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Watch Comparison: New vs. Old Rolex Air-King

June 27, 2019

BY Paul Altieri


The Air-King has always occupied a simple, entry-level position among the Rolex lineup. While it has always received far less attention than some of Rolex’s other, more expensive and more feature-packed offerings, the Rolex Air King has a unique, rich history that spans over seventy years of near-continuous production.

Historically, the Air-King has always been as a relatively small, and understated timepiece. The longest-running iteration of the Air-King collection, the reference 5500, most closely resembles a more humble, stripped-down version of their Oyster Perpetual line of watches. However more recently for Baselworld 2016, Rolex completely redesigned the Air-King with the reference 116900 – this time with an entirely new appearance, and an updated set of features never before featured on the Air-King line of watches.

Rolex Air King

The Air-King collection is a watch originally intended for pilots.

Design: New vs. Old Rolex Air King

The reference 5500 Air-King is 34 mm in diameter, and uses Rolex’s classic Oyster case paired with an acrylic crystal. Without a date complication, GMT-hand, or chronometer certification markings, the dial of the reference 5500 is one of the most simple and uncluttered designs that Rolex has ever manufactured. Throughout its 37-year long production run, the reference 5500 was fitted with a variety of different dial colors and hour markers; however the overall design of the reference 5500 Air-King remained unchanged.

The new, reference 116900 Air-King is a strong departure from the classic, understated design of the reference 5500. While still adhering to the design of a time-only watch, the case of the reference 116900 Air-King has increased to 40 mm in diameter and the crystal is now made from synthetic sapphire rather than acrylic. Additionally, there is only one dial option available for the reference 116900, and that is black with a mixture of applied, Arabic hour markers and white printed minute markers, with yellow and green accents on the dial and hands.

Rolex Air King

The old Air-King has a few distinct features on the watch that makes it easy to read.

Movements: New vs. Old Air-King

The reference 5500 Air-King was fitted with both Rolex’s Caliber 1520 and Caliber 1530 movements, simply depending on the era in which the watch was manufactured. As an entry-level offering within the Rolex lineup, the reference 5500 did not receive a chronometer-certified movement, and as a result, its dial did not include any text in relation to chronometer certification. The change in movements did not occur instantaneously, and there were a number of years of overlap, in which the reference 5500 was fitted with both Caliber 1520 and Caliber 1530 movements.

The reference 116900 Air-King uses the same Caliber 3131 movement that is found inside the contemporary Rolex Milgauss. As this is a modern movement that is still in production, the Caliber 3131 is packed full of Rolex’s latest proprietary technologies, such as their anti-magnetic, blue Parachrom hairspring.  In addition to being resistant to magnetic fields, the Caliber 3131 is also a certified Swiss chronometer, meaning that the new, reference 116900 Air-King receives the accompanying “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” lines of text on its dial.

Rolex Air King

What are your thoughts on the new Air-king?

Subtle Differences: New vs. Old Air-King

In addition to its anti-magnetic, Caliber 3131 movement, the reference 116900 Air-King also gets its case from the Milgauss, compete with anti-magnetic Faraday cage. To accommodate its ferromagnetic alloy inner shield, the reference 116900 is significantly thicker than the classic reference 5500 Air-King, and even larger than the contemporary reference 214270 Rolex Explorer, with its 39 mm case diameter.

To match its new, larger case, both the crown, and the lug width have been increased to maintain the balance and proportions of its design. The reference 116900 will seem very familiar to those that are well-acquainted with the Rolex Milgauss; and due to the large number of parts that are shared between the two watches, the overall feel of the reference 116900 Air-King will be almost identical to that of the present-year Milgauss too.

The Air-King line has always been one of Rolex’s most simple and accessible offerings, providing users with all of the hallmark traits of a Rolex watch without any extraneous features whatsoever. The classic reference 5500 Air-King has a minimalist feature set, and is truly timeless in its design, while the new reference 116900 Air-King is a thoroughly modern watch, with the anti-magnetic capacities to match. Whether you are looking for an understated vintage timepiece or a colorful and contemporary Rolex watch, the Air-King line is an excellent option with a range of styles to suit any collection.



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