Rolex Air-King: Cool Idea, Poor Execution
by Raman Kalra
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.rolex.com/watches/air-king/m126900-0001
Quick facts: Rolex Air-King Ref 126900
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
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 www.thewatchmuse.com.