The Rolex Air-King Ref 116900 is an interesting watch. It’s a steel sports Rolex, yet it doesn’t sell for multiples over retail on the preowned market. Not yet, anyway. It has a lot of history behind it yet it’s lesser known than its more popular siblings. It also offers a lot of bang for your buck. If you can get past the polarising design of the dial that is. This is everything you need to know about the Rolex Air-King.
A (Very) Brief History Of The Rolex Air-King
Rolex has a long-running history with aviation which stretches back to the 1930s. A period some refer to as the golden era of aviation. When intrepid explorers took to the skies to navigate their way around the planet. Critical to their success was a reliable chronometer watch. And few made them better than Rolex. For example, in 1933 the Houston Expedition made the first-ever flight over Everest. On board were Oyster watches. There are many other such examples.
It’s no surprise then that the Rolex Air-King also has an interesting backstory. It started life as part of the aviation-inspired “Air” series. A special collection of watches launched in 1945 by Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf. The same year the Rolex Datejust made its debut. British RAF pilots valued the chronometer precision they offered. And paid out of their own pocket to upgrade from their standard issue pieces. Models included the Air-Giant, Air-Lion, and Air-Tiger.
At the end of the war, Rolex created the Air-King as a tribute to the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. The large (for the time) 34mm case and simple dial layout were a hit. And the Rolex Air-King soon became popular with pilots. In 1957, Rolex introduced the Ref 5500 Air-King. That model remained in production for the next 37 years. Before receiving a refresh with the Ref 1400, which introduced a sapphire crystal. And a new movement. In 2007, Rolex released the Ref 114200. The first Air-King to be COSC-certified.
The Rolex Air-King Ref 116900
In 2014, Rolex took the decision to stop production of the Air-King. With the Oyster Perpetual taking its place as the brand’s entry-level steel sport watch. The reasons for this decision are unclear. It’s possible sales were underperforming. Or that Rolex execs had concerns about cannibalising sales from the Oyster Perpetual. In any event, the exile didn’t last long. Two years later, the Rolex Air-King was back. With an opinion-dividing new look and a much more attractive proposition.
Unfortunately for the Rolex Air-King though, it made its debut in 2016. The same year as the Rolex Daytona Ref 116500LN. A.K.A, the most hyped watch of this decade. The arrival of the Air-King didn’t pass unnoticed, mind you. But it did not garner the same level of attention as it would have otherwise. Some would argue this would have been the case regardless. Let’s face it, the Air-King is no GMT-Master II.
Still, the release garnered its fair share of controversy. This was a very different watch from previous models. In fact, it’s not much of a leap to say that Rolex completely overhauled the Air-King.
A contemporary 40mm steel Oyster case. (Previous iterations ran as small as 34mm.) Screw-down, Twinlock crown helping ensure water resistance to 100m. A Faraday cage to protect the manufacture movement from magnetic interference. (Borrowed from the Rolex Milgauss.) And a striking black dial that blends several different design elements.
It’s this distinctive dial that raised the most eyebrows at the time. The styling is more contemporary than previous iterations and it’s busier too. In fact I would say this is one of the boldest Rolex designs to date. The 3-6-9 configuration carries forward from earlier models. While the introduction of the inverted triangle at 12 calls to mind the Rolex Explorer. As do the Mercedes-style hands. And the chapter ring for the minutes. But where the Explorer uses baton markers, the Air-King features printed Arabic numerals. This is a logical move by Rolex otherwise the two models would look near identical.
Other questionable design choices include the green text for ‘Rolex’. It matches the seconds hand. Along with the cartoon-like yellow colour of the crown. And the expressive Air-King font. Granted, it’s outside the normal Rolex wheel-house, but it’s not without precedent. A look at the dashboard of the Bloodhound LSR confirms this.
Rolex designed some of the digital instruments on this supersonic vehicle. It’s not too much of a stretch to see the resemblance. Of course, the Air-King is an aviation-inspired watch. Not an automotive one. But that’s another matter.
Moving away from the aesthetics now, we turn our attention to the mechanics. Inside the Air-King is the calibre 3131. A self-winding mechanical movement developed and manufactured by Rolex. It’s the same movement found inside the more expensive Rolex Milgauss. Certified as a superlative chronometer, it guarantees both accuracy and reliability.
It’s not a new generation movement, though. Meaning no Chronenergy escapement. And a more modest power reserve of 48 hours. As a result, I would expect Rolex will likely be updating this model soon. When that happens, expect the Ref 116900 to become even more of a bargain.
Price And Availability
The official retail price of the Rolex Air-King Ref 116900 is USD 6,200. Unlike other steel Rolex models – think the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller – it is not hard to find. The flip-side to this of course it is not going to increase in value. In fact, it is more likely it will decline. Even more so when the new version comes out.
Why The Rolex Air-King Offers Great Bang For Your Buck
There’s no question that the design of the Rolex Air-King Ref 116900 is polarising. You either love it. Or you don’t. But put aesthetics aside for a moment and you’re left with a lot of bang for your buck. The watch is anti-magnetic. Like the Milgauss. But costs a lot less. It’s a touch bigger than the Explorer. And shares many of its design attributes. But again, it’s cheaper.
Sure the Air-King is not a true tool watch. And its history is not quite as exciting as some of the other models. But at the same time, it won’t cost you double retail to own one right now. Plus, it looks kind of cool. In a weird, very un-Rolex, retro way. Ideal for those who like to stand apart from the crowd.
Technical Specifications: Rolex Air-King Ref 116900
- Case: Oyster – 40 mm – Oystersteel – monobloc middle case, screw-down case back and winding crown – smooth bezel – waterproof to 100 metres / 330 feet.
- Dial: Black – 18ct gold hour markers at 3-6-9 – Chromalight display with longlasting luminescence on hour markers and hands.
- Movement: Calibre 3131 – bidirectional self-winding via Perpetual rotor – paramagnetic blue Parachrom hairspring – magnetic shield to protect the movement – centre hour, minute and seconds hands – certified as a superlative chronometer.
- Price: USD 6,200.