For this edition of our series examining underrated watches, we take a look at the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph. Long overshadowed by more iconic stablemates, in recent years it has (paradoxically) garnered a certain amount of fame precisely because of its perennial underdog status within the Rolex lineup. Collectors with drawers full of the crown’s usual suspects eventually turn their attention to the more obscure, anonymous offerings – and snapping up a marginalized model from undoubtedly the world’s best selling and most prevalent luxury watchmaker carries a real novelty value that sets them apart.
The Turn-O-Graph emerged in 1953 and stands as the first serially-produced Rolex watch with a rotating bezel. The concept had actually been around for decades by then, with an initial patent granted in 1929 to U.S. Navy officer and inventor, Philip Van Horn Weems, and it had been used effectively on a number of pilot’s watches since the mid-30s. Rolex themselves had created a prototype with the feature in 1937, called the Zerographe, the only flyback chronograph the brand has ever made.
Always a useful component for a variety of applications, the Turn-O-Graph, and its novelty bezel were almost immediately relegated to second-tier status by (another irony) poor timing. It was its bad luck to launch during Rolex’s true golden age, a period which also saw the release of such legendary names as the Submariner, the GMT-Master, the Explorer, and the Day-Date.
While it may have beaten the first two to the punch with the rotating surround idea, the dive watch and the traveler’s watch both had unmistakable identities which the Turn-O-Graph lacked. Even more unfairly, the debut reference, the ref. 6202, was almost identical to the Sub in appearance, as was that other piece from the era that springs to mind when someone mentions underrated Rolex watches, the Milgauss.
Outdone as a tool watch by the Sub and the GMT, and not as dressy or complicated as the President, the Turn-O-Graph existed in a sort of horological limbo, neither one thing or the other.
The ref. 6202’s race was run by the end of 1954 with only around 1,000 pieces seeing the light of day. These included a tiny number of honeycomb dial examples and a slack handful of steel and gold models, making them the brand’s first-ever Rolesor sports watches. Its replacement, the ref. 6309, marked a complete departure from the Submariner stylebook and became part of the Datejust family, complete with Cyclops covered aperture at the three o’clock.
Inside, the former Cal. 743 was swapped for the Cal. A260 to drive the functions. Interestingly, however, the name Turn-O-Graph was nowhere to be seen on the dial. Yet the bezel – now with a new type of decorative engraving known as “engine-turned” – was still rotatable and had markers every five and ten minutes, rather than every minute as before.
In the age before digital timekeeping, the Turn-O-Graph’s innovative rotating surround was the simplest and quickest way to measure elapsed time, so it was really only to be expected that it would eventually find a military application. Before long, a ref. 6309 found itself on the wrist of one of the pilots from the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, nicknamed The Thunderbirds. As split-second timing was paramount to the world’s first supersonic aerobatic team, the Turn-O-Graph was soon adopted by the unit and became their official timepiece.
Rolex, as you would expect, swiftly capitalized on the new audience’s cool factor and changed the name of the Turn-O-Graph for the American market to the Thunderbird, issuing a special edition of the watch to the squadron, complete with their insignia.
The Longest-Running Turn-O-Graphs
In 1959, the ref. 6309 was updated once again to the ref. 1625. Now seated comfortably at the Datejust table and powered by the same Cal. 1575, it followed the convention of its parent model, and was released in a huge variety of metal type and dial configurations during its extended tenure.
That run lasted right up until 1977 when it made way for the first of the five-digit references; the 16253 and 16263 (yellow Rolesor), the 16264 (steel with white gold bezel) and the 16268 (yellow gold). Benefitting from another movement upgrade, this time the flawless workhorse Cal. 3035, these too had a decent run and stuck around until 2000. Again though, the Turn-O-Graph label was notable by its absence anywhere on the dial.
The Final Days
The beginning of the end for the model came about with the release of the modern-day iterations, the six-digit ref. 1162XX series, powered by the Cal. 3135. They stuck at the time-honored 36mm dimensions, but the bezel thickened up, giving the piece a touch more wrist presence than its numbers would suggest, and it was also granted a fluted finish that added a distinctive edge.
Available with either a black, white, or blue dial, and with the model name finally reinstated, they were a worthy addition to the Datejust range. They even had a splash of color, with a bright red seconds hand and a feature sadly no longer included in contemporary offerings from the brand: a date wheel with red printing. It all worked beautifully together on the final Turn-O-Graphs, with the white dial edition looking particularly refreshing.
However, after 58 years and 11 different references, the watch buying public still weren’t biting with enough frequency for Rolex to continue with the model, and in 2011 they called it quits on their groundbreaking creation.
For a watch that led the way with one of the most essential features of them all, the Turn-O-Graph is a criminally underrated model. Even today, with something of a resurgence happening in the pre-owned market, you can pick up an example from the latest series for roughly the same price as a standard Rolex Datejust. Going back into the archives, even vintage examples are extremely reasonable, with only the very first reference, the ref. 6202, going for the big numbers.
Unappreciated during its run, and undervalued now, it could be a great time to pick up one of these fascinating chapters in the Rolex story.