Two weeks ago, during Watches and Wonders, Rolex released its new collection for 2022… Something you hardly have missed, I imagined. As usual, the Crown split its launches between two highlights (the Air-King and the Lefty GMT-Master II) and some evolutions on existing models. All in all, typical Rolex way to do things, with a rather conservative evolution of the collection rather than something entirely new. This year, however, I personally found the Crown to be a bit more creative than usual – relatively speaking, of course. A Destro GMT on one side and a revamp of the most controversial model on the other. Today, we’ll be looking closely at the new Rolex Air-King 126900, a watch that remains sort of an exception within the collection, a watch that retains its overall look, but a watch that has changed more than you might think at first.
The Air-King over the years
Even more than the Explorer, the Rolex Air-King tends to be overlooked and less considered than models such as the Submariner, the GMT-Master or the Datejust. One of the brand’s most long-lasting collections, the Air-King was launched in 1945 and intended as an entry-level model, following multiple “Air” watches produced by Rolex during WWII for pilots. Measuring 34mm in diameter, it was rather large back in the days – hence the “King” in the name – but also was a fairly simple time-only watch.
Several early references will be made – 4925, 4499 or 6652 – but it’s mostly the subsequent reference 5500, a watch launched in 1957 and produced for more than 30 years, that will give the watch its popularity. A 34mm Oyster case, an automatic calibre 1520 or 1530, a classic look with a clean dial, baton markers and no-nonsense design… The Rolex Air-King 5500 is often considered the little brother to the slightly larger and even more instrumental Explorer 1016. Over the entire course of its long career, the Air-King 5500 has known multiple evolutions but overall remained the same simple, value proposition Rolex Oyster watch. Next to the time-only model, Rolex launched in 1958 a date model under the reference 5700.
At the end of the 1980s, Rolex updated the Air-King with a new case, a new movement and mostly a new dial design. The reference 14000 indeed came for some versions with 3-6-9 applied markers (a bit like the Explorer, but not luminous) and stick markers between them. Other dials, more classic with only baton markers, were available. Updates concern the arrival of the Calibre 3000 and sapphire crystals. But the 34mm diameter remained. The reference 14010 added an engine-turned bezel, for a more luxurious look. In 2000, these watches will receive a mechanical update, with the calibre 3130.
In 2007, Rolex again updated the Air-King with the references 114200 (smooth bezel) and 114210 (engine-turned bezel). And while the base movement remained the 3130, it was now chronometer-certified. This 34mm entry-level collection will be discontinued in 2014. And what came next will be quite a surprise. For a detailed history of the Air-King, take a look at this article by rescapement.com here.
The Oddity, the Air-King 116900
After a two-year period without an Air-King in the collection, Rolex surprised the masses with one of its most daring models to date… And quite a drastic change compared to the previous watches. Gone was the entry-level idea. Gone was the discreet look. Gone was the 34mm case. The 2016 Rolex Air-King 116900 was far larger, flashy, and designed like nothing else the brand had ever produced. And here comes what certainly is the most controversial watch Rolex has ever released.
The intention was clear; to make a watch that lives up to its name, thus a pilot’s watch. But the odd, polarizing dial of the 116900 didn’t come out of the blue. It was actually modelled after the dash instruments found inside the Bloodhound Super Sonic Car, with which Rolex partnered. Well, the car didn’t break records, and Rolex left the project after a while. But the design of the dial stayed and made the now-40mm Air-King quite a special watch in the brand’s portfolio.
The 116900 is loosely based on the Milgauss, with the same 40mm case, the same movement (calibre 3131) and the same blue paramagnetic Parachrom hairspring – because pilots need antimagnetic watches. The dial not only features a glossy black base with applied 3-6-9 numerals and a big triangle at 12 o’clock, but also Mercedes hands, a green lollipop seconds hand, a yellow Coronet logo and large Arabic numerals every 5 minutes. Really, this couldn’t be more polarizing…
The new Air-King 126900
Somehow, looking at the current Rolex collection, we had the feeling that the Air-King was due an update. It was one of the last watches with a 31xx movement, and since the brand had nothing to do anymore with Bloodhound SSC, the whole concept was not really relevant anymore. And, in all fairness, this watch was not really a success commercially speaking and had been seen by many as an oddity… The Ugly Duckling of Rolex if you want… We thus imagined the watch to be revamped, in a drastically different way.
And yes, we were wrong. Rolex sticks to the original concept of 2016 and once again makes a polarizing watch. But also updates pretty much every single element, making this Air-King 126900 a watch with a familiar look, but nevertheless an entirely new model where not a single part is retained. Sure, we’re talking Rolex-like evolution, and many will tell that it’s basically the same watch. But according to Rolex standards, and looking at it in the detail, many things have been updated or upgraded.
Let’s start with the case. While the 40mm diameter is retained, the case of the new Air-King 126900 has been entirely revised in terms of shapes and proportions. Shapes first, as every facet of the case is now sharp and angular, without domed or rounded surfaces anymore. This is particularly visible on the casebands, which are now straight and flat. Second, Rolex has changed proportions, with a thinner bezel, due to a larger dial opening (about 0.8mm). The surfaces are still brushed on flat areas, and polished on the bezel and sides. These two factors combined benefit the modernity and slenderness of the watch, which feels visually lighter, more contemporary and more refined at the same time. Also, even though the case is still 100m water-resistant, I had the sensation that the Air-King 126900 was slightly thinner than before – something to be confirmed later when we really have the time to measure the watch at the office.
There are other evolutions to be noted, such as the larger lug width – something we’ve seen in recent introductions, such as the Submariner or the Explorer II, which also means a bracelet that is about 0.5mm larger, and lugs that are thinner too. Again, a good point for the watch’s slenderness. The Air-King is still equipped with a twin-lock crown and a screwed caseback, but the flat sapphire crystal finally has an anti-reflective coating. The most obvious change is the presence of a crown guard module, which is a first for a Rolex Air-King. It might seem like a detail, but this quite drastically changes the case feeling on the wrist, and adds to the tool-ish feeling of this pilot’s watch. Personally, I like it and I believe it brings quite a new and unique personality to the 126900.
The same kind of evolutions can be seen on the dial of the Rolex Air-King 126900. At first, it feels like some minor changes to the previous 116900 generation, but actually many elements have been updated. First, and while the base remains black glossy lacquer, the dial is larger than before – and knowing how many markers and indices there are on this dial, it isn’t a bad idea. This benefits the overall legibility and clarity of the display. Second, all elements have been re-dimensioned or redesigned. The applied white gold 3-6-9 markers are still reminiscent of the Explorer, and just like this watch, they are now filled with Chromalight luminous material. The same goes for the triangle at 12 o’clock, even though this element was already luminous in the 116900.
Then, if you look closely at the 5-minute markers, they have been reshaped too, and the font is now fairly thinner, while the minute track on the periphery of the dial is bolder than in the past generation. And it all feels more coherent. For the sake of visual symmetry, the marker at 1 o’clock is not showing “5” anymore but is now printed “05” making the dial more balanced, thus echoing the 55 on the other side of the triangular marker. Altogether, the dial feels crisper and better designed, even though it still is some kind of oddity and looks like nothing else in the brand’s collection. It’s still very much polarizing and bold, but just better defined than before.
Continuing with the dial, you’ll notice that the hands have been redimensioned too, in particular the Mercedes hour hand that is longer and slightly thinner on this 126900. What hasn’t changed is the audacious combination of colours and fonts, with a yellow Coronet, a green Rolex logo with white “Oyster Perpetual” mention, the vintage-looking Air-King logo and white Chronometer indication, as well as the green lollipop seconds hand. But let’s be honest, this is this audacity that can make the modern Air-King attractive to some watch enthusiasts, as much as a fair portion of the collecting community doesn’t like it. Fair enough, the Air-King is proudly different.
For the occasion of the introduction of the new reference 126900, the Rolex Air-King also revised its bracelet. As said, it is now larger than before between the lugs. It is still made of Oystersteel, brushed on flat surfaces and polished on the sides. The construction and comfort are… typical of Rolex. What’s new is the presence now of the Oysterlock folding safety clasp with Easylink comfort extension link – which allows the bracelet to extend by about 5mm, particularly useful in summer. On the wrist, the Air-King 126900 wears like most 40mm Rolex watches, meaning that it has presence but also is comfortable and well balanced.
The main, yet invisible evolution with the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King 126900 is inside the case, as the Calibre 3131 is replaced by the modern calibre 3230, which is found in most time-only watches of the Crown (Explorer 36mm, Submariner No Date, Oyster Perpetual). As such, it is a Superlative Chronometer, with -2/+2 accuracy and it features the Chronergy escapement, a new geometry that, combined with a new barrel and a more efficient gear train, allows for an extended power reserve of 70 hours. The movement still runs at 4Hz and features an amagnetic nickel-phosphorus pallet fork and escape wheel, as well as the blue paramagnetic Parachrom hairspring.
Objectively, the new Air-King 126900 is a better product than before. The case feels more in line with the recent models and is sharper, more pleasant to wear, and sleeker. The same can be said about the dial, which is simply much better defined, more balanced, more legible and more contrasted. There are also multiple improvements regarding the bracelet/clasp, the movement or even the AR coating on the crystal. So yes, for about the same price as before (+200 euros to be precise), you simply get more.
Now, in a more subjective way, I must say that, even though many things have evolved, I’m pretty sure it won’t be enough to change the mind of those who didn’t like the previous generation. The Air-King was and still is a bold, different and polarizing watch. But even though it had its detractors, it also had its partisans and those will certainly be very pleased by the updated model. Lastly, for those who liked me were somehow attracted by the dial but found the watch unattractive on some aspects of the case, I must say that the redefined proportions, the sharper and more angular lines, the new crown guard, the larger and better defined dial are all arguments to make me change position towards the weirdest of Rolex watches. Oddly attractive it was, and it’s now simply cool, becoming a “watch to consider.”
Availability & Price
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King 126900 is now available (under waiting lists, of course) from retailers and has already replaced the previous generation in stores. It is priced at EUR 6,950 or CHF 7,000. For more details, please visit www.rolex.com.