bezel.
While, for many consumers, the 116758 SA provides a challenge of the aesthetic kind, for Rolex it's a different kind of a challenge altogether. The gem-set watches are, quite simply, examples of some of the finest handcrafting you'll see from the esteemed brand, requiring the traditional skills of people who've spent their entire lives mastering them. Once you take a breath and dare to look a little closer, you'll see just how impressive it really is.
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