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 used Rolex Watches.
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 Rolex 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 Rolex 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 as a tribute to British RAF pilots after the Battle of Britain, once Rolex Founder, Hans Wilsdorf heard that they were trading in their standard-issue watches for privately purchased Rolex Oyster models. Eventually Rolex decided to discontinue the various “Air” watches, leaving only a single collection that would go on to become known as the Rolex 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 relatively small by today’s standards, the 34mm casing of the Rolex 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 the brand's choice of dates and highlights. As we mentioned above, the first Rolex 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 Rolex 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. The reference 5500 is one of the longest running Rolex models ever produced. 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 available for 37 years - from 1957 right through until 1994.
The Rolex Air-King 5500 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 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 and foremost 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 easily be polished away, but on the other they are significantly easier to scratch than their sapphire counterparts. 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.
Before reaching its current design in the form of the 116900, Rolex took a slight detour in 2007 through 2014. The 1142XX series of Rolex 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 in 18k white gold.
While we saw the arrival of the caliber 3130, which adds COSC certification to the collection 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 entirely in 2014.
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. Most interestingly, Rolex only chose to apply its Chromalight luminous material to the triangle at 12, and to its hands.
Mechanically speaking the reference 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, and feels virtually identical to the Milgauss due to sharing the same case and movement.
A particularly interesting detail that many seem to miss is the source of the inspiration for the modern Rolex Air-King. 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. During the project's infancy, 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.
The current retail price of the Rolex Air-King is $6,450. While previous Rolex Air-King generations were offered with a variety of different dials and bezels, this is no longer the case, and the Air-King now represents the most limited collection in Rolex's entire catalog. With the release of the current generation of the Air-King, Rolex only offers one version of the watch, with no options in regards to dial, bezel, case size, or bracelet.
For previous generations of Rolex Air-King watches, significant savings can typically be found compared to prices for the current-production 40mm version, with most models selling for anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000 depending on the specific reference and overall condition.
|Model||Retail Price||Second-Hand Price||Size||Bezel|
|Ref. 5500||N/A||from $2,795||34mm||Smooth; Steel|
|Ref. 14000||N/A||from $2,995||34mm||Smooth; Steel|
|Ref. 14010||N/A||from $3,195||34mm||Engine Turned; Steel|
|Ref. 114200||N/A||from $3,895||34mm||Smooth; Steel|
|Ref. 114210||N/A||from $3,895||34mm||Engine Turned; Steel|
|Ref. 114234||N/A||from $5,695||34mm||Fluted; 18k White Gold|
|Ref. 116900||6,450 USD||from $6,500||40mm||Smooth; Steel|
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 for slightly above their retail price on the secondary market.
On the pre-owned market, used Rolex Air-King prices start at around $3,000 for older ref. 5500 models, and increases from there, depending on features such as the specific reference, dial/bezel variation, and overall condition. Generally speaking, older Rolex Air-King watches are less expensive than their newer counterparts. However, certain rare dial variations on older references can sometimes make vintage Rolex Air-King watches worth more than contemporary references.
For the most part, the Rolex Air-King has always been a stainless steel watch; however for the last generation of 34mm models, Rolex released a version with a fluted bezel in 18k white gold. Additionally with this generation of Air-King watches, diamond-set dials also became an option, making the collection almost like the Rolex Date offering from the same era - just without the added calendar complication. Due to their use of premium materials, these ref. 114234 watches are typically more expensive than their reference 114200 or 114210 counterparts.
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.
In the other camp, there are those that believe the 5500 is the original, while the 14000 is nothing more than the cover band. The "own the first and original" mentality is a driving pursuit for many in the vintage world, and it seems especially valid in this instance, given that so many vintage examples can be found at a very reasonable price of entry. While sapphire crystals are more resilient, they are also virtually impossible to repair if ever damaged, and they are also significantly more expensive to replace. Conversely, acrylic crystals are routinely replaced during service, and typically account for only a minor additional charge (if at all).
Given all the various Rolex Air-King watched that existed before the collection's official start in the 1950s, there are a number of different Rolex Air-King references that are rare and seldom encountered. With that in mind, the following list contains the most common references from the Rolex Air-King collection that you are likely to encounter.
With the exception of a few vintage Rolex Air-King Date references, the Air-King collection has always been a straightforward, time-only watch, very much in the spirit of the original privately purchased Rolex Oyster Perpetual models that were used by RAF pilots during the 1930s and 1940s. Although dial styles have ranged dramatically from stark black or silver dials with traditional stick indexes to brightly colored diamond-set dials, the core functionality of the Rolex Air-King has remained largely unchanged over the years.
While most Rolex Air-King watches have historically been constructed from stainless steel, there are some models that feature fluted bezels crafted from solid gold. Additionally, you will find solid gold, two-tone, and even gold-capped Rolex Air-King watches from the reference 5500 generation, due to the remarkably long period of time during which Rolex produced the reference.
A recent-addition to the Rolex Air-King has been the added functionality of being highly magnetic resistant. The most recent Air-King generation, the ref. 116900 borrows a movement and case and from the Milgauss, granting it the same antimagnetic capabilities as Rolex's legendary scientist's watch. While no previous Rolex Air-King generations featured this trait, magnetic resistance has for a long time been a defining characteristic of pilot's watches, and it is a welcome addition to the Rolex Air-King collection.
Although Rolex does not formally acknowledge the various Air-King watches that existed before the collection's official launch in 1958, the Rolex Air-King name had been around for more than a decade by that point in time. Additionally, there was a brief period of time between 2014 and 2016 that the Air-King collection was discontinued and not a part of Rolex's official catalog.
Due to the classic and timeless appeal of older Rolex Air-King models and the bold, colorful aesthetic of the current-production reference, both new and vintage Rolex Air-King watches can be spotted on the wrists of a number of well known celebrities and public figures.
In 2016, Rolex gave the Air-King a sporty makeover, swapping the modest case for a larger 40mm Oyster case that is shared with the Milgauss, equipping it with a new movement (also from the Milgauss), and giving it a brand-new dial topped with Arabic hour markers and Mercedes hands. This grants the current-production Rolex Air-King the same antimagnetic capabilities as Rolex’s legendary scientist's watch.
Compared to the original Rolex Air-King with its 34mm case diameter, the ref. 116900 is noticeably sportier and more contemporary in design. It's more in line with a professional series watch than a dress reference. This edition of the iconic pilot's watch is trending on the market. With a contemporary design set and bold green and yellow accents on the dial, it isn't hard to see why.
Also trending among purists of the brand is the original reference 5500. This edition of the mens Rolex Air-King will always be popular due to its vintage charm, affordable price point, wearable size, and timeless design.
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 '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.
Up until the introduction of the current-production model, 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 entirely stainless steel Oyster Perpetual collection that occupies the least expensive spot in the Rolex catalog. If you're looking to sell your watch be sure to visit our sell my Rolex watch page.