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.