Tropical Dial ‘Thunderbird’ 1625 Rolex Datejust
No one knows precisely how the Turn-O-Graph bezel wound up on the wrists of the USAF Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Thunderbirds. Lore holds that one pilot previously bought one for himself on his wedding, and, after discovering how useful the rotating bezel was, the US government placed an order for his team. Others say the government asked Rolex for watches at a discount, and this was what they got. What is known is that by the mid-1950s, the whole Thunderbird squadron had them on wrist and had put in an official request with Rolex to supply USAF Thunderbird pilots Datejust Turn-O-Graphs. An unlikely, but nonetheless very real partnership. It was later branded the Turn-O-Graph and, despite discontinuation, remains one of the most interesting early histories of any early Rolex.
When a watch person thinks of aviation, Breitlings, Speedmasters, and IWCs come to mind. You want high legibility, countdown bezels, and chronographs. Not a Datejust or Sub. This makes this alliance all the more charming, there’s really not a lot technical merit to it, more happenstance. This isn’t to say that a Turn-O-Graph isn’t a fantastic watch, it is. Just not an aviation watch from birth. It’s a bit like taking a Lamborghini LM002 on a track day, which I once saw some guy do at Spa (Francorchamps). Yeah, it says Lambo on it, but it’s actually a tractor Rambo-pantomime of an SUV. Yet, this legend made it work. The Rambo Lambo was a tool very unsuited to its job, but the whole scenario was memorable, hilarious, and just fun precisely because of the mismatch. That’s what the Thunderbird is: a tool not made for its station, but made even more magnificent because it did the job nonetheless.
However, as you might expect here, this isn’t really a normal Thunderbird. The 1625 was one of the earliest Datejusts to get a bezel in 1959. But this example is pink gold, of which only two others are known. And it’s sporting a near-burgundy tropical dial, which only brings out the reddish case depth even more dramatically. It’s even on its original pink gold jubilee. The only way to make a Thunderbird more interesting would be to find one of the handful of known examples with the squadron’s insignia at 6, one of the rarest Rolex signatures ever. But good luck finding one. Until, you could do worse than this very rare, very lovely 1625. IWC makes the 48mm ‘Big’ Pilot, but I’d like to humbly suggest that this 36mm pink gold Thunderbird is the quintessential BDE Pilot.
This example is in fairly strong condition overall. The case has even well-preserved lugs still sporting a great edge and the same can be said of that marvelous engine-turned bezel. The dial is sporting a hairline lacquer fracture from the handstack to the SCOC line, but it’s not drastic. The indices have some light corrosion around them and there’s sympathetic light radium turn. This is an honest but well-preserved vintage Datejust that was likely used hard in period. The dark tropical tone is exceptional. As is the matched Jubilee. It comes from a well-regarded Dutch retailer.