One of Rolex’s oldest watch models still in production today, the Air-King has changed dramatically over the course of its history. This is uncharacteristic of Rolex watches since they typically retain their fundamental style, even when new references are introduced. Initially understated and restrained in design and now bold and dynamic, let’s dig into the history and evolution of the Rolex Air-King.
Early History of the Rolex Air-King, 1945 – 1957
As the story goes, Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf, released a line of Oyster “Air” watches as a tribute to the British Royal Air Force pilots who had worn Oyster watched during wartime. The Air-King made its debut around 1945 as a simple stainless steel Rolex watch with a stainless steel Oyster case, smooth bezel, and clear and legible time-only dial.
The earliest references, Air-King ref. 4925 followed by Air-King ref. 4499 a year later, were not automatic but rather, ran on the hand-wound Caliber 10.5 movement. In 1953, Rolex introduced the Air-King ref. 6552, which was now equipped with the self-winding Caliber 1030 movement as illustrated by its dial that had “Oyster Perpetual Air-King” written on it. In Rolex-speak, “Oyster” refers to a water-resistant case while “Perpetual” refers to an automatic movement. It’s also important to note that the ref. 6552 included the signature Air-King script font–a detail that remains on today’s Air-King models.
Often referred to as a “transitional reference” the Air-King ref. 6552 was replaced by a newer model a few short years later–the Air-King 5500.
Rolex Air-King 5500 and Its Variations, 1957 – 1989
Rolex introduced the Air-King 5500 in 1957 and with it, cemented the design blueprint of the watch. Many consider the 5500 as the quintessential vintage Air-King. The Air-King ref. 5500 sported a 34mm stainless steel case topped with a domed steel bezel and fitted with a steel Oyster bracelet. The three-hander dial was protected by an acrylic crystal and inside the watch was an automatic movement.
Generally speaking, the Air-King ref. 5500 versions that say “Precision” on the dial run on Caliber 1520 while the ones that have “Super Precision” are powered by Caliber 1530. The reason for the varying calibers had to do with import restrictions concerning jewel counts. Incredibly, the Air-King ref. 5500 remained a mainstay in Rolex’s catalog until 1989. While the 5500 retained its design, Rolex did update the model over its three-decade production run. For instance, radium luminescence was replaced with tritium sometime in the mid-1960s.
Along with the archetypal AK 5500, Rolex also released several variations during the same time period; some destined for export markets, some with the addition of a date window, and one with a larger case.
Rolex began production of the Air-King 5501, 5502, and 5506 around 1958 specifically for the US, UK, and Commonwealth markets. Rather than steel, the ref. 5501 was a two-tone Air-King with a gold fluted bezel while ref. 5502 and 5506 had gold-plated cases. Interestingly, Rolex also made the steel Air-King ref. 5504 with a slightly larger 35mm case, and many of these housed Explorer-style dials with Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9.
Though the Air-King is best known as a time-only Rolex, the company did, in fact, make a couple of Air-King Date models: the steel Air-King Date 5700 and two-tone Air-King Date 5701. Naturally, because these models had date windows at 3 o’clock, their acrylic crystals also had the Cyclops date magnification lens customary to Rolex watches with date indications. Finally, in the mid-1970s, another variation joined the lined up in the form of the gold-capped Air-King ref. 5520.
Rolex Air-King 14000, 1989 – 2007
The next generation came about in 1989 with the release of the Air-King 14000 and its sibling, the Air-King 14010. By this time, Rolex had discontinued all the two-tone, gold, date, and larger Air-King variations and returned to the fundamentals.
The Air-King ref. 14000 and 14010 both came fitted with stainless steel 34mm Oyster cases, time-only dials, and steel Oyster bracelets. The only difference between these two references is that the 14000 has a smooth steel bezel while the 14010 has an engined-turned steel bezel.
The introduction of the 140xx family brought some notable updates to the Air-King collection, including sapphire crystals and Caliber 3000. What’s more, although the earliest examples still had self-luminous tritium for lume, in the mid-1990s, Rolex switched to Luminova.
In 2000, Rolex launched the Air-King 14000M and the Air-King 14010M models, where the “M” refers to “modified” to denote the upgraded Caliber 3010 inside the watches. Also new to this pair of Air-King watches was the use of SuperLuminova, which is essentially the same as Luminova but a different brand name.
Air-King 114200, 2007 – 2014
In 2007, Rolex unveiled the six-digit Air-King ref. 114200 to replace the previous five-digit reference. Yet again, Rolex maintained the understated silhouette of the Air-King with a 34mm steel Oyster case (fitted with a sapphire crystal) and a matching steel Oyster bracelet, now with solid end-links. The Air-King 114200 featured a smooth bezel but its sibling references did not. The Air-King ref. 114210 included an engine-turned bezel and the Air-King ref. 114234 had a fluted white gold bezel.
New to this generation of the Air-King was the chronometer certification as denoted by the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” text on the time-only dial. The Rolex Air-King 114200 and its variations were the first models in the collection to be COSC-certified, despite them still running on Caliber 3010.
Rolex continued to produce the Air-King ref. until 2014 when the brand discontinued the entire line, favoring to focus on the other entry-level Rolex collection–the Oyster Perpetual collection.
Air-King 116900, 2016 – Present
After a two-year hiatus, the Air-King came back but in a completely revamped style. Drastically different than its predecessors, the ref. 116900 is a turning point in the Air-King’s history. Although still a steel model with time-only functionality, the Rolex Air-King 116900 features a larger case and a unique dial style. The case measures 40mm, which is significantly bigger than the 34mm dimensions of classic Air-King references. Previous Air-King models offered a handful of dial colors and/or styles options but the 116900 has only one.
If we look closely at the black dial of the Air-King 116900, we see that Rolex opted to combine hour markers at 3, 6, and 9, an inverted luminous triangle at 12, and minute markers at the remaining spots. Furthermore, the Air-King now has luminous Mercedes-style hands similar to other Rolex sports watches like the GMT-Master, Submariner, and Explorer. The predominately black and white dial is punctuated with pops of color with a green seconds hand, a green ROLEX logo, and a yellow Rolex crown. The design inspiration for the newest Air-King model was the Rolex dashboard instruments developed for the Bloodhound SSC.
As is tradition for the Air-King line, the 116900 is fitted with an Oyster bracelet–but a superbly upgraded one. Thanks to the solid center links and solid end links, the 116900’s Oyster bracelet is durable and sturdy on the wrist. Moreover, the enhanced Oysterclasp features the super practical Easylink extension, which can increase the bracelet length by around 5mm when needed without any tools.
The Air-King 116900 runs on Caliber 3131, which is the same antimagnetic automatic movement found in the Rolex Milgauss collection. Caliber 3131 offers a power reserve rating of around 48 hours and is, like all modern Rolex movements, chronometer-certified with a precision rating of -2/+2 seconds per day.
Whether you go for a simpler classic version or the newest model with a bolder style, the Air-King is a great choice from Rolex. It’s an especially solid starter Rolex watch, with price points well below other sports models from the brand. With 75 years of history behind it, the Air-King has proven its enduring appeal and will no doubt continue to be an important part of Rolex’s story for many more years to come.