Balling on a Budget: The appeal of the original Rolex Air-King

rolex air-king

With hot Tudor model prices on the secondary market fetching just under $5K these days, it’s getting near entry-level Rolex territory, with some Oyster Perpetuals just above the $5K mark. The new OPs may be hard to get, but if you want to go for an older Rolex model, check out what’s available with an Air-King, the original entry-level Rolex. At 34mm and time only, this classic may not be for everyone, but it may be the perfect under-the-radar Rolex for a surprisingly wide range of collectors.

rolex air-king watch straps

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Smaller watches on an Oyster bracelet wear larger and your sense of proportion and scale adjust. The original Air-King debuted in Rolex Air-King in 1945 as part of the aviation themed “Air” collection. 

In 1957, Rolex introduced the reference 5500 Air-King, which had a 37-year run before being replaced by the 1400 which has a sapphire crystal. In 2007 Rolex unveiled reference 114200, which is the most modern version of the 34mm case Air-King.

Rolex stopped making the original Air-King in 2014 and came out with a total reworking of the line with a 40mm version, reference 116900, in the same case as the Milgauss and a dial of mixed elements that polarized Rolex fans. We take a closer look at this model here.

This paved the way for the original Air-King to become a standout piece unisex model by modern standards of watch sizing. 

rolex air-king rubber watch bands

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Jim Moore, the legendary former creative director of GQ, said of his blue dial Air-King: “I got my stainless-steel Rolex Air King as a birthday present to myself fifteen years ago, and it's been the one watch on my wrist ever since. I opted for a few details that keep it from being either too techy or too dressy—bars instead of numbers, a dark navy dial, a smooth bezel. It's really become a watch that takes on the personality of whatever I'm wearing. If I'm in a tweed suit, it's classic. If I'm on the beach in a swimsuit, it becomes sporty. It doesn't just work with the clothes I have on—it adds something to everything I wear."

The five-digit models from the 1990s are relatively easy to source, well-priced and mechanically sound. A simple black or silver dial will match a range of outfits, as Moore noted, and offer that vintage look with the hefty price tag associated with other more popular older Rolex models.

Go for a classic configuration. Look for a smooth bezel, as opposed to the ridged engine-turned version, either a standard stick indice dial or a 3-6-9 version with non-lumed white-gold numeral markers (not Roman) and Oyster bracelet. Go hunting and you can find solid examples in the $3-4K range.

As Hodinkee wrote about 5500 that was sold in its vintage shop for $3K, “This reference made simplicity its asset, with a seducing sobriety that a date window or excessive writing would disturb. It was a value proposition at its time, and today remains a fantastic piece from Rolex.”

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