The Rolex Turn-O-Graph: A Closer Look at Rolex’s Pioneer Tool Watch

Jul 02, 2021
The Rolex Turn-O-Graph: A Closer Look at Rolex’s Pioneer Tool Watch

There is no doubt that Rolex has been a mainstay in the luxury watch industry since the year of its inception in 1908. They have consistently produced extravagant and exquisite watches for a wide variety of purposes, suitable for any profession or hobby. One of the most iconic watches that Rolex has ever introduced is the Rolex Submariner. Did you know, however, that there was one watch in particular that preceded even the classic Submariner dive watch?

slant view of Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph Black Oyster watch

That watch is the Rolex Turn-O-Graph. It was originally marketed as a sports watch but eventually found itself being used mainly by pilots. This iconic Rolex watch is often forgotten by most people. In fact, only the most avid of watch collectors today remember that most of Rolex’s best watches were modelled after the Turn-O-Graph. Unfortunately, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph line was ultimately discontinued in 2011, leaving only pre-owned models available in the market. 


Nevertheless, this does not undermine the inspiration the Rolex Turn-O-Graph has been to the next generation Rolex watches. The image of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph, as well as its rotating bezel function, has become a long-running design choice for the Rolex Submariner, the GMT Master, and other classic Rolex watches with similar designs. This in-depth review of the Turn-O-Graph shifts the spotlight back to the timeless, yet often forgotten Rolex watch, giving it the attention it truly deserves in this day and age.

First Impressions

Looking at the Rolex Turn-O-Graph, you might be led to believe that you are looking at the first version of the Rolex Submariner. This is essentially true since the original Turn-O-Graph was basically a prototype of said Submariner. The main difference between the original Turn-O-Graph and the Submariner is that the former was intended to function more as a military sports watch rather than a diver’s watch. 


The first Datejust Turn-O-Graph is still a great looking watch, even today. Not only does it sport a very familiar design, but it also has a luxurious aura that can be attributed to its more vintage look. As for the modern version, which is the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph Ref. 116264, it sports a more polished style that fits perfectly with modern times. It may not have the quite same vintage feel, but you can clearly see how the modern Turn-O-Graph retains the best aspects of its predecessor’s design.


As we’ve mentioned, more often than not, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph is shrugged off by most. It does not receive the recognition it deserves despite being a pioneer tool watch for Rolex. This may be due to the overwhelming popularity of its descendants, leading the Turn-O-Graph left in the shadows.


The very first model, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph Ref. 6202, is somewhat outdated design-wise. But when the Turn-O-Graph joined the Datejust collection, it received a slight makeover, so that it would fit better in the collection. The black bezel was scrapped and change into a metallic one. In other words, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph was turned into a special edition of the Datejust watch, rather than being its own thing.


Now that we’re clear on the history of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph, let’s get down to its specifications, and how these were modified for the release of the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph.


Not much is known about the specifications of the original Rolex Turn-O-Graph. Over the years, this watch model has undergone a few changes in terms of its calibre movements and a few of its design schemes. Nevertheless, The Rolex Turn-O-Graph still maintains certain general features for its intended use.

Case and Crown

Despite going through some changes after being moved to the Datejust collection, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph retained much of its original design, such as its size and the crown. The size of its case is still 36mm in diameter, which makes it a watch of small stature. Thus, the wearer does not have to worry about the undue weight of a watch on their wrist. As such, even though this is primarily an aviation watch, you could easily use it as an everyday piece too. The screwed-down crown is also at a reasonable size and has no negative effects on the overall case design of the watch. Some other watches are fitted with large crowns that are not proportionate to the case size, and this can be uncomfortable on the wrists and may cause accidental time adjustments. However, this is not a problem you will encounter with any of the Turn-O-Graph watches. 


It is also worth noting that the material used for the Rolex Turn-O-Graph, both the original and the ensuing Datejust versions, is stainless steel. As such, this watch is extremely durable and can withstand all sorts of impacts. Likewise, the bracelet is also made of stainless steel instead of leather, which adds to its bulky design. The original Turn-O-Graph has a 100m water resistance, and this is carried over to the Datejust Turn-O-Graph line as well. Since this watch was not intended for diving, Rolex gave the Turn-O-Graph the average water resistance that a watch should have.


Most important of all, of course, is the Rolex Turn-O-Graph’s rotating bezel, the key feature which made it popular during its initial launch. This bezel allows the wearer to time any activity they wish to. This can be used for diving or aviation purposes—the Turn-O-Graph, which is very popular with pilots, is often used for the latter. Even when the Rolex Turn-O-Graph was rebranded as a Datejust watch, the rotating bezel remained the watch’s primary feature. 


Overall, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph makes optimal use of its compact size to efficiently deliver on its purpose. Its smaller build is unobtrusive on the wearer’s wrist, weighing little and offering the wearer maximal comfort. Modern versions of the Turn-O-Graph have retained the defining features of the original, such as the rotating bezel, to stay true to the original’s spirit. At the same time, the Datejust Turn-O-Graph watches have undergone slight improvements over the years, offering fresher colours and more modern designs to keep up with the times. 


The original Rolex Turn-O-Graph has a simple dial with all the basic indications. It sports a black dial with gold-toned indices. Unlike the Datejust version, the original Turn-O-Graph does not have a date aperture in the dial. Instead, it only has the hours, minute, and seconds indicators in its arsenal. Indeed, the choice of a minimalist dial is an excellent one, especially for tool watches like the Turn-O-Graph. Professionals like pilots and divers would surely want a perfectly legible dial without any confusing features or sub-dials to consider when carrying out their duties. This might be the reason why the Rolex Submariner was released with a similar minimalistic dial. Rolex kept these things in mind when coming up with the designs that would eventually give birth to the Turn-O-Graph. 


The Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph also offers the same dial design with a few additional changes and features. It now offers a variety of choices for the dial colours, along with differently toned cases and bracelets. The most significant change is that the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph now has a date aperture found at the 3 o’clock position. This is further emphasised by the magnified spot on the case crystal found in the same position. This is to make the Turn-O-Graph fit in better with the design schemes of the Datejust collection, which includes many watches that have date apertures.

Calibre Movement

The Rolex Turn-O-Graph uses the automatic calibre movement A296. This is only applicable to the Rolex Turn-O-Graph Ref. 6202 and was ultimately changed in the later versions of the Turn-O-Graph. This A296 calibre movement is a fairly outdated one, possesses the average functions that were prevalent during that time. Nevertheless, it is still an automatic movement that prioritises accuracy and reliability.


For the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph, Rolex changed the calibre movements to more appropriate ones to accommodate the new date aperture function. The Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph 6609, released in 1956, was equipped with an updated Calibre 1065 rather than keeping the old A296 movement. After that, several Turn-O-Graph models were introduced with new and improved calibre movements to avoid outdated functionalities. The latest of the Turn-O-Graph models whose reference numbers are 116261, 116263, and 116264, are fitted with a more modern calibre movement, the 3135 automatic movement. These changes to the calibre movement were necessary to ensure maximal accuracy and performance at all times as well as the longevity of each watch.

Notable Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph Models

As mentioned before, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph underwent several changes after its initial release. This caused it to branch out into several watch models with different design features. That said, here are a few notable models that perfectly capture the essence of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph while also promising excellent performance.

Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph Black Oyster 116264

front view of Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph Black Oyster Ref. 116264 watch

Out of all the Turn-O-Graph watches released by Rolex, the Datejust Turn-O-Graph Black Oyster 116264 is by far the closest to the original model. With its black dial and silver-tone markings, it looks extremely close to what the Turn-O-Graph looked like back in 1953. Although it may not have the original’s gold-toned markers, the new sleek silver-tone, and the white gold materials used in the 116264, more than makes up for it. This updated colour scheme offers a professional and elegant look without the need for flashy designs. The date aperture is found at the 3 o’clock position under a magnified portion of the crystal glass.


The calibre movement used for the 116264 is the 3135 automatic self-winding movement.  Not much has changed from its predecessor’s calibre, aside from the fact that it now has a date aperture to accommodate. This version of the Turn-O-Graph has the same water resistance of 100m.


If you’re seeking a modern watch that is almost identical to the original Turn-O-Graph watch in style, the 116264 is definitely the best choice. 

Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph 116261-SSO

front view of Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph Ref. 116261 SSO watch

Rolex has also released a women’s version of the Turn-O-Graph. The Datejust Turn-O-Graph Ref. 116261-SSO offers the same functions and features as the Black Oyster, with a few cosmetic changes to qualify it as a ladies’ watch. These changes are strictly to do with the colour scheme, as well as the materials used in the watch. Instead of using mostly stainless steel, the 116264-SSO adds Everose gold plating around the bezel, crown, and on its bracelet. This design gives it a sweeter, feminine aura without having to change the size and other features the Turn-O-Graph is known for. The silver dial, paired with the Everose gold hands and markers, completes the elegant, ladylike look that Rolex is aiming for. And since it is also the same size, 36mm in diameter, it can be easily worn by men if it suits their preferences. 


It is an absolutely extravagant watch model made with luxurious metals while also staying true to the original design. It might not be considered a pilot watch, but the style and functionality of the Datejust Turn-O-Graph Ref. 116261 truly outshine the rest.


Since this is Rolex we’re talking about, the price of the Turn-O-Graph is fairly exorbitant due to its luxury status in the watchmaking scene. The original Rolex Turn-O-Graph 6202, in particular, is an extremely rare find, even in auctions. As such, the price would certainly be more than what the retail price was back when it was first launched.


That being said, the only available watches you can easily get on the market, for now, are the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph Ref. 116261, 116263, and 116264. These three models are the best of the Turn-O-Graph line. However, since they were discontinued way back in 2011, there are only a limited number of pieces available today. As such, even on second-hand markets, these watches can come for quite a pretty penny. That being said, considering the Turn-O-Graph’s status in Rolex history and the excellent craftsmanship and exquisite builds of these watches themselves, we think it is well worth the price.


Here are the prices of the Datejust Turn-O-Graph watches based on their market value:


Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph vs Rolex Submariner

As mentioned before, in terms of design, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph is pretty much the predecessor of the Submariner. Although the Submariner is mostly for diving, it took inspiration from the Turn-O-Graph in terms of the rotating bezel as well as the dial and indications. The Rolex Submariner lacks the date aperture, but that is because it focuses more on its diving capabilities rather than being an everyday watch. It features the 3230 calibre movement, with a unidirectional bezel that has 60-minute markings around it. This allows the wearer to time their underwater activities as precisely as possible. The Turn-O-Graph’s bezel is slightly smaller than that of the Submariner, but this is because the Submariner sports a 41mm case and is larger than the Datejust Turn-O-Graph watches. As such, the Turn-O-Graph would likely be a better fit for those with smaller-sized wrists. 

side view of Rolex Submariner Ref. 116610 watch

Both are great watches when it comes to design and features. But Rolex’s constant innovations with the Submariner have made it a true top-of-the-line watch, leading to its legendary status throughout the luxury watch industry and leaving the Turn-O-Graph in the shadows.

Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph vs Rolex GMT-Master

When it comes to aviation watches, the Datejust Turn-O-Graph definitely comes to mind since it was initially designed for such purposes. Today, however, it is overshadowed by the popular Rolex GMT-Master. Both watches may have been made for the same purpose, but the GMT-Master is superior to its predecessor in several ways. First of all, the GMT-Master caters to pilots, ship captains, and other professions that involve travelling; hence it is more than just an aviation watch. These two watches also have similar designs, other than the fact that the GMT-Master has a 40mm case and is thus slightly larger. Another difference worth noting is that the GMT-Master sports a bidirectional bezel that allows it to be rotated both clockwise and counterclockwise. 

side view of Rolex GMT-Master II Ref. 126710 watchThe comparison of the Turn-O-Graph versus the Submariner and GMT-Master may seem unfair at first. But looking at it now, Rolex justified the existence of the 1953 Turn-O-Graph by using it as the blueprint for two of Rolex’s most prominent watch collections. Over the years, the Datejust Turn-O-Graph has also become more of an everyday dress watch rather than the tool watch it was back in its glory days. This further differentiates the Datejust Turn-O-Graph from the Submariner and GMT-Master, which are designed as a dive watch and an aviation watch respectively. 

History of the Turn-O-Graph

The Rolex Turn-O-Graph was initially introduced in 1953. This was the first Rolex watch that came with a rotating bezel. This innovation led Rolex to branch out in terms of its design schemes, incorporating the rotating bezel into its future watches. Thus, the Submariner, Yacht-Master, and the GMT Master came to be. 


Simply put, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph was an experiment, seeking to test how the public would respond to a rotating bezel. With that in mind, only a limited number of Rolex Turn-O-Graph Ref. 6202 pieces were released commercially. It was also a fairly expensive watch at the time due to its unique bezel feature. Although the Ref. 6062 itself was short-lived, several updated Rolex Turn-O-Graph models followed suit. This includes a modern take on the watch that goes by the same moniker.


Shortly after the release of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph watch, Rolex decided to include it in the Datejust collection rather than leaving it as its own collection. As such, newer Turn-O-Graph watches were marked with the “Datejust” moniker as well. This is the reason why it is often set aside instead of being recognised as the Submariner’s predecessor.


Another notable fact about the Rolex Turn-O-Graph is that it was created in official collaboration with the United States Airforce. It earned the name Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph “Thunderbird”, which is reminiscent of the aircraft used by the military with the same name. This feat marks yet another point where Rolex was inspired in their watchmaking advancements and adds to Rolex’s long and storied history. 


Unfortunately, the modern Turn-O-Graph watch models were discontinued in 2011. This spelt the end of the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph that jump-started an era of efficient wristwatches still held in high regard today. 

Should you Buy a Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph?

If you are interested in suave dress watches that are compact and can also be used for aviation purposes, the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph is just the watch for you. It may not have the same capabilities as the Submariner or GMT-Master, but the flexibility of the Turn-O-Graph makes it an excellent choice—especially as a beginner’s watch. 


The only problem is that the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph is no longer available in official Rolex stores. Looking for the best model may prove to be a challenge due to its rarity. The prices of the Turn-O-Graph may skyrocket in the future since it has a rich heritage and the pieces available on the market are dwindling. That said, it is still a great watch to buy. 

Final Thoughts

Rolex has done a great injustice towards their first tool watch. The Rolex Turn-O-Graph could have had its own collection rather than being shoved into an existing one. After it was added to the Datejust collection, the lack of promotion and Rolex’s reduced focus on the Turn0-O-Graph led to its popularity fading over the years, until its eventual demise in 2011. Despite that, the Turn-O-Graph remains a core piece of Rolex history, as it was used as the foundation to Rolex’s most popular watches that hold top positions in Rolex’s lineup today.


The Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph may have had a few twists and turns in its history, but there is no denying that it is an underrated Rolex piece that should definitely be given a chance. It has all the necessary functions for an everyday watch and can either be worn for sports, social events, and aviation practices—you really cannot go wrong with the Turn-O-Graph. Hopefully, the spotlight may one day shift towards this watch and it can return in its full glory alongside the Submariner and the GMT-Master.


Interested in more vintage watches from Rolex? Check out our in-depth review of the classic Rolex Submariner 5513—it might be right up your alley.

Featured image by Hiro – Kokoro☆Photo on Flickr

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