When you think of dual time zone Rolex watches, you probably think of the GMT-Master II and the Explorer II. These mechanically identical Rolexes use a 24-hour hand to track a second time zone. The primary difference lies in their bezels: the GMT-Master II’s rotating 24-hour bezel allows for tracking of a third time zone. This is not the case with the Explorer II, nor with the Rolex Sky-Dweller. Unlike the GMT-Master II or Explorer II, the Sky-Dweller displays a second time zone via a rotating 24-hour ring on the dial. It also has an annual calendar complication, making it Rolex’s most complicated watch. How does the Rolex Sky-Dweller – a new-age mechanical outlier with elegant styling – compare to the GMT-Master II – Rolex’s tried-and-true sports watch with mid-century roots? Which dual time zone Rolex is the better travel companion?
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The Sky-Dweller is a unique watch. At 42mm in diameter, 51m lug-to-lug, and 14mm thick, it’s not for the faint of wrist. Much of this size comes from the caliber 9002 and accompanying dial space required to read out its complications. Around the outermost perimeter of the dial, a minutes track is interrupted not by hour indices, but “Saros” annual calendar windows. The 12 hour indices are paired with windows corresponding to each month (1 for Jan, 2 for Feb, etc.). At any given time, eleven of these windows are white, while one is red: demarcating the current month. This splash of red matches the arrow above the 24-hour timezone ring. The off-center ring is the defining characteristic of the Sky-Dweller: a unique way of showing its second time zone. At 3 o’clock, we see a date window magnified by a cyclops lens.
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From a distance, you might mistake the Sky-Dweller for a Day-Date. They both have Rolex’s signature polished fluted bezel. However, unlike the Day-Date (or Datejust), the Sky-Dweller’s fluted bezel has a mechanical purpose. To set the month, date, local time, and reference time, you have to rotate the bezel between four fixed positions. Rolex calls this their Ring Command system, appearing only on the Sky-Dweller and Yacht-Master II. This is a quirky mechanism; not everyone wants to fiddle with their watch this much. That said, enthusiasts are more than happy to.
Rolex GMT-Master II
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The Rolex GMT-Master II has the same general design as its predecessor from 1954. Since then, there’s been one major development: the GMT-Master II has an independently-adjustable local hour hand, allowing for tracking of three time zones (and easier setting). Compared to the Sky-Dweller, the GMT-Master II is very straightforward. You have your local time, 24-hour time, and a rotating 24-hour bezel. This is the GMT watch that all other GMT watches emulate: dual time zone functionality in its purest form. The GMT-Master’s utilitarian philosophy extends to its build and case design. At 40mm in diameter, 48m lug-to-lug, and 12mm thick, the GMT-Master II is a bit more svelte than the Sky-Dweller, despite presenting as robust and somewhat chunky thanks to its Maxi case (2005 - today). Like all mid-century Rolexes, this is a tool watch that’s built to last: no frills, everything in its place.
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The Sky-Dweller and GMT-Master II share a lot of characteristics: dual time zone functionality, cyclops date windows, and 100 meters of water resistance, to name a few. However, these are fundamentally different watches in their design philosophy, mechanics, and user experience. The GMT-Master II is a purpose-built tool watch; it tells two (or three) time zones, and will continue to do so past your lifetime. It’s easy to set, easy to read, and has nearly 70 years of field testing under its belt. The Sky-Dweller is a young, stylized, complicated watch that appeals to a smaller enthusiast demographic. Its fluted Ring Command bezel and annual calendar are in direct opposition to the GMT-Master II’s straightforward identity. Which is the better travel companion? That all depends on the wearer. Which one do you like more? Do you care about the annual calendar? Do you want a tool watch? A fluted bezel? These watches are so different that it’s hard to imagine someone being stuck between them. In all likelihood, one of them appeals more to you than the other. Which one do you choose?