The Beckertime Rivalry Series: The Rolex Explorer Versus the Rolex Air-King
For the latest edition of our ‘Rivalry’ series, we are focusing on two watches from Rolex which could be described as occupying a sort of second tier position in the catalog.
The Explorer, and in particular the Air-King, are more cult favorite than big hitter, with nowhere near the level of admiration heaped on them that models like the Submariner and Daytona have.
But that lack of recognition takes nothing away from the special appeal they have amongst purist fans. These are, and have always been, the epitome of what Rolex once stood for above all else; hardworking, reliable, no-nonsense tool watches, infused with the brand’s own undeniable style.
They are also some of the longest-serving pieces in Rolex’s impressive history, with the Explorer rapidly approaching its 70th birthday and the Air-King even older.
Below, we take a closer look at this pair of stalwarts—two classics very much of the old guard.
The Rolex Explorer versus the Rolex Air-King: Basic Details
Before we get into this in any depth, let’s take a quick look at the details of the most current examples of both of these watches:
The Rolex Explorer ref. 124270/3
|Materials||904L Stainless Steel/Rolesor|
|Functions||Time with Running Seconds.|
|Bezel||Smooth. Steel/Yellow Gold|
|Movement||Rolex Manufacture Cal. 3230|
|Bracelet||Three-Link Oyster Bracelet. 904L Steel. 904L Steel/Yellow Gold|
The Rolex Air-King
|Materials||904L Stainless Steel|
|Functions||Time with Running Seconds|
|Movement||Rolex Manufacture Cal. 3131|
|Bracelet||Three-Link Oyster Bracelet. 904L Steel|
The Rolex Explorer versus the Rolex Air-King: Looks
There is only one version of the Air-King, and only two of the Explorer, in case you were looking for any more evidence these two are in that box fans of the brand have entitled ‘Forgotten Rolex’.
However, both are perfect examples of the manufacture’s overriding styling philosophy; simple, classic lines, with readability prized above nearly everything else and an all-encompassing design which never looks out of place.
The Explorer has perhaps the greater time-honored visual. Among the very first examples of what would go on to become known as the ‘tool watch’, the original form from its 1953 debut has gone almost entirely unaltered for the last seven decades. It is now even back to its usual 36mm size after an all-too-brief (in my worthless opinion) sojourn up to a more modern 39mm.
Its most recognized calling card was and still is its dial numerals, with their famous 3/6/9 indexes providing not only supreme legibility but also a direct link back to Rolex’s first real golden age. The Explorer remains a starkly beautiful and austere looking watch, one for those who feel no need to draw attention to themselves.
As for the Air-King, that is, if anything, even more clearly readable. It has the same cardinal point numerals as the Explorer, but it is also includes minute markers every five minutes. It gives the dial a somewhat busier look, but makes it perfect as a pilot’s watch.
The Air-King is larger as well, coming in at 40mm, as are most of the watches in the Professional Collection. Other than the extra mills however, the two pieces share the same soft tonneau shape you would expect.
What you might not imagine is the colorfulness of the Air-King. It has kept the classic 1940s font for the watch’s signature above the six o’clock, but it is the only Rolex to have the brand name and the coronet logo in two different colors. The bright green seconds hand also gives the watch a pop that the Explorer lacks, for better or worse.
So, two quite different personalities to the duo, catering to introverts and extroverts alike.
As mentioned, not a lot to talk about here!
Your choice of Air-Kings comes down to a take-it-or-leave-it situation, while the Explorer deviated from a similar path last year with the wholly unexpected addition of a Rolesor example, bringing the entire collection all the way up to two.
All three of these watches has a black dial and Mercedes handset, come in one size and sit on one style of bracelet; the Oyster.
Functions and Movements
While both the Air-King and Explorer have had date-equipped versions in their dim and distant pasts, these days each is a simple time-only piece.
The Air-King however does have one other party trick up its sleeve. It actually shares a case with the Milgauss (the Air-King gets a brushed finish, the Milgauss polished) and also inherits its antimagnetic abilities. So it would be more accurate I suppose to say it shares two cases with the Milgauss, the outer one and a Faraday cage-like inner case which shrouds the movement and shields it from the effects of strong magnetic forces.
It’s not just a gimmick from Rolex. The cockpits of modern aircraft are areas crammed with powerful electronics, producing fields easily strong enough to disrupt the internal workings of mechanical watches. And as the Air-King was conceived as a pilot’s model, it makes sense to guard it against such things.
Speaking of movements, the Explorer upgraded in 2021 to the Cal. 3230 from Rolex’s new Cal. 32XX generation of calibers. The very latest from the brand, all come equipped with Parachrom Bleu hairsprings and Chronergy escapements, and to even further underline the dark horse status of the Explorer, it was one of the last models to receive its modernized powerhouse.
And as for the Air-King, well that may well be the last model to get an update! At time of writing, it is still using the Cal. 3131 from the previous series—an excellent movement of course, and a Superlative Chronometer (as is the Cal. 3230) with a Parachrom Bleu hairspring as well. But it misses out on the Chronergy technology and has a power reserve of just 48-hours, about a day less than the Cal. 32XX and their 72-hour autonomy across the board.
For the record, the Milgauss also uses the Cal. 3131 (so it and the Air-King share both case and movement) but many are speculating it will replace its caliber this year.
One of the best aspects of both of these watches comes to light at checkout. In the world of Rolex, these are the closest things we get to bargains.
Each model costs less than $6,500 for the base steel version, rising to $10,800 for the Rolesor Explorer.
And while the word ‘bargain’ in this instance doesn’t necessarily correlate with the word ‘cheap’, you are still getting an awful lot of watch, and an even greater amount of history, legacy, provenance and style, for the money.
What’s more, Professional Collection models or not, the shadowy status of these pieces means they are easier to get your hands on at retail, with waiting lists a fraction of the length than for the likes of a Sub or Daytona.
That being said, prices on the preowned market for as-new examples are increasing massively, possibly down to Rolex’s reduced manufacturing capabilities around the COVID shutdown. That lack of supply has caused surprisingly high premiums, with brand new Explorers starting out at about $10,000, while the Air-King kicks off at $14,000 or so.
There’s our rundown of two of Rolex’s most battle-hardened but overlooked names. Both have managed to retain the essential essence of what the brand used to be about, hailing from the days long before the term ‘status symbol’ even existed.
Today they still serve the same role for which they were originally conceived; a timekeeper of the highest quality, built to withstand the harshest use and environments and styled with enough versatility to go anywhere.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.