What’s in a name? With the exception of their super dressy Cellini range, every model in the Rolex lineup is an Oyster Perpetual.
Although we all know them better as, say, the Submariner or the Datejust, if we were going to give them their completely correct title, we should be calling them the Oyster Perpetual Submariner or the Oyster Perpetual Datejust.
Of course, that’s a bit of a mouthful, hence why they are always shortened. But the omitted words are actually the absolute essence of Rolex itself, and possibly the two most important words in watchmaking history.
They denote the two groundbreaking achievements the company made in its very earliest days, innovations that turned wristwatches from ladies decorative accouterments into acceptably robust accessories for even the most masculine of men.
Oyster refers to the famous waterproof Oyster case developed by Rolex in the 1920s. Building on their own Hermetic system, they became the first to introduce the idea of housing the watch’s delicate movement inside an impenetrable shell, formed by screwing down the bezel, case back and winding crown against a solid middle section. In a stroke, this one invention revolutionized how watches were viewed by the public. What were once fragile pieces of jewelry were now suddenly resilient enough to withstand previously unthinkable levels of use.
Then, less than a decade later, the final obstacle in defeating the ubiquitous pocket watch was overcome when Rolex introduced their first self-winding caliber. Powered by nothing more than the movement of the wearer’s wrist, it brought an entirely new level of convenience—and they called it the Perpetual movement.
So there we have it, Oyster Perpetual.
Over the years and decades that followed, the range has grown to incorporate the individual models that we know today, but every one of the automatic, waterproof watches launched by the brand has worn the two words somewhere on their dial.
However, there has always been a separate series known simply as the Oyster Perpetual. Traditionally the most basic, three-hand, no-date watches it is possible to make, they have long been regarded as the entry-level Rolex.
Not to be confused with the Oyster Date series, the Oyster Perpetual range has been with us in one form or another for generations. Sir Malcolm Campbell wore an Oyster Perpetual when he broke handfuls of world speed records in the 1930s. It was an Oyster Perpetual that first saw the top of Mount Everest from Sir Edmund Hillary’s wrist, a model that developed into the original Explorer.
For most of its life, the men’s version has retained its 34mm dimensions, considered the ideal size until relatively recently. Today, while the 34mm is still available, that and the bigger 36mm editions are listed under both the men’s and women’s pages on the Rolex website. As modern tastes have evolved, women have started wearing larger watches, and the 39mm piece released in 2016 is now the one targeted exclusively at a male audience.
Throughout its run, the Oyster Perpetual has been forged from every flavor of gold, as well as in Rolex’s own two-tone Rolesor. However, the contemporary range, underlining its reputation for stark simplicity, only comes in 904L stainless steel.
Into the Archives
With an incredibly long history of unbroken production behind it, there are examples of the Oyster Perpetual to suit almost every taste available on the vintage market. Yet, as it has generally been seen as the ideal choice for people searching out that ‘one good watch’ that will last a lifetime and be passed down as a family heirloom, rather than just another piece to add to a collection, it has always retained an air of understated luxury. Unlike the more flamboyant versions of the Datejust, you won’t find many diamond-encrusted bezels or hour markers, at least in the men’s collection.
Instead, the Oyster Perpetual flies very much under the radar—the perfect embodiment of everything a fine watch should be, and nothing else.
The Rolex Air-King
The Air-King story officially starts at the end of WWII. Pilots from the British RAF had been fans of Rolex’s Oyster Perpetuals from the mid 1930s, preferring their larger dials over the standard government issue watches of the day, often buying them out of their own pockets.
Following their incredible heroism during the Battle of Britain, Rolex’s owner Hans Wilsdorf decided to pay tribute to the men with a range of aviation-themed models with names like Air-Tiger, Air-Lion, Air-Giant and, eventually, the Air-King.
By 1945, only the Air-King was still being made, a three-hand, time-only piece that would stay in production for a further seven decades.
Its early years saw it go through a number of short-lived references as refinements were made to the design until, in 1957, the ref. 5500 emerged. One of the cleanest and simplest watches the brand has ever brought out, the ref. 5500 went virtually unchanged for a total of 37 years.
During that incredible run it was fitted with two different movements, the Cal. 1520 and Cal. 1530. With both calibers being non-COSC rated, the dials on the earlier 1520 examples were marked either ‘Precision’ or would have no text at all, while the 1530s were designated ‘Super Precision’.
By the end of its term, the ref. 5500 had been upgraded with a number of dial variations, with Arabic numerals, baton indexes and particularly the Explorer-esque 3/6/9 version proving especially popular.
Modern Day Air-King
Following a couple more modernizations throughout the nineties and into the new millennium, the Air-King received what, for it, was a major reworking with the ref. 1142XX series in 2007.
Given the same dimensions but granted a slightly thicker case to add some bulk, it was topped by a concentric dial and was set on a new machined Oyster bracelet. Originally issued with an engine-turned bezel, that was swiftly discontinued and replaced with the choice of the standard smooth surround or a more luxurious white gold fluted option. And, with the caliber 3130 beating away inside, the Air-King finally won COSC certification.
However despite its legendary name and faultless heritage, in 2014, Rolex decided to pull the plug on one of their longest-serving offerings, with many believing that was that for the warrior’s watch.
The ref. 116900
Just two short years later, in an apparent fit of nostalgia, an all-new Air-King made its triumphant return.
Mixing modern tastes with some healthy nods to the past, its 40mm dimensions makes it the largest example of the watch yet. It is also far thicker than previous iterations due to it actually having two cases—the outer case and a soft iron inner case, that shields the movement from the harmful effects of magnetic fields.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a trick it learned from the Milgauss, a model principally aimed at scientists and engineers. The two share both a casing style and a mechanism, the Cal. 3131.
The dial itself is straight out of the 1940s military, with numerals every five minutes as well as the Explorer’s larger 3, 6 and 9 at its poles. The Air-King signature is an exact replica of the earliest examples from the range and it is also the first ever Rolex to have the crown logo and brand name in two different colors.
Blasts From the Past
We are now in the unusual situation where the modern day Oyster Perpetual watches look very similar to vintage Air-Kings, while the contemporary Air-King is more like the bigger brother of the latest Explorer.
All three are examples of what Rolex has always done best, and better than just about any other manufacturer—the kind of unassuming yet achingly stylish timepieces that can be worn literally anywhere, with anything.
While the likes of the Submariner, the Daytona or any of the other famous names may grab all the headlines, they all owe a debt to these simple core offerings—the perfect gateway into the world of Rolex.