Review: The Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16253
Rolex’s Turn-O-Graph is something of an oddity in the collection. No longer being produced, it was launched during the brand’s 1950s heyday, initially as a standalone model, and one which acted as inspiration behind that era’s biggest release, the Submariner.
The debut reference, the ref. 6202, was the first serially-produced Rolex to feature a rotating bezel, marked with a 60-minute scale to give the ability to quickly measure elapsed time. In that way, it could be argued the Turn-O-Graph was the manufacture’s original tool watch.
However, its uncanny resemblance to the all-conquering Sub was drastically altered in its second generation, just a year later, and it was swallowed up into the Datejust series. It retained the turnable surround, but changed from being a black aluminum insert into embossed metal, finished off with an engine-turned design, and the watch itself gained a date function.
By the end of the decade, the Turn-O-Graph had captured the attention of an elite group of aviators, the USAF aerobatics squadron, ‘The Thunderbirds’, and it became, at their request, the official timepiece of the unit. The watch was renamed the Rolex Thunderbird for the North American market.
But, handsome and capable though the model was, and even with superstar backing, it never really caught on to any great degree with the public. Not quite formal enough to be an all-out dress watch, nor rough-and-ready enough for a tool watch, it lingered halfway in-between and didn’t sell in decent numbers at the time.
Today, it has become one of those cult favorites that litter the vintage Rolex scene; pieces that have never had quite the same global recognition of some of the brand’s most iconic names and have built up a fan base because of it.
The ref. 1625X emerged in 1977, the first of the family’s five-digit references, and was the range to bring in the now-standard high beat frequency movement.
Even so, it was a relatively short lived series, being replaced in 1988. That, and the fact the Turn-O-Graph is a pretty low-key member of the collection to begin with, leaves the ref. 1625X somewhat thin on the ground as a preowned buy.
The ref. 16253 represents perhaps the most quintessentially ‘Rolex’ look out of all the permutations in which it was issued, its two-tone bodywork a virtual trademark of the company.
Below, we take a closer look at this superb watch.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16263 Metal and Bezels
As part of the Datejust line, it seems only right that the Turn-O-Graph be given a ‘Rolesor’ edition, which is what the ref. 16263 is. The term denotes a meeting of metals on the one watch, in this instance its most traditional combination of stainless steel (used for the case and outer bracelet links) and yellow gold (on the bezel, winding crown and outer links).
It was a process first invented by Rolex in the 1930s, but wasn’t used until 15-years later, with the first test subject being a Datejust watch. It has been a mainstay of the brand ever since, employed across a wide spectrum of the company’s output, and is one of their most recognizable color schemes.
As for the bezel, that has been given what is known as an engine-turned finish. Like the Turn-O-Graph itself, this style is no longer found anywhere in the Rolex lineup. It features a series of decorative grooves etched into the surface, and used to be fairly prevalent across the catalog, in a variety of designs.
However, it may have been too similar in look to the brand’s own fluted bezels and they were discontinued around 2005, with the last watch to have it being the 34mm Date, another in the Datejust family.
The figures on the surround are embossed and raised from the surface, much like on today’s Yacht-Master models, as opposed to the engraved detailing you would see on the Submariner, Explorer II or GMT-Master.
On the ref. 16253, there are Arabic numerals at the 10-minute marks, with simple tabs in-between, and engine-turned hash marks completing the edging.
There were other versions of the model released at the same time, including the all-yellow gold ref. 16258 and the all-steel ref. 16250 which, like the Rolesor piece, had 36mm cases with rotatable bezels.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16253 Movements
Even though the ref. 1625X Turn-O-Graphs were quite short lived compared to other generations of the Datejust range, they still represent something of a landmark in the watch’s development.
While the outward aesthetics had been nailed down for decades by the time the series was introduced, the internal movements were subject to an almost constant program of refining and tuning. By the time the ref. 1625X arrived, Rolex had built its first high beat caliber to drive it, the Cal. 3035.
This was the caliber to bring the now-standard 28,800vph frequency to the Datejust, the speed that grants the eight-ticks-per-second glide to the seconds hand.
It replaced the previous Cal. 1575, which had been powering all the 36mm Datejust models since 1965. Another movement which is considered something of a legend in vintage Rolex circles, it beat at 19,800vph and brought in the hacking function (in 1972), which stops the seconds hand when setting the time for greater accuracy.
In truth, there are far more similarities than differences between the incoming and retiring calibers. In fact, the Cal. 3035 is sometimes referred to merely as the ‘high beat Cal. 1575’.
The well-proven setup of Breguet overcoil on the free sprung hairspring, KIF shock absorbers and Microstella regulation were all carried over, there being no reason to adjust a formula that had worked so well for so long.
One important upgrade however was the addition of the Quickset feature, giving wearers the ability to set the date independently of the main hands. Whereas before the hour hand had to be wound through an entire day to forward the date numeral, now it could be set using just the crown pulled out to its second position. It was a welcome touch of convenience which has since gone on to be included in nearly all modern Rolex mechanisms.
Other than that though, the Cal. 3035 carried on the brand’s tradition of producing extremely accurate and robust movements, engineered to last a lifetime and strong enough to survive everyday wear in the most challenging conditions.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16253 Dials
One of the Datejust’s biggest draws is the sheer scale of different options in which it is made available. Along with a choice of several metals, bezel styles and bracelets, the standard watch has long been issued with a truly mind-boggling array of dial types.
As the Turn-O-Graph was in its own little niche within the collection though, its range wasn’t quite as extensive as with the regular model, but there was still plenty to choose from.
For the ref. 16263, with its two-tone bodywork, the most popular pairing was the champagne dial, the coloring matching perfectly with the piece’s gold elements.
After that, the monochrome of black and white were also plentiful, along with a somewhat rarer deep blue dial that offered a striking contrast on what is already something of an eye-catcher.
Strangely, you won’t find the word Turn-O-Graph, or even Thunderbird, on any of the ref. 1625X series. In fact, it is only the very first and very last generations of the watch that included the name; for this iteration, only the Datejust title is given any dial space.
As for hour markers, simple stick batons are most prevalent, helping to keep the watch as clean-looking and legible as possible. There are far fewer Roman numeral examples, and Arabic numeral indexes are practically non-existent. In addition, diamond markers were never an official option, but you may well find some on the preowned market with the gems added by an independent watchmaker after the fact.
And a final detail, one beloved by all nostalgic fans—the crystal covering the dial is acrylic as opposed to the later sapphire.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16253 Bracelets
Although the Turn-O-Graph was originally launched as a tool watch, by the time the ref. 1626X came about, it was just a bit too dressy for that role.
As such, it was usually released on that most formal and intricate of Rolex’s trio of metal bracelets, the Jubilee.
The five-link band, created especially for the debut Datejust in 1945, is seen as the brand’s pinnacle of comfort and luxury, the ideal accompaniment for such a stylish watch.
The other option was the sporty and workmanlike Oyster bracelet, its three flat-link design giving off a far more robust and utilitarian vibe.
At this time in their development, Rolex’s bracelets were still fairly lightweight, with D-style links as opposed to the completely solid links you will find on contemporary models. They can be subject to a certain amount of stretch over the years, but are easily rejuvenated to eliminate the characteristic rattle of vintage watches.
The Turn-O-Graph is one of those rarities in the Rolex story, a model that didn’t really catch on. The inconsistencies in its styling are probably what condemned it to remain on dealers’ shelves, not really either a sports or a dress watch.
Even so, as with all things Rolex, the Turn-O-Graph has a significant following now as a preowned buy. The unusual combination of looks appeals to many people, and especially those after something a little out of the ordinary.
Best of all, prices for this distinctive piece start at under $5,000, and it still benefits from all the same engineering and design prowess the brand pours into all its watches.
For a selection of some of the best examples currently on the market, head over to our online store.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.