Rolex Air-King History: The Forgotten King
Much like the Rolex Explorer we wrote about recently, the Rolex Air-King is often forgotten among more popular Rolex collections such as the Submariner, Daytona, or even the Datejust, released the same year as the Air-King. But, as an “entry-level” Rolex, the Air-King continues to offer an interesting value proposition, especially for vintage value seekers out there, as it’s one of the few vintage Rolex models that still costs less than the average car. As one of Rolex’s longest running models, the Air-King is a watch worthy of your attention. So let’s take a quick tour of the Air-King’s history while also attempting to keep the aviatic puns to a minimum.
The Air King Takes Off
Rolex produced a number of “Air” models during and immediately after World War II, all for the British Royal Air Force and its pilots. The Air-King was released in 1945. Its 34mm case was considered large at the time, hence the “King” name. At its release, the Air-King was part of a collection of Air watches that included the Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, and Air-Giant, but the Air-Kings reign outlasted the others.
The first Air-King was Reference 4925, which is now a rare find. It has many of the same features of other Rolex bubblebacks of the era, with a cream dial and even-numbered Arabic numerals. This model was followed by a few other references, including the Reference 4499. All of these early Air-King references housed manual-wind Hunter movements, making them very similar to other stainless steel watches in Rolex’s Oyster collection.
The Air-King began to acquire its own aesthetic with the transitional Reference 6652 in 1953, which featured the caliber 1030 ticking inside. This is the reference that introduced the creamy silver dial and stick hour markers that became iconic in the subsequent Reference 5500.
A Rolex Reference 4925 and Reference 4499, respectively.
The Air-King King: Reference 5500
In 1957, Rolex introduced the Air-King that would go on to define the line for the next 37 years: Reference 5500. The Ref. 5500 featured a 34mm Oystersteel case, with the Oyster bracelet to match. The 34mm size was a bit small, even for the vintage era. For example, the other long-lived Rolex of the era, the Explorer Reference 1016, rang in at 36mm. The Ref. 5500 was fitted with either the caliber 1520 or 1530 depending on the year of production. No matter the movement, the Air-King was never chronometer certified, so you won’t see the familiar “superlative chronometer certified” on any vintage Air-King dials. Instead, at the 6 o’clock position you’ll see the words “precision” (for the Cal. 1520) or “super precision” (for the Cal. 1530). In fact, one of the most sought-after Air-Kings among collectors is the “double red”, which features both the words Air-King and super precision in red (Rolex collectors, right?). Much like the transitional Ref. 6652, the Ref. 5500 typically had a creamy, silver dial with stick markers at all but the 12 o’clock position. This dial was housed under an acrylic crystal, common for the era.
Of course there was variation over the 37-year reign of the Air-King. A popular slate grey dial was produced for a number of years, as was a black dial. And the Air-King is particularly known for the many corporate-stamped dials — my favorite is the Dominos dial. For many years, Dominos would incentivize its franchisees to meet sales goals by giving out the unique Air-King if certain quotas were met. It’s a unique collaboration between two brands you wouldn’t normally associate with each other, except perhaps each one’s obsession with time (pizza in 30 minutes or it’s free!).
Based on the popularity of the Ref. 5500, Rolex introduced the Air-King-Date in 1958, Reference 5700. The design aesthetic was similar to the time-only ref. 5500, but it used Rolex’s caliber 1535 to add a date function.
To confuse matters some, Rolex also made a Reference 5504 case for awhile, stuffing some with Explorer dials and others with Air-King dials. This was during the Explorer’s transitional phrase, before the 1016 was released in 1963.
The Air-King Gets Modern
In 1989, Rolex introduced the Reference 14000, which provided an update to the Ref. 5500, which at that point had seen few changes throughout its 37-year history. In terms of design, it represented a new approach for the Air-King collection, as it had Arabic numerals at the 3-6-9 hours, with stick markers in between. The traditional stick markers-only version was also made available, but the Arabic numeral version proved popular with customers. It also featured a new caliber 3000 movement and a sapphire crystal, providing much-needed upgrades to the timepiece’s hardware.
In a slight variation of Ref. 14000, Reference 14010, Rolex introduced the “engine turned bezel.” While it’s not used in any production models now, the engine turned bezel was a popular alternative for consumers who didn’t want the flashy fluted bezel seen on many Datejusts or the modern Sky-Dweller but were also bored by the smooth bezel of Air-King’s years past. But, Rolex only makes fluted bezels with gold or gold-mixed material, so an engine turned bezel takes on a character distinct from anything Rolex currently has in production.
In 2000, both the Ref. 14000 and Ref. 14010 were updated with the caliber 3130 movement.
In 2007, Rolex replaced the 14000 collection with Reference 114200. The same year, Rolex also introduced Reference 114234, which had a similar dial design to the Ref. 11420 but added a white gold fluted bezel to make sure everyone noticed that you were indeed wearing a Rolex. Rolex also continued to offer the engine turned bezel, in Reference 114210. All three references continued to utilize the caliber 3130, the same movement used in the Explorer Reference 114270 during the time period. But, for the first time, the Air-King became chronometer certified.
The Modern Air-King: Reference 116900
In 2014, the Air-King was discontinued. A year later, Rolex introduced a new Oyster Perpetual, leaving many wondering if the Air-King had forever ceded its title as the “entry-level Rolex.” But, in 2016, Rolex introduced a new Air-King, Reference 116900. And this wasn’t just your daddy’s 34mm monochromatic Air-King either. This current production model of the Air-King features a 40mm Oystersteel case, the same case as the Milgauss Reference 116400. it also comes packed with the same caliber 3131 movement inside, including the same anti-magnetism features (the theoretical pilot wearing an Air-King needs anti-magnetism just as much as the theoretical scientist sporting a Milgauss, I suppose).
Meanwhile, Rolex decided to have some fun with the dial, with large 3-6-9 numerals separated by the minute markings at the remaining intervals. Add on top of that the green text and second hand evoking Rolex trademark green boxes, and you’ve got yourself a car crash of a design. It’s a polarizing execution, but it’s almost like Rolex wanted that to be the case. They introduced a new Oyster Perpetual the year before, giving themselves an opportunity to have some fun with a new Air-King while the Oyster Perpetual held down the “simple, time-only entry level Rolex” moniker. And while the Air-King is a model with its share of history and followers, it by no means sparks the passion that Submariners, Daytonas, or even Explorers do. Rolex allowed themselves to have some fun with one of the lower-priced timepieces in its collection, and the dial and handset does just that. Love it or hate it, you have to admit the strategic plan was executed perfectly by the Crown.
Over the years, a number of famous people have been spotted wearing an Air-King of various vintages: Ryan Gosling has been spotted wearing a vintage Air-King, even wearing it when he won best actor for his performance in La La Land. John McCain was also known for wearing an Air-King for much of his political career.
In summary, the Rolex Air-King is made up of a number of references, including:
Reference 4925, the first Air-King
Reference 6552, the transitional Air-King
Reference 5500, the definitive and longest-running Air-King
Reference 14000, the modernized Air-King
Reference 116900, the polarizing Air-King