The Rolex Air-King, for most of its very long history, was the simplest, least expensive Rolex, but also in some ways the purist’s Rolex. With no date, a 100 m water resistant case, screw-down crown, and chronometer certification, it had every essential attribute that makes a Rolex a exact replica Rolex watches, with no distractions. In 2014, however, it was discontinued, and its status as the entry level Rolex as well as the purist’s Rolex was taken in 2015 by a new version of the Oyster Perpetual. In 2016, however, the Air-King returned and it is emphatically not your father’s Air-King. With a 40 mm case, new “Superlative Chronometer” certification, complete overhaul to the dial, and the same arrangements for resistance to magnetism as the Milgauss, it may be an Air-King in name, but in the hand and on the wrist, it’s an almost entirely new watch.
In fact, it’s such a departure from what we’ve all gotten used to thinking of as an Air-King that I almost wish Rolex had named it something else. The retention of the Air-King name means that you have to struggle a little when you first see pictures of the watch – or when you start wearing it – to see it as its own thing, instead of through the veil of years of exposure to something else that had the same name. What is the same, however – Rolex being pretty good at not totally disrupting the connection of any of its watches to earlier models in particular, and to the basic design codes of the company in particular – is the Air-King logo, as if to reassure the skittish that underneath it all, the Air-King is the same purist’s watch you knew and loved once upon a time.
Despite the logo’s symbolic attempt to talk me off a ledge, I have to admit, this one took some getting used to. The minute numerals at the five minute marks, the white gold 3-6-9 Arabic numerals, the luxury fake Rolex watches yellow Crown, and green “Rolex” and green seconds hand seemed, for the first few hours that I wore the watch, like a bunch of ill-assorted lifeboat passengers who, thanks to a random twist of fate, were all going to have to learn to get along with each other, or else.
After many years of wearing wristwatches for the purposes of review I’ve gotten pretty good at getting through an unexpectedly rocky phase, but I found myself taking the Air-King off, and putting it back on, with rather nervous frequency, like a girl on prom night who can’t decide if she loves or hates her corsage. This went on for a day and a half until finally, the Air-King and I started to get a bit more used to each other. Gradually, I met it halfway by letting go of the idea that it should be the old Air-King, and it met me halfway by – well, actually, it didn’t meet me halfway at all, it just stayed resolutely on course, as if it didn’t give a toot or a tinkle what I thought of those 3-6-9 markers. One thing about anthropomorphizing your watches – you do it with a cheap replica Rolex Air-King wathces and you end up feeling like its personality has about the same level of self-doubt as a champion F1 driver.
It is of course easier to adjust to novelty if whatever is new is also well done, and one thing you get with Rolex is all things done well – even if any given design is not your cup of tea, at the very least whatever it is you dislike is going to be the most technically flawless thing-you-don’t-like that you’ve ever seen. As is customary with Rolex, the execution of the dial furniture and hands is exceptional, with nary a rough spot to be seen, even in extreme closeup. There are very few dials and handsets from any brand at any price point that I can think of that would tolerate this level of scrutiny, and this quality in execution, for me anyway, was the thin end of the wedge in terms of not only adjusting to the Air-King, but actually starting to warm up to the darned thing.
The Oyster bracelet and folding Oyster clasp are, as no one who has ever tried on a Rolex of recent manufacture will be surprised to hear, noiselessly smooth and reliable in operation, and as comfortable as if they’d been made of silk instead of steel. Once on the wrist, the even distribution of weight goes a long way to ensure the initial sense of comfort isn’t a fleeting one, and that’s despite this being a fairly hefty watch: 152 grams on the office scale, or 10 grams heavier than a Seiko SKX-007, as weighed during our (in)famous weigh-in of all the watches in the office last Wednesday. That it feels much less heavy than the Seiko goes a long way towards reinforcing our conclusion from that story that distribution of mass is at least as much a factor in wearing comfort as overall weight.
As it turns out, by the way, the aesthetics of the 2016 Air-King bear a striking similarity to two cockpit instruments, created by Rolex in 2006 at the beginning of its partnership with the Bloodhound SSC Project. The Bloodhound Super Sonic Car, in case you haven’t heard of it, is, as they say, just what it says on the tin: a car powered by a turbojet engine borrowed from a Eurofighter, which currently holds the land speed record of 763 mph, and which will make an attempt to crack the 1,000 mph barrier in 2017.
Now, you may be thinking that analog instruments in this sort of vehicle aren’t very common-sensical, but then again, neither is doing 1,000 mph on three wheels (for that matter, on any kind of wheels) and of course, you have analog instruments in the cockpits of jet fighters as well. The Air-King has definitely inherited the color scheme of the cockpit instruments, if not their utter stripped-down clarity. And there’s another respect in which the Air-King is a technically influenced watch – this one, as hidden as the dial design is visible.
That hidden element is the movement, Rolex caliber 3131, which is the very same movement Rolex uses in the Milgauss. Just as with the Milgauss, the caliber 3131, in addition to containing components made of materials unaffected by magnetism (the Parachrom balance spring, and nickel phosphorus lever and escape wheel, most notably) is housed inside a soft iron inner case and dial. The original Milgauss of the 1950s did not have a movement with these components, and was still resistant to 1,000 gauss, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the addition of antimagnetic parts to the caliber 3131 would confer even better resistance. It also seems reasonably to conclude that the antimagnetic shielding is partly responsible for the relative thickness of the case – the Air-King is 40 mm wide and 13 mm thick according to our calipers, but then again, that’s only about the thickness of the standard Speedmaster, and on the wrist, the Air-King doesn’t feel particularly bulky.
Surprisingly, after going through the aforementioned somewhat rocky shakedown cruise, I found myself enjoying wearing the Air-King quite a lot. It’s solidly built, it has some very nice technical chops under the hood (though you are left wondering a bit what the Milgauss is supposed to do with itself on a Friday night, now that the Air-King wears the same protection it does). Even the improbable white-gold 3-6-9 markers started to seem part of its quirky but appealing character. To paraphrase a reader who commented on an earlier hands-on we did with the Air-King, “darned if I’m not starting to like the thing.”
For several days, I really didn’t know if it was going to work out, despite my general high regard for Rolex and sneaking admiration for their sometimes weird-seeming design decisions. In the end, though, I ended up liking the Air-King for what it is, not for its resemblance to what came before. And, with its minutes-centric layout and resistance to magnetic pollution, it actually makes a plausible case for being a pilot’s watch (though I bet if the driver of Bloodhound SSC, ex-RAF pilot Andy Green, straps one on for his stab at breaking his own record, he’ll be hoping to hell he doesn’t become airborne while wearing it). My final impression: a very solid addition to the Rolex lineup and a thoroughly enjoyable watch to wear – with a dial that will be providing keen enjoyment to the horologically inclined by giving us something about which to get angry with each other for years to come.
The Rolex Air-King, reference 116900. Case, fake Rolex stainless steel watches, grade 904L, water resistance 100 meters, 40 mm x 13 mm. Movement, Rolex caliber 3131, COSC-certified; Superlative Chronometer controlled to +2/-2 maximum deviation in rate per day. Paramagnetic balance spring, amagnetic escapement components, with antimagnetic inner case. Chromalight (blue) lume, hands and dial. Price, $6,2oo.