Friday, May 05, 2023

The Complete History of The Rolex Thunderbird...

The Complete History of

The Rolex Thunderbird

I originally published this story a dozen years ago back on October 10th in 2008. I never updated it since then as I never saw another first generation Rolex Thunderbird until Phillips offered one on June 8, 2020.

I discovered this Reference 6609 watch that was up for auction from Phillip's Auction House at their upcoming Geneva Watch Auction: XI on June 27, 2020. This watch ended up selling for close to $200K. 

This yellow gold Reference 6608 Rolex Thunderbird was made in 1958 and features black lacquer dial and rouletted date wheel which features the Thunderbird logo above the six o'clock marker. This fascinating combo is bathed in magnificent late populuxe Art Deco coupled with tribal American Indian style  This watch predates but is similar looking to Arab dials, yet being so archetypical in its modernity and design language. 

With its Arrowhead markers and native T-Bird logo I don’t recall ever seeing a Rolex with such a distinct American design like this, which really took me by surprise. Methinks this is one of the most beautiful Rolex watches I have EVER seen!?!! This combo features an exotic nighttime vibe, very much like dark night mode on an iPhone. 

Notice the tiny freckles randomly splashed on surface that look life microscopic random dusted rain spots?  The bezel track design with staggered lines is also very complicated and simple at the same time. 
In the photo below we see the U.S. AIR FORCE THUNDERBIRDS designation etched into the back of the case.

I have to say that one of the things I LOVE about Phillips Auction House is the level of detail they include in their auction lots online which include super-stylish wrist shots like the one of the Rolex Thunderbird seen below. The reason I love these wrist shots is they offer a superb sense of scale by showing you what the watch looks like on the wrist!

Phillips included the following Catalog Essay with this watch:

Established in 1953 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the Thunderbirds are one of the oldest air demonstration teams in the world and part of the U.S. Airforce. During the 1950s and 1960s, Rolex delivered a number of special order Datejusts to the Thunderbids. These timepieces were equipped with a rotating bezel and a dial that displayed the team's emblem at 6 o'clock. In fact, Rolex had produced advertisements during this period with the "Thunderbird" Datejust proudly emblazoned across.

Made for the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, the present watch is spectacular in a number of ways. It most notably displays a black lacquer dial with the Thunderbird emblem at 6 o'clock. Through time, the black lacquer has aged gracefully and still remains glossy today. The luminous dots remain round, intact and have aged consistently with the hands.

The case is furthermore a sight to behold. In a stunning discovery, the caseback displays "U.S. Airforce Thunderbids" etched on the edge. A tiny bit of polishing would have rubbed this thin engraving and its existence allows collectors and scholars to understand what a "Thunderbird" wristwatch originally looked like when it was delivered. Furthermore, there is a sharp and crisp hallmark on the caseback which probably has never seen any intervention throughout its lifetime.

When I searched on I was surprised to discover they auctioned a second Reference 6609 Thunderbird Rolex back in 2019 at their Geneva Watch Auction which was stainless steel as seen below.

Below is the Catalog Essay from Philipps:

The Thunderbird, a mythical creature found in many American indigenous cultures, symbolizes strength and power and in some interpretations, creates the sound of thunder by flapping its wings. It is therefore fitting that the United States Air Force air demonstration team adopted the moniker ‘Thunderbirds’, as an obvious nod to their form of aerial acrobatics and their proximity to several Native American reservations. Established in 1953 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the Thunderbirds are one of the oldest air demonstration teams in the world. During the production of this particular wristwatch in 1958, the Thunderbirds flew the aircraft F-100C Super Sabre, and in 1956 they flew at a supersonic level. 

In an attempt to capture the American market with its booming post-war economy, Rolex aligned themselves with the Thunderbirds in their promotional materials, and nicknamed their reference 6609 Datejust Turn-O-Graph the ‘Thunderbird’, placing the team’s emblem directly on the dial. However, it is believed that these wristwatches with the Thunderbird emblem were never available in serial production and were instead only given to those who qualified to serve on the prestigious air demonstration team. Only one other Thunderbird with the actual Thunderbird emblem has ever been seen publicly, the other being a full 18K yellow gold version belonging to Captain Chares W. Maultsby, who flew in the right wing position for the Thunderbirds beginning in 1959, and is currently in a private collection. 

The immediate predecessor to the current reference 6609, the 6309, established what was once a watch oscillating between sports watch and casual dress watch into a definitive dress watch in the Datejust family. Advertisements of the era distinguish that the watch was only available cased fully or partially in precious metals, either yellow gold or white gold. The current example, a reference 6609 is featured with a stainless steel Jubilee bracelet and an 18K white gold engine-turned bezel separated into five minute designations. Additionally, this 6609 boasts a ‘roulette’ date wheel with alternating black and red date numerals, and a silver sunburst dial, both serving to enhance the vividly printed Thunderbird emblem at six o’clock. A beautiful patina has developed on the white gold bezel over time, so that it contrasts smartly with the stainless steel of the bracelet and silver of the dial. 

Produced only from 1956 to 1959, the present lot is an extraordinary example of the reference 6609 ‘Thunderbird’. The first and only steel reference 6609 with the ‘Thunderbird’ emblem to ever appear publicly, this is an excellent opportunity to own an important piece of both Rolex and American history.

Below is the original version of this article I published back on October 10, 2008:

The Original Rolex Thunderbird
Ultra-Rare First Generation Watch

The U.S. Air Force was born in 1947, just after World War II. Six short years later, on May 25, 1953, the Air Force developed its official air demonstration team know as the Thunderbirds. The demonstration team was activated at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, with the designation of the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit.

Since Luke Air Force base was located in Arizona, the team adopted the name "Thunderbirds" based upon the American Indian culture and folklore of the American South West. The American Indian legend said there was a great Thunderbird that was an eagle or hawk, and that when this great bird took to the sky, the earth would tremble from the thunderous power of its wings.

In 1959 Rolex developed a special Rolex Datejust for and worn by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds in 18kt gold as seen below.

Photo Courtesy of Eric Ku

The vintage add below appeared in 1960 for the first Rolex Datejust Thunderbird and I typed out its text below to make it easy to read. This ad was sent in from


World's first supersonic precession aerobatic team the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds! Brilliant pilots, each is also a "scientist" with years of research to back his in-the-air mastery. Demonstrating the ultimate in precision maneuvers, with wing tips overlapping at "broom stick" clearance, their speeds range up to a spine-chilling 720 m.p.h. as the lowest altitudes. More than 21 million international spectators have seen their "Century Series" fighters go through their thrilling punishing paces... You've got to see them to believe them!

Like the aircraft of the famed "Thunderbirds," the Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Thunderbird" is an unerringly precision-dependable part of their equipment...You've go to see it to believe it!

The Thunderbird, Rolex Datejust. 18kt Gold comes with "Turn-O-Graph" bezel. 25 jewels, as identified by the Rolex Red Seal, self-winding PERPETUAL, completely protected by the famous waterproof Rolex OYSTER case. New cyclops crystal magnifies date for easy readability. With strap, $550.00, bracelet extra.

The Rolex Thunderbird Ad below is from May of 1960

Philipp's Fabulous Thunderbird

Philipp is one of the top vintage Rolex collectors in the world and he has excellent taste in Rolex watches and seems to be an advanced expert on knowing how to accessorize the watches with the best choice of bands. In the wrist shot below Philipp is sporting his ultra-rare original Rolex Thunderbird on a leather NATO with yellow gold returns.

This next ad is from the Rolex Manufactury:

A fantastic achievement!

There are over


Rolex wristlet chronometers with official rating certificates endorsed especially good results–a very high distinction in the world of watchmaking. These chronometers are equipped with the finest Breguet hairsprings.

The ROLEX MANUFACTORY has been a pioneer in manufacturing very fine watches since 1878 and is the birthplace of the marvelous micromechanical organism inside every ROLEX watch, which is entirely manufactured by ROLEX from raw materials to the finished movement.

The high-precision tools used in ROLEX MANUFACTORY are made by specialists in the company's own MICROMETAL division.

Did you know

that these same micromechanical engineers and specialist of the ROLEX MANUFACTORY and MICROMETAL also produce small, but very important, mechanical components for the steering system of a jet that flies at more than twice the speed of sound–components on whose superfine quality the life of the crew and their plane directly depends?