Although Rolex is famous for constantly improving their watches, the timepieces tend to maintain the same overall aesthetic throughout the years. In fact, today’s Submariner, GMT Master, and Daytona watches look remarkably similar to those from the 1950s and 1960s. This is part and parcel of the Rolex magic—a signature style that is instantly recognizable. However, this no longer applies to the Air King. In fact, current iterations of the Rolex Air King models look absolutely nothing like preceding models.
The Air King made its debut in 1945 as a tribute to British air force pilots of the era. The Air King timepiece was typically regarded as an entry-level Rolex watch with its smaller 34mm size, minimalistic three-handed dial, and more accessible price point. As one of the longest running Rolex collections still in production today, there have been so many different Air King references throughout its history. But we’ll focus on a few of the most popular Air King references in the secondary market, as well as a quick look at the most current version.
At Baselworld 2016, Rolex surprised everyone by not only reviving the Rolex Air King models, but also by unleashing such a drastically different design. The size of the stainless steel Air King ref. 116900 grew substantially to 40mm. There’s also the dial, which unlike its predecessors, is no longer clean and simple but full of details. From the 5-minute markers to the white gold 3, 6, and 9 numerals to the green “ROLEX’ to the green seconds hands to the yellow coronet, there’s a lot to take in. Furthermore, there’s the anti-magnetic Caliber 3131—identical to the one powering the Milgauss—beating within.
It’s evident that Rolex bypassed the style of past Air Kings and opted instead to take design cues from the Rolex instruments of the Bloodhound Supersonic Car. This is certainly one of the most divisive designs from Rolex with passionate members in both the for-it and against-it camp.
If you’re looking for a straightforward and restrained take on the Rolex aesthetic, then the vintage and discontinued Air King models offer some fantastic options at easy-to-swallow prices. On the other hand, if fresh and different is more your pace, then the new Air King watch fits the bill. So, although the Air King may fly somewhat under the Rolex radar, it’s a collection that offers a little something for pretty much everyone.