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Rolex Air-King 116900: Ultimate Review and Buying Guide

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Paul Altieri

The Rolex Air-King has historically represented an entry point into Rolex ownership, allowing collectors to access Rolex’s legendary accuracy, reliability, and prestige without any additional features or complications. Upgraded and revamped for the 21st century, the current Air-King still represents that same entry-point but now with modern complications and contemporary style.

A significantly different timepiece than the famous and long-running, vintage reference 5500, the modern Air-King 116900 represents an even greater departure from the very first wristwatch to feature the “Air-King” name from 1945. A modern reinterpretation of a Rolex classic, we’re going to outline all of the updated specifications that make this watch unique and perfectly suited to contemporary day-to-day life, from its larger antimagnetic case to its unusual and colorful dial.

Rolex Air-King Reference 116900

Rolex Air-King 116900

Air-King 116900 Key Features:

– Production Years: 2016 – Present

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Oystersteel (904L stainless steel)

– Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Antimagnetic

– Dial: Black w/ Printed and Applied Markers

– Bezel: Fixed, Stainless Steel, Smooth Style

– Crystal: Sapphire (Flat)

– Movement: Rolex Caliber 3131

– Water Resistance: 100 Meters / 330 Feet

– Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet

– Approx Price: $6,450 (retail); $8,995 (pre-owned)

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Air-King.

Rolex 116900

Rolex Air-King Reference 116900

A Brief History Of The Rolex Air-King

As Rolex watch names go, the Air-King is actually one of the oldest of the brand. It first appeared in 1945 as part of an “Air” themed series, along with the Air-Lion, Air-Giant, and Air-Tiger. This line of watches was Hans Wilsdorf’s tribute to the pilots of the British Royal Air Force who fought during WWII and wore privately purchased Rolex watches instead of their standard-issue timepieces.

While the other “Air” themed models within the collection eventually disappeared, the Rolex Air-King endured and was eventually launched as its own collection in 1958. The Air-King 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 also makes it ideally suited to be a unisex watch given its highly versatile case diameter.

Over the years, the classic 34mm Rolex Air-King did enjoy some variation – a few dial color options, a smattering of white gold fluted bezels, and a handful of unusual dial varieties. However, (for the most part) it remained pretty much aesthetically consistent until 2014 when it was discontinued entirely – or so we thought. The Air-King’s absence from the Rolex catalog was incredibly short-lived and two years later, it was ready for a return. It seems Rolex had just taken it off the market to give the brand new Air-King space to take off.

Rolex Air-King 116900 40mm

Fast Facts: Rolex Air-King 116900

The first watch to feature the “Air-King” name appeared in 1945, but it would not be until 1958 until Rolex would make the Air-King its own standalone collection of watches. After being discontinued in 2014, Rolex reimagined the Air-King and re-released it in 2016 in the form of the reference 116900. The current Rolex Air-King 116900 now clocks in at 40mm and shares both its case and in-house Caliber 3131 movement with the Milgauss, granting it the same legendary antimagnetic properties.

1. The Air-King Is One Of The Oldest Names In Rolex’s Catalog

In 1945, Hans Wilsdorf and Rolex launched the “Air” series of watches to honor the British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots during World War II. Among these tribute watches were the Air-Lion, Air-Giant, Air-Tiger, and the Air-King. The Air-King was the only model to endure, and Rolex launched it as its own collection in 1958. The 34mm Air-King was straightforward, stainless steel, time-only Rolex that was positioned as the brand’s entry-level timepiece. The Air-King continued to be a part of Rolex’s catalog with several models over the course of its history and now enjoys a cult-like following among members of the collecting community.

Rolex Air-King 116900 Antimagnetic

2. The Air-King Collection Was Revived In 2016

Production of the Rolex Air-King was discontinued in 2014, with the Oyster Perpetual series taking over as the sole entry-level option. However, Rolex decided to bring it back and presented a completely revamped version of the watch at Baselworld 2016 – the Air-King ref. 116900. Although still an affordable option within Rolex’s product offering, the updated Air-King is now positioned more so as an aviation-inspired watch, further reinforcing its roots.

3. The Air-King 116900 Is Significantly Larger Than Its Predecessors

Among the slew of new design details found on the updated Air-King ref. 116900, one of the most significant changes is in regards to its size. Originally sporting a 34mm case, the new Rolex Air-King 116900 now boasts a 40mm stainless steel Oyster case, thereby injecting a much more sporty and modern appeal to the watch. The case is outfitted with the Twinlock screw-down crown for water resistance to 330 feet (100 meters). The matching stainless steel Oyster bracelet not only enhances the look of the luxury watch but also provides extra comfort with the built-in Easylink 5mm extension system.

Rolex Air-King 116900 Stainless Steel

4. The Dial Of The New Air-King Is Very Similar To The Bloodhound Supersonic Vehicle’s Rolex-Made Instruments

The biggest source of debate among Rolex fans concerning the new ref. 116900 is the design of the dial.  Different from past Air-King models where the dials were simple, clean, and classically styled, the new models feature a much more dynamic and somewhat busy dial. The black dial features applied white gold 3-6-9 numerals and a large luminous inverted triangle index at the 12 o’clock location. The rest of the dial is filled in by white printed minutes markings and a Mercedes-style handset.

An interesting design choice is a green and yellow color combination of the Rolex logo and coronet with a matching green seconds hand. A closer look at the dashboard of the Bloodhound SSC 1000 MPH Car  – a supersonic land vehicle that attempted to break the land speed record in 2017 – reveals where Rolex got at least some of its design inspiration for the dial of the new Air-King, as the Rolex-manufactured dash instruments bear a striking resemblance and even include a similar overall color profile.

5. The New Air-King 116900 Is Now Anti-Magnetic

Also new to the collection, the Oyster case of the Rolex Air-King ref. 116900 is equipped with a specialized internal shield that is borrowed from the Milgauss to protect its movement from magnetic fields. Powered by the Rolex Caliber 3131, the automatic movement is also fitted with the brand’s blue Parachrom hairspring and a number of other paramagnetic components for additional protection against magnetic fields. The COSC-certified Air-King ref. 116900 offers 48 hours of power reserve and a precision guarantee of +2/-2 seconds per day.

Rolex Air-King 116900 Black Dial

Up Close: The Rolex Air-King Reference 116900

This point can’t be stressed enough – the modern Rolex 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 and time-only layout, there just aren’t all that many similarities.

In the 1930s, many British Royal Air Force pilots chose to wear privately purchased Rolex Oyster watches instead of the cheap, field watches that they were issued. When word of this reached Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, he decided to honor his country’s brave pilots by creating a line of simple and reliable Oyster case watches specifically dedicated to those who navigate the sky.

Rolex revived the Air-King in 2016 after briefly discontinuing it in 2014, representing a major departure from the dead-simple and Spartan appearance of its predecessors. The previous Air-King was among the smallest men’s Rolex available at 34mm; however, now boasts a 40mm case among a slew of other new features. Let’s take a closer look now, shall we?

Rolex Air-King 116900 Case

First of all, the case size of the Air-King has drastically changed. The once compact 34mm stainless steel case 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 in terms of size.

Additionally, the case borrows the same antimagnetic shielding as the Milgauss, making the new Air-King as resilient to electromagnetic forces as the legendary watch designed for scientists working with particle accelerators. Of course, as it features an Oyster case, the Rolex Air-King 116900 is also water-resistant up to 100 meters (330 feet), making it more than capable of standing up to the rigors of everyday wear and use.

Rolex Air-King ref 116900 Oyster Case

Rolex Air-King 116900 Dial

The most striking update to accompany the revamped Air-King 116900 is its funky and unusual dial. The black background sets the muted stage for everything else to pop. Between the oversized 3/6/9 numerals, the white five-minute markers, the green Rolex print with matching green seconds hand, the vintage Air-King font, and the Mercedes-style hands, there is a lot going on here.

It is also interesting to point out that this Air-King dial is the only Rolex dial to ever feature the company’s crown and signature printed in two different colors – Rolex in green, the crown in yellow – further adding to the uncharacteristic nature of this particular reference. Another new addition to the dial is the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” text, which now matches the rest of the watches in the contemporary Rolex lineup.

Some collectors love the design of the new Air-King, while others hate it. However, this design is actually not entirely 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 dash instruments, but the similarities and overall color profile are undeniable.

Rolex Air-King 116900 Movement

Yet another variance between the new Air-King and a vintage Air-King watch is the internal movement. The ref. 116900 is equipped with the Rolex Caliber 3131 – the exact same automatic movement used in the Rolex Milgauss. Just like the Milgauss (and pilot watches of a bygone era), the Air-King now has an internal shield to significantly increase the watch’s resistance to magnetic fields. The Caliber 3131 offers a power reserve of up to 48 hours and particularly noteworthy is that it is a COSC-certified chronometer, promising an accuracy rating of -2/+2 seconds a day.

Rolex Air-King 116900 Pilots Watch

Rolex Air-King 116900 Desirability

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 a bit and do something unexpected and outside the box. 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. Additionally, like all other modern stainless steel Rolex watches, the Air-King 116900 is entirely sold out at retailers. Lengthy waiting lists have pushed up prices on the secondary market, and Rolex Air-King 116900 watches are currently trading hands at nearly 50% above their original retail prices.

Rolex Air-King 116900 Value

Although some may object to the Air-King’s new and unconventional styling, it is undeniable that Rolex is giving buyers a lot of watch for their money. The addition of the antimagnetic movement and shielding borrowed from the Milgauss gives the Air-King the exact same functionality at roughly three-quarters of the price (when purchased at retail). Additionally. Although it is larger and better protected from electromagnetic fields than the new 36mm Explorer, the Rolex Air-King actually retails for the exact same price.

Historically, the Air-King has been a relatively easy model to find, but its larger size and bold styling have made the reference 116900 just as hard to find as many of the brand’s other stainless steel watches. While you likely won’t spend as long on a waiting list for the Air-King 116900 as you will for a stainless steel Daytona or GMT-Master II, the model is still completely unavailable at retailers. However, even with the price premiums found on the secondary market, the ref. 116900 remains one of the most affordable professional models from the Rolex lineup and it makes a unique and worthwhile addition to any luxury watch collection.

Rolex Air-King Reference 116900 Pilot Watch

Paul Altieri
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