At Baselworld 2016, Rolex resurrected the discontinued Air-King with the ref. 116900. It may bear the name “Air-King” but it’s actually more akin to the Rolex Milgauss watch and the Rolex-built cockpit instruments of the Bloodhound Supersonic Car. In fact, the newest Rolex Air-King has very little to do with the preceding watches that share its name.
Brief History of the Rolex Air-King
As Rolex collections go, the Air-King is actually one of the oldest of the brand. It made its debut in 1945—along with the Air-Lion, Air-Giant, and Air-Tiger. The Air collection was Hans Wilsdorf’s tribute to the pilots of the British Royal Air-Force who fought during WWII. While the other models within the collection eventually disappeared, the Rolex Air-King endured. It had carved out a very respectable space within the brand’s catalog to be a dependable, straightforward, no bs kind of Rolex watch. At 34mm, it’s also one of the smaller men’s Rolex watches, which actually makes it more unisex than just predominately a guy’s watch.
Over the years, the stainless steel Rolex Air-King did enjoy some variation—a few dial color options, a smattering of white gold fluted bezels, and hour-marker varieties—but in general, it remained pretty much aesthetically consistent. Until 2014, when it was taken out of production. Or so we thought. It seems Rolex had just taken it off the market to give the brand new Air-King space to take off.
The Rolex Air-King ref. 116900
This point can’t be stressed enough. The less than one-year-old Air-King ref. 116900 is almost nothing like its predecessors. Actually, even saying “predecessors” is misleading because that implies commonality, when in reality, aside from the name, stainless steel, and three-handed component, there just aren’t enough similarities.
First of all, the size has drastically changed. The once small 34mm has now increased to a much larger 40mm. To put that into perspective, that’s the size of a Submariner or GMT-Master II. True, the new Air-King may not wear as bulky as the latter two, but it’s still a 40mm Rolex watch, putting it into a whole other league.
The most striking difference of the revamped Air-King ref. 116900, however, is that funky dial. The black background sets the muted stage for everything else to play up. From the oversized 3/6/9 numerals interjecting the white five-minute markers, to the green Rolex print and matching green seconds hand to the vintage Air-King font to the Mercedes-style hands, there is a lot going on here. Some love it, some hate it. But this design is actually not new. It first appeared on the console of the Bloodhound Supersonic Car. Of course, some dial design modifications were made to accommodate wristwear rather than automobile instrument, but the similarities are undeniable.
The Rolex Air-King’s Movement
Yet another variance between new Air-King and vintage Air-King is the movement within. The ref. 116900 is equipped with the Rolex Caliber 3131—the same automatic movement used in the Rolex Milgauss. Also like the Milgauss (and pilot watches of a bygone era), the Air-King now has a shield to amp up the movement’s resistance to magnetic fields.
The Caliber 3131 within the case is water resistant to 330 feet (100 meters) and offers a power reserve of up to 48 hours. Particularly noteworthy is that Air-King ref. 116900’s Caliber 3131 is part of Rolex’s new generation of in-house movements. Thus, boasting a precision rate of -2/+2 seconds a day.
The latest version of the Air-King is not without controversy within the Rolex fan community. Some critique it for its busy dial, while others are happy to see the ultra-conservative company shake things up. While the GMT-Master will always be the Swiss watchmaker’s iconic pilot’s watch, the Air-King has now clearly joined as co-pilot in the brand’s aviation-inspired line-up.