Sunday Morning Showdown: Take To The Skies — The Rolex Air-King Revisited
We’re back again for another Sunday Morning Showdown! Last week was not a fluke, and we have another Watches And Wonders 2022 brawl today. Two writers once again face off in an opinionated showdown. We’re focusing our love/hatred on a single Rolex novelty this time. And, yes, I mean “novelty” in the way the trade shows use it (something new), but also in the amusing sense of the word. The Rolex Air-King sure garners both an amusing and bemusing response, but one that is ripe for scrutiny, which we’ve seen before, as this is not the first time the Air-King has found itself in the Showdown arena. Today your votes determine whether the revisions push the Air-King further into the “rate it” camp or swing the other way towards “hate it.” You decide and add your comments below.
Revisiting a previous Sunday Morning Showdown candidate is something we do in trepidation. Unless we’re bringing in a new opponent for the established watch, we try to keep things fresh each week. However, during Watches And Wonders 2022, Rolex sought to revise and update the Air-King and distinguish it as a pilot’s watch. Admittedly, the pre-show teaser images and tagline — “The sky’s the limit” — led me to believe the watch in question was an update to the Sky-Dweller. Instead, it was a remodel of the Air-King. I suppose the historic name ties it to, in Rolex’s words, “a homage to aviation”. Yet previously, the Air-King from 2016 was a collaboration between Rolex and the Bloodhound land speed record attempt. Rolex helped construct the supersonic car’s dial cluster, and many of the design cues were carried over and amalgamated into the Rolex Air-King reference 116900.
A supersonic car spinning its wheels
With changing ownership and sponsors pulling out, the Bloodhound project has struggled to gain traction. Currently, the car is on display at the Coventry Transport Museum alongside its forebear, the Thrust SSC. The Bloodhound project is quite a letdown, and it shows no signs of going anywhere without sufficient funding. Hence, Rolex seeks to distance itself from Bloodhound and refocus its attention on the Air-King’s namesake inspiration. Rolex is no stranger to pilot’s watches, with the GMT-Master II being the most well-known. But when we last featured the Rolex Air-King, the editors viewed it as a Milgauss in disguise. It shared the movement, the 40mm case, and the Faraday cage to protect against magnetism. Despite the similarities, it was the dial that received a fair amount of criticism at the time and even today.
The dial has excessive digits and a weird blend of the hour and minute indications on the same scale. Adding to this are the bold gold and green colors for the Rolex logo. While green is emblematic of Rolex branding and packaging, its use on the dial was too much for some. For others, it was precisely the level of fun they felt was missing from the line-up, Gerard included. Time to see if the new updates to the Air-King can breed any new fans. But first, looking back at last week, it seems the Vacheron Constantin “Triple-Two” got the better of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Some of you remarked on the difference in gold hues between the VC’s yellow gold and the AP’s pink gold. Maybe if Ben chose the yellow gold AP, he might have had a chance, but in the end, the 222 won out with 59%.
Ben — I rate the Rolex Air-King
The 40mm Rolex Air-King has always been considered an oddity. Prior to the 116900, the Air-King had a longstanding history of being the entry-level Oyster Perpetual for service members and aviators. The 34mm case was positively oversized in the 1940s, and it housed a non-chronometer “Precision” movement. With its inexpensive positioning and sparse dial, the Air-King was often stamped with company logos as gifts for employees. The 2016 Air-King was none of these things, as powering the reference 116900 Air-King was the Superlative Chronometer caliber 3131. Also, Rolex upped the case to the gentleman’s size of 40mm, and the dial was so busy that there was no room for co-branding. Except for its stylized Air-King lettering, the reference 116900 seemed like an outlier to the range.
I wouldn’t say I was one of the detractors, but the Air-King was not my pick of the bunch. It wasn’t so much the minute digits on the dial that irked me. Rather, it was the hour digits. In 2016, Rolex made a big deal about adding lumed 3, 6, and 9 numerals to the 39mm Explorer. Previously, these were applied 18K white gold indices with a high polish. Making them luminescent allowed them to stand apart from the glossy black dial in low-light scenarios. Yet, at the same time, the contemporary Air-King came with the magically disappearing 3, 6, and 9. It sent a strange message for the advancements of one model over a just-released reference. I also made a point in my article on the design flaw of the Air-King:
At 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock are the numerals to indicate 55 minutes and 5 minutes. My view is that the asymmetry between double digits and the single digit is off-kilter. A suggestion would be to include the 0 before the 5 to equalize the uniformity of the dial.
A worthy successor
Flash-forward to 2022, where everybody is under the impression the Air-King will quietly bow out, and it comes back with a brand-new reference. The ref. 126900 comes in a slimmer and sportier case yet retains the all-brushed bracelet and lugs. Stepping out of the shadow of the Milgauss lets the Air-King show its true self. While I am a big fan of the Milgauss, sharing the caliber 3131 with the soft iron inner shell makes it a little unwieldy. Thanks to the advancements of caliber 3230 and the paramagnetic blue Parachrom hairspring, the Air-King no longer needs the Faraday cage. Dropping the inner protection lowers the case height from 13.1mm on the previous model to 11.59mm for the new 126900. Scaling back the thickness has a profound effect on the wearability of the new Air-King, and the new model hugs the wrist far more closely.
Balance is restored to the five-minute marker.
Importantly, my earlier remark on adding the 0 before the 5 on the dial came to fruition. Many echoed this point, and eventually, Rolex listened. It may still be a busy dial, but it’s far more harmonious than it was before. The polished case flanks are now slab-sided in keeping with the professional models such as the Submariner and GMT-Master II. In the previous case, the rounded edges were a dressier flourish seen on the Daytona and Datejust models. The crown is now shielded by guards on the opposite side, pushing it further into the sports-watch category. Not just slimmer, the lug-to-lug also shortens on the new model from 48mm to 47mm for a neater package.
Take to the skies
Many within the enthusiast community believed the Air-King would slot into the Oyster Perpetual family as an offshoot of Rolex’s most basic collection. I am glad Rolex did not take this route, as the folding Oysterlock safety clasp with Easylink 5mm comfort extension is much nicer than the simpler fold-over of the OP and outgoing Air-King. I liken it to buying a car without the optional extras and ending up with a flat plastic cover when an interesting feature could’ve been. The Air-King also makes strides in proportionality with a wider 21mm lug width to flow from the case curvature.
Rolex is defying expectations.
These additions and alterations result in a far more compelling watch than the previous iteration. The Explorer dropping 3mm to 36mm in diameter also presents the Air-King as a step up in size and functionality. I share a love/hate relationship with Rolex depending on the day, but I adore when the Coronet throws a curveball and defies expectations. Instead of the Air-King vanishing in the clouds, it comes back with afterburners raging and a revamped livery. It makes the reference 126900 even more appealing to rise from the ashes of the easy-to-get steel Rolex to a hot commodity. Yet, through the SATCOM, I hear the distant murmur of Jorg bemoaning the Air-King’s design. Oh well. I’m here to win, and I plan to do so.
Jorg — I hate the Rolex Air-King
I have a complicated story with the Rolex Air-King, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Robert-Jan and I argued over the outgoing Air-King two years ago in an early installment of Sunday Morning Showdown. There were more people who liked the watch than hated it back then. It was a safe victory for RJ, with 63% favoring the Air-King against 37% disliking it. The fundamental question is whether Rolex has changed the watch enough to appeal to me. To be honest, no. The Air-King is probably the most divisive watch in the Rolex collection. It’s a Marmite watch that is not bound to change if the layout stays as it is. The Fratelli could still be in favor of it, but unlike Ben, I am not here to win. Instead, my thoughts on why the Air-King doesn’t work for me simply need to be put out there.
My first reaction to the new Rolex introductions at Watches And Wonders 2022 was indifference. The only one that stood out to me was the Yacht-Master 42 in yellow gold, which tells you about my preferences. Opinions differ, and perhaps Rolex was catering to a particular crowd to which I don’t belong. But after my initial disinterest, I did feel the need to dig deeper to explore what was on offer. And as always is the case with Rolex, you think you can dismiss the new novelties as trite, but once you study the details, you gain a little appreciation. I am still not a fan of the new Air-King. However, I have gained a few insights. Some confirm what I already knew, yet others color me intrigued.
The dial design is still a mess
I won’t delve into the backstory of its convoluted Bloodhound inspiration, as we already touched on that. But by keeping this quirky product alive, Rolex is elongating the tenuous link to something it typically avoids — failure. With its market status and challenging predicament to meet demand, I feel Rolex is taking the road-less-traveled approach. The Destro GMT-Master II and platinum-fluted bezel Day-Date are good examples of changes that very few asked for but Rolex delivered anyway. The Air-King adds to this behavior by ignoring calls for it to be discontinued. Yet, as always, when all is said and done, the Rolex enthusiasts lap it right up.
Visual confusion is the last thing you’d want in a supposed pilot’s watch.
My main beef with the Air-King is the dial. Rolex may have made a few improvements, but it’s still a jumble of elements. There is a better visual balance with the 0 preceding the 5, yes. But does that resolve all my issues? Not even close. The fundamental problem was basing the layout on an instrument cluster from a supersonic car. No amount of fettling is going to get away from that fact. With so much space dominated by contrasting indications, it’s still cluttered. Visual confusion is the last thing you’d want in a supposed pilot’s watch. Having the Chromalight Explorer-style 3, 6, and 9 numerals is an enhancement. But the result misses the finesse that I usually anticipate from a Rolex. Another personal gripe is the gold-and-green color combination that looks good on a box, showroom, or letter header but less so on a dial.
The Air-King case is a winner
Rolex is known for subtle, incremental optimizations while retaining core aesthetics. In the case of the Air-King, credit’s due for the refined 40mm Oystersteel case and Oyster bracelet. Adding the safety-lock clasp is a real bonus too. The slimmer profile results in a contemporary feel, which you want from a modern Rolex, and I must admit the crown guards are pretty stylish. It’s a small detail that references a history of professional timepieces. Regardless of the dimensional refinements and boosted 70-hour power reserve, I still cannot see past the dial. Unless the Air-King considers a shift to a new visual concept, these advancements are all for naught. I like the playful Air-King script, and with the yellow, coral, and powder-blue 41mm Oyster Perpetuals discontinuing at the same launch, I want to see the Air-King replace them with its lighthearted approach.
The Air-King dial is wider, and the minute numerals are slimmer.
Adding to the touch-ups, the bezel is also thinner, resulting in a 0.8mm larger dial diameter than the previous generation. Considering the more expansive dial, the slightly slimmer minute numerals are an inspired choice. But the reduced visual weight sharpens the look without comprising the legibility. I am coming around to the idea of the Air-King staying in the collection for the foreseeable future. The case seamlessly flows into the bracelet, and the new caliber 3230 is a technological step forward. But if I were parting with my cash, I’d much rather save up for a new Yacht-Master in yellow gold and rubber. As you know, I have a thing for this potent combination. So, Ben, the new Air-King 126900 is a more compelling proposition than the outgoing 116900. But while I may be coming to terms with its tenure, the current offering is still a hard pass for me.
Ben: I felt you turned a corner throughout this showdown, Jorg. While I may not be a staunch defender of the dial configuration, I acknowledge that Rolex’s updates have improved its perception.
Jorg: You’re right in terms of the case, but I cannot break my distaste for the dial. What it has done is spark my curiosity about the Milgauss. The Milgauss and Air-King used to share the same case, so it will be interesting if the Milgauss gets the same treatment. Even though the Faraday cage is symbolic of the Milgauss, modern tech provides the same anti-magnetism with fewer components. We’ll see, but the Air-King is my least favorite professional Rolex for now.
But what do the Fratelli think? Vote now and comment below.