Before the start of any significant watch event, predicting what we’re likely to see while we await releases with bated breath is par for the course. But, while arrivals are frequently the topic of discussion, models likely to depart the scene for good are less often thrown out for consideration. Only introduced in 2016, the Rolex Air-King 116900 has been a candidate for the chop for the last two or three years. That’s quite understandable, too. Fair or otherwise, it is one of the most openly reviled Rolex sports models among aficionados.

Why exactly is it that the 116900 Air-King isn’t popular? There are various reasons, but the most common blame is that its design isn’t Rolex-like or even worthy. These gripes are best illustrated by pointing at various design elements that wouldn’t match those of a real Rolex. I’ll get to those in a bit…


Rolex Air-King 116900 still in the game

Just like every year, most people guessing about Rolex’s novelties and moves were utterly wrong. Agreed, it was expected that something would happen to the — now 50-year old — Explorer. Nobody expected the Explorer to show up in two-tone, and nobody expected what Rolex had up their sleeve for the Explorer II. Almost nothing. Indicated by only one digit difference — from 216570 to 226570. The Explorer II changes are hardly noticeable. Slightly slimmer lugs, as a result of a 1 mm wider bracelet – or the other way around — and a caliber 3285 that brings the Explorer II up to the standard of its GMT Master II brothers.

Further, and I actually didn’t want to mention it, but there’s a little crown between Swiss and Made at the bottom of the dial. Rolex fan-boys and girls at least expected a ceramic bezel for the Explorer II. Unfortunately, or not, Rolex didn’t hear them.


The new, 2021, Explorer-II, ref. 226570.

Rolex didn’t listen

Rolex didn’t listen to the Explorer wish-list, exactly like the brand doesn’t listen to the general noise surrounding the Rolex Air-King 116900 that it — in its current form — should leave the stage. Of course, there wasn’t word from Rolex, but as it’s still available in the online catalog, we now know that the 116900 isn’t gone. Yet. And, to be honest, I’m happy about it. I’m one of the few fans of this Rolex Air-King. Yes, I bought one a few years ago already. I heard that people were even forced to do so — I won’t drop names here — to be granted a GMT Master II sale. But I wasn’t forced; I went to a Rolex boutique out of freewill and swiped my credit card.

Rolex Air-King 116900

Why is an opportunity never missed to disparage this Air-King?

Let me keep my promise and explain the major supposed issues why many people don’t like this Air-King. I think there are three. One: “The Rolex logo and crown should not be in yellow and green. This kind of frivolity doesn’t suit Rolex.” Two: “The 3, 6, and 9 shouldn’t be polished; they should be white filled. And besides that, the applied polished 3, 6, and 9 don’t match the other white, printed, double-digit numerals.” Three: “The 5-minute index numeral should be double-digit — 05 — like the other minute numeral indexes.”

…a solid explanation..

For some of these issues, there’s a solid explanation. Inspiration for the colorful logo and double-digit numerals were two analog instruments of a record-setting supersonic car, the Bloodhound SSC. Rolex worked with Bloodhound SSC since 2011 and produced a speedometer and a chronometer for them. These instruments had the same dial design as used for the Air-King 116900. True, these instruments didn’t have the polished 3, 6, and 9. And true, on the Explorer, Rolex had just ditched the polished numerals and changed them for lume-filled ones. One should expect that that must have been for a reason. Or probably there wasn’t a reason at all; either way, we will never know.


What puzzles me is why Rolex made a dial that refers to a project that failed miserably. Unfortunately, because of financial reasons, the Bloodhound SSC project prematurely came to an end. It has been continued as Bloodhound LSR, but without Rolex as a partner. Meanwhile, Rolex doesn’t mention the Bloodhound project in conjunction with the 116900 Air-King anymore. It’s now presented as a homage to aviation.

And why is the Air-King 116900 an attractive watch anyway?

Although you might or might not like the dial’s design, there’s a pleasant surprise on the technical side of the current Air-King. While the name has always referred to aviation, technically, the Air-King wasn’t very suitable as a pilot’s watch. Often in airplane cockpits, magnetic fields are present, and none of the former Air-King models was seriously anti-magnetic. Of course, Rolex has a model available for use in magnetic environments — that’s the Milgauss. To overcome this flaw, Rolex decided to use the 116400 Milgauss as a base for the Air-King.

Probably not to emphasize the lack of magnetic resistance of former Air-King models, Rolex didn’t talk much about this rather substantial improvement. Mind you; the Air-King 116900 doesn’t just share its casing with the Milgauss. It includes the internal magnetic shield and the caliber 3131 with a Faraday cage as well. Suddenly, the Air-King is not an entry-level Rolex anymore. However, one of Rolex’s serious professional tool watches.

…a brushed bracelet is exactly how I like it.

Besides the dial, there’s something else to the Air-King that is slightly different from a Milgauss, and that’s the bracelet. Although both Oyster-type, for the Air-King, the center-links of the bracelet aren’t polished. The entire bracelet is brushed, exactly how I like it.

wrist shot

Attractively priced and available

Design-wise, it is at least exciting. Technically, it is surprisingly impressive. Best of all, Rolex offers the Air-King 116900 at a very reasonable price. On introduction in 2016, its price was € 5,650. Meanwhile, five years later, Rolex sells it new for €6,100. That’s an increase of only 8% in five years. And not only that but with virtually identical tech to the Milgauss (minus that fancy crystal) makes it look a real bargain given the Milgauss’s list price of  7,900 — €1,800 (or 30%) more. We are all aware of the recent crazy situation that sports Rolex models aren’t available for sale at official dealers. One might be lucky, however, and could find an Air-King.

…a brilliant business model.

Available worldwide, Chrono24 shows 223 Air-Kings with their original box and papers right now. One hundred and thirty-nine of these are brand new, and eighty-four are pre-owned. Rolex apparently decided to sell only to private individuals through a grey dealer network. It’s a different approach from the one we’re used to, but if it’s good or bad is none of our business. Who knows, it might even be a brilliant business model… What do you think of this watch and Rolex’s practices? Let us know in the comments below.