Near the end of World War II in 1945, Rolex introduced the Air-King to their “Air” collection alongside the Air-Giant, Air-Lion and Air-Tiger. This collection was created by Hans Wilsdorf to honor the Royal Air Force’s involvement in World War II. The Air-King is the only version still in production from the original Air line. It was created in honor of the RAF pilots who fought in the 1940 Battle of Britain. The Air-King was discontinued in 2014, but reintroduced in 2016 with the reference number 116900.
The first automatic Air-King (Ref. 6552) was released in 1953. If you’re familiar with Rolex, you know that this was a very significant year for the brand. 1953 saw the launch of the Submariner and the official launch of the Explorer, following Sir Edmund Hillary’s Mt. Everest expedition. This automatic Air-King features a very simple time-only dial with stick hour indices, a familiar steel Oyster case, and “Air-King” text on the dial. Like most Rolex watches, the Air-King is a product of slow, steady, incremental changes. This is true of the Air-King. . . for the most part.
In 1957, Rolex released the Air-King (Ref. 5500). This 34mm reference was in production until its replacement in 1989, making it one of the longest running references in the history of Rolex. Over the course of 32, some changes are bound to happen. Around the mid-1960’s, the Air-King 5500 ditched tritium lume for radium luminescence. There was also an upgrade from the caliber 1520 to the caliber 1530 along the way. Interestingly enough, these are some of the only concrete changes in this reference's 32 year history. Of course, there were plenty of peripheral variations. Rolex released a slightly larger 35mm Air-King 5504, a two-tone gold Air-King 5501 with a fluted bezel, and even a few Air-King dat models: the 5700 in steel and 5702 in two-tone gold. They followed the traditional Rolex date blueprint, featuring a date aperture at 3 o’clock and cyclops lens on the crystal, which was acrylic at the time.
In 1989, Rolex introduced the Air-King 14000 reference series, which was a breath of fresh air for those overwhelmed by the 5XXX series’ variation. The 14000 series went back to basics: steel case and a time only dial. This series also brought sapphire crystal and a caliber 3000 to the Air-King, which were welcome and expected improvements for the time. In 2007, Rolex replaced the 14000 series with the six-digit 114200 reference series. These were very similar watches that touted Superlative Chronometer certification. This series ran until 2014, when the Air-King line was discontinued in its entirety. Two years later, the Air-King would return as the modern watch we know today.
In 2016, Rolex released the Air-King (Ref. 116900), a significant visual overhaul of the historic watch. This new Air-King comes in at 40mm – much larger than any previous model. It includes arabic hour indices at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, and minute indices in the remaining 5 minute increments. It features green “Rolex” text, a matching green seconds hand, and a yellow Rolex crown under the 12 o’clock inverted triangle. The handset was also updated: implementing Rolex’s Mercedes hour hand found on other models. The Air-King 116900 is an entirely new Air-King, and time will tell where the line will go in the future.
Everest’s Curved End rubber straps are tailor fit to the dimensions of the Rolex Air-King (Ref. 116900), seamlessly hugging the case and lugs. Rubber excels as a strong, lightweight, waterproof strap material (just make sure your watch is waterproof too). Rubber isn’t just practical, it’s one of the most comfortable materials for a watch strap. If you like the sporty look, rubber is a great everyday option. It’s a welcome addition to any strap collection. If you’re looking for a new strap for your Rolex Air-King (Ref. 116900), Everest bands are your best bet.