Allure of the Rolex Air-King
With a production run so long it rivals the perennial Datejust, but always a watch with a more under-the-radar demeanor, the Rolex Air-King stands as one of the most enduring cult classics in the brand’s stable.
And much like the other core offerings from the world’s favorite watchmaker, it is a design that was more or less nailed from the get-go, leaving very little to do with it styling-wise for the last 70+ years.
The Air-King is a study in elegant simplicity. A three-hand, no date mainstay, seen alternatively as the entry point for the fledgling Rolex collector or else the archetypal ‘one good watch’ that will last a lifetime and be passed down to future, appreciative generations.
It is a model with more backstory than most. As the heroic exploits of the RAF became legend before and during WWII, Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, got word that the U.K. fighter pilots were paying for his company’s Oyster watches out of their own pocket, preferring them to the standard government issue pieces of the time, for both their reliability and legibility.
As a tribute, he set his designers to creating a series of so-called ‘Air’ watches, to honor their gallantry against insurmountable odds. Alongside the Air-King came the Air-Lion, Air-Tiger and Air-Giant—large, for their day, manually winding pieces with some of the most easily readable dials, and so perfect for aviators.
Before long, the other Air models were retired, but the Air-King, sometimes known as the ‘Warrior’s Watch’, has carried on for decades, being continually tweaked, as is the Rolex way, but far more often on the inside than out.
Even today, with the newest version released in 2016 after a two-year hiatus, the design is indicative of the brand’s early years; presenting all the information you need, and nothing else, in the clearest possible way, wrapped up in a shell that can match to any occasion.
It is the epitome of the sort of tool watch upon which Rolex forged their unbeatable reputation, a model that will always be relevant, and built so well it will last forever.
One of the many pleasant surprises with the Rolex Air-King is the cost of entry.
As one of the most basic, and little known, models, it tends not to attract the attention of any but the true Rolex fan—those who are versed in and want to own a piece of the brand’s early history.
That dark horse status has kept prices way down on the pre-owned market. You can join the Air-King club for less than three thousand dollars, a surprisingly attainable amount for a watch with so much heritage. Even at the very outer limits, on particularly rare pieces or those with peculiarities to the dial for instance, you can buy a vintage Air-King for a fraction of the cost of similarly important examples of the Submariner or Daytona.
The flipside of that piece of good news is there are precious few Air-Kings that qualify as watches with great investment potential. Even enjoying one of the longest runs in the canon, the Air-King has never been a watch built for collectors. It is what it has always been—a vital tool with a job to do. However, trying to predict which Rolex watches are going to become highly sought-after in the years to come is about as easy, and successful, as using a magic 8-ball to tell your future. The perennially underperforming Explorer II was also once an outsider, one that in recent years has started to become extremely desirable, with price increases to match. There is nothing to say the Air-King won’t follow suit.
One thing is certain; although the brand new edition, the ref 116900, is still the unofficial entry-level Rolex, for the same price you can take possession of a vintage example steeped in the oldest of old school charm.
As one of the simplest, and least expensive, Rolex watches, the vast majority of the Air-King models were made from stainless steel. In amongst them however, there are plenty of pieces in both 14k gold as well as gold shell, a steel case coated with a thin layer of the precious metal. Some references were additionally available in Rolex’s own Rolesor, a mix of steel and gold.
During its long life, the dial has been offered in a range of different colors, the most frequently used being black, white, silver and blue, but you will find the occasional interloper in anything from bright red to mother-of-pearl.
You may also come across some pieces with diamond enhancements on the hour indexes or bezel. These are generally aftermarket additions, so it pays to do your research on the seller and be prepared to hunt out an independent watchmaker to service your watch when the time comes, as Rolex themselves won’t maintain a customized model.
The dial came in a few different styles as well. The quintessential Air-King look is the most minimalist; thin baton markers all around save for the five-pointed coronet of the Rolex logo at 12 o’clock. As readability goes, it doesn’t get much clearer than that, but the watch was also issued with the 3/6/9 dial more commonly associated with the original Explorer.
A brief experiment from the late 50s brought us the Air-King Date. Released exclusively in the Commonwealth market, the very slightly larger models included the convenience of a date function and were all issued with stick indexes.
As for the bezel, the choice of smooth or fluted lasted until 1989, when the new ref. 14000 was introduced and added the option of an engine turned surround, making it the ref. 14010. ‘Engine turned’ was a nicely decorative yet sadly short-lived type of bezel on the Air-King which Rolex stopped producing in the early 2000s.
The one element that has altered the most during the watch’s life is its mechanism. The calibers have changed in accordance with Rolex’s progression in technology, but the model itself has lagged behind, often receiving its updated caliber a few years after they have been rolled out to the rest of the lineup. For example, it wasn’t until the ref. 14000 appeared in the late 80s that the Air-King was fitted with one of the brand’s 3000 series of movements, superseding the long running 1500 series, which had been working away elsewhere in the product range for more than a decade. And it wasn’t until as recently as 2007 that the watch was awarded the Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute’s certification for the first time—every example until then had displayed either the ‘Precision’ or ‘Super Precision’ text on its dial rather than ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified’, signifying they were yet to pass the COSC’s demanding tests for accuracy.
From the factory, the Air-King was supplied with either the no-nonsense utility of the Oyster bracelet or, far more infrequently, the dressier Jubilee. However, it is the perfect watch for the formality of a leather strap, and you will see many examples have been fitted with them after the fact.
The one other area where the Air-King has been late to the game is its crystal. Again it was the arrival of the ref. 14000 in 1989 that signaled the end of the high sided acrylic and the start of its scratch resistant sapphire replacement.
The classic dimensions for the Air-King have always been 34mm, the size it was first launched in and considered particularly large for the time. In the years that followed the trend started for ever bigger watches, but until the latest 40mm iteration, the Air-King never grew above 36mm.
There is also a 31mm model available on the vintage market, which these days is aimed more at a female audience.
The one discrepancy is the fleeting Air-King-Date from the mid-fifties; the ref. 5700 (steel) and ref. 5701 (Rolesor), both 35mm editions with the, you guessed it, addition of a date complication at 3 o’clock, covered by a Cyclops lens. With almost nothing to distinguish it from the Datejust from the same era, it had an extremely brief tenure.
The Air-King was devised to do only one thing—tell the time in the clearest way possible. It was never intended to measure motor racing laps like the Daytona, or keep track of multiple time zones like the GMT-Master, and it won’t help you monitor your air supply 1,000ft underwater like the Submariner (although like all Oyster watches, it will happily perform up to 330ft down).
That single-minded focus is written into every line of the Air-King, and its styling remains one of the cleanest designs Rolex has ever put into service. With the vast majority not even possessing so much as a date window to muddy up the dial, it is the epitome of stark restraint; a watch that gets in anywhere and never draws attention to itself.
Yet the modern day version does have one neat trick up its sleeve. The ref. 116900 released in 2016 shares a case with Rolex’s scientist’s watch, the Milgauss. That means it actually has two cases; the 40mm outer housing as well as an interior soft iron Faraday cage shielding the movement from the harmful effects of magnetic fields. It is a move by Rolex to keep the Air-King as a professional pilot’s watch.
As a so-called entry level watch, and one with such a long timespan, it can come as a surprise to some collectors that there aren’t more Air-King’s available on the pre-owned market.
However, if you think about not just the popularity of the model but the type of people who bought one, it is perhaps not as unexpected as it might appear.
Firstly, the Air-King has always suffered in the recognition stakes when compared to some of the other watches in Rolex’s stable. Released the same year as the Datejust, it has long been in the shadows of the one time brand flagship, with the added functionality, as well as the sheer breadth of choice of the DJ, appealing to a wider audience.
As such, the Air-King was made in far fewer numbers, leaving them a little sparse on the ground for would-be collectors.
The other reason for their relative scarcity, particularly the vintage examples, is the motivation of the original buyers. Those people looking to showcase their achievements by specifically purchasing a Rolex would generally gravitate towards one of the brand’s big hitters—the ones with the recognizable names and profiles that are unmistakable from across a crowded room.
The Air-King doesn’t fit into that sort of category. It was never, and never intended to be, a status symbol. Its austere styling and basic features mean it was the model for those who wanted a watch that was built so well they could depend on it to do its job for the rest of their life—which is how long many of them kept it for. There are fewer Air-Kings for sale because the original owners, or their offspring, have held on to them. It is one of the advantages of making a design so simple that it qualifies as timeless and with so little in the way of functionality that there isn’t very much to go wrong with it, especially with Rolex’s typical level of engineering fastidiousness. When you do away with chronographs or GMT complications and boil everything down to three-hand simplicity, you have a watch that, with a little TLC, will basically run forever.
Yet, that perceived lack of prestige could well see the Air-King become more collectible in the future. Many fans have been grumbling for years about the gentrification of the Rolex range, with once tough-as-nails tool watches being issued in precious metal cases and with diamond enhancements that make them completely unsuitable for their initial purpose. Who would wear a $35k white gold Sub to go Scuba diving, for instance?
As we saw with the models which stuck to their guns, such as the Explorer, Explorer II, Milgauss and Sea-Dweller, pieces that have resisted being softened for some aspirational cachet, there is a huge call for the models that still retain some of that pure Rolex essence. The Air-King could well be ready to join them.
Of course, the very early pieces are already highly sought after. While the celebrated ref. 5500 is the most easily found on the pre-owned market, thanks to its 37-year production run, there are a handful of versions with the ‘Air-King’ and ‘Super Precision’ text both picked out in red (known as the Double Red) that change hands for far more than the standard model due to their extreme rarity.
Below we’ll take a look at the different models Rolex issued during the watch’s seven decade history.
The Rolex Air-King Timeline
The Air-King has one of the most confusing timelines in the Rolex catalog.
On the run up to the Second World War, when Hans Wilsdorf learned that British RAF pilots were swapping their government issue 30mm Speedkings for the larger Oyster Bubblebacks and paying for them with their own money, he started to produce his series of ‘Air’ watches for them. These models (the King, Giant, Lion and Tiger, ref. 4365) were, in a way, conglomerated into one model, the 34mm Air-King, in 1945.
That edition, the very short lived and extremely rare ref. 4925, and its replacement, the ref. 4499 released in 1946, both used manually-winding Hunter movements.
It was not until 1953 and the introduction of the ref. 6552 that the Air-King would receive its first automatic caliber, the Cal. 1030. That third generation of the watch is considered a transitional model, being very similar in appearance to its successor introduced in 1957, the iconic ref. 5500.
This is the reference most people associate with the true Air-King look. The cleanest, simplest dial design, pencil hands and not a complication in sight. This is also where things get a little more complex.
The ref. 5500 was issued with one of two movements, a Cal. 1520 or Cal. 1530. They can be told apart easily by the wording on the watch’s dial. The Cal. 1520 either has the word ‘Precision’ above the six o’clock index or no designation at all. The Cal. 1530 always has ‘Super Precision’ on the dial. Contrary to what you might think, the Cal. 1530 was actually the first of the two movements to be used—the Cal. 1520 did not make its first appearance until 1963. There were only a few, but fairly key, differences between the two, aimed at reducing manufacturing costs. The 1520, for instance, used a stick regulator rather than the Microstella system later versions of the 1530 were fitted with. In addition, it had a flat hairspring instead of the Breguet overcoil common to the 1530 as well as every Rolex caliber today.
It was also produced with differing numbers of jewels. The 17-jewel version was solely for the U.S. market to comply with import laws, while the 26-jewel type was sold everywhere else. The 1530, before it was phased out, came in 17, 25 and 26-jewel form.
Although neither caliber was chronometer certified, the quality of the manufacture was deemed good enough by Rolex for the Cal. 1520 to serve inside the ref. 5500 for its entire 37-year run, not being replaced until the updated model arrived in the late eighties.
In 1958, the separate line of the Air-King Date emerged for sale in Commonwealth countries. The two references, the ref. 5700 in steel and the ref. 5701 in Rolesor, were powered by either the Cal. 1525 or 1535. At the same time, the ref. 550X series also appeared. All these watches, the ref. 5504 stainless steel, the ref. 5501 two-tone with fluted bezel and the ref. 5502 gold-plated (40 microns) Air-Kings and Air-King Dates, used the 35mm case from the Explorer. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the same era Explorer also occasionally used the 34mm ref. 5500 Air-King case!
You will be as pleased as I am to learn that after the ref. 5500, it all calmed down a bit.
In 1989, the ref. 14000 finally ended the ref. 5500’s run. Like its predecessor, it was available in a range of sizes; 31mm, 34mm and 36mm, and along with the new sapphire crystal replacing the former’s acrylic, it also became the first in the line to house one of Rolex’s 3000 series of calibers.
By upping the balance frequency to 28,800vph from the Cal. 1520’s 19,800vph, it brought the Air-King into line with the rest of the brand’s output. However, it still did not use a Breguet overcoil—and, in fact, it was the last Rolex in-house movement not to. It meant the ref. 14000, and its engine turned bezeled counterpart, the ref. 14010, were both lacking in COSC certification, and kept the ‘Precision’ label on their dials as the ref. 5500 had.
The watch went through a further update in 2000, with the arrival of the Cal. 3130, another high beat mechanism but one fitted, at long last, with an overcoil, as well as replacing the balance cock with the now ubiquitous balance bridge. But still, the ref. 14000M (for Modified) and the engine turned ref. 14010M, were not chronometer certified.
Finally, in 2007, the ref. 1142XX series arrived. This range can be thought of as both the first of the modern Air-King models and the last of the originals. It was the reference that, after more than 60 years, got to wear the Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified tag. It received a significant facelift, with thicker lugs to the case and an all new Oyster bracelet. It was also issued in a white gold fluted bezel option, the ref. 114234; a first and so far unique variant. On top of that, a new concentric style dial appeared, with Arabic numerals for every index.
Yet it was the reference that took the Air-King, after nearly seven decades, up to its retirement. In 2014 the model was discontinued, with most believing that was all there was from the warrior’s watch.
But just two years later, a vastly different take on the design was unveiled at Baselworld. The ref. 116900 is the Air-King for a contemporary audience. A 40mm case shared with the Milgauss, it goes out of its way to be as legible as possible, once again aiming to be the ultimate tool watch for professional aviators. With not just the Explorer-esque 3/6/9 hour markers, but a prominent minute scale, it makes navigational time readings as easy as possible. And so it doesn’t lose sight of its roots completely, its black dial is straight out of the 1940s military. The Air-King signature and numeral font are both in keeping with the classic vintage references and it is also the first ever Rolex to have the crown logo and brand title in two different colors.
It may not have a name that trips off the tongue as readily as some of its stable mates when you hear the word Rolex, but the Air-King is a vital part of the watchmaker’s story.
Able to trace its lineage back to the early days of the company, and made to commemorate the heroes of World War II, there are few models from any manufacturer can compete with the Air-King’s heritage.