Review: The Rolex Air-King ref. 5500
To date, there have only been six iterations of the Rolex Air-King, which seems a surprisingly small number for a watch that has been in almost unbroken production since 1940.
But when you remember that a single reference, the ref. 5500, stuck around for an unbelievable 37 of those years, it starts to make a bit more sense.
Dubbed the ‘Warrior’s Watch’, the Air-King was one of a range of ‘Air’ pieces Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf commissioned to honor the bravery of Britain’s RAF during the Second World War. The Air Force pilots had been paying for the company’s Oyster models out of their own pockets since the 30s, preferring their robust build and more legible dials over the standard issue watches of the day. By the end of the war, the others in the series—the Air Tiger, Air Giant and Air Lion—had all been retired, with only the 34mm Air-King left.
A strikingly simple, time-only three-hander, it went through a number of versions as Rolex worked on refining its design until, in 1957, the ref. 5500 emerged.
For the thick end of four decades, just about the only modification granted to the watch was a change in movement which, incredibly, actually took it a step backwards. Other than that, one of the longest running references in the brand’s history went unaltered and somewhat forgotten about.
Today, it is recognized as very much the essence of vintage Rolex; an out-and-out tool watch, resilient enough to offer a lifetime of service and with that unmistakable style for which the manufacture is so famous.
Below we take a look in a bit more detail.
Rolex Air-King ref. 5500 Metals and Bezels
All Air-King models have occupied that space sometimes known as the entry level. It is generally reserved for the least complicated, least fancy watches in the Rolex lineup, the vast majority of which have been forged from stainless steel.
So it is with the ref. 5500, the plain but especially hardy metal perfect for a model intended as an everyday wear and a lifetime’s companion.
Underlining its utilitarian nature, the reference is fitted with a smooth polished bezel, keeping the whole thing studiously understated.
There were others in the ref. 55XX series however which offered a little more in the way of swagger.
Released a year later in 1958, the references 5502 and 5506 were both gold plated to 40 microns, while the ref. 5501 was made from Rolesor, Rolex’s own half steel/half gold concoction, and given the more eye-catching fluted bezel.
Launched towards the latter half of the range’s run, the ref. 5520 was what is known as a gold shell piece, the case given a very heavy overlay of 14k yellow gold, again with a smooth bezel. It is an option not offered anymore by Rolex, but was a popular addition at the time, giving all the appearances of a solid precious metal watch but without the hefty price tag.
One final version from the 50s, the ref. 5504, was another purely steel model but this time in an oversized (for the era) 36mm case as opposed to the standard 34mm—which in itself was actually fairly large at the time, but perfect for a pilot’s watch.
Rolex Air-King ref. 5500 Movements
The ref. 5500 had two different calibers during its run, neither of which were chronometer-rated. In fact, the Air-King wouldn’t receive its first COSC-certified movement until as recently as 2007.
On its launch it was driven by the Cal. 1530, the base mechanism of the just introduced 1500 series, still thought of by many watchmakers today as one of the best Rolex has ever produced.
It brought with it a host of upgrades over the Cal. 1000 series it replaced but was considered very much a workhorse by the manufacture. Even so, the Cal. 1530 was impressively accurate, its lack of certification put down to the difficulty of consistently regulating enough of the calibers to satisfy the tests rather than any lack of engineering prowess on Rolex’s part—the initial mechanisms being in the days before the use of the Microstella system.
However, by 1965 the brand started phasing out the Cal. 1530 in favor of the less advanced Cal. 1520, founded on the same architecture but with some key differences that were designed to cut production costs.
While the later Cal. 1530s had started to include the Microstella regulating system, the 1520 only ever had a stick regulator, and it was issued with a flat hairspring as opposed to one with a Breguet overcoil like practically everything else Rolex was building at the time.
In addition, where the 1530 was available in either 25 or 26 jewel versions, the 1520 was always a 17 jewel movement, all in the name of avoiding import tariffs.
Yet even with all the penny pinching, the new caliber did have one improvement over the old, increasing the balance frequency to 19,800vph over the previous 18,000vph. It lent a touch more shock resistance and kept the timekeeping precision at least on a par with the 1530.
Theoretically, the way to tell which movement is inside a ref. 5500 is by the wording on the dial. Those with the older Cal. 1530 were marked ‘Super Precision’ while those with the Cal. 1520 had either just ‘Precision’ or else no designation at all (sometimes called Pre-Precision).
But this being vintage Rolex, you will often find examples of the watch with any of the three dial types, regardless of which caliber it has, due to the less regimented production process of the time, or else the model will have gone in for a service and had the dial replaced.
Rolex Air-King ref. 5500 Dials
And speaking of dials, the ref. 5500 was presented with a modest selection of different color faces, ranging from monochrome black and white, through to champagne and, most prevalently, silver. Later versions added an attractive navy blue.
As for hour markers and handset, the very earliest pieces were given either distinctive triangular indexes or Arabic numerals, and long sweeping Alpha-style hands, before graduating to the plain sticks common to the dressier Rolexes, along with baton markers.
Towards the end of the ref. 5500’s run, the manufacture started including different detailing, releasing models with Roman numerals as well.
As you would expect of a watch with such an extended production life, there were a few outliers in there as well—examples that were made to special order and not for general sale. So you may find especially rare specimens commissioned by military forces worldwide, most likely Middle Eastern, that have martial insignia on the dial. Similarly, there are some cobranded types, those that include the logo of a specific elite retailer such as Tiffany & Co.
Of course, not all of these are from the highest of the high end. Perhaps the most infamous of Rolex’s commissioned watches are those presented to managers of Dominoes Pizza stores who managed to hit $30,000 in sales for four consecutive weeks. There are a number of ref. 5500’s with the pizza chain’s symbol front and center above the six o’clock index!
One strange and slightly confusing variant was briefly made at the end of the 50s and into the start of the 60s. The Air-King was given the dial from the Explorer, in solid matte black together with its 3/6/9 numerals. Even though it is noticeably smaller than the Explorers of the era, the ref. 6610 and ref. 1016, both of which measured 36mm, these particular members of the family are known as Explorer ref. 5500s rather than Air-Kings.
Over the top of the dial, no matter the year or the name written on it, is the vintage watch lovers’ favorite, an acrylic (plastic) covering.
Rolex Air-King ref. 5500 Bracelets
As best suits such an unpretentious and modest watch, the ref. 5500 was only officially fitted with Rolex’s Oyster bracelet.
The three flat-linked band is the sportiest of the marque’s trio of metal options, not as formal as either the Jubilee or the President.
On the preowned market there are plenty of alternatives however, with any number of models having their bracelet replaced, and the all-encompassing nature of the Air-King’s design means it suits anything it is paired with, including leather straps.
Lug holes are present on all vintages of the ref. 5500, making swapping and changing bracelets a relatively simple task.
The Air-King range as a whole is somewhat of the forgotten Rolex, consigned to the shadows cast by the likes of the Submariner, GMT-Master, Daytona and all the rest.
But among the brand connoisseurs, the series, and the ref. 5500 in particular, remain real cult favorites.
The watch is simplicity itself, a beautifully designed all-rounder, and the perfect size for either male or female wrists. Fitted with a bombproof and highly accurate movement, it is the ideal choice for those wanting that one great watch to last them forever or else a stylish addition to the collection.
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