The All-Rounder: The Rolex Air-King
The Air-King is a simple Rolex with a long tradition. The Swiss manufacturer has produced it in many variants without straying far from its neutral, elegant core design. The watch is perfect for almost every occasion.
4 Reasons to Buy a Rolex Air-King
- Affordable entry into the world of Rolex
- Newer models certified as superlative chronometers
- Reliable, precise automatic in-house caliber
- For collectors: rare limited editions, such as watches with the Pan Am logo
Classic Pilot's Watches from Rolex
Along with the Oyster Perpetual, the Air-King is one of Rolex's most affordable models. Founder Hans Wilsdorf developed this timepiece in honor of the pilots of the British Royal Air Force. The RAF had used Rolex watches before the start of the Second World War. Their 34-mm watches were larger and more reliable than the standard models used by the Air Force. Towards the end of the 1930s, Wilsdorf developed a line of watches with the names "Air-Lion," "Air-Tiger," "Air-Giant," and "Air-King." After the end of the war, Rolex only continued producing the Air-King and made it available for the civilian public to purchase.
You can identify this stainless steel pilot's watch by the "Air-King" inscription on the top half of the dial, as well as its streamlined design. It tells the time traditionally, using three central hands for hours, minutes, and seconds together with indices or numerals. Rolex purposefully left additional features out, resulting in an easy-to-read watch. If you're looking for more features, however, then the Daytona chronograph or the GMT-Master II may be good options. The GMT-Master features a fourth hand that makes one rotation every 24 hours, helping you keep track of a second time zone. The Daytona is perfect for timing events and calculating speeds.
How much is a Rolex Air-King?
|Reference number||Price (approx.)||Caliber / Chronometer|
|116900||6,500 USD||3131 / ✓|
|114200||4,800 USD||3130 / ✓|
|14000M||3,900 USD||3130 / –|
|14000||3,700 USD||3000 / –|
|5500||3,200 USD||1520 or 1530 / –|
|5700||4,000 USD||1520 / –|
Detailed Price Information
The current Rolex Air-King with the reference number 116900 costs around 6,500 USD new and 6,300 USD pre-owned. This makes these pilot's watches from the Oyster collection some of the most affordable Rolex timepieces. Models with the reference number 114200 are even less expensive: You can find pre-owned pieces for about 4,200 USD. Although the ref. 114200 is no longer in production, watches in mint condition cost under 4,800 USD. Variants with blue dials are particularly desirable. Both the ref. 116900 and the ref. 114200 contain calibers certified by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC).
If having a chronometer-certified timepiece is not particularly important to you and you're looking to save a few hundred dollars, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King with the reference number 14000 may pique your interest. You can buy a pre-owned version for around 3,700 USD. Never-worn watches are hard to find and more expensive. For example, you can find the Rolex Air-King Date with a date display under the reference number 5700. Plan to spend about 4,000 USD for one of these pre-owned timepieces with its characteristic Cyclops lens. At 35 mm, the Air-King Date is one millimeter larger than the editions without a date.
The first generation of the Rolex Air-King had the reference number 4925, was introduced in the mid-1940s, and is particularly interesting for fans of vintage Rolex watches. That being said, very few examples of this watch can be found on the market today. Alternatively, there are significantly more models of the Air-King ref. 5500 available, which was first introduced in 1957. You can buy a pre-owned watch for the low price of 3,200 USD. The ref. 5500 comes in numerous designs featuring a variety of dials. The so-called "Double Red" models are especially rare. Its "Air-King" and "Super Precision" inscriptions are both written in red.
Is the Rolex Air-King the right watch for me?
If you've been toying with the idea of buying a Rolex for a while now, the Air-King may just be the right model for you. Both the vintage and current editions are relatively affordable and have designs that embody the typical simplicity and sportiness of a Rolex. At 34 mm, older models are suited to women and men with smaller wrists. The current Air-King ref. 116900 is a contemporary 40 mm in diameter and the perfect watch for everyday wear. Its design is sporty yet elegant, making it perfect for both in and out of the office.
The price of a Oyster Perpetual 39 is a few hundred dollars less than an Air-King, coming in at around 5,400 USD. The Explorer sits in a similar price range as the Air-King, though it feels a bit sportier and has the same 39-mm diameter as the Oyster Perpetual 39. It's hard to miss the large Arabic numerals, green second hand, and green brand inscription on the Air-King, all of which further underscore its sporty character. In the end, it is more a question of taste than price.
A Variety of Designs: Dials and Bezels
The Air-King has had a diverse range of dials and bezels throughout its 70-year history. With bar indices, Arabic numerals, Roman numerals, rhodium-plated surfaces, and orange contrasts, Air-King models have a wide variety of looks to offer. The dial is available in different colors such as pink, blue, red, or green.
However, the basic design of the watch remains consistent. It has a stainless steel Oyster case like almost all other Rolex models. The differences are in the details. The top surfaces of the case and the bracelet are satin-brushed, while the sides are polished. The case has a standard size of 34 mm, which is small compared to today's standards. The Luminor from Panerai, for example, can be as large as 47 mm. The Air-King didn't always have the Oyster case; in the 1950s, Rolex used the Explorer case for the Air-King, resulting in a 1-mm increase in size. Thanks to the Twinlock crown, the watch is waterproof to 100 m (10 bar, 328 ft).
You have three options for the bezel: smooth and polished, fluted, or a ribbed bezel with raised hour markers. Models with reference number 114234 feature a decorative bezel made of white gold. Newer models feature sapphire glass, giving the wearer a clear look at the dial.
A Change of Pace: The Air-King's Caliber
Rolex produced the Air-King under the reference number 5500 for about 37 years. Starting in 1957, they introduced new calibers, including the 1520 and 1530. The American version of the 1520 movement only had 17 jewels due to import regulations, while in Europe it had 26 jewels. The 1530 caliber had versions with 17, 25, or 26 jewels. The dial inscription "Precision" (caliber 1520) or "Super Precision" (caliber 1530) signifies which movement powers the watch.
The automatic caliber 3000 later replaced the previously used movements in the 1990s. The 3000 vibrates at 28,800 alternations per hour with a bidirectionally winding rotor and a Breguet overcoil. The Breguet overcoil has an upraised final coil and reduced curvature, which results in improved precision. In celebration of the new millennium, Rolex fitted the Air-King with caliber 3130 , the same movement that powers Submariner models without a date display. These Air-Kings with the 3130 can be identified by the letter "M" (for modified) added to the end of the reference number. The movement can be regulated via the Microstella nuts on its balance rim, as is typical of Rolex timepieces. Usually, a regulator is required. In 2007, Rolex began delivering the Air-King with a chronometer certificate, proof that it was certified by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC).
Time for a Facelift: 2007's Redesign
In 2007, the Air-King received an extensive makeover. Concentric, rhodium-coated dials and colorful Arabic numerals are characteristic of some designs. The distance between the case and lugs was lessened, and the watch was made thicker at 11.5 mm. Furthermore, the timepiece comes with the new 70190 stainless steel Oyster bracelet with an improved clasp and 19-mm wide lugs. When viewed in profile, this Air-King model resembles the dome of a cathedral. This is due to the domed sapphire glass as well as the large bezel. Typical of a Rolex watch, the glass projects out from the case, giving it a more voluminous look. Connoisseurs call it a "bubble-back" case, as it resembles the domed shape of the first Oyster Perpetual from 1931. Back then, the cases were round and resembled a bubble. Rolex's patented winding rotor was initially responsible for this shape.
40-mm in Diameter Since 2016
The Genevan manufacturer temporarily ceased production of the Air-King in 2014. Only two years later, Rolex presented a new model with a 40-mm case, large Arabic numerals, and a black dial. Together with its prominent minute scale, the design of the numerals highlights the Air-King's pilot watch aesthetic. The larger size of the numerals at 3, 6, and 9 has been borrowed from the design of the Rolex Explorer. The Mercedes-style hour hand is a standard feature of Rolex sports watches and, like the minute and second hands, is coated with a layer of bright, glow-in-the-dark Chromalight. All of the indices and the large triangle at 12 o'clock also feature this luminous material so you can always have an eye on the time, even in the dark.
A hallmark of the Rolex Air-King ref. 116900 are its green second hand and green brand inscription at 12 o'clock. The curvy "Air-King" inscription above 6 o'clock is a call back to the first models of this watch. Its satin-brushed Oyster bracelet includes an Oysterclasp and the Easylink comfort extension system, which you can use to extend the bracelet by 5 mm. The polished stainless steel bezel lends the Air-King a touch of elegance.
An Alternative: The Rolex Oyster Perpetual 39
Since the Oyster Perpetual 39 is even less expensive than the Rolex Air-King, it has served as the entry point to the world of Rolex since 2014. It only costs around 5,400 USD. This stainless steel watch is available in five different sizes: 26 mm, 31 mm, 34 mm, 36 mm, and 39 mm. The smaller sizes were designed with women in mind. Pink indices and red grape and blue sunburst dials add feminine touches. The larger models are also available with red grape dials and feature small red squares above the indices. Blue or silver (steel or rhodium) sunburst dials are additional options.
The Oyster Perpetual gives off a sporty-elegant look yet still remains subtle. Whether worn with a suit at the office, or while swimming, this watch goes with everything. Thanks to its Twinlock crown, the watch is waterproof to 100 m (10 bar, 328 ft).
The in-house caliber 3132 powers the 39-mm diameter version. Unlike caliber 3130, the 3132 has a Parachrom hairspring made of a zirconium-niobium alloy. It's unaffected by magnetic fields and can better withstand temperature fluctuations and shocks and jolts than conventional hairsprings. The Breguet overcoil ensures chronometer-quality precision, which is certified by the COSC. This movement also features Rolex's Paraflex shock protection system. Furthermore, it has the characteristic red minute wheels found in many Rolex calibers. The movement has a power reserve of 48 hours.
Rolex Air-King: The Watch for Every Occasion
Since its introduction, the Air-King has been the ideal entry-level Rolex watch. Thanks to its consistent design, it has developed into a Rolex classic. Changes are only made to small details, and the watch is well known for a variety of different dials and bezels. The Air-King has developed a large fan base over the years, including the American airline Pan Am. They gifted their retiring pilots Air-Kings with the Pan Am logo on the dial. These models are particularly treasured by collectors. Automatic watches in this collection combine the typical Rolex qualities of reliability, robustness, and precision with an aesthetically pleasing design. Therefore, it works well in almost any situation – as a dress watch paired with a tuxedo, or as a sport watch to accompany you while surfing or swimming.