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17 May

Complete Buying Guide To The Rolex Air-King

When you first hear the name Rolex Air-King, what comes to your mind? Simplest, Least Expensive Rolex? We agree that this aviator’s tool watch has an understated reputation compared to the brand’s other professional timepieces. But it in no way compromises elegance and functionality, making it the perfect entry-level Rolex.¬†

With no date function, a screw-down crown, a beautifully crafted dial, and a 100m water-resistant case, it had all the attributes that make a Rolex a ‘Rolex’ when it was first released in 1945. If you’re looking to dip your toes into the world of Rolex, the Air-King is a good place to start. It will give you a sense of what the Crown offers in terms of fit, finish and feel without burning a hole in the pocket.

In this guide, we take a complete look at this often-overlooked Rolex, covering everything you need to know when buying one. 

History of the Rolex Air-King

The 1930s marked the pinnacle of aviation’s golden era, with remarkable advancements in aircraft performance taking centre stage. Pilots conquered the skies, leading to the introduction of long-distance flights. Numerous pilots achieved record-breaking feats while sporting an Oyster, while others relied on Rolex as an onboard chronometer. Rolex already had an impressive reputation for making capable pilot’s watches before the start of the Second World War, as the Oyster watches scored a triumph by accompanying the Houston Expedition as it made the first-ever flight over Mount Everest in 1933. 

When WWII broke out in 1939, the British Royal Force (RAF) gave its crews smaller 30mm watches made by the company. However, the pilots preferred the newer Bubbleback models, which they had to purchase out of their own pocket. 

When Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf heard about this, he commissioned a series of ‘Air’ watches to honour the pilots and commemorate the RAF’s unattainable victory against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. The range comprised the Air-Tiger, Air-Lion, Air-Giant and Air-King. By the war’s end, only the Air-King was in production with the Reference 4925.

As with many other models, the Air-King was also designed with a particular person in mind: the pilots. The watches were large yet simple in design. Originally, Hans Wilsdorf rolled out the Air-King to tribute the pilots and classified them as standard Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches. 

Over time, the model has undergone different iterations, upgrades, and innovations. Although it is now part of Rolex’s Professional Collection of tool watches, the Air-King has always been more of a cult favourite than a mainstream hitter.¬†

5 Interesting Facts About The Rolex Air-King

Before we explore the extensive history and evolution of the Rolex Air-King, let’s find out some interesting facts about the model.¬†

1. The Air-King was made for the pilots

In the midst and after WWII, Rolex introduced a series of ‘Air’ models as a tribute to the British Royal Air Force and its aviators. While the ‘Air’ watch catalogue included models like Air-Tiger, Air-Lion, Air-Giant and Air-King, among others, the Air-King is the only one still in production today.¬†

2. The Air-King was always considered large

Although many of you will sigh at this thought, there was a time when the 34mm Air-King model was considered quite large. This was during the 1950s when Rolex released the Air-King as a standalone collection. Consequently, the watch made its way back in 2016 with a totally new 40mm case, which is still in run today. 

3. The latest Air-King is antimagnetic

The Air-King Ref. 116900 equips the Rolex Calibre 3131, like the Milgauss, and has a specialised internal shield to protect from magnetic fields. Furthermore, the case and bracelet of this modern model are the same as those of the iconic model for scientists, the Milgauss. 

4. The Air-King is one of Rolex’s oldest¬†collections

The first Air-King model dates back to 1945, but Rolex officially included the Air-King collection in its catalogue in 1958, making it one of the oldest Rolex collections. 

5. Modern Air-King models are no longer entry-level models

The Air-King has long been considered Rolex’s entry-level timepiece. However, things took a surprising turn in 2016 when Rolex launched a new Air-King model with the reference 116900. This distinct timepiece introduced an innovative design that shifted it away from being an entry-level piece.¬†

Generations of the Rolex Air-King – Different Eras & Years

The history of the Air-King spanned almost eight decades. The best way to explore its entire history is through its various references released over time, marking the different eras. 

1. First Generation (1945 – 1956)

The early Air-King models had four-digit reference numbers and featured a timeless and understated design. These models had a modest 34mm case size with bubbleback cases and were powered by manual movements, ensuring reliable timekeeping. The dials were clean, often decorated with simple hour markers and stick hour markers on the cream dials. The watches exuded a classic charm and are highly desirable by collectors today.

References: 4925, 4365 and 4499

2. Second Generation (1958 – 1989)

The period from 1958 to 1989 marked the second generation of Air-King watches, cementing the model’s quintessential status in the catalogue. However, Rolex believes the Ref. 5500 is the official start of the Air-King catalogue. 

The case size remained 34mm during this era, offering a slightly smaller wrist presence. It was incredibly minimalistic, with a sober dial design featuring plain stick hands. The dials came in many colours, including silver, blue, black and cream. Over the years, Rolex didn’t experiment much with aesthetics, except for two different movements fitted to the Ref. 5500. First, the Calibre 1530 followed by the Calibre 1520 in 1963. Despite the movements fitted, the watches were not chronometer-certified and were always positioned as entry-level pieces.

For collectors, the Rolex Air-King Ref. 5500 is a great watch to start the collection with, as it is one of the most inexpensive vintage Rolex models. 

References: 5500 and 5700

3. Third Generation (1989 ‚Äď 2006)

The beloved Ref. 5500 was eventually replaced by the 14000. To everyone’s surprise, it still featured a 34mm stainless steel case, a ‘modest’ size with simple styling. But you get to explore some notable enhancements this time. You have fancy dial colours like blue, white, salmon, and black with Arabic numerals 3- 6- 9 on them. Also, you could choose between a smooth and engine-turned bezel for visual interest, further expanding the collection. Other upgrades include having a Sapphire Crystal and the new Calibre 3000, which unfortunately wasn’t COSC-certified. This means it didn’t promise the exact timekeeping standard as Rolex’s other creations. 

Eventually, Rolex updated the Ref. 14000 with the Ref. 14000M, featuring a Calibre 3130. Again, it lacked the COSC certification because of the increased production cost of submitting movements to the COSC for official testing. 

You’ll have far more aesthetic options if you want to collect watches from this era. However, due to the added benefits, you’ll have to pay more than what you paid for the Ref. 5500. 

References: 14000, 14000M, 14010 and 14010M

4. Fourth Generation (2007 ‚Äď 2014)

Finally, Rolex updated the Air-King, giving it a modern touch and enhancing it with striking features. While the Ref. 114200 still accompanied a 34mm steel, Rolex bulked it up with wider lugs, giving the watch a visually larger appearance on the wrist. You could now choose from an even wider selection of colours and embrace modern advancements like an 18ct white gold fluted bezel. Another first in this generation was the newly revised 904L Oyster bracelet and clasp with solid links. The watch was still equipped with the Calibre 3130, but this time, it was COSC-certified, bringing the Air-King collection to par with Rolex’s other collections. 

From a collector’s standpoint, this is quite an interesting era as this was the last generation of the 34mm Air-King, discontinued in 2014 after a 70-year-long production run. 

References: 114200

5. Present Generation (2016 ‚Äď Now)

Rolex re-released the Air-King in 2016 with a new model, the Air-King Ref. 116900, with a new design that makes a bold statement on the wrist. The watch now clocks in at a larger 40mm size and has a Calibre 3131 movement, resembling the Rolex Milgauss, which grants it similar antimagnetic properties. This modern version sported notable features on the dial, making it a rugged, stylish tool watch meant to last a lifetime. 

The new Rolex Air-King Ref. 116900 is the only piece with the ‘Rolex’ title and the Crown logo in two different colours. The black dial has large Arabic numerals 3-6-9 in 18ct white gold with prominent white minute markers, making the entire face highly legible and perfect for a pilot’s watch. 

In 2022, Rolex released the Air-King Ref. 126900, a slightly revamped version featuring the same 40mm case design but with many other additions. The Air-King now had crown guards, an extra ‘0’ placed at the five-minute interval, hour markers coated with Chromalight, an improved Oysterlock safety clasp, and  Oyster bracelet with broader links. 

References: 116900 and 126900

Evolution of the Rolex Air-King Features, Designs & Options

The Air-King collection has always embraced a very straightforward design. Although the design and features, particularly the dial styles, have varied significantly, the core functionality of the Rolex Air-King has largely remained unchanged over the years.

  • Air-King Materials

Rolex has always used stainless steel to craft the Air-King models, except for a few vintage references. Today, it uses the brand’s proprietary 904L stainless steel, a highly corrosion-resistant steel alloy, ensuring the watch remains robust and pristine in all challenging environments. 

However, during the long production run of the Ref. 5500, Rolex designed the watches in solid gold, two-tone, and even gold-capped models. Much later, some of the Ref. 114200 Air-King models came fitted with the upgraded 18ct white gold fluted bezel. 

  • Air-King Sizes

The watches began humbly at 34mm, which was considered fairly large at that time. They were seen on the Air-King models from 1958 to 2014 until Rolex released the modern Air-King at 40mm in 2016. The larger 40mm size offers a bolder look and enhances the watch’s appearance on the wrist, further making it more appealing to a wider audience base. 

  • Air-King Dials

The Air-King collection has always offered buyers a variety of dial colour options. Initially, the Air-King models were mostly fitted with silver, black, blue, or grey dials. Then, with the beloved Ref. 14000, which replaced Ref. 5500, Rolex added new colours like white and salmon alongside black and blue. The modern Air-King models only feature dark black dial adorned with a bright green printed Rolex logo and a distinctive yellow crown.

Moreover, some dials showcased refined textures like a guilloche finish or sunburst pattern, further elevating the visual impact. The hands and hour markers frequently come with luminescent coatings, providing improved visibility in dim lighting conditions.

  • Air-King Bezels

Most of the Air-King references embraced the simplicity of a smooth bezel, except for some gold-fluted bezels. With the Ref. 14000, Air-King stepped into the era of engine-turned bezels along with an 18ct white gold fluted bezel option. In the current 40mm lineup, Air-King watches are available with only stainless steel smooth bezels, which align with the sporty design of the watch. 

  • Air-King Bracelets

Much like the other features and design elements, the bracelet options for the Air-King have also evolved over time. However, the classic stainless steel Oyster bracelet has been a staple choice throughout history. The Air-King has always been fitted with the 3-piece Oyster bracelet, with some exceptions in the dressier Jubilee bracelet style mostly seen on certain vintage examples. The current Air-King Ref. 116900 offers the Oysterclasp with the 5mm Easylink Extension system, allowing the wearer to personalise the Air-King per their style and comfort preferences. 

  • Air-King Movements

It was not very long ago when Rolex made the Air-King COSC-certified. The Ref. 114200 housing the Calibre 3130 was the first Air-King to sport a COSC-certified movement inside. Before that, the watches were only marked with ‘Precision’ or ‘Super Precision’ on their dials. The various movements used throughout the Air-King’s long history until today are:

–          Calibre 1530

–          Calibre 1520

–          Calibre 3000

–          Calibre 3130 (with and without COSC certification) 

–          Calibre 3131 (COSC-certified)

List of Rolex Air-King references

When the Air-King debuted in 1945, Hans Wilsdorf categorised the watches under the Oyster Perpetual category until the Air-King collection was officially launched in 1958. Below, we have only listed the Air-King models you will most likely encounter today.

Ref. 5500 ‚Äď 34mm watch with smooth bezel

Ref. 14000 ‚Äď 34mm watch with smooth bezel

Ref. 14010 ‚Äď 34mm watch with engine-turned bezel

Ref. 114200 ‚Äď 34mm watch with smooth bezel

Ref. 114210 ‚Äď34mm watch with engine-turned bezel 

Ref. 114234 ‚Äď 34mm watch with fluted bezel

Ref. 116900 ‚Äď 40mm watch with smooth bezel

Ref. 126900 ‚Äď 40mm watch with smooth bezel 

Is the Rolex Air-King A Good Investment?

In the world of luxury watches, the Rolex Air-King asserts itself as a great investment option. It is a timepiece characterised by precision and simplicity. Whether you wish to buy the watch in retail or secondhand, you can avail of the Air-King at a reasonable price, making it a great choice for those who wish to enjoy the essence of Rolex without spending too much money.

However, we recommend purchasing a secondhand or pre-owned Rolex Air-King. Buying a secondhand model saves you from the initial depreciation as it has already been absorbed by the initial buyer, allowing you to obtain a valuable Rolex for the best possible price. 

Some of the Air-King models bound to increase in value are the Air-King Ref. 114200 and other rare models. The inexpensive Ref. 5500 is also a great choice for investment as they are no longer in production and will fetch a higher return on investment. 

Buy New or Pre-owned Air-King

The Rolex Air-King collection has always been acknowledged for its affordability. This model’s classic, simple aesthetics and low price point made it one of the most appealing entry-level Rolex for collectors and buyers alike. Today, this remains true for the vintage and secondhand Air-King models. When Rolex revamped the model in 2016, the new bolder design with pops of green and yellow turned away many entry-level buyers who preferred the minimalist appearance of this classic pilot’s timepiece.

The pricing of the Air-King has not changed drastically over the years. It is still available at a friendly retail price, making it one of the most affordable Rolex watches available. The decision to buy a new or pre-owned Air-King is completely yours. However, the fact that the watches are available at even lower prices in the secondary market is hard to ignore. Additionally, you can find many vintage and discontinued Air-King models in the pre-owned section that are otherwise hard to find in retail. 

To sum up, the decision is yours to make, and in the end, it all comes down to what you want, your preference, and your budget. 

LASTLY..

Last but not least, the Air-King holds a special place in the brand’s lineup. From its humble beginnings as a brave pilot’s watch to its current iconic status as a professional tool watch in the Rolex catalogue, the Air-King has had a captivating journey. It may not boast the same level of mainstream recognition as the others, but its timeless appeal surely makes it highly sought-after by buyers and collectors. 

Now, when you adorn your wrist with the Rolex Air-King, you will not only wear a legacy of luxury and precision but also a statement piece that will turn heads wherever you go! 

 

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