Every watch is a vessel for a story, and a simple engraving is one way to reveal it. Always read the caseback.
Take the luxury Rolex Datejust Ref. 6605 replica watch currently up for auction at Heritage Auctions. Its case is 34mm, made from solid 18k gold, and the aging matte-white dial bears an insignia at 6 o’clock, depicting the Thunderbird, a mythical creature that appears in the oral and written traditions of Indigenous-American tribes across North America; it’s said that lightning arcs from its eyes and thunder bursts from its wings.
Flip the watch over and it gets even more interesting. Inscribed in the caseback is “Herman E. Griffin, The Thunderbirds”.
Captain Herman Griffin was a United States Air Force officer and pilot with the Air Force’s flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. He was part of the team from 1958-60, and at the time it was standard practice for Rolex to give each pilot a watch – sometimes in solid gold – with the flight team’s insignia on the dial. Plenty of these models have crossed the block before, but what sets this example apart is the fact that it’s a ref. 6606, a Datejust, and not a ref. 6609, a “Turn-O-Graph” like many examples that have been sold in recent years from Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s.
Any reference with a Thunderbird insignia is a highly desirable vintage Rolex super clone watch, and for good reason. It’s a relic of the days when Rolex watches were championed by the men and women pushing the boundaries of aviation and putting their lives on the line daily. Starting in ’56, the Thunderbirds flew the F-100C Super Sabre, the first supersonic fighter, making them the first supersonic aircraft demonstration team in the world – Capt. Griffin was one of them.
Chuck Yeager had famously piloted the Bell X-1 to 662mph, breaking the sound barrier in ’47. Less than a decade later the Thunderbirds were breaking the sound barrier during weekly demonstrations to the amazement of crowds around the globe. At subsonic speeds, the planes flew in tight formation, less than ten feet apart. Now, according to the USAF Thunderbirds fact sheet, “more than 280 million people in all 50 states and 57 foreign countries have seen the red, white, and blue Thunderbirds jets in more than 3,500 aerial demonstrations.”
The best 1:1 replica Rolex Thunderbird and the Aerial Demonstration Team That Inspired the Nickname
In the early 1950s, America was keen to tout its newfound military position with a recruitment tool that made a sonic boom-sized statement. On June 1, 1953 the Thunderbirds were activated at Luke AFB, Arizona, and they flew the F-84G Thunderjet and the F-84F Thunderstreak. The F-84 platform was celebrated for its role in the Korean War, which had ended the same year the Thunderbirds were created. The team’s goal was to inspire confidence in the United States Air Force among the public, recruit and retain future and current airmen, and “strengthen morale and esprit de corps among Air Force members” while “positively representing the professionalism and goodwill of the United States abroad.” At 4:00 in the video below, you’ll see Capt. Griffin chatting with fellow Thunderbirds pilots.
It was the first time in history that the public had a front-row view of the incredible machines that were breaking the sound barrier and defending the country around the world. The Thunderbirds were a phenomenon that captivated public imagination and brought massive crowds out to hear the intoxicating turbojet whistle and precision maneuvering. In 1956, the Thunderbirds expanded their presence and moved to Nellis AFB to facilitate the F-100 Super Sabre, the supersonic platform that Griffin flew. The new jets were much faster, louder, and featured an even more aggressive swept-wing design than the F-84 before it.
And such a sight had a watch to match. Rolex capitalized on the popularity of the Thunderbirds by giving a watch to each pilot and then producing an example of the same watch to sell to the public. There isn’t an official record or account from Rolex, but the story goes that after issuing watches to the pilots, Rolex developed a marketing campaign around the Thunderbirds and dubbed their own 6609 Datejust Turn-O-Graph the “Thunderbird.” Period advertisements support this theory. A solid gold 6609 Turn-O-Graph bearing the Thunderbirds insignia was offered for sale to the public for a mere $1,000 alongside the ones given to the pilots.
The reference was produced from ’56 to ’59 and featured a “roulette” date wheel: the date printed on the date wheel alternates between black and red. This specific reference, with the Thunderbirds crest, is incredibly desirable and has seen a dramatic price increase on the auction circuit.
But what makes Griffin’s watch different is that it is not a 6609, but a 6605. Another one of these Thunderbirds 6605 references surfaced last year through Phillips, and it belonged to Capt. Gayle Williams. A ’70s Thunderbirds fan magazine corroborates that both Griffin and Williams served the Thunderbirds from ’58-’59. Williams was the Left Wing, and Griffin was the solo pilot. They were both given the same watch, a solid gold Rolex ref.6605 replica for sale with the Thunderbirds crest, and were photographed extensively wearing the watch during their service.