Rolex Turn-o-Graph: What You Should Know About the Rolex Tool Watch that History Forgot

Rolex Turn-o-Graph: What You Should Know About the Rolex Tool Watch that History Forgot

From the beginning of 1953 to the end of 1954, Rolex had perhaps the most productive and impactful period that any watchmaker had ever managed in a two-year stretch. The Explorer, the gold standard of adventure-oriented luxury watches, debuted in the summer of 1953 and the first Submariner, the quintessential diver’s watch, was manufactured that same year. The Submariner’s public debut wasn’t until 1954 at the Basel Watch Fair, but it wasn’t the only trendsetting Rolex watch the Crown released that year: the other was the original GMT-Master, the dual-time travel watch against which all others are measured.

Photo: Matthew Bain

We all are familiar with the three iconic Oyster Perpetual timepieces above, but few may be aware that Rolex released another tool watch in 1953, whose production not only preceded that of the Submariner and GMT-Master but whose signature design feature influenced the look of both. That watch is the Rolex Turn-o-Graph, the first serially produced Rolex tool watch equipped with a rotating bezel that could be used for timing intervals. (To be thorough, it should be noted that it was not the very first Rolex watch with such a feature: the Zerographe Ref. 3346, made way back in 1937, takes that honor, along with the distinction of being the first Rolex watch with a movement made in-house —  with a flyback chronograph, no less. The rarest of unicorns, the Zerographe (below) is nearly forgotten today, rarely mentioned in official Rolex literature and made in such limited quantities — probably no more than a dozen pieces, with only four known to exist today — that it would have been impossible to put it on the market.)

Photo: Antiquorum

While the Turn-o-Graph obviously never achieved the popularity or the cultural significance of its descendants — as far as we know, neither James Bond nor any Pan Am pilots ever wore one — the model was, somewhat implausibly, produced all the way up until 2011, though it was so far under the radar at that point so as to be virtually nonexistent. Nevertheless, Rolex Turn-o-Graph watches remain on the secondary market and still hold a quirky, cult-classic appeal for many collectors — both for their historical significance and their unconventional design, whose signature element is a bezel that combines the utilitarian numbered scale of the Submariner with the signature fluting of Rolex's classical dress watch, the Datejust. In a way, the Turn-o-Graph could be regarded as the transitional piece between two Rolex eras — the one dominated by dressier watches in precious metals and the modern era in which its steel sport-luxury models reign supreme. 

The first Rolex Turn-o-Graph was Ref. 6202, the first of 10 references that would be produced over its lifetime. Rolex marketed it in early advertisements as “the simplest ‘stop watch’ ever,” though the watch was not a chronograph (the iconic Daytona would not be launched until 1963), and hence, not really a “stop watch.” Taking the place of stopwatch functionality was the Turn-o-Graph’s rotating bidirectional bezel, made of black bakelite, calibrated to 60 minutes and — like the Submariner that it preceded to market by several months — topped with an inverted triangle at 12 o’clock. The wearer could align the triangle with the minute or seconds hand to begin timing intervals, up to one hour in duration, on the bezel’s scale. Notably, the Ref. 6202 Turn-o-Graph was the one that most resembled the Submariner, with a black dial, gilt chapter ring, large baton and dot-shaped hour markers, even a Mercedes hour hand. Less well-covered but also notable is the model's similarity to the original Milgauss, which debuted in 1956 with a very similar dial, handset and bezel, enhanced with a honeycomb dial texture and a lightning-bolt seconds hand. Inside the 36mm Oyster case was the Rolex automatic Caliber A260. (The model pictured below was owned by rock legend Eric Clapton and sold at Christie's for $27,500 in 2021.)

Photo: Christie's

Starting with the next wave of models the following year, spearheaded by the first Ref. 6309, much of these elements were absent as the Turn-o-Graph veered closer design-wise to the venerable Datejust: the markers were simple batons, the 12 o’clock triangle was replaced by the Rolex crown emblem, and a date window, under a magnifying Cyclops lens, was added at three o’clock. The bakelite bezel insert was discarded in favor of an all-metal, engine-turned bezel with an embossed relief scale — something of a hybrid between the Submariner and Datejust bezels that still looks a bit odd and which may largely account for this model’s “niche” status. The movement inside was upgraded to Rolex’s Caliber 743 and eventually the Caliber 1065 that was a mainstay of the contemporary Datejust models.

A later model of Ref. 6202, made in very small numbers and thus now very rare and valuable, was the first Rolex tool watch with a bi-metal construction, combining steel and yellow gold (a pairing that Rolex has been referring to as "Rolesor" since the 1920s) long before a Submariner or GMT-Master ever did so. Solid gold editions of the Ref. 6309 and 6609 models followed, and remained in production from 1954 to 1959. 

Photo: Analog:Shift

The first generation of the Turn-o-Graph culminated with the Ref. 1625, the model that ushered the model firmly (and officially) into the Datejust collection; as if to emphasize the point, Rolex started leaving “Turn-o-Graph” off of the dials entirely, instead marking them with “Datejust” and “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified.” This is the model that caught the attention of the United States Air Force aerobatics team, known as the Thunderbirds, who found the bezel’s timing capabilities useful in navigation. Rolex started supplying the watches to the team and the Turn-o-Graph has been nicknamed the “Thunderbird” ever since; for a while, Rolex even referred to it as such, more or less officially, in its marketing efforts for the watch in North America. At one point, Rolex even made a special series with the Thunderbirds’ team logo at 6 o’clock, distributed solely to the pilots. As one might expect, these are among the rarest and most collectible “Thunderbirds” today. 

Photo: Chrono24

As with other Rolex models, the Turn-o-Graph entered a new era in the 1970s with a new set of five-digit reference numbers to replace their four-digit predecessors. Kicking off the series was the Ref. 16250 and its offshoots in 1977. The noteworthy differences in this second generation were the use of sapphire crystals (rather then plexiglas) over the dials and a new automatic 27-jewel movement, Caliber 3035, which was used throughout the Rolex line until it was superseded in 1988 by the 31-jewel Caliber 3135. Its marked improvements over previous movements included a quick-set date feature and a higher frequency — 28,000 vph, compared with the 19,800 vph of its immediate antecedent, Caliber 1575. This era of the Turn-o-Graph also featured many of the watches on Jubilee bracelets and in several steel-and-gold “Rolesor” executions. 

The Turn-o-Graph turned 50 years old in 2003 but Rolex’s celebration of that milestone took place one year later. The 2004 editions of the model were by now carrying six-digit reference numbers, and improbably — considering the trends at the time toward larger watches — retained the same modest 36mm case size of the original. But the notable differences between these models and their predecessors were several. Among them were the very Datejust-evocative fluting on the bezel, a hallmark of that model since its debut in 1945; the more severely tapered lugs; and the riveting splashes of red on the dials — for the seconds hand, the date numeral under the Cyclops lens, and the “Turn-o-Graph” text that made its return to the dials along with the existing “Datejust.” All three references in this series, the final generation of Turn-o-Graphs, were on classical three-link Oyster bracelets (including the Ref. 116261, the first Turn-o-Graph with rose-gold elements) and contained the automatic, chronometer-rated Rolex Caliber 3135. 

Photo: Watches in Geneva

And just like that, to coin a phrase, the lineage came to an end. Rolex continued to make the final three references of the Datejust Turn-o-Graph until 2011, without making any significant changes or additions to the collection in its final years in production — at least, none that it ever presented to the watch media, including your humble writer, who has been covering Rolex and attending their official press conferences at Baselworld, and eventually Watches & Wonders, since the late 2000s. As we saw played out recently with the discontinuation of another cult-classic model, the Milgauss, the removal of the Turn-o-Graph from Rolex’s active portfolio had the (perhaps) unintended but inevitable consequence of ensuring that models on the secondary market were more valuable. While a vintage Turn-o-Graph has yet to achieve anything approaching the stratospheric prices of the most coveted Daytonas, Submariners, and GMT-Masters, Turn-o-Graph models tend to sell far above their original list prices, often priced between $7,000 and $10,000. 

The Turn-o-Graph’s descendants, of course, live on today and continue to thrive among enthusiasts and collectors. The Submariner’s ratcheting dive-scale bezel, which now rotates in one direction for reasons of safety under water and is geared to track a diver’s remaining air supply, owes a debt to the Turn-o-Graph’’s non-sport-specific utilitarian bezel, as does the GMT-Master’s 24-hour bezel (a version of which can also be found on the Explorer II model) that can be pressed into service to display the time in a second time zone. Even the regatta-countdown bezel of the Rolex Yacht-Master II could be considered fruit from the Turn-o-Graph’s horological tree. And when one considers how many other watches these groundbreaking models have influenced, it seems the Turn-o-Graph’s influence throughout the watch industry is wide and far-reaching indeed.

And while a Turn-o-Graph has never been to the top of Mount Everest or plumbed the depths of the Mariana Trench, it did play a role in one of the most inspiring stories of heroism from one of the darkest days in American history. Oracle account manager Todd Beamer was wearing his two-tone Rolex Datejust Turn-o-Graph (above) when he boarded United Flight 93, from Newark to San Francisco, on September 11, 2001. After the airplane was hijacked by terrorists intending to use it on a suicide mission to the nation’s capitol, Beamer was one of the leaders of the brave passengers aboard who fought back against their captors and forcibly re-routed the plane to a crash landing in an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Beamer’s rallying cry of “Let’s roll,” right before he and the rest of the United 93 passengers sacrificed their lives to prevent a mass-casualty event, became one of the most memorable utterances from 9/11, and eventually a battle cry for American troops during the War on Terror. The watch that Beamer wore to time the counterstrike survived the crash, somewhat the worse for wear but more or less intact, the “11” numeral eerily frozen in the date window. That watch remains on display at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

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