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Only at Rolex can a watch dubbed a King be described as humble compared to other watches with less lofty but still commanding titles like Master. The Rolex Air-King, despite being the oldest existing model in the mega-brand’s star-studded lineup, has never attained the levels of mainstream popularity and collectability enjoyed by household-name watches like the Daytona, Submariner, GMT-Master, and (arguably) even the Yacht-Master. Rolex hopes to change that this year, however, making the newest version of the Air-King a headliner of its 2022 collection, unveiled this week at Watches & Wonders 2022 in Geneva.
The Rolex Air-King (technically Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King) traces its history all the way back to 1945, when it was launched as part of a trio of timepieces called the “Air Series” that celebrated the accomplishments of Britain’s Royal Air Force in World War II, alongside the discontinued Air-Giant and Air-Tiger. The Air-King, the last survivor of that collection designed “to honor the pioneers of aviation,” went through a number of evolutions throughout the years. The original model’s 34mm case (considered large at the time, believe it or not), cream-colored dial and manual wind movement would eventually be replaced by the now-familiar design most recently updated in 2016: a black dial with a 60-minute scale and inverted triangle at the 12 o’clock/60-minute position (a feature of historical pilots’ watches); large 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals at their respective positions; and a retro-font “Air-King” logo slightly below center.of the “Mercedes”-style handset.
Six years later, what’s actually new about the new Rolex Air King? In typical Rolex fashion, some aspects are subtle while others are substantial. The case has been redesigned with new crown guards to increase sturdiness and to better reflect the style of Rolex’s other Professional models. The bracelet’s proportions have been revisited, and a new center link has been added; for the first time in an Air King model, the bracelet has also been fitted with Rolex’s patented Oysterlock clasp. As for the dial display, Rolex has made it more balanced by adding an “05” to the minutes scale (replacing the prior model’s “5”), ensuring that each five-minute interval is now consistently marked by a two-digit numeral. The big numerals and triangle marker at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock are now treated with Rolex’s proprietary Chromalight luminous substance, which imparts to them a long-lasting, intense glow in dark conditions. Perhaps most significantly, the latest generation of the Air-King is outfitted with the in-house “Superlative Chronometer” Caliber 3230, the automatic movement that also powers models like the Submariner and Explorer.
Case and Crown
The Air King’s oyster case measures 40mm in diameter and resists water pressure to 100 meters, or 330 feet. Its middle part is made of “Oystersteel” (Rolex’s term for the 904L stainless steel alloy that is uncommonly corrosion-resistant), and its solid, finely fluted back is hermetically sealed with a special tool that is only accessible to authorized Rolex watchmakers and repairers. Also aiding in the watch’s water resistance is the Twinlock crown, protected by the crown guards, which screws down securely into the case.
New Chronometer Caliber
Secured behind the caseback is the aforementioned Rolex Caliber 3230, with its own host of technical attributes, many of them patented. The movement is relatively new, having debuted only in 2020 inside the most recently revamped version of the Submariner, and makes its debut in the Air-King model for the first time here. It incorporates Rolex’s patented Chronergy escapement (antimagnetic thanks to its use of nickel phosphorus in its construction) as well as the also-patented blue Parachrom hairspring (parachrom being another antimagnetic alloy), which makes the movement’s oscillations 10 times more precise and is extraordinarily resistant to shocks. Yet another patented device, the Paraflex shock absorber, helps increase the overall shock resistance. The “Perpetual,” in “Oyster Perpetual,” incidentally, refers to the movement’s automatic winding capability via its bidirectional rotor. All told, these elements add up to a superior level of power reserve (70 hours) as well as precision (-2/+2 seconds per day, beating the standards established by COSC and earning the movement the Rolex in-house chronometer certification, like all Rolex movements since 2015).
The 2020 Rolex Air-King (Ref. 126900) is fitted on the classic three-link Oyster bracelet that has been emblematic of Rolex Oyster Perpetual models since the late 1930s. More recently developed, however, are the patented Oysterlock folding safety clasp that prevents accidental opening and the Easylink extension system that allows the wearer to adjust the bracelet’s length by up to 5 mm. It’s priced at $7,400 — not cheap, but not quite the King’s ransom (if you’ll pardon the expression) that one might expect to pay on the secondary market for more in-demand Rolex watches.
To find out Teddy's thoughts on all the new Rolex watches introduced at Watches & Wonders 2022, as well as the new models from Tudor, click here.
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