I had been interested in acquiring the above noted watch for a few years, but to date had not seen one for sale of suitable quality. The main issue appeared to be with the bezel, whose numbers and markers are picked out in red – but in most cases were simply no longer so! Also, most offerings had no accompaniments whatsoever. However, I then noticed a lot in the forthcoming Bonham’s December (2018) auction in London. From the catalogue it was from around 1965 and seemed in good condition, plus there was an original box.
I was already due in London the week of the Wednesday auction, but had been advised that RedBar members had been invited to a pre-sale viewing on the Monday. Naturally I duly arranged to go and was therefore able to handle the watch and indeed discuss with Jonathan Darracott (head of Global Watches) the salient points. The case and bezel were indeed very good, as was the dial, hands and crystal with it’s cyclops lens. The black lizard skin dress-type strap – along with original gold pin buckle completed the picture. Lastly, that original box was the icing on the cake. We both agreed that at around the estimate of £5,500 – £7,000, it could potentially be a good buy.
The day of the auction came and I arrived with some apprehension. I had done some more research online and even some of the poorer quality specimens for sale elsewhere were upwards of £10,000. Would someone else with deeper pockets than I sense a bargain? I had in fact identified a couple of other watches that piqued my interest – but only if the Vacheron attempt failed. Trouble was that both pieces (a JLC platinum perpetual calendar for some £6-8,000, and an AP Star Wheel with its novel hour display discs and retrograde minute display for £5-7,000) were listed before the VC. In the event I resisted both, but it was a bit nerve-wracking! In the end only one other bidder really bothered with the VC but dropped out at the upper end and I secured for a little over £7,000.
Whilst I was naturally pleased at my success, it was rather marred by irritation. Why? Well, with the buyer’s commission at 25% (and then VAT), the final bill was well over £9,000! Bearing in mind that the seller also pays commission, the overall house take to my mind is rather too generous – period. As such I don’t buy at auction much, and I think the fees put off a fair few other people too. However, sometimes there is little option of course (as in this case) but it still grates.
The next day I called into the VC boutique a little further down from Bonhams on Bond St. I had in fact made their acquaintance earlier in the year when I was fortunate in attending a select viewing of some very special and beautiful watches from their Metiers d’Art Les Aerostiers range which pays homage to the pioneers of hot air ballooning. Although unable to quite afford these, our little band had the opportunity to handle such pieces and also fiddle with a sample movement under the eye of the boutique’s watchmaker! Needless to say that exercise was not very successful, with microscopic screws shooting around! Anyway, I called in with my prize and the staff were very impressed – most never having seen the model before. The watchmaker quickly popped the case and took a look. Overall, all was well and she declared the watch was in generally sound and original condition – although one screw was a bit chewed! She did say that the movement was dry so ideally it needed a service. Upon enquiring how much this might be I blanched at the £1,800 figure quoted, and not helped by a possible 6 month time frame. Frankly, both these aspects are unjustified – bearing in mind the comparative simplicity of the mechanics. I have therefore postponed any action on this – unless VC may wish to perhaps consider being a bit more reasonable? Instead, I made a more modest purchase and invested £150 for an archive extract to seek more data.
So what actually have I bought. Well, it is a reference 6782 – but it seems to have no official VC name! OK, it usually attracts the nomenclatures Thunderbird and/or Turn-o-Graph but both are somewhat inaccurate (in particular the former) as these belong more correctly to Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual Datejust piece of 1953 (ref 6203). More specifically, when the gold rotatable bezel was added from 1954 (ref 6309), it was then called Turn-o-Graph. Finally, from 1959 (ref 1625), the watch is much pretty like the VC – or vice versa!
After further searching I discovered that information on this 6782 model is extremely meagre. On the internet the only real article I found was penned by Cara Barrett of Hodinkee in 2016, when she was reviewing a similar watch for sale, but this was also a bit frugal. In the meantime my archive extract (eventually) arrived. Disappointingly, information was again very limited. In fact the only new data to me was that it was actually a 1963 and not a 1965 model.
By this time I was determined to find out as much as possible as I felt the watch deserved a proper write-up. So, I asked the London boutique to try to help by going to their heritage dept with some requests. They reported back that someone in that dept was on the case and would be back in touch. So, I eagerly waited, naturally expecting a wealth of fascinating information and pictures to cascade forth in a timely manner. Well, even in mature years one can be somewhat naive I guess! I waited and waited and then, weeks later I got an email from the boutique with the results. What transpired was very disappointing, with just a few brief inserted paragraphs covering commonly known information that I already had, plus, no contemporary images. Truth be told I was pretty fed up, but also perplexed. Surely such an old and illustrious maison had more in the closet?
I gave up dealing via London (not really their fault) and decided to make another attempt In late May when I would be in Geneva. In order to prepare I contacted this VC boutique direct first and explained that I would like to call in and discuss the vintage watch, but also maybe take some pictures of some of their current range in order to review. A lovely lady called Svetlana responded and was happy to help me. In the meantime she would contact Mr Selmoni (head of VC Heritage & Style) to try and get some more information on the 6782.
Fast forward to my visit in May, and at the boutique Svetlana explained that she had now been put in contact with someone else in the heritage dept who would be willing to help and would email me in due course – a Mr Diego Azconegui.
Diego did indeed contact me offering to help so I sent a fairly detailed email back noting the data I had, a picture of my watch, and some questions. After a bit of a delay I received a response. This was, as they say, like the curate’s egg – good in parts! Certainly more effort had been made and there were a few new bits of information, but overall it was again not really what I was expecting or hoped for. Some data had been refused, i.e. production dates/figures, how and who conceived it, and no images of say design drawings, adverts and so on. Diego has since mentioned that there are no contemporary adverts, but it might be possible to get an image from a sales brochure – but this would have to gain managerial approval!
Diego then told me to expect contact shortly from VC’s PR dept over the brochure image – but, over three weeks later I was still waiting! I made contact again to see what was going on and eventually someone did contact me, with an apology. After some more waiting I did then receive a picture taken from a contemporary sales brochure, but although supposed to be of a gold version it actually looked like silver so decided I could not use. In the meantime I did reach out to a contact at Europa Star to see if they had any old advert images, but even their archives from the likely period in the Sixties reveal very little VC content at all and certainly no adverts for the watch. At this point I decided I could afford no more time (or patience) on further research, so decided to complete the article using what data I had – actual and surmised.
As noted earlier, the VC watch is dubbed Turn-O-Graph and/or Thunderbird. However, both are somewhat nebulous as they are more correctly applicable to the Rolex models previously mentioned. So, with Rolex, the former name obviously relates to the rotatable bezel version, and the latter was applied (in around 1955) for marketing purposes when they supplied watches to members of the USAF display team, who were known as the Thunderbirds. No, not after Gerry Anderson’s wonderful and heroic super-puppets (which came out later in the Sixties) but the logo of the display team – the native American Indian Thunderbird (eagle) that is found atop totem poles. These particular watches must be very rare now as they were unique, being made in gold and with the eagle logo on the dial, and limited in number. Rolex produced the standard Turn-o-Graph for a long time, finally ending production in 2011 – probably as there were too many similar models by then like the Submariner, Yachtsman and GMT.
The VC model reference 6782, as far as I can ascertain, came out in 1962 and probably ceased in 1972. Most commentators suggest that only around 100 examples were made – most in yellow gold and with the silvered dial. They mainly had black crocodile straps – although a few may have had gold bracelets and these are rare. In addition, a version was also made with a fancy gold dial – a kind of tapisserie pattern, but within each square is yet another design which is like looking down onto a pyramid in 3D. I have in fact discovered one of these for sale at the Casowatches boutique in London (Burlington Arcade) and was able to view. This has a gold Milanese type bracelet – which I think is a VC original as it has no obvious makers mark. The price is some £30,000, but there may be some movement on this. I personally prefer the “clean” dial as I think the script gets a bit lost and in a certain light the hands too, but it is nonetheless a desirable rarity. Interestingly, Diego also alerted me to the fact that a few were made in white gold, and one example from 1964 was sold at Phillips in May 2015 and broke it’s high estimate by some margin to go for CHF 43,750. Phillips note that possibly only two were made.
As to the design, well, I have simply been told that it was in-house and took cues prevalent at the time. That may be the case, but even the most benign reviewer would say that it looks remarkably similar to the Rolex, and bearing in mind which came first, who cribbed from who seems rather academic!
So, the watch in detail: The case is 36 mm and made in 18 ct gold – as is the solid screw-down case back. This was made by Gunter & Cie of Chaux de Fonds. The overall watch height is around 8mm. The dial has a “starburst” silver surface, curving down at the periphery, along with applied gold gilt hour batons. The hands are also thin batons of gold gilt too, as does the needle thin second hand. Unlike the Rolex version, there is no lume applied and a bit of a shame from a nocturnal use point of view. All this is covered by plexi-glass, with a cyclops eye at 3 o’clock to enlarge the date window. The bezel warrants special mention. Also in gold, it is bi-directional and has fine fluting radiating outwards, interspersed with Arabic numbers at 15, 30 and 45 minutes with an inverted triangle at 60 minutes. In between these, at hourly (or 5 minute) intervals, are diamond shaped symbols. All of the bezel readings are infilled with red – probably paint rather than enamel. On my example the red is in excellent condition and shows no sign of restoration.
The watch uses the in-house calibre K1072/1 and VC’s fifth automatic movement, but the first to have a date window function. There are 29 jewels and the large 18 ct rotor is bi-directional. There is some decoration, with perlage on the base plate with the rotor showing Cotes de Geneve and a “wave” guilloche on the gold portion. Waterproofing is to 3 ATM. The crown may be a replacement as there is no Maltese Cross on it, however, according to Diego they did not all sport this. That said, and looking at the picture VC provided (which due to poor quality I have not used here) and the Casowatches model, I feel the original has a cross and is more shaped with wider side fluting.
Regarding my specific watch, the only real information I have is that it is from 1963, and was sold via SARCAR, who were the main VC importers to Italy and Spain. It was probably supplied with a black crocodile strap – so the lizard skin one it currently sports is not accurate, but does in fact suit the dress pretensions. Although outwardly looking good, the strap in fact somewhat brittle and breaking down so I will need to replace shortly.
In conclusion, I am very fond of this watch. To my mind it is all but perfect of it’s type, and it is one of the “keepers” in my collection. Additionally, despite what I paid (my earlier moanings notwithstanding!), I feel I am ahead of the game value-wise. I also feel the design was important as it was clearly a departure for VC, being a hybrid dress/sports watch. A pretender? Well clearly many aspects are similar to the Rolex – but you may say in an act of flattery! Iconic? Well, maybe! The VC has differences of course. The bezel I prefer, and the movement is equal to or possibly superior to the Rolex of its day – plus the undoubted rarity and VC name all to my mind make this the more attractive option. I suppose though that if I found a genuine Rolex USAF Thunderbird at a fair price I could be tempted! As to the name? Well, the poor thing seems to have no official title, and unless I see anything different on any contemporary advert/brochure that I may be graced with at some point, that is the position. However, in an act of charity, I am kind of content to call it a Turn-o-Graph – but not a Thunderbird as that is a very specific Rolex model!
Photos: The Writer/Fratello (the Rolex)