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Watch Review

Watch Comparison: The Explorer vs. The Air-King

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Paul Altieri

For the most part, this Rolex Explorer model has abided by a similar design code as the inaugural model from the 1950s, featuring a similar 3/6/9 dial layout, time-only movement, and a smooth bezel. On the other hand, the Rolex Air-King has undergone an interesting transformation over the past several years, and with that, it has become more comparable in design to the Explorer. With that in mind, Let’s take a closer look at the similarities between the two recently discontinued editions of each model, the Explorer 214270 and the Air-King 116900.

Rolex Air-King vs Explorer Reference 214270

Explorer vs. Air-King

The Explorer model ref. 214270 released in 2010 featured some much-needed updates. For example, there was now more luminous details on the dial. Dubbed “Chromalight Display” by Rolex, the luminescent accents on the watch glow blue in the dark and last up to eight hours – perfect for a full night’s sleep! Furthermore, Rolex also fixed the proportions of the center hands several years after the model’s initial release by making them wider and longer on the ref. 214270. There were previous complaints that the hands on the first version of the ref. 214270 were too small for the larger 39mm case, so kudos to Rolex for addressing this. With the second iteration now dubbed the “Mark II” dial, Rolex swapped out the white gold 3/6/9 Arabic hour markers for fully-lumed markers to match the rest of the dial.

The Air-King ref. 116900 is, however, a completely different story. Rolex revived the discontinued Air-King model in 2016 into a version, unlike any Air-Kings of yesteryear. Not only did it come in a much larger case, but also, that case houses a very different dial, which we’ll go into detail shortly.

Interestingly, due to the slight updates to the Explorer and the complete revamp of the Rolex Air-King model, the ref. 214270 and the ref. 116900 are now very comparable.

Rolex Air-King 116900 vs Explorer

Design: Explorer 214270 vs. Air-King 116900

Both the Explorer ref. 214270 and the Air-King ref. 116900 are stainless steel models. The Explorer sports a 39mm Oyster case while the Air-King has a slightly larger one at 40mm. However, the Air-King case is about 2mm thicker than the Explorer as well, thus overall, the Air-King wears larger than the Explorer.

Both models include a domed stainless steel bezel, sapphire crystal, and Twinlock winding crown. Consequently, both the Explorer and the Air-King have a water resistance of 330 feet (100 meters).

The biggest difference between the two watch aesthetics is, of course, the dial. While the Explorer features a straightforward black dial layout with a mix of numerals and stick indexes, the Air-King dial is much more dynamic. Its black dial sets the stage for minute markers, 3, 6, 9 numerals, a green seconds hand, and a multicolored Rolex logo and crown combination. Love it or hate it, it’s a more direct approach to its “Air-King” aviation spirit.

The Explorer ref. 214270 and the Air-King ref. 116900 are both presented on a 20mm Oyster bracelet. Both of these would look excellent on a leather strap. Conversely, they’re equipped with different clasps. The Explorer has a folding Oysterlock safety clasp while the Air-King closes with an Oysterclasp. What’s the difference you ask? The Explorer is more secure thanks to the extra folding action. Both have the Easylink 5mm extension system though. A very practical touch, this allows wearers to lengthen or shorten the bracelet as necessary.

Rolex Air-King vs Explorer Ref 214270

Movements: Explorer 214270 vs. Air-King 116900 Design

While the Explorer and the Air-King are time-only Rolex watches with 48 hours of power reserve, they run on different movements. Powering the Explorer is the Rolex Caliber 3132 while driving the Air-King is the Rolex Caliber 3131.

The anti-magnetic properties of the Caliber 3131 is why the Air-King is 2mm thicker—to accommodate for the magnetic shield. The only other Rolex watch with this shield is the Milgauss. Although the Explorer doesn’t have the same resistance to magnetic fields as the Air-King, it does boast Paraflex shock absorbers unlike the Air-King.

Back when they were still in production, the Rolex Explorer ref. 214270 was priced slightly higher at $6,550 while the Air-King ref. 116900 carried a $6,200 price tag. Therefore, in terms of choosing the right Rolex, a $350 difference is inconsequential in the grand scheme of (luxury watch-related) things, and the two models were often seen as alternates for one another among Rolex’s various offerings.

Read more details about the Explorer by visiting our Rolex Explorer Ultimate Buying Guide here.

Read more about the Air-King by visiting our Rolex Air King Ultimate Buying Guide here.

Rolex Air-King 116900 vs Explorer

Explorer 214270 vs. Air-King 116900 Specs

For easy reference, we’ve compiled this table to identify the main differences and similarities between the Explorer ref. 214270 and the Air-King ref. 116900.

Reference Number214270116900
Debut Year20162016
Case Size39mm40mm
Case Thickness11mm13mm
BezelSmooth Stainless SteelSmooth Stainless Steel
Winding CrownTwinlock Screw-Down Winding CrownTwinlock Screw-Down Winding Crown
MovementCaliber 3132Caliber 3131 (Anti-Magnetic)
BraceletOyster Brushed Stainless SteelOyster Brushed Stainless Steel
Bracelet Width20mm20mm
ClaspFolding Oysterlock safety claspFolding Oysterclasp
Bracelet ExpansionEasylink 5mmEasylink 5mm
Luminous DisplayAll indexes and center handsInverted triangle at 12 o’clock and center hands only
Numerals 3,6,9Luminous (MKII Dial)Non-luminous 18k White gold
Water Resistance330 feet (100 meters)330 feet (100 meters)
Approx. Price$10,000 – $12,000 (pre-owned)$9,000 – $11,000 (pre-owned)

Both the 2016 editions of the Explorer and the Air-King offer their own benefits. But when it comes down to it, since their specs are so similar, choosing between the Explorer ref. 214270 and the Air-King ref. 116900 is really a matter of personal design taste. One offers a minimal approach to a Rolex sports watch while the other is a much more vibrant and bolder take.

Rolex Air-King vs Explorer 214270

The Next Generation: 124270 vs. 126900

Rolex released new editions of the Explorer and Air-King in 2021 and 2022, respectively, creating a slightly bigger gap between the models and the features that once made them so similar. For example, the 2021 Explorer ref. 124270 returned to its roots with a smaller 36mm case. With the new case came a new movement, the caliber 3230 – Rolex’s latest and greatest time-only movement with a longer 70-hour power reserve and more efficient Chronergy escapement. The dial still features fully-lumed Chromalight Arabic and baton hour markers and hands to resemble its Mark II predecessor ref. 214270. The new Explorer 124270 also sports the latest Oyster bracelet and Oysterlock Easylink clasp.

The newest iteration of the Air King, ref. 126900, hit the market in 2022. Unlike the 2021 Explorer, the case remained the same 40mm size. However, it still received some rather significant upgrades not afforded to the Explorer collection in the form of sportier crown guards. Rolex also promoted the Air-King to the Oyster bracelet outfitted with the Oysterlock and Easylink comfort extension clasp. The dial still features the polarizing Arabic hour markers and green and gold logo, only now the 3/6/9 Arabic markers are fully lumed, doing away with the silver markers completely, and Rolex swapped the “5” hour marker with “05” to appear more symmetrical with the rest of the dial. Like the Explorer 124270, the new Air-King is also powered by the caliber 3230.

The new Explorer ref. 124270 retails for $7,200, and the new Air-King ref. 126900 now retails for more than the Explorer at $7,400.

Then and now, the Explorer and Air-King are excellent entry-level “professional” Rolex models.  However, while the Explorer remains arguably more subdued, the Air-King is headed in its own direction by adopting a sportier aesthetic.

With that in mind, do you prefer the Air King or Explorer? Let us know in the comments below.

Rolex Air-King Ref 126900 vs Explorer
Paul Altieri