Image Source: Monochrome Watches
Both watches are such great and beloved Rolex models that it's nearly (but not entirely) impossible to pick a favorite. This article is part one of a two-part series aimed at helping readers understand the best entry level Rolex to purchase, between the Rolex Explorer and Rolex Air King. In part one, we will discuss all the similarities and differences between the two models as well as discuss history of these models. In part two, we will delve deeply into the financial benefit of each of these watches, including investment valuations, how the value has held up over time, and more.
The Intrepid Explorer
One of the most “affordable” watches in Rolex’s lineup the Rolex Explorer (214270) has an MSRP of $6,550. Although the Explorer is frequently attributed as being the first watch to ascend Everest on the wrists of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the pair were actually wearing Oyster Perpetuals. However, many claim that the Oyster Perpetuals were modified to serve as prototypes for the Explorer, sporting upgraded cases and movements.
Image Source: Collector Square
The first official Explorer reference was the 6350 which was launched in 1953. Although the Explorer has gone through many revisions since then, the current 214270 still looks relatively similar to its original version, retaining the signature dial of the original along with the 3, 6, 9 Arabic numerals and the Mercedes hour hand. This gives the Explorer 1 an iconic, yet understated appearance even among the conservatively designed Rolex sport lineup.
The High Flying Air King
Image Source: Rescapement
Another great entry-level Rolex that many people consider is the Rolex Air King. Starting life as a pilot’s watch, the Air King reference 4925 was released in 1945. The Air King was a simple watch made of a stainless steel Oyster case, stick indicators, and a time only movement. It retained this simple, clean look until around 2007 with the introduction of some more wild and colorful Air Kings such as the 114200. The current Air King was released in 2016 after the line took a brief hiatus from 2014 - 2016.
Image Source: Bob’s Watches
The reference 116900 features a drastically different design from the first 4925, featuring 3, 6, 9 markers and Mercedes hour hand, much like the Explorer. It also features a green colored second hand which is very unique among Rolex watches, where the seconds hands are generally made in the same colored metal as the case. The Air King also features a yellow colored Rolex crown and green colored “Rolex” script, in contrast to the white or gold that’s normally used on other Rolex models. The Air King’s dial is a very unique, standout design among others in Rolex’s sport lineup.
What’s The Difference?
Although there are many striking visual differences, the first major difference between the two watches isn’t one that can be easily seen, and that’s the movement. The Air King uses Rolex’s 3131 movement while the Explorer uses the 3132. What’s the difference? The differences are actually relatively straightforward and simple. The 3131 features increased magnetic resistance and is the movement also used in the Milgauss, while the 3132 has Paraflex shock absorbers. The choice of movements in both of these watches makes a lot of sense; the Air King, being a pilot’s watch, must withstand being around magnetic flight instruments. The Explorer, on the other hand, needs to withstand the bumps and shocks that may occur when, well, exploring.
Another differentiating detail of the watches is the type of clasp used. The Explorer sports the folding Oysterlock safety clasp, which has an extra layer of security in an anchor that folds over and secures the clasp itself. The Air King, meanwhile, utilizes the single action Oysterclasp. Both watches have the 5mm Easylink extension which allows the wearer to adjust the bracelet 5mm larger or smaller, without the need for tools.
The final difference I’d like to highlight is the difference in the lume on the dials. While both dials may look similar with arabic numerals at 3, 6, 9, the Explorer contains lume in all stick hour markers and the current version contains lume in the 3, 6, 9 numerals as well. The Air King, on the other hand, only contains lume at the triangle at 12 o’clock and not within the 3, 6, 9 numerals, which may make it difficult to read in the dark.
So What Will it Be?
Although both the Explorer and Air King are considered entry level Rolexes, they are unique in their own ways and offer an interesting value proposition to a multitude of buyers. While a price tag of $6,000+ is by no means inexpensive, I believe that the Air King and Explorer offer great value for money even among other Rolex sport models.
Personally, I like the cleaner, understated design of the Explorer and the Oysterlock clasp adds an extra level of safety for my peace of mind. However I think that the Air King is a unique, standout model among the Rolex lineup and you can’t go wrong with either one!
If you’d like to hear more about the potential investment of either of these watches subscribe to the Everest Bands newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out on it! Part Two of this article focuses on the investment performance of both of these models, for those readers who need statistics and numbers to help seal the deal.
Written by: Joshua Jiang