16 Facts About Rolex Air-King – Interesting Things to Know
The Air-King is a model that has an interesting place in Rolex’s history. It is not as popular or well-known as the Submariner, Datejust, or Day-Date, but it is nevertheless a model with a long, rich, and interesting history.
As the name suggests, this model is made for the skies and is Rolex’s answer to a pilot’s watch. Of course, the Air-King doesn’t have all of the classic design traits and elements that we have come to associate with pilot’s watches such as an oversized case and oversized crown. But the Air-King has still been a popular watch amongst pilots throughout its history and was praised by pilots during the second world war.
Because the Air-King has, to a great extent, been overshadowed by some of Rolex’s other models, the history and facts about the Air-King are relatively unknown. The facts and history about the Cosmograph Daytona and the Submariner are well-known, but the same cannot be said about the Air-King.
If you are curious to learn more about the Air-King and what it is all about, you have come to the right place. In this article, we are listing the top most interesting facts about the Rolex Air-King that you (probably) don’t know about. Without further ado, let’s dig in.
Most interesting facts about the Rolex Air-King
1. The British Royal Air Force had standard-issue watches but many pilots chose to use Oysters instead
The British Royal Air Force pilots were assigned standard-issue wristwatches that were not Rolex watches. However, many pilots chose to wear Rolex Oyster watches due to their superior performance. This was a time when the Air-King was not yet released.
Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf found out about this and this was a contributing factor to why he later decided to introduce a pilot-specific model to celebrate the RAF pilots.
2. The Air-King was originally a spin-off of the Oyster Perpetual
All of the early Air-King models were at their core Oyster Perpetual watches. The Air-King watches were identical to the Oyster Perpetual watches in production with the only difference being that they had a different dial, or in some cases, the exact same dial but with the “Air-King” print on it.
All of the Air-King watches had the same case designs, calibers, and constructions as Oyster Perpetual watches produced during the same time.
It would take until the release of the 116900 in 2016 that Rolex for the first time releases a truly unique Air-King model that does not use the same case or have the same design, with the exact same parts as the Oyster Perpetual. This allowed the Air-King to become more sporty and more of a unique model, worthy of standing on its own legs within its own model line.
3. The Air-King was the idea of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf
It was the founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, who came up with the idea of the new Air-King model. He came up with the idea for the Air-King around the 1930s because many pilots who used Rolex Oyster watches at the time expressed positive feedback and criticism about the timepieces. As a result, Wilsdorf thought about the idea of developing a pilot-dedicated timepiece specifically made for this model. The result was the launch of the Air-King (as well as a number of other “Air” models that we will discuss in the next point).
4. The Air-King was originally not the only “Air” model
As we have concluded, Hans Wilsdorf created the Air-King following the popularity of the Rolex Oyster watches amongst pilots. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that Rolex did not only release the Air-King model at first. Instead, Rolex created a series of watches with “Air” in the name. Amongst others, Rolex used the model names “Air-Lion”, “Air-Tiger”, and “Air-Giant”. Over time, Rolex would discontinue all of these names and it would be only one that would stay: Air-King.
5. The Air-King name was first seen on Rolex watches in 1945 but Rolex communicates the model was launched in 1958
Rolex communicates that the official launch date of the Air-King is 1958. But we can clearly see that the first Rolex watches with “Air-King” on the dial were actually manufactured in 1945. So why is there a discrepancy between the time when Rolex actually created the first Air-King branded watches and when they state that it was launched in 1958?
There are different theories to this and Rolex hasn’t publicly communicated why that is.
However, one explanation is that Rolex didn’t use the iconic lettering and font for the model name of the dial. The classic Air-King font that we know today was actually not introduced until 1958 – the year when Rolex states that the Air-King was officially released.
Rolex says: “The name ‘Air-King’ has featured on the dial since its launch in 1958, in lettering that makes the model immediately recognizable.”
You could therefore say that the early Air-King models were not unique and distinct enough from the classic Oyster Perpetual models to be unique models on their own.
6. Rolex had a relationship with the skies even before the release of the Air-King
The Air-King is developed as a pilot’s watch. Whilst the first models were launched in 1945, and Rolex states that the model was officially released in 1958, Rolex watches had relationships with the skies long before the launch of the Air-King.
One of the most notable events was in 1933 when Oyster watches were used by the Houston Expedition when they made the first-ever flight over Mount Everest.
Another important accomplishment was in 1934 when a Rolex Oyster was used as an onboard Chronometer in the airplane of Owen Cathcart Jones and Ken Waller on their journey from London to Melbourne. Their flight set a record time flying a twin-engine De Havilland Comet.
A famous English aviator named Charles Douglas Barnard once said about the Rolex Oyster the following: “The peculiar qualities of this Rolex watch render it eminently suitable for flying purposes and I propose to use it on all my long-distance flights in the future.”
All of these things naturally contributed to inspiring Rolex to eventually release a dedicated aviation watch.
7. The Rolex Air-King was intended as an entry-level Rolex
The Air-King has always been intended as an entry-level watch. This is in one way still true to this day as it can be described as an entry-level professional watch. But it can no longer be considered an entry-level Rolex watch in general.
The early Rolex Air-King Watches were simple and displayed nothing more than the time. And the fact that they were intended as entry-level watches also explains why it would take so long until the model received COSC-certified movements. Giving the watches COSC certifications would only increase their price and take them away from their entry-level status.
8. Most of the Air-King models are essentially Oyster Perpetual with an “Air-King” logo
As mentioned, the first Air-King models were released in 1945 but Rolex states that the official year of release was 1958. The early models were just Oyster watches but with Air-King printed on the dials. As such, they cannot really be classified as their own unique models. Everything about them was the same except for the dial print.
9. The Air-King reference 5500 had the longest production period
The Air-King model with the longest production period is the reference 5500. This watch was produced for 33 years, between 1957 and 1991. This is a really long. time, even for Rolex. Of course, Rolex did make changes and improvements to this reference over the course of its production but Rolex did not think the changes were big and notable enough to introduce a completely new reference and replace the old one.
Because of its long production period, the 5500 is one of the most classic and iconic Air-King models. It is also one of the most affordable due to the large number of watches that were produced during this long time.
The Air-King 5500 is simple, clean, and minimalistic. It has a simple dial, a polished bezel, and no complications. It strictly shows the time. The reference was made both with the caliber 1520 and the 1530. If the watch has the text “Precision” on the dial, it uses the caliber 1520. If it has the text “Super-Precision”, it uses the caliber 1530.
The reason for the use of two different movements was due to import restrictions related to jewel counts in movements. Another important fact about this Air-King model is that it is the first Rolex to feature an all-in-house made Rolex caliber.
10. The Air-King has not only been made in stainless steel
Whilst the Air-King is intended as an entry-level watch, it has not only been made in stainless steel. Of course, this is what a lot of people believe because the vast majority of Air-King watches are in fact made in steel.
But Rolex has made the Air-King in several different materials. The Air-King has been made with white gold fluted bezels, 14ct yellow gold, 9ct yellow gold, 18ct gold, and two-tone yellow gold.
11. The Air-King has also been made with date functions
Whilst the most common Air-King watches are time-only watches, Rolex has also made the model with a date function.
Date functions are generally not associated with pilot watches as it’s not a crucial detail for pilots, but it does make the watch more practical for daily use. The Air-King watches with date functions are called “Air-King Date”. The first Air-King Date was launched in 1959 and was at its core the exact same watch as the reference 5500 but with a yellow gold fluted bezel and a date function. Rolex also released a full-steel variant one year later that looks almost identical to the Air-King 5500 but with a date window.
12. Rolex manufactured the same model with different model names on the dials
We know that Rolex used different “Air” names on the dials of the early Air-King watches. But did you also know that Rolex used the exact same models to also use other model names not related to air?
For example, the gold and steel Oyster Perpetual reference 5501/3 were available with a regular Oyster Perpetual dial, Air-King dial, or an Explorer dial. This is really interesting because simply changing the dial of the exact same model technically resulted in three different models, even though everything else about them was identical.
This is a lot different from today where each and every single model is well-defined and has its own iconic design traits.
13. The Air-King was released to celebrate and honor the RAF pilots of the Battle of Britain
As we touched upon briefly earlier, Hans Wilsdorf was impressed by the performances of the RAF pilots after the Battle of Britain during World War II. He also knew that many of them used Rolex Oyster watches. Hans Wilsdorf, being the marketing genius he was, saw a great opportunity to associate Rolex with the great successes of the RAF Pilots, but also to honor their extraordinary performance and efforts.
As a result, Wilsdorf released a series of “Air” watch models, which would eventually be narrowed down to one particular model name, the Air-King.
14. The Air-King was originally considered an oversized model
Pilot watches are associated with being large and oversized for the purpose of improving the legibility for pilots. But when we look at vintage Rolex Air-King watches, they’re not perceived as very oversized. Quite the opposite.
The Air-King watches launched in 1958 were 34mm in diameter and are considered small today but with the design ideals of the time, they were instead considered quite large.
In 2016, Rolex, for the first time ever, increased the size from 34mm to 40mm to reflect the size ideals of modern times. Over time, watches have come to become bigger and bigger, and so an increase in size was necessary for the 2016 release.
15. The Air-King is one of the oldest Rolex models
Did you know that the Air-King is actually one of Rolex’s older models? With that in mind, the Air-King is surprisingly unknown and does not get the same level of recognition as other, less old models such as the Daytona and Submariner.
This could be disputed by the fact that Rolex states that the official launch of the Air-King was in 1958. But the fact of the matter is that the Air-King name can be traced back all the way to 1945, making it one of the oldest Rolex models.
16. The production of the Air-King has been consistent since its launch except for two years
Last but not least, despite the fact that the Air-King hasn’t been Rolex’s most popular model, the production of the Air-King has remained almost completely consistent ever since its launch. This is with one exception – two years between 2014 and 201.
Throughout the long history of the Air-King, it has only been off production for 2 years. But in 2016, Rolex reintroduced the Air-King to the collection with a well-needed upgrade and refinement that gave it a design that made it unique enough to stand on its own legs.