Review: The Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16263
If you’re fairly new to the world of Rolex, there’s a chance you have not heard of the name Turn-O-Graph.
It is a model no longer in the collection, the final reference retiring in 2011.
However, it is also a watch with a great deal of history, and is one of the true originators within the brand.
Like many of Rolex’s icons, the Turn-O-Graph debuted in the 50s—1953 to be exact—the same year that saw both the Explorer and the Submariner launch (although the Sub wouldn’t go on general release until the following year).
Interestingly, and contrary to what many believe, it was the Turn-O-Graph which was to be the first serially-produced Rolex fitted with a rotatable bezel, a groundbreaking element that would go on to be used so effectively in the company’s dive and travel watches.
On the Turn-O-Graph, the surround was engraved with a 60-minute scale, and could be used as an immediate way of measuring elapsed time. Simply lining up the hour, minute or second hand with the zero mark on the bezel gave an instant reading of how much time had passed, and qualified the model as Rolex’s first purpose built tool watch.
That initial reference, the ref. 6202, looked very much like the Submariner, with a black dial and bezel, Oyster bracelet, as well as the indexes and handset all pretty well identical.
The following year, it received a major redesign to differentiate it from the massively popular diver. Dropping the name Turn-O-Graph, it was absorbed into the Datejust family, given a Cyclops-covered window at the three o’clock, and the bezel changed to an embossed metal rather than engraved aluminum insert.
But while it was altogether a more formal-looking watch than before, it was still adopted as the standard-issue timepiece of the USAF Aerobatic Squadron, the Thunderbirds. In the North American market, it would assume the name as well, and was sold as the Rolex Thunderbird for many years.
Remaining in production for decades, it somehow failed to really win over the public, and sat as one of the brand’s forgotten models.
Nevertheless, it received the same periodic updates as others in the series, and in 1988, the ref. 1626X generation emerged.
As so often with Rolex, the main reason for issuing a new iteration of the watch was to unveil a new movement, with most of the design and aesthetic details going pretty well unchanged. It was also released in a number of variations, with the ref. 16263 standing as one of the most popular choices, with its archetypal two-tone visual.
These days, because of its limited sales performance, it is something of a rarity on the preowned market, but an attractively priced one.
Below, we take a look in a bit more detail.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16263 Metal and Bezels
Every Turn-O-Graph model ever made has measured 36mm, a relatively large watch for the 1950s when it was introduced, but considered something of a midsize today.
As for the ref. 16263, that case is made of stainless steel, but with a bezel, winding crown and central bracelet links forged from yellow gold, leaving us with a highly characteristic combination of tones Rolex dubs Rolesor.
The meeting of metals was used first on the Datejust range, the perpetual proving ground for many of the brand’s experiments, and has since found its way extensively across the catalog.
The bezel itself is also particularly distinctive, with it being given what is known as an engine-turned finish. Something else which has since been discontinued by Rolex, engine-turned bezels feature a series of decorative grooves around the perimeter and, on the Turn-O-Graph, they are broken up with markers and numerals every 5 and 10-minutes.
There were two other versions in the ref. 1626X range issued at the same time; the ref. 16264 also had a steel case but was topped off with a white gold bezel for a more underplayed, monochrome look. And the ref. 16268 went the opposite direction, going head to toe in all yellow gold for the ultimate in eye-catching opulence.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16263 Movements
The Turn-O-Graph ref. 1626X took over from the rather short lived ref. 1625X series, originating in 1977, in order to bring in a new caliber.
That engine was the legendary Cal. 3135, a movement that would become the longest serving and most widely used of all Rolex’s modern era mechanisms. Incredibly, it is still powering the current Submariner fleet, some 30-years after its entrance.
It took over from the Cal. 3035, which was the first caliber in the men’s Datejust family to operate at the high beat 28,800vph frequency—the speed that gives the trademark eight-ticks-per-second glide to the sweep hand. It was also the Cal. 3035 that brought with it the convenience of the Quickset function for the date display, allowing it to be adjusted independently of the main hands with just the winding crown.
In truth, the differences between the old movement and the Cal. 3135 are minimal. The size of the free sprung balance wheel was increased, and it was given a full balance bridge over the balance cock of the Cal. 3035. Beyond that, it upped its jewel count from 27 to 31, and the power reserve likewise lengthened, to 50-hours over the previous 42.
It was really a gentle evolution more than anything, with Rolex determined merely to tweak a very good movement until it was even better. The Cal. 3135 retained the well-proven setup of the Glucydur alloy for its balance wheel and a Breguet overcoil for the hairspring, as well as Rolex’s own Microstella regulating system.
In all, it was such a successful creation because it was a workhorse. Nothing fancy, just a physically large and therefore robust movement, engineered so well that it would keep on ticking pretty much forever and maintain superb accuracy the whole time.
Some extra detail for the really committed watch nerd; where the Cal. 3035 advanced the time and the date by turning the crown counter-clockwise, the Cal. 3135 has to be turned clockwise. And similarly, a single rotation of the crown on the Cal. 3135 skips the date numeral six digits, on the Cal. 3035 it moves only one or one-and-a-half days per turn.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16263 Dials
With the Turn-O-Graph occupying a somewhat niche position within the Datejust family, it wasn’t issued with quite the same exhaustive selection of different dial colors as the regular collection.
As you might expect with its Rolesor housing, the champagne dial was perhaps the most popular choice for the ref. 16263, matching perfectly against the gold on the bezel and bracelet.
Elsewhere, the standard options of black and white are similarly plentiful, along with an attractive deep blue which contrasts beautifully with the bodywork.
You may also come across a few rarer versions, such as the textured tapestry dials, as well as the Jubilee dial. The latter features the word ROLEX in a repeated pattern across the whole of the watch face, and was created to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Datejust in 1983.
Hour markers, for the most part, were plain stick batons, with fewer fitted with Roman or Arabic numerals. Even more scarce are the so-called serti dials (taken from the French for ‘to set’), garnered with diamond hour markers for an added touch of luxury.
Strangely, only the first and last generations of the model actually had the word Turn-O-Graph anywhere on the dial. All those in-between, the ref. 16263 included, omitted it in favor of simply Datejust, and the ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified’ text at the bottom.
And lastly, the ref. 1626XX series was the one to introduce sapphire crystals, replacing the former acrylic coverings.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16263 Bracelets
All Datejust watches, the Turn-O-Graph included, have typically been released with a choice between two of Rolex’s three main metal bracelets.
The more formal option is the brand’s five-link Jubilee which, like the dial, was made especially for the Datejust. On this occasion however, the bracelet was first produced in 1945, to commemorate the 40th year in operation of the company itself. It is the most intricate of the trio, its smaller links conforming to the shape of the wrist and leaving it an extremely comfortable wear.
The other possibility is the three-link Oyster, a legendary band which has been fitted to just about every Rolex watch at one time or another. It is less elaborate than the Jubilee, with a sporty aspect ideal for a piece that bridges the divide between dress watch and tool watch.
During the production run of the ref. 16263 (1988-2000) Rolex was making large strides in its bracelet construction, perhaps the one area where they had traditionally come in for criticism. The folded links of earlier examples were replaced with solid outer links, making the whole unit weightier and more substantial. The inner links were still hollow however, and would have to wait until the current iteration for an update. Nevertheless, the bands used for this generation of the Turn-O-Graph remain an excellent addition, and well resistant to stretch or damage.
The ref. 16263 is a relatively unusual and unknown watch. Even so, it holds an important place in Rolex’s story; one of the series which were arguably the first models the brand made to be used for a specific purpose beyond merely telling the time.
Its lack of fame, and its under-the-radar character, make it an attractive find for vintage fans, as well as those looking for something a little out of the ordinary.
But, dark horse or not, it is still a Rolex, with all the painstaking engineering and attention to detail that the name implies.
As for prices, the comparative rarity of the Turn-O-Graph in relation to a standard-issue Datejust leaves them commanding a small premium, but you will still be able to pick up a great condition piece for less than $5,000.
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— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.