Although it receives far less attention than the Submariner, Day-Date, or GMT-Master, the Rolex Air-King is one of Rolex’s oldest collections of watches, with an interesting history that spans over seventy years of near-continuous production. Today we are taking a closer look at one of the collection’s longest-running iterations: the Rolex Air-King ref. 5500.
A History Dating Back to World War II
The Air-King lacks any specific features or complications that make it specially tailored to one type of sport or environment; however, this minimalist collection of watches has become a cult favorite among purists due to its simple time-only display and clean, all-stainless steel construction.
After hearing stories of World War II British pilots discarding their standard-issued field watches in favor of personally purchased, Oyster Perpetual timepieces, Rolex co-founder, Hans Wilsdorf decided to release a series of aviation-themed watches, intended to honor the brave RAF pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain.
Among these aviation-themed watches was the Air-King, which made its first official appearance in 1945 with the reference 4925. Several references followed as Rolex continued to refine the design; however, in 1957 (officially lunched in 1958), Rolex released a new version of the Air-King that would be known as the reference 5500.
Inside the Rolex Air-King Ref. 5500
Reference 5500 Air-King watches were fitted with both caliber 1520 and 1530 movements – a discrepancy that ultimately came down to the market in which the specific watch was originally sold. Due to the difference in movements, Air-King watches that were fitted with the caliber 1530 were often branded with “Super Precision” on the dial, while those with the caliber 1520 generally received the “Precision” branding – however, this rule is certainly not consistent for all reference 5500 watches.
Due to a less standardized production process at the time and the existence of service replacement parts), surviving examples of the Air-King ref. 5500 – regardless of whether they have a caliber 1520 or 1530 movement – can be found with either style of dial. Additionally, in some rare instances (generally on watches from older production runs), certain reference 5500 Air-King watches can be found with no text on the lower half of the dial at all – sometimes called “Pre-Precision” dials by collectors.
At 34mm in diameter, and without any additional features such as a rotating bezel, chronograph registers, or even date complication, the Air-King ref. 5500 boasts one of the cleanest and most understated Rolex designs of all time.
As a testament to its rock-solid reliability and timeless good looks, the reference 5500 Air-King remained in production for 37 years, and stayed largely unchanged the entire time. While the Air-King has always been considered one of Rolex’s entry-level collections of watches, its classic design and top-notch build quality have made it a popular choice for celebrities and politicians alike.
The Air-King ref. 5500 has all of the hallmark traits of a Rolex, without possessing a single superfluous feature. Its screw-down case, in-house movement, and Oyster bracelet provide owners with all the defining characteristics of a Rolex, and they are wrapped up in possibly one of the most versatile packages that the company has ever put forward.
At 34mm in diameter, the Air-King’s modest size makes it well-suited for both men and women. Additionally, its minimalist good looks guarantee that it will never truly go out of style. Although it will never be as iconic and instantly recognizable as the Submariner, the Rolex Air-King has become a go-to favorite for purists seeking a classic Rolex that can easily fly under the radar.