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Although Rolex is famous for constantly improving their watches, the timepieces tend to maintain the same overall aesthetic throughout the years. In fact, today’s Submariner, GMT Master, and Daytona watches look remarkably similar to those from the 1950s and 1960s. This is part and parcel of the Rolex magic—a signature style that is instantly recognizable. However, this no longer applies to the Air King. In fact, current iterations of the Rolex Air King models look absolutely nothing like preceding models.
The Air King made its debut in 1945 as a tribute to British air force pilots of the era. The Air King timepiece was typically regarded as an entry-level Rolex watch with its smaller 34mm size, minimalistic three-handed dial, and more accessible price point. As one of the longest running Rolex collections still in production today, there have been so many different Air King references throughout its history. But we’ll focus on a few of the most popular Air King references in the secondary market, as well as a quick look at the most current version.
An early model in the collection, the vintage Air King ref. 5500 launched in 1957 and enjoyed a more than 30-year production run and plenty of variations.
For instance, the mens Rolex stainless steel Air King 5500 housed two different automatic movements—the Caliber 1520 and the Caliber 1530. There are also the mens Rolex two tone Air King 5501 versions, in addition to the gold-plated ref. 5502 and ref. 5506 models. Interestingly, there’s also the Air King ref. 5504 that sported an Explorer case! Additionally, Rolex also made the Air King Date ref. 5700 models for specific markets, which as its name suggests, boasted a date window. In the mid-1970s, Rolex unveiled the Air King ref. 5520—the first gold-filled model of the collection.
In 1989, Rolex introduced the then-new mens Rolex stainless steel Air King 14000 with a smooth bezel and the ref. 14010 with an engine-turned bezel. These two models—which ran on Caliber 3000—retained the 34mm case size and time-only functionality. They did, however, now feature scratch-resistant sapphire crystal protecting the face on the watch.
Rolex then revamped these models in 2000 with the Rolex Air King ref. 14000M and the ref. 14010M to include the Caliber 3130. It’s worth noting that these models all still included the “Precision” label on the dial.
Presented in 2007, the mens Rolex stainless steel Air King 114200 is the last of the old-style Air King watches but it came with some enhancements. Most notably, the “Precision” text on the dial was dropped for the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” designation since the Caliber 3130 was now COSC verified.
Along with the smooth bezel of the Air King ref. 114200, there’s also the ref. 114210 with the engine-turned bezel and the ref. 114234 with the white gold fluted bezel.
The Rolex Air King models were eventually grounded in 2014 to make way for the refreshed Rolex Oyster Perpetual models.
At Baselworld 2016, Rolex surprised everyone by not only reviving the Rolex Air King models, but also by unleashing such a drastically different design. The size of the stainless steel Air King ref. 116900 grew substantially to 40mm. There’s also the dial, which unlike its predecessors, is no longer clean and simple but full of details. From the 5-minute markers to the white gold 3, 6, and 9 numerals to the green “ROLEX’ to the green seconds hands to the yellow coronet, there’s a lot to take in. Furthermore, there’s the anti-magnetic Caliber 3131—identical to the one powering the Milgauss—beating within.
It’s evident that Rolex bypassed the style of past Air Kings and opted instead to take design cues from the Rolex instruments of the Bloodhound Supersonic Car. This is certainly one of the most divisive designs from Rolex with passionate members in both the for-it and against-it camp.
If you’re looking for a straightforward and restrained take on the Rolex aesthetic, then the vintage and discontinued Air King models offer some fantastic options at easy-to-swallow prices. On the other hand, if fresh and different is more your pace, then the new Air King watch fits the bill. So, although the Air King may fly somewhat under the Rolex radar, it’s a collection that offers a little something for pretty much everyone. Also, you can view a fine selection of these referenced Rolex Air King mens models… and more… here at BeckerTime.
A three-hander with no date. However, they introduced a date version in 1958. That watch made use of the 35mm Explorer case, the only Air-King reference larger than the standard 34mm. Rolex Air King history currently shares the honor for longest lasting Rolex model in production with the Rolex Datejust.
Rolex introduced the Air King, ref. 4925, in 1945. During World War II, RAF (Royal Air Force) pilots had been wearing Oyster Perpetuals in lieu of their officially-issued (lower quality) watches. When word of this fact filtered through to Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, he created a line of “Air-“ themed watches to honor those brave pilots. The Rolex Air King history tells about watches with featured names like Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, and Air-Giant. These “Air-” named watches were all part of the Air King line.
When it was released, the Air King was considered big at 34mm. Also, commentators maintain it’s sized more for a lady’s wrist than a man’s. Still, admirers are legion, especially those who cite the watch’s longevity on the Rolex roster and its pilot watch heritage.
Engine-turned bezels came and went. Numerous dials have adorned the watch. This includes an Explorer-like 3-6-9 dial, and various colors along with differing minute and hour markers. Rolex constantly improved its movements, (a longstanding Rolex habit). They added a sapphire crystal in 1994. This year marked the first significant changes to the watch (besides ongoing dial variations) in 37 years.
In 1994 the Air-King’s engine upgraded to the calibre 3000. Six years later, this switched to the 3130. Finally, in 2007, the Air-King achieved what most of its brethren had achieved decades earlier: COSC certification.
There is a rumor that the Air King is discontinued. However, numerous recent and vintage used Rolex Air King watches do exist. In fact, you will be able to find new pieces at your local authorized dealer. Or check out our fine inventory here at BeckerTime.
My advice to you? The Rolex Air King is a great choice. It’s a classic with the simple clean look that can fit any occasion.