History and Development of Rolex Air KingBack to Articles
During and immediately after World War II, Rolex made a line of watches commemorating the brave efforts of the British Royal Air Force by creating a line of ‘Air’ watches for the pilots arriving home once the war was over. The line of watches consisted of four models: The Air-Lion with a round dial in a rounded square shaped case, the Air-Tiger, with a sub seconds hand at 6 o’clock, the Air-Giant with a larger case often seen in gold, and the Air-King with the largest case size of the four at 34mm, a large watch in its day. As the other models in the Air range were eventually discontinued, the Air-King, launched in 1945, would be the only one of the four to go on to still be made today.
The first Air-King was given the model ref 4925. With its white/cream dial, and sometimes seen with full Arabic numbers, it is a very rare find today. It wouldn't be until 1953 with the launch of the ref 6652 that the Air-King started to gain some of its most famous features, the most notable of which being the now iconic silver dial, with stick-like baton hour markers. The instantly recognisable dial would be carried over onto the ref 5500 in 1957, and helped that model keep its impressive 37 year reign.
Over the 37 years that Rolex sold the Air-King ref 5500, Rolex made very few changes to the design of the watch, and with only a few updated movements fitted over its lifespan, it managed to remain relevant all the way up to present day. There were of course little changes and updates that Rolex introduced during its life, with different dial colours being added to the options, but with a choice of silver, black, slate grey, or sometimes a dark blue dial, it was nothing in any way bright or ground breaking. The main talking point around Air-King dial design however was the occasional addition of other companies logos, the most famous of which being the Dominos Pizza logo, Dominos would use the watch as an incentive for its franchisees to meet certain sales quota goals by giving out the customised Air-King if they were met. These Dominos branded Air-Kings can still be found used for sale today, often commanding a premium over its non-customised counterpart due to its collectability and rarity.
Off the back of the success of the Air-King ref 5500, in 1958 Rolex also started to make an Air-King Date. This watch, ref 5700, would run alongside the standard 5500 using the Rolex calibre 1535 to add a date function. These two models stood alone in the Rolex Air-King range until 1989, when Rolex released a new and updated Air-King, the ref 14000, that would eventually replace the 5500 and the 5700. This new Air-King model bought with it a new calibre 3000 movement, and bought the aesthetics of the watch up to date with a new selection of dial choices including the now instantly recognisable Arabic numbers at 3, 6, and 9. This combined with a new sapphire crystal glass to replace the acrylic glasses of old, and a new more solid bracelet, dragged the Air-King up to date with the watches of the 1990s.
In the mid 2000’s, Rolex were about to embark on updating almost all of its range in quick succession, with the new ceramic bezels and chunkier cases of their Professional Watches range giving the most popular of their watches a new modern look. It wasn't until 2007 that the Air-King range got an update to bring it in line with the new aesthetic Rolex was bringing to the table. The 114200, while retaining its now small 34mm case, did come with much more options to make the classic understated watch look much more modern, with the 114210 featuring an engine-turned bezel that was available in the past with the 14010, and the 11434 featuring the iconic fluted white gold bezel that was mostly found on Datejusts, giving the understated steel tool watch a much dressier look. Rolex continued to produce the Air-King ref 114200 until 2014 when the brand discontinued the entire line, favouring to focus on the other entry-level Rolex collection – the Oyster Perpetual collection.
After two years of having no Air-Kings in the Rolex range, 2016 brought with it a brand new watch to bear the name Air-King, the 116900. This new watch has an all new 40mm case, doing away with the vintage 34mm case size, as well as a redesigned bracelet and clasp to fall in line with the new much sold feeling clasps on the rest of the modern Professional Watch range. A new design deserves a new movement, Rolex fitted this new age Air-King with the 116900.
Rolex also made the decision to do away with the classic baton set dial, so they did away with all the dial variants and offered only one dial option on the 116900. The new larger case comes with a black dial, with applied Arabic numerals for 3, 6, and 9, reminiscent of the dial found as an option for the 5500 of old, but with printed minute markers at the 5, 10, 20, 25, 35, 40, 50, and 55 minute positions. This new dial also has a splash of colour, unusual for Rolex but the design was inspired by the Rolex dashboard instruments developed for the 600mph+ Bloodhound SSC, where the instruments shared the same design.
The Air-King 116900 is still the only Air-King in the Rolex range today, and with the scarceness of other steel watches in the Professional Watch range, the Air-King is growing in popularity.
Author C Lawson.