This September, featured in our quarterly Jewellery, Watches & Silver auction, we are pleased to present Lot 234, a 1986 Thunderbird model 16253 in excellent condition. Here, Head of Watches, Sarah Fergusson shares the history behind the Rolex Thunderbird..
Many Rolex watches have nicknames, but this one is not nearly as well known as the Pepsi, the Great White or the Hulk. Its associations however, are far more exciting than just colour.
In 1953, Rolex released a number of watches that have now become iconic within the brand’s oeuvre. One of these was the Turn-O-Graph, only the second watch from them to feature a rotating bezel and one that presented a clever simplification of a watch ‘complication.’ A complication to a timepiece is an additional function on top of simply telling the time. A chronograph wrist watch is one that often has smaller subsidiary dials to the main dial, with one usually being used essentially as a stop watch. The Turn-O-Graph, however, uses the bezel to allow the user to time an activity; one lines up the triangular marker to the bezel with the seconds hand, and the marker becomes the ‘zero’ of the stop watch. Once the seconds hand comes back around to the triangle, 60 seconds have elapsed.
The helpful aspect of the bezel’s mobility is that the user does not have to wait for the seconds hand to reach 12 to start timing, nor do they have to remember which hour marker they’ve chosen as a starting point – the triangle stands out on the bezel and is quickly located by the user’s eye. Being bi-directional makes it even more user-friendly, it turns both clockwise and anticlockwise. One of the first true tool or sports watches by Rolex, this additional functionality made it appealing to individuals whose professions could make use of it, such as doctors checking pulse rates. It also had a multitude of other potential uses in everyday life and pursuits. It is important to note that the bezel was quite unique in its design, in comparison to anything produced before and since. As well as bold numerals, it features raised lines interspacing these, where there is usually flat, blank space to most other Rolex bezels.
The watch was initially conceived as a precursor to the Submariner wrist watch, the company’s dedicated dive wrist watch to which the bezel would be the key and defining factor. The Turn-O-Graph was, however, soon designated to the Datejust family and a date display aperture was added. The name ‘Turn-O-Graph’ was also removed from the dial but its distinctive bezel was still important. It was not however essentially a life-saver as it was to the Submariner - on the Submariner, the bezel is uni-directional and is used by the diver to measure the time that has passed underwater, allowing them to ensure they have sufficient oxygen left for the duration of their dive, including their ascent back to the surface.
With the Submariner made for diving, the Turn-O-Graph soon gained an association of its own. Whereas another Rolex model, the GMT Master, was developed in collaboration with Pan-Am Airlines, in the case of the Turn-O-Graph, it was the US Airforce with whom a connection was forged. It is said that in 1953, the US Airforce asked Rolex for watches that were fit for purpose and they were sent a number of the then-current Turn-O-Graphs. They then supplied a number of the watches bearing the logo of the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron – nicknamed The Thunderbirds - to its members. Understandably, this was a limited run and these watches are exceptionally valuable now. Some accounts do state that these watches bearing the actual Thunderbird logo were available to buy commercially but it is generally accepted that they were exclusively for squadron members. The watch (with logo) does feature in a Rolex advert from ‘Flying’ magazine from October 1960, the text mentioning, “Like the aircraft of the famed “Thunderbirds,” the Rolex Oyster Perpetual “Thunderbird” is an unerringly precision-dependent part of their equipment...You’ve got to see it to believe it!”
As with the majority of Rolex adverts from the era, the theme is an aspirational one; by owning the watch that a Thunderbird does, you are one step closer to their exciting pursuits.
Since the 1950s, the Turn-O-Graph or Thunderbird has seen many iterations, albeit without the Thunderbird logo and ‘Turn-O-Graph’ name to the dial. From 1959 to 1977, the three versions were available, in different metals. From 1977 on, most Turn-O-Graphs were produced in bi-metal with stainless steel cases featuring gold bezels. They came under the model number 16523. The Turn-O-Graph was discontinued in 2011 but the style of its defining bezel however, with its distinctive design and numbering, can be seen on other models that are still manufactured today.
In the quarterly Jewellery, Watches & Silver auction taking place on 14th & 15th September 2021, Lyon & Turnbull are pleased to present Lot 234, a 1986 Thunderbird model 16253 in excellent condition, this example is a ‘full set,’ coming as it does, with its box, outer box, papers and booklets.
Lyon & Turnbull’s watch auction and valuations department is a dynamic one with significant expertise, creating diverse watch auctions in the UK with fine, rare, modern and vintage timepieces. In line with the growth of the pre-owned watch market in recent years, we hold six specialist auctions each year, across our Edinburgh and London salerooms. These frequent auctions feature examples from renowned watchmakers including Rolex, Cartier, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. Highlights from recent years include an IWC Le Grand Complication wristwatch that sold for £63,650 and a rare Rolex GMT Master in 18ct gold that achieved £41,250.
Take the first step to selling your watch or wrist watch at auction with a free, no-obligation, sales valuation. Contact our team in Edinburgh on 0131 557 8844 and in London on 0207 930 9115.