The Air-King collection was created by Rolex founder Hans Wildorf to honor World War II pilots. A highly functional and practical watch, the current 40mm Oyster Perpetual Air-King is only available in Oystersteel and with a black dial. 2020 update: suggested retail prices start at $6,450. Shop our entire selection of certified pre-owned Rolex Watches for sale page.
Many people don’t actually realize that the Rolex Air-King is one of the oldest namesakes remaining in the brand’s current catalog. It pre-dates the Submariner, the Explorer, the Day-Date, and the Milgauss (just to name a few), and its launch year turns out to be the same as that of the legendary Datejust: 1945. Unlike its siblings, the Air-King never had the same sort of rise to fame as its counterparts, but in both past and present guise, it is just as much a Rolex as its counterparts, and worthy of a home in any collection.
Now, to be frank the original Air-King bears zero resemblance to its current iteration, but that’s not all that surprising. When you consider what other early watches were considered pilot’s watches in their day, especially the Cartier Santos that holds title as first ever pilot’s wristwatch, tastes and demands of an industry can certainly evolve with time. While the current Rolex Air-King 116900 is not the product of a linear design evolution, it still ticks most (but not all) of the core specifications boxes for what a modern pilot watch should be.
Although 1945 marked the end of WW2, this was by no means a done deal when Rolex’s design and engineering teams were preparing the Air-King as an early 1945 launch. The Air-King (whose first reference was the 4925) was but one of a series of aviation-focused pieces, appearing alongside the Air-Giant, Air-Tiger, and Air-Lion. The story goes that the assortment of models was launched with British RAF pilots in mind, and it wasn’t long after the Battle of Britain that several RAF pilots were trading in their standard-issue watches for the Air-King and its sister models. Eventually Rolex decided to continue merge their various “Air” watches into a single collection that would go on to become known as the Air-King.
Although the collection boosts simplistic features, the line provided RAF pilots with a timepiece that could withstand a dogfight at high altitudes. Though tiny by today’s standards, the 34mm casing of the Air-King was larger than standard for the era, and thus preferred by pilots (as well as those involved in other more strenuous/stressful activities). Ever since then, the collection has continued to be one of the brand's oldest and most popular models. Coveted by a number of collectors due to its style, collectability, and nostalgia the Air-King is a true Rolex classic.
If you head over to the Rolex website, what’s most amusing is their choice of dates and highlights. As we mentioned above, the first Air-King came to be in 1945, yet on the landing page for the Air-King on the mothership’s own portal, they display a 1958 Air-King (reference 5500, in case you’re wondering, which actually launched in 1957) with the tagline of “the first Air-King”. As we’ve already established, the real “first Air-King” came 12 years prior, and though Rolex doesn’t have a formal statement as to why their site appears the way it does, we have a theory. After the initial wave of Air-themed models came and went, the 1957 Air-King was meant to cement the model’s place in the core collection rather than being some sort of special or limited edition. As you’ll see shortly, the reference 5500 has an interesting legacy that’s unrivaled by most other Rolex collections to date.
While not actually known by this name, our choice of words here is thoughtful. You see, there isn’t another single reference from Rolex (to our knowledge) that’s had nearly as long of a production run as the 5500. Yes, there were several dial variations along the way, and minor visual tweaks and changes, but all told the reference 5500 last in the market for over three decades. That’s right, the reference 5500 was a production model on offer for 37 years--from 1957 right through until 1994. It survived the funky design craze of the ‘70s, the quartz crisis of the ‘80s, and even tip-toed into the early days of oversized casual watches by the time its production run ended. Though the classic silver dialed variant with baton indices is easily the most common, there were also earlier oddball 3-6-9 dials, an obscure Explorer reference 5500 that shared its case, bracelet, and caliber 1530 automatic movement.
Though it’s tricky to put a specific date on it, it was somewhere in the tail of the production of the reference 5500 that saw the birth of one of the strangest Rolex models ever--the Domino’s watch. That’s right, Domino’s pizza started offering an incentive to its franchises somewhere in the ‘80s where a franchise could win a Rolex with the company’s logo on it by selling $20k a week for four weeks straight (later on this number increased, and after that the brand moved to logo off of the dial and onto an engraved plate on a bracelet link). The collaboration is one of the most peculiar and obtuse we’ve seen in watchmaking history, and though these pieces still dont trade hands for huge premiums, they’re a unique piece of Rolex history that makes for a fantastic conversation piece.
Though the reference 5500 carried on until 1994, the Rolex Air-King reference 14000 launched in 1989 with the intent of replacing the well-aged reference. This is one of many examples of Rolex running simultaneous references in production--a practice that makes the vintage market very confusing, but also something that no longer happens with current production methods. Though visually there’s very little that distinguishes the two models from one another, there are two key changes that effectively “modernized” the Air-King with the launch of the reference 14000. First was the arrival of a sapphire crystal, making the watch much more resistant to damage, though glare and reflection was cause for concern with early Rolex sapphire crystals. There’s long been a love/hate relationship with plexiglass crystals used on vintage watches, as on the one hand they’re very clear to see through and minor scuffs can be polished away, but on the other they can easily be damaged beyond a state of repair and will often take out the hands and/or dial in the process. Interestingly, Rolex opted to maintain the undersized 34mm case size in the Air-King 14000, though at that time smaller cases were still the norm at the time.
There seem to be two very distinct camps when it comes to deciding between the 5500 and the 14000, and they are about as diametrically opposed as they come. In the practicality camp, the logic of a newer movement and a more resilient sapphire crystal make the choice a no-brainer. These watches make for fantastic daily-wear candidates, and ones that are equally suited to a day out doing yard work as they are to a day in the office. Reliability isn’t all that much of a concern between the two, as a 37-year run ensures easy access to parts and service, so the debate really comes down to its crystal.
To the other camp, the best line I’ve ever read on the matter is this; where the 5500 is the original, the 14000 is nothing more than the cover band. I can certainly appreciate the “own the first and original” mentality that is ever so prevalent in the vintage world, especially in a case where so many vintage examples can be found at a reasonable price of entry. At a purely personal level, the risks of acrylic damage is too much of an OCD for me, but each will have their own position on the matter.
Before reaching its current design in the form of the 116900, Rolex took a slight detour in 2007 through 2014. The 1142XX series of Air-King models was, for lack of a better definition, the “kitchen sink” Air-King. Granted, there were some odd spin-off models in earlier generations of the watch, but the 1142XX line included everything from Explorer-style dials through to pieces fitted with fluted Datejust-style bezels. While we saw the arrival of the caliber 3130, which adds COSC certification to the equation for the first time, as well as the use of an anti-magnetic Parachrom hairspring, this model oddly didn’t see an increase in case size. At 34mm, the Air-King had become severely undersized given the market trends of the time, and between this and its haphazard design offerings, there’s little surprise that the axe finally came down to kill of the model range in 2014.
Given how long the model has been around, there are some special references that have come and gone, however there are a couple of variants that appeared in the 140xx and 1142xx references that are worthy of special mention. I’m referring to the last of the Rolex models to hit the market with engine turned bezels, like the 114210 or this 14010 from 2001. There are so many Air-King models throughout the production run that are simple, understated, if not a little bland, however the addition of these bezels puts an interesting spin on things, making them stand out from their siblings in a fantastic manner. What’s more, because of their scarcity and the fact that the bezel design has been formally discontinued by Rolex across the board, it can be speculated that in decades down the road these models might be more desirable than their more commonplace siblings.
In 2016 the Rolex Air-King resurfaced with the most dramatic redesign the collection has ever seen. Its case is now a more contemporary 40mm across, and its dial indices include arabic numerals indicating minutes at 5, 10, 20, 25, 35, 40, 50, and 55, and oversized hour indices at 3, 6, and 9 made of mirror-polished white gold. The busier-than-normal-for-Rolex layout takes some getting used to, but it’s rather handsome and particularly distinct from other models the brand is currently offering. On the dial side of things, I was both surprised and disappointed to learn that the minute indices are not lumed; for a watch of this style I would have expected more use of luminous, but it seems Rolex only bothered to apply its Chromalight luminous material to the triangle at 12, and to its hands.
Mechanically speaking the 16900 is also rather impressive, as Rolex opted to fit the piece with the anti-magnetic caliber 3131 that can also be found in the current Milgauss. The addition of a Faraday cage adds a minute amount of heft and thickness to its case, however overall the piece is plenty wearable and comfortable on the wrist.
Back to its design, a particularly interesting detail that many seem to miss is where the inspiration for the modern Air-King actually came from. Roughly a decade before Rolex unveiled this modern spin on the Pilot watch, they were involved with a much different project known as Bloodhound SSC (now under a new banner of Bloodhound SSR). The goal of this incredible vehicle was to demolish past land speed records and be the first wheeled vehicle to hit the 1,000 mile per hour mark. This past October the project finally reached testing phases, and last month cleared the 600mph mark in its early testing, but at its infancy, somehow Rolex was contracted to produce a couple of its analog back-up gauges, specifically for the groundbreaking vehicle. One of which is a clock (for obvious reasons), but the other is a speedometer, with a max reading of 1,100mph, equipped with a white hand for current speed and a green hand for maximum recorded speed. The idea behind these gauges is that should any of the high-tech equipment fail during a run, there’s still an analog unit onboard.
Frequently Asked Rolex Air-King Questions:
No. Although the Air-King was absent from the Rolex catalog for two years between 2014 and 2016, Rolex re-introduced the collection at Baselworld 2016 with the release of the reference 116900. A significant departure from the previous 34mm Air-King watches with traditional styling, the current Air-King 116900 is 40mm in diameter and comes equipped with the same anti-magnetic capabilities as the Milgauss and a dial with bright green and yellow accents.
The retail price for the most recent version of the Rolex Air-King (reference 116900) is $6,450. However, due to overwhelming demand and limited supply, most examples trade hands above their retail price on the secondary market. For previous generations of Air-King watches, significant savings can be found, with most models selling for anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000 depending on the specific reference and overall condition. If you're looking to sell your watch be sure to visit our sell my Rolex watch page.
The ‘Air-King’ name was first used by Rolex in the 1940s. After hearing that many of Britain’s RAF pilots discarded their standard-issue timepieces in favor of Oyster Perpetual watches, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf created a number of “Air” themed watch collections to honor them. Among these was the Air-King, which is the only one of these original collections from the 1940s that still remains in the Rolex catalog today.
For many years, the Air-King was the cheapest model in the Rolex catalog; however, this was back when the Air-King was a 34mm watch with a non-chronometer certified movement. Today, the Air-King has magnetic resistant capabilities and a chronometer-rated movement, and it is now the Oyster Perpetual collection that occupies the least expensive spot in the Rolex catalog.