The Rolex Datejust is, perhaps, the most iconic dress timepiece in history. Based on the original Rolex Oysters of the 1920s, the Datejust enhanced the Oyster Perpetual line with the added functionality of a date feature (visible through a window at 3:00). In continuous production since 1945, the Datejust has had countless variants of dial, bezel ornamentation, casing materials, and bracelet/strap pairings. A ladies version is also produced, and for a brief time in the 1970s there was even a quartz variant, the surprisingly cool Oysterquartz models.
Despite the robust collector market for most vintage Rolexes, there is one variant of Datejust that is yet to “catch on” with the mainstream collector crowd; the oft-forgotten and generally misunderstood Turn-O-Graph models of the 1950s-1970s.
The Rolex Turn-O-Graph Thunderbird
Retailed alongside the regular Oyster Perpetual Datejust, the Turn-O-Graph was released around 1955, and despite its Oyster Case underpinnings, looks like an entirely different animal than its siblings. This is primarily due to the addition of a large rotating metal bezel surrounding the dial, which stands in stark contrast to the stationary slim brushed, engine turned, or grooved steel bezels, or the popular ornamental gold fluted bezels fitted to standard Datejust models.
The addition of the rotating bezel is probably what kept sales of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph Thunderbird fairly low, but is ultimately what makes it such an interesting and unusual timepiece to examine. Rotating bezels are of course commonplace on diver’s watches, aviation watches, and various types of chronographs and tool watches designed for event timing, but are not often found on casual/dress timepieces. Consumers at the time didn’t really know what to make of it, and more than one potential buyer was turned off by the unusual proportions of the bulky bezel.
Like their standard Datejust brethren, Turn-O-Graphs were offered in numerous variants throughout their years of production. Cases were produced in steel, two-tone, and solid gold, and dial variants included stick and Roman markers, textured “honeycomb” dials, and a bevy of colors. There were also specially signed dials for the US Air Force Thunderbirds (keep reading!) and from notable retailers such as Serpico Y Laino. Unlike the regular Datejust, the Turn-O-Graph was never offered with an Oyster bracelet – it was only sold on a leather strap or on the classic “Jubilee” style steel/two-tone bracelets.
One thing the Turn-O-Graph did have going for it was its unlikely relationship with pilots in the US Air Force; namely those of the hotshot Thunderbird acrobatic team. The Jet Age was still very much in its infancy in the 1950s (and the moon landing several decades away), and jet-powered flight was the awe-inspiring pinnacle of modern technology and innovation.
The original Thunderbirds piloted a number of rudimentary jet fighters in the 1950s and 1960s including the F-84G Thunderjet, F-84F Thunderstreak, and the legendary F-100C Super Sabre. These have long since been replaced with the modern F-16 Fighting Falcon, still used by the team today. While there is little documented history as to how the original connection with Rolex was made, there is no doubt that it was a somewhat formalized arrangement, as Rolex produced special marked dials for the Team Pilots, and used the Thunderbird name and photographs of their aircraft in their advertisements. This, of course, is how the Turn-O-Graph came to be nicknamed the Thunderbird, which stuck.
Despite the connection with the Thunderbirds and the fantastic reputation of the brand, the Turn-O-Graph was ultimately a slow seller, and production discontinued in the late 1970s. Rolex subsequently launched a modern version of the Turn-O-Graph in the early 2000s (reference 116264), but once again buyers weren’t convinced, and the model had a relatively short lifespan.
Today, the original Turn-O-Graph/Thunderbird models (ref. 6609 & 1625) are still considered an oddity by most collectors, and aren’t aggressively sought after the way other models from the time are. They consistently remain undervalued as compared to standard 1601/1603 Datejusts, and offer a great point of entry for those starting a collection. As with just about everything else Rolex, the Thunderbird will likely have its day in the sun as collector trends evolve, and their relatively low price points probably won’t last.
As mentioned previously, the current market value on these models is less than you might expect. Early examples of the Turn-O-Graph/Thunderbird can be found in steel for as little $2500 and up, about $750-$1500 less than their standard Datejust counterparts. Two-Tone models generally start around $3000, with excellent examples reaching into the $4000-$5000 range at most. Very rare models with retailer/logo dials (or the elusive solid gold versions) can run up to $10000 – still a bargain compared to many vintage Rolex models, and a great alternative to choosing a new model. Again, given their limited production and relative rarity as compared to standard Datejust models, these unusual pieces are an excellent way to get into collecting vintage Rolex in a different way.
Regardless of their current values, Thunderbirds are an exceptionally cool part of historical horology. They make a great statement on the wrist with their instantly noticeable bezels, and are a great conversation starter.
After all, a vintage wristwatch is only as good as the story that accompanies it.