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Rolex Air-King: The Fascinating History & Evolution over the Years

June 25th, 2020

The Rolex Air-King Watch is one of the oldest watches in the brand’s catalogue that is yet in production today.

Rolex originally designed the model for World War II pilots. However, the Air-King has remained a mainstay of the brand’s collection over the years for its simple functionality and durability.

rolex airking

Rolex has upgraded the Air-King model dramatically throughout its production history. But it is something unusual for Rolex timepieces.

The manufacturer indeed refines and upgrades its watch models but retain the classic aesthetics that make them one-of-a-kind and recognisable.

Moreover, the Air-King initially came with an underrated design, but today, the watch flaunts dynamic and bold design.

Let’s delve into the intriguing history and evolution of the Rolex’s pilot’s watch – the Air-King.

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The First Rolex Air-King

After WWII subsided, Rolex unveiled an Oyster “Air” collection for paying homage to the pilots of British Royal Air Force who had worn Oyster watches during the war.

However, the series included four models – the Air-Giant, Air-Lion, Air-Tiger and the Air-King.

Rolex produced all these models until the 1960s, but only the Air-King version persisted.

  • In 1945, Rolex introduced the ever first Air-King watch as the reference 4925.
  • It was a stainless steel Rolex Air-King watch featuring a simple design.
  • The watch flaunted the innovative and famous Oyster case in stainless steel, clear readable dial and smooth bezel.

Following the reference 4925, Rolex released the Air-King ref. 4499 after a year.

However, both these earlier references were powered by the hand-wound Calibre 10.5 movement.

  • In 1953, the Rolex Air-King 6552 made its debut and what makes it significant is its self-winding movement.
  • Rolex equipped the reference 6552 with the Calibre 1030 mechanical movement. Eventually, the dial exhibits the text “Oyster Perpetual Air-King”.

However, what does Oyster Perpetual mean?

In Rolex language, while the “Oyster” word refers to the water-resistant case, the term “Perpetual” signifies an automatic movement.

Moreover, the Air-King reference 6552 also featured the trademark Air-King script font. This detail continues to be on the modern Air-King watches.

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Rolex Air-King Reference 5500

With the Air-King Ref. 5500, Rolex cemented the watch model’s design pattern.

Introduced in 1957, the reference 5500 is considered as the archetypal vintage Air-King.

  • The watch featured a 34mm stainless steel Oyster case, domed steel bezel and a matching steel Oyster bracelet.
  • Moreover, the reference 5500 had a light silver or cream coloured dial with silver baton indexes and acrylic crystal.

The Air-King 5500 also housed the same movement as in the iconic divers’ watch Rolex Submariner – the proprietary Calibre 1520.

  • However, some iterations displaying “Precision” on the dial are powered by Calibre 1520.
  • On the contrary, the ones with the text “Super Precision” on the dial run on Calibre 1530.

Interestingly, the Air-King 5500 enjoyed nearly three decades of production run. However, Rolex made several upgrades to the model during this production period.

For example, the manufacturer replaced the radium luminescence with Tritium in the middle of 1960s.

Variations of the Air-King Reference 5500

Rolex also designed and developed many variations of the classic Air-king 5500. It included the Air-King 5501, 5502, 5504 and 5506.

While some versions were produced for export markets, others featured either an added date window or a larger case.

However, in about 1958, Rolex produced the Air-King references 5501, 5502 and 5506 exclusively for the UK, US and Commonwealth markets.

  • The Air-King ref. 5501 featured a two-toned case with fluted gold bezel.
  • On the other hand, the reference 5502 and 5506 editions sported gold-plated cases.
  • Moreover, reference 5504 had a more prominent steel 35mm case.
  • Interestingly, some of these iterations featured the Explorer-style dials and Arabic numerals at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock side.

Indeed, Rolex Air-King is more popularly recognised as a time-only Rolex model. However, the brand also two Air-King Date versions – one is Air-King Date Steel 5700 and another, the bi-metal Air-King Date 5701.

In the mid of 1970s, Rolex also added another variation in the form of Air-King 5520.

Rolex Air-King Reference 14000

Rolex unleashed the next generation of the Air-King collection in 1989 as the reference 14000 and 14010.

Both the references featured 34mm steel cases, steel Oyster bracelets and time-only dials.

So what’s the difference between the Air-King 14000 and Air-King 14010?

  • The difference between the two watches lies only in the bezel.
  • While the reference 14010 flaunts a steel engine-turned bezel, the reference 14000 comes with a smooth steel bezel.

However, the Air-King 140xx family exhibited the significant updates that Rolex made to the Air-King collection. The upgraded features include Calibre 3000 and sapphire crystals.

What’s more?

In the mid of 1990s, Rolex began using Luminova rather than self-luminous Tritium found in earliest iterations.

Moreover, the Air-King reference 14000M and reference 14010M made its debut in 2000.

Here, the “M” means “modified”, and it signifies the updated Calibre 3010 movement that powers the watches.

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Rolex Air-King Reference 114200

The six-digit Rolex Air-King 114200 made its debut in 2007, replacing the earlier five-digit iteration.

However, the manufacturer retained the similar underrated silhouette of the Air-King, offering a steel Oyster 34mm case, steel Oyster bracelet and a smooth bezel.

The more significant fact is that –

The Air-King ref. 114200, as well as its variations, was the first watches in its collection that received chronometer certification.

Although they were still powered by Calibre 3010 movement, the references were COSC-certified flaunting the text “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” on their dials.

However, the Rolex Air-King reference 114200 was in production until 2014.

Rolex Air-King Reference 116900

The Rolex Air-King reincarnated after a two-year interval, in an entirely refurbished style.

The Air-King reference 116900 appeared drastically different from its earlier siblings.

The ref. 116900 is a steel watch with time-only functionality. But the watch sports a bigger 40mm case and one-of-a-kind dial style.

  • The unique black dial flaunts a combination of an inverted luminescent triangle at 12 o’clock, hour markers at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock side, and minute markers in the left-over places.
  • Moreover, Rolex today offers the Air-King with Mercedes-style luminescent hands as found in other sports models of the brand such as the Submariner or GMT-Master.
  • The black dial is further accentuated with a green logo of “ROLEX”, a yellow Rolex crown and a green seconds-hand.

Like all other Air-King watches, Rolex also fitted the reference 116900 with an Oyster bracelet.

However, the bracelet is incredibly upgraded with solid end & centre links and Oysterclasp with Easylink extension, making it sturdy, durable and comfortable.

Additionally, the Rolex Air-King 116900 watch runs on an automatic Calibre 3131 movement.

Interestingly, it is the same antimagnetic movement that Rolex houses in its Milgauss collection.

However, the movement offers a power reserve of nearly 48hours and a precision of -2/+2 seconds per day.

Overall, the Rolex Air-King is a versatile collection from Rolex that includes classic models with simple aesthetics as well as modern versions with bold style.

The brand has produced many popular Air-King watches over the years.

The Rolex Air-King has proved its strong appeal in its 75years of history. And the watch will indeed persevere to be a significant part of the brand’s history for much more years to come.

However, are you looking to sell your Rolex watch for the best price? Fill up our simple online form and get a free competitive quote today.

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