Before there were GMT-Masters, Daytonas or even Submariners, there was one of Rolex’s oldest model lines, the Air-King.
Initially designed for use by WWII pilots, the Air-King has remained a staple of the Rolex catalog through the decades for its reliability and uncomplicated functionality. If you’re not very familiar with it, you’re not alone; the Air-King is also one of the least discussed Rolex watches in the modern catalog.
It may be due to the contemporary Air-King 116900’s unorthodox dial design that it doesn’t get much attention. Or maybe it’s just not as flashy as other Oyster sports models.
Whatever the case, it remains an interesting and historically relevant timepiece that will surprise those who take interest in its past. Read on through this guide as we do just that.
History Of The Rolex Air-King
The past of most of Rolex’s model lines tend to be convoluted and nuanced, and the Air-King is no different. For this reason, in this overview we’ve concentrated on the moments in the model’s history that marked the most significant changes.
These are delineated by the following categories:
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The Rolex “Air” Watches
Rolex has established a renowned reputation over the years as a result of their massively successful marketing efforts. Wherever there were famous figures accomplishing extreme and glorious feats in the 20th century, so was Rolex.
Yet the beginnings of the Air-King are a bit more humble, and telling of the times.
It was British RAF pilots in World War II who are said to have sported Rolex timepieces over their standard issue timekeepers. After learning of this, and once WWII had subsided, Rolex released a commemorative “Air” series honoring the pilots; it included the Air-Tiger, Air-Lion, Air-Giant, and Air-King.
The First Air-King
Released in 1945, the Rolex reference 4925 was the first ever Air-King and, though it featured a familiar Oystercase, its design isn’t particularly similar to modern examples.
In fact, it would take a couple of transitional references, such as the 4499 and 6552, before the Air-King landed the reference 5500 design that would become the hallmark of the watch for the following decades.
Released in 1957, the 5500 was self-winding, had a 34mm steel Oyster case, a smooth steel bezel, and a steel Oyster bracelet. Its dial was a light silver or cream color further adorned by silver baton indices. It also shared the same movement as the Submariner, Rolex’s in-house Calibre 1520, as well as an acrylic crystal.
With its minimal time-only function and robust construction, the Air-King took on the role of the entry-level Rolex. Evidently it did this very well, as the reference 5500 would enjoy a 37-year production run.
Variations On The Air-King Formula
A year after the 5500 Air-King debuted, Rolex introduced the Air-King-Date (ref. 5700) which, as you can guess, had a date window. Like the 5500, the ref. 5700 was also produced until the ’80s, though not as prolifically as the Air-King, and much less than the Datejust it competed with.
In the ’50s, Rolex would produce a series of Air-King watches with Explorer dials under the reference 5500. Most notable of these watches was the 3,6, and 9 numeral hour indices on the dial.
This same dial could be found on the existing 6610 Explorer models of the time, but it is believed that Rolex wanted to test the Explorer aesthetic on the smaller 34mm case size. As a result, the Explorer / Air-King 5500 watches were only produced for ten years, though as you can appreciate above, examples remain in excellent condition.
Lastly, the Air-King 55XX base would also see small tweaks for specific occasions. For example, the ref. 5504 included two-tone or gold-plated varieties, while the ref. 5520 featured a gold-filled case, with both references being produced for export markets.
The Domino’s Pizza Air-King
Around the ’80s, and beginning with the Air-King ref. 5500, Domino’s began prizing franchise owners for achieving sales goals with Domino’s-branded Air-King watches.
Seeing a timepiece with a dial shared by a Rolex and Domino’s Pizza logo in the present-day is quite bizarre, given the fact that a modern Rolex would never be branded as anything but. Even more interesting is the fact that Rolex manufactured these in-house, with logo and everything.
There’s also something to be said about a Rolex watch, often perceived as the epitome of opulence, branded with the regular American’s pizza brand. Either way, we think they make for some very cool vintage pieces.
The Domino’s dials would continue into the subsequent references of the Air-King like the ref. 14000, though Rolex would cease this practice by placing the brand’s logo on the bracelet and removing it from the dial.
The Air-King’s First Update
Though seemingly in random intervals, Rolex makes a habit of making significant changes to model families every so often. For the Air-King 5500, it would take until 1989 before the model was brought up to speed.
That year, the latest Air-King reference 14000 would be equipped with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal and a new Rolex manufacture calibre 3000. With the ref. 14000 also came dial options which featured the 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numeral indices that are notoriously attractive. Actually, this dial style hadn’t been seen on an Air-King since the ’50s and once more was well executed.
A small deviation to the 14000 was later offered in the ref 14010 which amounted to an Air-King with an engine-turned bezel. A bit more complex than the standard smooth bezel, the engine-turned option was agreeable without being as expensive as its fluted counterpart usually seen on a Datejust.
The Turn Of The Century
In the year 2000, the reference 14000 and 14010 were once more updated by Rolex. This time, the movement was changed to the newest in-house movement, the calibre 3130, though not much else differed.
Seven years later, in 2007, a more significant evolution would take place. The 14000 would be no more, and was to be replaced by the 114200.
The reference 114200 put forth a modern Oystersteel super case on a full-spec Oyster bracelet. The dials were as varied as ever, too. Moreover, and having taken exactly 50 years since inception to achieve, the Air-King finally earned the COSC-chronometer certification for the first time.
To top it all off, Rolex kept the engine-turned bezel and added a new fluted (white gold) option for the Air-King, the latter of which was a first for the watch family. You can see for yourself Paul Anthony’s very own fluted Air-King in the image above.
The Air-King’s Exit (& Subsequent Return)
Only seven years after receiving its last update, and after almost 60 years in production, the Air-King would be dropped from the Rolex catalog altogether. Presumably, the Air-King no longer fulfilled the role it once held.
The Oyster Perpetual line, with its extensive size options, had taken precedence as the entry-level Rolex. The GMT-Master, Rolex’s other pilot watch offering, was a clear winner in that category. A model that had succeeded due to the middle ground it was designed for was now hindered by it, and the brand chose to part ways.
The Air-King’s absence from catalogs was short lived, though. In 2016, Rolex would reintroduce it with a significant face-lift as the reference 116900.
The ref. 116900 first surprises with its 40mm Oyster case, a design tweak that is sure to expand its fan pool. It’s also equipped with a rather unusual dial style, at least for Rolex.
There still remains a clear aviation influence throughout, most notably in the dual-digit hour indices. Additionally, there’s elements of the Air-King’s heritage such as the 3, 6, 9 numerals and the vintage-style Air-King logo at 6 o’clock.
Perhaps most surprising of all is the splash of green encountered in the Rolex marquee as well as in the running seconds hand. It is this kind of unique detail and personality that may have been absent in the latest Air-King references, and likely the foundation for the model’s evolution moving forward.
Finally, the 116900 Air-King is powered by a Rolex 3131 movement featuring all the latest paramagnetic and shock-resistant components.
It seems that with every move that Rolex makes, they consistently prove why they’ve reached the zenith of success in the watch industry and managed to stay there. The Genevan watchmaker’s strategic can at times be confounding to outsiders. Yet, they always seem to play out.
The Air-King is just one more instance of this.
When the historic model was languishing in dealer cases, Rolex did not delay in cutting it. Perhaps this was a move planned years before, or more of a reaction to market conditions.
Either way, the Air-King spent some time out of consumers minds while the brand worked on it. Just two years later, the new generation appeared. With the amalgamation of vintage cues and contemporary trends, Rolex was able to modernize their classic line to once more stand out in their top-level catalog.
It’s hard to deny that if nothing else, this new Air-King does just that: stand out. And if Rolex is to be trusted, then this is exactly what the model needs to continue evolving its legacy in the decades to come.
Now that you’re all caught up on the Rolex Air-King’s legacy, check out some of our other popular watch guides below:
- A Recap Of The Most Famous Chronograph, The Rolex Daytona
- Get To Know The Rolex GMT-Master From The Beginning
- The History Of Rolex’s Longest Running Model, The Datejust
- An Owner’s Take On The Explorer II 16570 Polar After 18 Months Of Wear
- Bespoke Unit Watches Homepage
"When the green-logo Air-King was released, I wasn't a big fan of it. Over time it's definitely grown on me, and reading about its history on here makes it an even more interesting watch and (now) potential future purchase."Rating: 5.0★★★★★