The Air-King, like all Rolex watches, has a long and fascinating history, as it was originally designed as a tool watch to aid the wearer. Wearing watches as an accessory and appreciating a watch for what it is, a connection to the past, adds to its allure.
For a long time, the Air-King was considered a low-end Rolex. It was one of the most basic and, as a result, least expensive watches in the brand’s collection. The original Air-King lacks rotating bezels, date functions, fancy chronographs, and a tachymeter scale. The original Air-King watches only allow you to read the time. As a result, it was strikingly close to other models in the line, the closest being the Oyster Perpetual. The Rolex Air-King consists of several references, such as Reference 4925, Reference 6552, Reference 5500, Reference 14000, and Reference 116900.
1. Reference 4925
The Historical Rolex Air King Line started with the Rolex reference 4925 which was the first-ever Air King, released in 1945, and, while it featured a familiar Oyster case, its design isn’t notably similar to the modern examples. It would take a couple of transitional references, such as the 4499 and 6552 before the Air King landed the reference 5500 design, which would become the watch’s hallmark for the next decade.
2. Reference 6552
Rolex launched the Air-King ref. 6552 in 1953, which was now equipped with the self-winding Caliber 1030 movement, as evidenced by its dial, which read “Oyster Perpetual Air-King.” The term “Oyster” refers to a water-resistant case, whereas “Perpetual” refers to an automatic movement.
3. Reference 5500
The company presented the Air King 5500 in 1957, establishing the watch’s design blueprint. The 5500 is widely regarded as the quintessential vintage Air King. The 5500 was self-winding, had a 34mm steel Oyster case, a smooth steel bezel, and a steel Oyster bracelet when it was released in 1957. Its dial was a light silver or cream color, with silver baton indices. This dial was protected by an acrylic crystal, which was common at the time.
It also used the same movement, Rolex’s in-house Calibre 1520, like the Submariner, as well as an acrylic crystal. Depending on the year of production, the Ref. 5500 was equipped with either the caliber 1520 or 1530. If anything, at 6 o’clock, you’ll see the words “precision” (for the Cal. 1520) or “super-precision” (for the Cal. 1520). (for the Cal. 1530). In essence, one of the most popular Air Kings among collectors is the “double red,” which has both the words Air King and super precision in red. The Ref. 5500 had a creamy, silver dial with stick markers everywhere except the 12 o’clock position.
For many years, a slate grey dial was popular, as was a black dial. This timepiece is also well-known for its numerous corporate-stamped dials. With its simple time-only function and sturdy construction, the Air-King became the entry-level Rolex. The reference 5500 would go on to enjoy a 37-year production run, indicating that it did this very well.
4. Reference 14000
The brand launched Reference 14000 in 1989 as an update to the Ref. 5500, which had seen few changes in its 37-year history up to that point. It represented a new design approach for the Air-King line. The traditional stick marker-only version was also available, but customers preferred the Arabic numeral version.
Reference 14000 would have a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal as well as the latest Rolex manufacture caliber 3000. The ref. 14000 also included dial options with the 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numeral indices, which are well-known for their attractiveness. This dial style hadn’t been seen on an Air King since the 1950s, and it was well executed once more. The ref 14010, which amounted to an Air King with an engine-turned bezel, was a minor deviation from the 14000. The engine-turned bezel was more complex than the standard smooth bezel, but it was less expensive.
5. Reference 114200
The Reference 114200 introduced a modern Oystersteel super case on a full-spec Oyster bracelet. The dials were as varied as they had always been. Furthermore, after exactly 50 years of development, the Air-King has finally earned the COSC-chronometer certification for the first time. To level it all off, Rolex managed to keep the engine-turned bezel while also adding a new fluted (white gold) option for the Air King, a first for the watch line.
The 114200 has a vibrant concentric dial. The company continued to manufacture the Air-King ref. 114200 until 2014, when the brand discontinued the entire line, preferring to focus on the brand’s other entry-level Rolex collection–the Oyster Perpetual collection.
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6. Reference 116900
The Air King’s absence from catalogs, however, was brief. Rolex would reintroduce it as the reference 116900 in 2016, with a significant facelift. The ref. 116900 first catches the eye with its 40mm Oyster case, a design change that is sure to broaden its fan base. It also has a rather unusual dial style, at least for a Rolex. The aviation influence is still visible throughout, most notably in the dual-digit hour indices. There are also traces of the Air-past, King’s such as the 3, 6, 9 numerals and the vintage-style Air-King logo at 6 o’clock. The spray of green seen in the Rolex marquee as well as the running seconds hand is perhaps the most surprising. This kind of distinct detail and personality may have been lacking in the most recent Air King references, but it is most likely the cornerstone for the model’s future evolution. Finally, the 116900 Air-King is powered by a Rolex 3131 movement that incorporates all of the most recent paramagnetic and shock-resistant components.
Several celebrities have been spotted wearing vintage Air Kings over the years, including Ryan Gosling, who wore one when he won the best actor for his performance in La La Land. For much of his political career, John McCain was also known for wearing an Air King.
Rolex has accomplished what it usually does in the modern era for its watches with historical lines: it has left enough clear details to keep a piece within the framework of its series while evolving enough to push the aesthetic forward for modern consumers.