The Origins of the Rolex Air-King are largely unnoticed by collectors, with other sports models of the mid-century taking most of the spotlight. Countless retellings of the Submariner’s dive into fame, and the Daytona riding along with Paul Newman, may lead the majority of collectors away from the Air-King. Even the GMT-Master, the post-war, jet-age icon, receives far more attention than Rolex’s other sky going chronometer.
The Air-King’s story contains a genuinely stoic bit of Rolex history, and understanding its history can change a collector's perspective on this long running model. The Second World War and the Swiss relationship to both powers is worthy of its own writing, so we will avoid details on that front. However, it should be noted that most manufacturers supplied watches to both sides of the conflict, maintaining a neutrality which was long standing and only solidified during the war.
Rolex, on the other hand, was a brand unafraid to declare which side it supported. Hans Wilsdorf had a great love for Britain and became known for his offers to provide imprisoned allied soldiers with his watches, only to be repaid after the war. At the same time, Rolex chronographs were found by Allied pilots to be of higher quality than some of their issued watches, and took the skies with these anti-magnetic pilot’s watches, to great success.
Rolex would become the powerhouse it is today after the war, with innovations in further waterproofing and anti-magnetism stemming from war-time experience. Most notable among these war time references, is the reference 3525 Chronograph, and the most direct descendants to the Air-King, the series including the Air-Giant, Air-Lion, and of course, the Air-King.
Moving into the post-war years, the Air-King model remained as the sole ‘Air’ series model in production. Dial variations are numerous and provide collectors with a wide array of references to search for and discover. Date complications were featured on some early models, featuring the changing mechanism from the Date-Just which had been introduced in 1945.
The Air-King’s identity shifted somewhat over the years, fitting into the collection between the oyster perpetual models and the Explorer references which were classified as sports watches. Pan American World Airways gifted Air-King models with their own logo on the dial. While the Pan-Am dial may represent one of the most thematically relevant models produced mid-century, it should be noted that several other unique dials exist for the Air-King.
Dominos Pizza had a special dial made for a large number of Air-King watches for successful franchise owners, and other institutions used what was then the entry level Rolex model, as a canvas for their own branding. The Air-King would remain in a 34mm case while seeing a plethora of standard dial options from Rolex, including the Explorer-like layout offered in both blue and white. In 2014 Rolex consolidated the lineup by releasing a new Oyster Perpetual collection which took over as the entry level model, and the Air-King was discontinued.
In 2016, alongside the monumental release of the ceramic bezel steel Daytona and Explorer updates to hands and markers, the Air-King made a triumphant return to the collection. Massively revised, upgraded, and harkening back to its tool-watch roots, the Air-King reference 116900 joined the Rolex sports collection officially, cementing its return as an aviation watch first and foremost.
The watch features a 39mm case, considerably larger than all previous iterations, and a black dial contrasted by white gold markers for supreme legibility at 3-6-and-9. The seconds hand is green, along with the Rolex text a gold coronet, giving the watch a playful and unique touch to a usually ‘black or white’ sports line.
The movement inside is the Rolex Calibre 3131, which is accurate to +/- 2 seconds per day, and guarded by an iron shell, like the Rolex Milgauss. This protects the watch from magnetism and shows the thought Rolex has put into this aviation centered design. The Air-King is one of the longest standing models in the Rolex line-up, and the 116900 is a fitting tribute to the historic Rolex models of World War II, as well as a focused, contemporary tool watch.
Written by David Brown