A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex Air-King Watches
Welcome to the next installment of our Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex series, where each chapter focuses on a specific Rolex collection to help the novice buyer. Following our in-depth guide about the Submariner, we are now taking a look at one of Rolex’s longest-running models, the Air-King. So if you’re in the market for a secondhand Rolex and are curious about the Air-King, then dig into A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex Air-King Watches.
Origin Story of the Rolex Air-King
To honor the British Royal Air Force pilots that served during the Second World War, Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf, launched a collection of Air Oyster watches. The collection included models named Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, Air-Giant, and Air-King. The first Rolex Air-King made its debut in 1945 as the Air-King ref. 4925. The watch featured a 34mm Oyster case (a prominent size for the era) with a smooth bezel, a straightforward time-only dial, and a manual-wound movement inside.
As one of the brand’s oldest watch models in near-continuous production, Rolex has constantly improved the Air-King over the years (including eventually fitting it with an automatic movement) while remaining mostly as an understated time-only stainless steel and relatively affordable Rolex watch. There will be a few exceptions over the years in terms of materials, design, and complications—which we will get into below.
The Rolex Air-King Case, Bezel, and Crystal Evolution
In 1926, Rolex created the world’s first waterproof watch and dubbed it the Oyster. To keep water and dust out, the Oyster case featured a screw-down winding crown, screw-down fluted caseback, and screw-down bezel. This groundbreaking case design would become a fundamental part of Rolex watches, including the Air-King, over the next nine decades and continues until today.
When the Air-King was presented in 1945, it had a stainless steel 34mm Oyster case topped with a smooth bezel and fitted with an acrylic crystal. The Air-King case would remain essentially the same for more than a decade, through references 4925, 4365, 4499, and 6552.
In 1957, Rolex introduced the Air-King ref. 5500, which also sported a 34mm stainless steel case, smooth bezel, and acrylic crystal. Many consider this to be the archetypical Rolex Air-King model. However, there were other versions too that debuted the following year (made for the US, UK, and Commonwealth markets). The Air-King 5501 had a two-tone 14k gold and steel case topped with a 14k gold fluted bezel. The Air-King 5502 and 5506 had gold plated cases with smooth bezels. That same year, in 1958, Rolex also manufactured the Air-King 5504, which borrowed its 35mm stainless steel case from the Explorer.
Furthermore, Rolex also made two versions of the Air-King Date in 1958: the ref. 5700 with a steel 34mm case and smooth bezel and the ref. 5701 with a two-tone gold and steel case and gold fluted bezel. As date models, the Air-King Date watches included the customary Cyclops magnification date lens protruding from their acrylic crystals.
To accompany the other Air-King ref. 55xx models, Rolex launched the Air-King 5520 in 1974, which featured a 34mm gold-shell case, smooth bezel, and acrylic crystal.
After more than three decades of production, Rolex replaced the standard Air-King 5500 with the Air-King 14000 in 1989. The stainless steel case diameter remained the same at 34mm; however, Rolex furnished the updated model with scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. What’s more, while the Air-King 14000 retained the familiar smooth bezel the accompanying Air-King 14010 featured a more decorative engine-turned bezel. Similar to other steel watches in the brand’s catalog, Rolex switched to 904L stainless steel to make the Air-King 14000 and the Air-King 14010 in the late 1990s.
In 2007, Rolex released the Air-King 114200. Although on paper the Air-King 114200 included the same 34mm case size, the watch actually wore larger than previous versions thanks to the redesigned wider lugs and slightly thicker profile. Along with the smooth steel bezel option of the 114200, there was also the Air-King 114210 with an engine-turned bezel and the Air-King 114234 with a white gold fluted bezel.
Rolex discontinued the Air-King collection in 2014 only to revive it again in 2016 as the completely revamped Air-King 116900. Among other changes, the stainless steel case grew to a much larger 40mm in diameter and Rolex now only offers this one version of the Air-King with a smooth bezel.
The Rolex Air-King Dial Evolution
Over the course of its history, the Rolex Air-King has been mostly a time-only watch with the hour, minutes, and seconds hand at the center of the dial. The only two exceptions to this include the very early Air-King ref. 4365 (circa 1945-1953) that had a running seconds subdial at 6 o’clock and the Air-King Date ref. 5700/5701 (circa 1958 – 1980s) with a date window at 3 o’clock.
The earliest editions (ref. 4925, 4365, and 4499) of the manual-wound Air-King watches had the name “Oyster Air-King” on the dial. The name “Oyster Perpetual Air-King” did not appear until the automatic Air-King 6552 was released in 1953; remember, the “Perpetual” label on Rolex watches indicates that the watch runs on a self-winding movement. What’s more, the Air-King 6552 also debuted a new script typeface for the “Air-King” name—a design that remains on the Air-King watch until today. Furthermore, depending on the model and movement inside the watch, the Air-King dial can have “Precision,” “Super Precision,” or “Superlative Chronometer Officially certified” on the bottom portion of the dial.
The Air-King watches from the 1940s and 1950s typically had more decorative dials featuring a mix of Arabic numerals, arrowhead hour markers, and stick indices, along with alpha style hands. However, starting around the early 1960s, Air-King 5500 dials took on more streamlined design, mostly featuring straight center hands and stick/baton hour markers. By the time the next generation of Air-King references (140xx) came around in the late 1980s, Rolex began adding other dial style options to sit alongside the simpler ones including Roman numeral dials, Explorer-style dials with prominent 3/6/9 numerals, and colorful concentric designs. Similar dial styles continued with the following generation of Air-King 1142xx references. The biggest change to the Air-King dial design came with the introduction of the revamped 2016 Air-King. The Air-King 116900 features a black dial with Mercedes-style hands and a green lollipop seconds hand. There’s also a mix of 3/6/9 hour markers and minute markers, a green Rolex label, and a yellow Rolex crown.
Another dial component that has evolved throughout the Air-King’s history is the type of luminous material used. Like all Rolex watches of the era, the earliest Air-King models used self-luminous radium paint. Rolex radium dials include the SWISS label right below 6 o’clock.
When radium was deemed too dangerous to use, Rolex switched to safer self-luminous tritium paint around 1963. Tritium dials are labeled with “Swiss-T <25,” “T Swiss Made T,” or “T SWISS T” right below 6 o’clock. In the mid-1990s, Rolex opted for Luminova luminescence quickly followed by SuperLuminova in 2000. Essentially the same material (but different brand names) Luminova and SuperLuminova are not self-luminous but require light exposure before they can glow green in the dark. Finally, the latest Air-King 116900 uses Rolex’s proprietary Chromalight display as luminescence, which glows blue in the dark.
The Rolex Air-King Bracelet Evolution
Except for some of the earlier models being fitted with leather straps, Rolex Air-King models have mostly been equipped with three-link Oyster bracelets and in some cases, five-link Jubilee bracelets. Like all other components of a Rolex watch, the Jubilee bracelets (introduced in 1945) and the Oyster bracelets (introduced in 1948) have evolved significantly since inception—especially in the shape of the individual links.
The evolution of Oyster bracelet links started as riveted links, then folded links starting in the late 1960s, then solid links starting in the mid-1970s. The evolution of Jubilee bracelet links began as folded style links (made in Switzerland) and oval-style links (made in USA or Mexico), followed by D-style links starting in the mid-1970s then solid-style links starting in the mid-2000s.
Another important component to consider about the Air-King bracelets is the style of the end-links. The end-links are those links that serve to attach the bracelet to the case. For most of Rolex’s history, these end-links were hollow. However, starting in the 2000s, Rolex began rolling out solid end-links (known as SELs) across their watch collections. The Air-King ref. 1142xx generation of watches were fitted with SELs.
The newest Air-King 116900 is fitted exclusively with an Oyster bracelet—with solid end links, solid center links, and a folding Oysterclasp with the practical Easylink 5 mm comfort extension link to easily lengthen the bracelet without any tools.
The Rolex Air-King Caliber Evolution
The Air-King is one of the few Rolex watches that transitioned from a manual-winding watch to an automatic one during its history. The first three Air-King references from the 1940s and early 1950s were powered by manual-wound Caliber 10.5 Hunter movements.
Then, in 1953, the first automatic Air-King made its debut as the reference 6552, which housed the Rolex Caliber 1030 mechanical movement. Operating at a frequency of 18,000 beats per hour, Caliber 1030 is the same self-winding movement Rolex used to power Submariner and Explorer watches of the era.
The next reference to join the collection was Air-King 5500, launched in 1957. The Air-King runs on either Caliber 1520 (19,800bph) or Caliber 1530 (18,000bph) to power the watch. There were importation restrictions concerning the jewel counts of the movements, so there are Caliber 1520 with either 17 or 26 jewels and Caliber 1530 with either 17, 25, or 26 jewels. To differentiate between Cal. 1520-powered Air-Kings and Cal 1530-powered Air-Kings, the dial of the former says “Precision” while the latter says “Super Precision.”
All Air-King ref. 55xx models ran on either Caliber 1520 or Caliber 1530 except, of course, for the Air-King Date versions. The Air-King Date 5700 and 5701 relied instead on Caliber 1525 or Caliber 1535.
When Rolex finally replaced 55xx models with the Air-King 140xx references in 1989, the watches were equipped with the updated Caliber 3000 movement. Caliber 3000 operates at 28,800bph and supplies the Air-King 14000 and 14010 with around 42 hours of power reserve. A little over a decade later, in 2000, Rolex replaced Caliber 3000 with Caliber 3010 (similar specs but with a larger balance wheel and a full balance bridge) and revived the reference numbers slightly to Air-King 14000M and 14010M where “M” stands for “modified.” It’s important to note that the Caliber 3010-powered Air-King models were still not COSC-certified and still included “Precision” on the dial.
When Rolex launched the new Air-King 1142xx generation in 2007, the brand still opted for Caliber 3010 but this time, a COSC-certified version. This is why the Air-King 114200, Air-King 114210, and Air-King 114232 have the familiar “Superlative Chronometer Officially certified” text on the dial—the first time in the Air-King’s long history.
Inside the case of the latest Air-King ref. 116900 is Caliber 3131—the same one used in the antimagnetic Rolex Milgauss collection—housed inside a soft-iron inner case for better resistance to magnetism. The Rolex Caliber 3131 self-winding movement is chronometer-rated, built in-house, operates at 28,800bph, offers a 48-hour power reserve, and is accurate to -2/+2 seconds per day.
The Rolex Air-King Eras and Reference Numbers
Throughout the different Air-King references, Rolex continued to improve upon the watch’s design and technical abilities. Below is a table that outlines some of the major details and changes throughout the different references.
|Ref. #||Intro Year||Case||Lume Type||Crystal Type||Mvmt Type||Cal.||Notes|
|4925||1945||34mm Steel||Radium (if any)||Acrylic||Manual||10.5 Hunter|
|4365||1945||34mm Steel||Radium (if any)||Acrylic||Manual||10.5 Hunter||Seconds Subdial|
|4499||1946||34mm Steel||Radium (if any)||Acrylic||Manual||10.5 Hunter|
|6552||1953||34mm Steel||Radium||Acrylic||Auto||1030||Air-King Script on Dial|
|5500||1957||34mm Steel||Radium then Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1520 or 1530||Precision or Super Precision|
|5501||1958||34mm Two Tone||Radium then Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1520 or 1530||Export Market|
|5502||1958||Gold Plated||Radium then Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1520 or 1530||Export Market|
|5506||1958||Gold Plated||Radium then Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1520 or 1530||Export Market|
|5700||1958||34mm Steel||Radium then Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1525 Or 1535||Air-King Date|
|5701||1958||34mm Two Tone||Radium then Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1525 Or 1535||Air-King Date|
|5504||1958||35mm Steel||Radium then Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1530||Export Market|
|5520||1974||34mm Gold Filled||Tritium||Acrylic||Auto||1530||Export Market|
|14000||1989||34mm Steel||Tritium then Luminova||Sapphire||Auto||3000|
|14010||1989||34mm Steel ET Bezel||Tritium then Luminova||Sapphire||Auto||3000|
|114210||2007||34mm Steel ET Bezel||Super-Luminova||Sapphire||Auto||3130||COSC-certified|
|114234||2007||34mm Steel + WG||Super-Luminova||Sapphire||Auto||3130||COSC-certified|
|116900||2016||40mm Steel||Chromalight||Sapphire||Auto||3131||Complete Redesign|
A Word About Aftermarket or Service Components on Pre-Owned Air-King Watches
When shopping for a pre-owned Air-King watch, the goal of many collectors is to find a model that is as close as possible to how it looked when it first left the factory. However, with vintage watches, this is not always possible.
Over the years, dials, hands, bracelets, crystals, and luminous material can be swapped out for newer versions during servicing. Therefore, it is common to find older Air-King watches fitted with newer service dials, crystals, bracelets and other parts in the pre-owned Rolex market. Plus, some watch owners like to customize their Rolexes with aftermarket parts such as bracelets, gems, dials, and bezels. Note that an authorized Rolex service center will no longer service a watch that has been customized.
So when shopping for used Rolex Air-King models, it’s important to ask and understand which parts are original, which are service replacements, and which are aftermarket.
Stay tuned for the other chapters of our Beginner’s Guide to Buying Pre-Owned Rolex series where we’ll go deep into other models like the Day-Date, Datejust, GMT-Master, and Daytona.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.