Rolex Air-King: Cool Idea, Poor Execution

Raman Kalra is the founder of  The Watch Muse blog and has kindly agreed to share some of his articles with us here on Quill & Pad.


The Rolex Air-King has been a model in the Rolex lineup since 1945, but the most significant change to the watch came in 2016 with the release of ref. 116900. The model strayed away from the simple look, small form factor that we had grown accustomed to, becoming one of the more unusual offerings from the brand.

The Air-King definitely divides opinions, and I’m one of those that doesn’t understand it. Here’s why. 

Rolex Air-King ref. 126900

Brief History

The Rolex Air-King was released at the end of WWII (ref. 4925), along with a range of “Air” models by Rolex: Air-King, Air-Lion, Air-Tiger & Air-Giant. Just over a decade later, in 1957 it was updated to the ref. 5500, and this is the model that spent over the next 30 years being what we knew as the Air-King.

1963 Rolex advert for the Air-King-Date

Rolex Air-King ref. 14000 from 1989

It featured a 34mm diameter case size and Oyster bracelet, but unlike its siblings it never held a chronometer certification. This means you end up seeing “Precision” written at the bottom of the dial on vintage Air-Kings rather than “superlative chronometer certified”.

Between its initial release and today, there have been countless small variations over the years. The addition of an “engine turned bezel” to give consumers a halfway point between a smooth bezel and a fluted bezel; various dials, including the infamous partnership with Dominos; and, in 1989 with the ref. 14000, the addition of 3-6-9 Arabic numerals

There are a lot of intricacies during the rich history of the Air-King that’s worth whole post one day, but here I’m focusing on the release of the modern example in 2016: Rolex Air-King ref. 116900 (2016-2022). The 2023 ref. 126900 has been updated with a 70-hour power reserve Caliber 3230 movement, crown guards, and lume filled ‘6’ (rather than polished 6), wider bracelet links, and an improved clasp.

The Air-King ref. 116900  completely broke the old trend of what the Air-King was. It grew in size to 40mm, gained a unique dial (we will get on to this) with green printed Rolex branding, Arabic 3-6-9 numerals separated by minutes numerals, and Explorer 1 hands.

Rolex Air-King ref. 116900 (photo courtesy Watchbox)

On top of this, it used a Milgauss case bringing it non-magnetic properties, but also the other pros and cons such as thickness. You may love the unusual, bold look of the watch and that is great. I like the fact people feel different things towards different watches. It brings variety and is a reflection of personality.

However, the Air-King does not make sense to me and it might be the most slapdash (I couldn’t find a better word) Rolex out there. 

Here is why. 


The dial of the modern Air-King is modeled after the instruments Rolex built for the Bloodhound SSC super-sonic jet car.

Bloodhound SSC

Rolex instruments for the Bloodhound SSC (photo courtesy Rolex Magazine)

That is genuinely cool and not something you would expect from a brand like Rolex. But why did they have to use the Air-King name? 

Air-King was originally aimed toward pilots. Yes, watches evolve, and today not many people actually use a watch for its intended function, but there has to be some cohesion in a product. A big reason why I (possibly we?) love watches is the story a watch brings.

I imagine looking at my wrist, seeing Air-King written in that beautiful font used since the first iteration, but then realizing the watch symbolizes a land-speed vehicle just does not fit for me.

The Bloodhound SSC is an incredible engineering achievement, and Rolex paying tribute is an exciting thought, but why could they not put it under a different name or collection? Imagine if they called it Speed-King! Instantly, it becomes more exciting, more desirable. 



Spare Parts – Surely Not?

Hear me out. The watch world hasn’t always been as popularly crazy as it is now. I remember going into an AD in 2015/2016 to decide what I wanted to spend my savings on, and I could try on a Rolex Batman and Submariner next to each other, both available for immediate purchase. I still can’t believe it.

Rolex Air-King ref. 126900

I feel as though the Air-King was made with spare parts. Here’s why 

The Milgauss was never a top seller, and at the time there were four dial variations (Black, Black GV, White, Blue GV) which was excessive. 

The Explorer 1 has always been great, but this was seen as an “entry-level” Rolex and overlooked by some collectors for this reason. This would mean you would tend to see more people purchasing a Submariner or GMT. The (wrongful in my opinion) “entry-level” tag put a number of people off the Explorer 1.

Air-King was a disused name for two years and was still disused even after the new Oyster Perpetual made its debut. But Rolex wanted to use it given its marketing potential.

Rolex Air-King ref. 116900 (photo courtesy Watchbox)

So how do we make a new model, generate a buzz and not have to spend too much to get there? 

1. Use the excess Milgauss cases and eventually discontinue some dial colors. 

2. Use the 3-6-9 numerals and hands from an Explorer 1 – no extra R&D or production investment required. 

3. Use the Air-King name to generate excitement and marketing material. This is what I see when looking at the Air-King and I can’t help but feel disappointed. I have no insight into what really went on behind the scene at Rolex, but as a consumer spending £6,000 RRP on a watch, I can’t get over the idea that’s it’s a mismatch of spare parts. 

Image: Look for the Milgauss case & Explorer 1 hands and 3–6-9 numerals 



Now, I want to give recognition to what Rolex has achieved with the new variation revealed early 2022. The changes have been minor, but they have added up to quite a different end product. Yes, there are still issues with what the dial represents vs. the name. Yes, it still uses Explorer 1 hands, and now the updated Explorer 1 3-6-9 numerals with lume included. It still bothers me, but not as much.

Dial details of the Rolex Air-King ref. 126900

The case shape has changed and become its own unique selling point. The case has been slimmed down and squared off. On top of this, there has been the addition of crown guards that add a nice dose of ruggedness. What you are looking at is essentially a Submariner without the rotating bezel. This is the only watch in the Rolex collection lineup to do this and that brings an extra unique selling point for the Air-King. 

Secondly, the updated 3-6-9 numerals with lume now have a white appearance. The new color brings more cohesion across the dial with the other printed numbers, making it feel as though this is how the design should have been originally. The previous stainless steel finish 3-6-9 ended up looking barely visible in most light. 

I will add one line here pointing out that the “5” has now been changed to “05” which has improved the overall. 

These small adjustments have made the Air-King better in my eyes. Not enough for me to get over my original feelings for the model, but it is definitely a more compelling offering now.

Rolex Air-King ref. 126900

If I could tweak the Air-King or make my own variation, I’d offer a 36mm case and add in a few color variations. perhaps white with black, blue with white, and salmon with black; something along those lines. 

What do you think? Do you like the modern Air-King as it is or would you prefer some changes?

For more information, please visit

Quick facts: Rolex Air-King Ref 126900
Reference: 116900
Case: 40 x 13.2 mm, Rolex 904L Oystersteel brushed and polished, screw down crown.
Movement: Caliber 3230,  automatic winding, 28,800 vph/4 Hz frequency, soft iron cage, Parachrom bleu overcoil, COSC & Superlative Chronometer. 31 jewels, power reserve 48 hours
Crystal: Sapphire
Bracelet: Oyster,  brushed, Easylink 5 mm adjustment
Water-resistant: 100 meters
Original retail price: 7,350 euros

You can read more articles by Raman Kalra at

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Why I Bought It: Rolex Air-King “Bloodhound” Ref. 116900

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Great Rolex Experiment With The GMT-Master II Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Crown

10 Affordable Alternatives to Iconic Watches like the Rolex Submariner and Omega Moonwatch: The Lightweight Heavyweights!

Rolex Case Study: How Many Watches and How Much Money Does Rolex Make?

18 replies
  1. Duke
    Duke says:

    I think this move of Rolex to 116900 is so blow my mind even it is true that they use many small tint from many model in Rolex line up but when you wear it and use it for long time your will know truly beauty of this model. A bit extra from ExI feel robust and magnetic case inside like Milgauss. And with new one crown guard make more like Submarine which is so boring for Rolex always have a crown guard for? When u never even let your Rolex touch anything coz afraid of scratch, then I think 116900 is very unique way of design that ordinary people may not in to it.
    PS. First Picture in this article is 126900 not 116900.
    Thanks anyway.

  2. Rob
    Rob says:

    I love the old 34 mm Air-King in almost all its variations (the older ones especially) and I think Rolex murdered it mindlessly with this model, which always looked to me ugly, clumsily designed and utterly undesirable. I also appreciate the contents of the article, which give the idea of a Frankenstein watch made with parts pulled together from the corpses of other watches.

    • Raman
      Raman says:

      Thanks Rob – happy you liked the opinion. I realise it is a divisive watch, but like I said, it’s always good people like different things even if this is not for me. I agree with you, the older Air-Kings I preferred. I’m not sure what they were thinking with the new release under the old name. The link is not clear which is surprising for Rolex!

  3. Randy L.
    Randy L. says:

    I own an AirKing 14010 with an engine-turned bezel and a 114200 with a blue dial and love both. (though both are 34mm so a bit small for my wrist). But I would never own the new iteration- the mix of single and double digits on the dial and the explorer hands look garish to me, though I do like the green sweep hand. There are more interesting watches in the Rolex catalog past and present.

    • Raman
      Raman says:

      Thanks for the comment Randy!

      Those two references are great. If I were Rolex I would have focused on updating the 114200 in a slightly larger 36mm case and different dial colours. My favourite is and was always the white dial and black indices.

  4. Paul
    Paul says:

    I am amazed a second version was issued given that Rolex withdrew their support for the stalled Bloodhound LSR project and don’t even get a mention as a ‘past sponsor’ on the Bloodhound website. This noted, I personally really like this watch – unlike most Rolex.
    The one extra tweak it needs is the ‘GV’ green sapphire crystal of the Milgauss.

  5. Polerouter
    Polerouter says:

    Do not get this watch if you have young children who are learning how to count.
    “Repeat after me:”

  6. John s
    John s says:

    I think, if I were Rolex, I’d make it more quirky, a cousin to the explorer 2. The reduction to 36 maybe, or 37.5…which no rolex has. And strip down the dial. An ultra simple minimal entry level but with that oddball but cool ex2 vibe. And lose the green

  7. Rob Scott
    Rob Scott says:

    I wanted a Milgauss, waited just a bit to long, primarily for the lightning bolt second hand. The busy-ness of the dial has grown on me, and I’m in the aircraft industry. If it had the lightning bolt second hand to push it over (farther?) the garish look, even more in!

  8. Terry Jackson
    Terry Jackson says:

    I received the 116900 as a 50th birthday gift in 2018 and absolutely love it. The oddity of its assemblage not only adds flavor and character to its story but also adds color to my personal story, as well.

    It’s also cool to have it pointed out randomly, given to industry “uproar”. I was in an upscale NYC whiskey bar, a bit ago, and the bartender spied it, instantly identified it, and poured me an 18year old scotch on the house. “If you’re going to wear that watch… in here… you most certainly have stories to tell!” And now, I have a few more theories to expound upon on my next visit. Thanks for the article.

  9. John Miller
    John Miller says:

    I got mine when it first came out in 2016. It is my first modern Rolex, though I’ve owned vintage ones. I bought it new after considering the Explorer II and Submariner. So, obviously I love it a lot. It’s unique appearance and fact it debuted the exact year I was able to buy a new Rolex, made my decision easy!

  10. Mark Hammerschmidt
    Mark Hammerschmidt says:

    The Bloodhound was driven, or perhaps more accurately piloted, by Royal Air Force pilot Wing Commander Andy Green so the use of the Air-King moniker is entirely appropriate.

    • Raman Kalra
      Raman Kalra says:

      Yep aware of this and it’s a fair comment. Still doesn’t feel like the most natural linkage. I stand by the comment that SpeedKing would have been a cooler (and more appropriate) name! Brings back a name to make a new range into the Rolex collection.

  11. Dlylanesque
    Dlylanesque says:

    I love this watch. I disagree with the author. But fully respect the opposing view!

    The inspiration for the Bloodhound SSC dash, was a classic flieger watch dial. The cockpit of the Bloodhound vehicle is nigh-on identical to an aeroplane cockpit. The right hand dial on the dash, that the Air King is based on is a clock/ timer. Not a speedometer.

    The Air King dial is not inspired by the Bloodhound dashboard. It is inspired by the original inspiration for the Bloodhound dash. . . A flieger watch dial.


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