It’s tough being the Rolex Air-King. Despite its illustrious heritage, most people only think about the GMT-Master II when they’re looking for a Rolex aviation watch. Some might bring up the Sky-Dweller but only if hard pressed, and only the truest of Rolex aficionados will remember the Air-King.
You could hardly blame them, though. The GMT-Master II is a pretty hard act to follow, especially after all that fervour surrounding the red-and-blue Pepsi Cerachrom bezel. On hindsight, it appears to be a wise decision for Rolex to only offer it in white gold, because had it been available in steel, their phone lines are going to be burning hotter than the furnaces used to sinter the Cerachrom bezels. But we digress.
The Air-King harks back to the 1930s, a period considered to be the Golden Age of aviation (as mentioned in our previous story on this watch). This was the era of stupendous advancements in flight technology and pioneering achievements in air travel. As a matter of fact, the notion of long-distance flying was realized at this point. English aviator Charles Douglas Barnard was one of the early conquerors of the skies, having set a number of flight records. Of the Rolex Oyster, he said, “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.”
In 1933, Oyster watches accompanied the Houston Expedition as it made the first-ever flight over Mount Everest at an altitude exceeding 10,000m (33,000 feet) in extreme weather conditions. In 1934, Owen Cathcart-Jones and Ken Waller made a return voyage from London to Melbourne (Australia) in record time with a twin-engine De Havilland Comet, using a Rolex Oyster as their on-board chronometer. It is in remembrance of these victorious accounts, and the Oyster’s role in the aviation history, that Rolex revived the Air-King.
Bearing slight resemblance to the Rolex Explorer, the Air-King enjoys more than 70 years of continuous production, making it one of the longest running Rolex models to date. Introduced in 1945 via ref. 4925, it was made expressly for the RAF pilots involved in the Battle of Britain. Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf, personally started a dedicated line of Oysters called the “Air series” for this very purpose, and of all the watches in the Air series (Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, Air-King, and Air-Giant), only the Air-King remains in production.
The simplicity and practicality of the Rolex Air-King remains prevalent in the new ref. 116900. Even though it is a flying Oyster, it guarantees water resistance to 100m, with a case middle machined out of a solid block of steel. Incidentally, Rolex uses only the best steel, which is 904L grade. Like an actual oyster, there is no way you could force open the fluted case back because it has been hermetically screwed down with a special tool, thus ensuring that only Rolex watchmakers can access the movement.
What makes ref. 116900 stand out from the earlier Air-Kings is indisputably its numerals, where the hours are indicated by 3, 6, 9, and the traditional inverted triangle placeholder at 12 o’clock. The numerals for the minutes fill in the space between the hours at five-minute intervals, which is a source of debate for a number of watch aficionados. What is more unanimously appreciated, however, are the Mercedes-style hour hand and the touches of green on the sweeping seconds hand, as well as the Rolex insignia. In striking contrast to these modern aesthetics, the Air-King lettering on the dial takes after the antecedents, which is surely a much cherished design element for all owners of this timeless icon.
This article was first published at World of Watches.