Developed fairly early in the history of Rolex
, the Rolex Air-King has gone on to become one of the icons of the brand. This timepiece boasts a diverse range of features and has been worn by celebrities and royalty alike. Here, we explore the rich history of the Rolex Air-King, from its inspiring creation to its current iteration and how it has evolved to meet new technologies and standards. We will also investigate how the Rolex Air-King has appreciated over time, and which models you should look out for when it comes to making an excellent investment.
The Rolex Air-King: The Pilots Watch
Viewed across time as one of the more affordable watches in the Rolex catalogue, the Air-King name was not coined until the 1940s. Produced during the 1930s, the Air-King features a black dial with bigger 3, 6, and 9 numerals to mark hours. It also shows a minute scale that has been placed there for those seeking navigational readings for time. The lettering for the Air-King was designed specifically for Rolex during the 1950s, and this lettering continues to be a characteristic feature to this day. The second-generation Air-King also boasted sapphire crystals and later added antimagnetic capabilities in 2016.
Though the Rolex Air-King is on the less expensive and exclusive end of the spectrum when it comes to this luxury timepiece manufacturer, you will note that the Air-King in particular has an impressive performance when it comes to certain models appreciating in value. Though this may partially be due to the low barrier of entry to make an initial purchase, and the appreciation is therefore not as large as it would be for more difficult-to-buy Rolex models, it is leaps and bounds ahead of many collections.
Rolex Air-King History
While the Air-King name was not used for this collection of Rolex watches until the 1940s, the collection was actually launched in the 1930s as a response to the ongoing Second World War. Founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, had heard that British RAF pilots were not using their standard RAF-issued watches, but were instead replacing these with the Rolex Oyster Perpetual due to the robust nature of the watch and the large 34mm cases which could withstand conditions that British Royal Air Force watches simply could not.
Because of this reaction to Rolex, Wilsdorf sought to create a collection of watches themed around the concept of “Air” in order to honour the bravery and commitment of the pilots - and manufacture more watches that would appeal to this demographic. For example, the late 1930s saw the appearance of the Air-Tiger, Air-Giant, Air-Lion - and the Air-King, which came to encompass the entire collection and what it stood for. After the war ended, the Air-King continued production and expanded out into the public sphere so that anyone could enjoy these special watches, known for their largeness and reliability whether taking to the skies or simply going about their day.
Across the intervening nearly ninety-year period, the Air-King has dramatically expanded its look and changed certain elements, changing the dial to many colours such as green, blue, red, or even a gentle pink to appeal to a wide range of collectors.
While bezels and colours have changed, the design has barely shifted - with a classic stainless steel case emblematic of Rolex’s timeless style accented with satin-brushing and polished sides. The Oyster case is a new addition since the original Rolex Air-King watches boasted the Explorer case. The watch is also water resistant up to 10m, which is useful for the everyday wearer.
Vintage Air-King models such as the ref.5500 have acrylic glass rather than a sapphire crystal (which is more resistant and robust for wearers), and you will see models with polished bezels, engine-turned bezels, or fluted bezels.
Ref. 14000 launched in the late 1980s, which modernised the watch and split purists, but created the second generation of the Air-King that ran until its discontinuation in 2014. This pause was brief, however, and the 2016 release of the 40mm version further brought the Air-King into the present day, since the 34mm cases, once so much larger and clearer than the RAF watches, were generally seen as small by modern standards.
Rolex Air-King Prices
If you are seeking to add a Rolex Air-King to your own collection, then purchasing a new model may be your first instinct. A model such as the 2022 ref.126900 costs around £7000 new, but these are difficult to find on the market. This is due to the low production numbers and supply being unable to outstrip demand - after all, Rolex watches are not simply produced by machines on a production line, but painstakingly pored over by expert craftspeople who are committed to excellence. If you wish to purchase this recent model pre-owned, they are sold on resale sites, with some sellers charging double the recommended retail amount.
What you wish to purchase really depends on your reason for buying - for a luxury Rolex you can wear daily, the ref.116900 can be bought pre-owned for around £10,000, or the ref.14010M can be purchased pre-owned for under £5000.
There is also a price difference when it comes to the Rolex Air-King Date with a date display - this can be found under ref. 5700 and 5701, and can cost up to £5000 for the Air-King Date, which is 1mm bigger than the models that do not have a date. It also boasts the notable Cyclops lens.
The Rolex Air-King as an Investment
The Rolex Air-King is seen as one of the most incredible investment pieces in the entirety of the Rolex catalogue - which is an impressive feat for a company that has manufactured watches that have sold for astounding prices, both new and later on as vintage or pre-owned pieces. The Rolex Air-King which has appreciated most in value is the ref.126900, which boasts an impressive 118% value appreciation level (approximately speaking), while the ref.116900 is not far behind at 100% appreciation value. These models are uniquely positioned in the Air-King field, however, with other models not quite measuring up to the same level of return on investment.
However, that does not mean different Rolex Air-King models aren’t worth investing in - a model such as the ref. 5500 has appreciated to approximately 52%, while the ref. 114200 sits a little beneath that at around 45%. These appreciations have happened fairly recently (between 2020 and 2022), so fluctuations in market demand are always a factor, but the lower return on investment models like the 28% value appreciation seen by ref.5700 is still worth looking into.
Seen as the must-have watch for pilots at one time in history, the Rolex Air-King remains a popular model and savvy investment piece for collectors, even if you are unlikely to be taking to the skies yourself. For those seeking to own a timepiece that represents every step in the evolution of the Rolex manufacturing process and brand development, the Rolex Air-King is an essential item that could be a treasured heirloom or intelligent investment as certain watches continue to appreciate in value in line with high demand and scarcity trends.