The Rolex Air-King 116900
We talk, two years after its launch, one of the most controversial modern Rolex watches ever released
Some years ago, I almost bought a reference 114234 but the 34mm-diameter case represented (and still does) a psychological limit I couldn't possibly overcome, probably because of the size of my wrist that equals 20cm approximate. That blue dial with its big applied Arabic numbers in an orange hue boasted a richness and a mixture of colours that somehow broke the linearity of most of the Oyster timepieces.
For a brief moment, I experienced the very same sensations when I got to see reference 116000, but, somehow, I couldn't quite feel the same warmth that the Air-King radiated and those 2 extra millimeters of the case were not enough to convince me to take the final step. Today, I somehow regret my choice of not getting a reference 114234, since it is pretty hard to find one, it is still very appealing and, if you manage to get your hands on a (new) one, you can forget about paying its original price.
This is the first Rolex we ever photographed at Baselworld
It is somehow funny to find out that the same year when you get to take a few pics of the Rolex novelties at Baselworld (2016) for the very first time, actually coincides with the year when Rolex decide to unveil their new Oystersteel Air-King. Back then, we were not among the first ones to write about the Rolex Oystersteel Air-King 116900 but that slight delay came with its pros, as it gave us enough time to read quite a lot of comments on the Internet about this watch and we made up our mind about this new model.
In 2016, Rolex re-sized the case of the Rolex Oystersteel Air-King and it now measures 40mm, the same size as a Rolex Yacht-Master 40mm 116621 Two Tone Everose Steel Chocolate Dial or a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona Steel and Cerachrom. I reckon that this change showed the brand's willingness to prove that the younger child (aka the entry level timepiece of the Oystersteel collection) had finally reached a new level of maturity and was then on a valid alternative to a Milgauss or a Day Date.
The name betrays the link with the aviation sector and that new size was there both to give the Rolex Oystersteel Air-King a bigger awareness - and thus reposition it within the collection - and, at the same time, to simply make it more readable. Going back to the link with the aviation sector, you will probably note that the pages of this magazine and of other publications too are full of articles and pics about big timepieces that are somehow connected with the world of military aviation from the 30s onwards. That's because most brands are aiming at recovering the history of the air force, but there are very few examples of timepieces connected to commercial aviation. Rolex have been the pioneers and the main actors in this niche market and this has indirectly contributed to the success of the Geneva brand on a global scale.
The first aviators were used to wear an Oyster
In an era when the ambassadors of a product were non-existant (the same thing goes for the concept of “global communication”) it is curious to discover that the English pilot Charles Douglas Barnard, one of the most famous names in the world of English aviation and the man who flew from Lympne in England to Cape Town as well as from Lympne to Malta and Tangier in 1930, used to wear an Oyster. The pilot declared openly that this particular timepiece was the only type of watch that he would use during his long haul flights. In 1933 the Oyster watches were also worn by the men who took part to the Houston expedition, the very first flight that hovered above Mount Everest in severe climate conditions at an altitude above 10,000 metres.
An Oyster timepiece was also wrapped around Owen Cathcart Jones's and Ken Waller's wrists during their flight from London to Melbourne. Without any doubt, the Rolex Oyster has been a testing instrument that was used during medium range and long haul commercial flights and its name is indirectly connected to one of the pioneering companies in the world of modern aviation; De Haviland. This company was the first one to ever build a commercial jet (called Comet 4) by officially paving the way for intercontinental flights.
The Air-King's dial pays homage to Andy Green's Bloodhound SSC
Stylistically speaking, the dial of the Rolex Oystersteel Air-King resembles that of an observation watch; it features big applied Arabic numbers made of 18-carat-white-gold located at 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock. These numbers are coupled with a glowing index built in the shape of an elongated arrow that is located at 12 o'clock, the numbers have been filled with green Chromalight and they are alternated by oversized minutes. On the same dial, Rolex have inserted their institutional logo; yellow crown and green writing.
This is one of the features that makes me still appreciate today the Rolex Oystersteel Air-King, the same way I liked reference 114234, it is something that shatters the formal rigour of an Oyster but that still maintains the unique look of a Rolex.
Actually, the Air-King's dial pays homage to the Bloodhound SSC's cockpit's analog Rolex counters, in particular a Rolex stopwatch placed on the right hand side of the steering wheel. This stopwatch works as a back-up system and was used to time how long did, at the end of every run, the electronic control displays take to switch on and off, thus identifying any potential malfunction.
This is 100% an Oystersteel
Generally speaking, the Rolex Oystersteel Air-King is a summary of all the Rolex pillars and of the Oyster collection; a 904L-steel-made case, an in-house-built Perpetual 3131 caliber with a blue Parachrom anti-magnetic balance spring that is completely anti-shock and that is 10 times more precise than a traditional balance spring when undergoing any impact situation (as declared by the brand).
Chromalight is another of Rolex's patents like the paramagnetic anchor escapement made in a phosphorus-nickel alloy, this a very interesting topic that we should discuss further if, one day, we are given the chance to enter the only integrated manufacturing workshops in Europe where everything is crafted – metals and alloys included – and whose industrial model has been copied by the majority of Europe's watchmaking groups.
A Superlative Chronometer
Two things to pay particular attention to are the 5-year-guarantee that Rolex launched in 2015 on their entire production and the re-definition of the terms of the “Superlative Chronometer officially certified” declaration that was originally a “COSC oriented” certification based on the famous “15 days and 15 nights” tests and is now a more complete certification. Rolex perform all the tests inside their workshops and only once the watch has been entirely assembled, the certification completes the COSC tests and it guarantees a level of precision that is above/below 2 seconds per day. Wearing reference 116900 is a rare mixture between a Milgauss (with its polished case and bezel) and an Explorer (with its index built in the shape of an arrow applied at 12 o'clock.)
I particularly enjoy the contrast between the black dial, the original Air-King writing and the historic logo, you simply need to get used to the big Arabic numbers of the minutes that break the otherwise perfect geometric balance of the dial of a classic Oystersteel and make it a bit overcrowded. It is no coincidence that the design of the Air-King's dial is one of the hot topics among Rolex lovers. The brand's die-hard fans and long-time collectors do not like the Air-King's design at all.
Yes or No?
When it comes to the Rolex Oystersteel Air-King there are no rules. It is an out-of-the-ordinary option among Rolex collections but it is still relatively accessible considering the current Rolex price list. It might represent a good choice for newcomers looking for their new Rolex watch, who are not just looking at a Daytona or a Rolex GMT-Master II “Pepsi” 126710 BLRO. However, whatever your choice is, it is wrong to compare the Air-King with its predecessors, unless you are considering its historic and aesthetic accents despite the fact that this timepiece is the entry point to the world of the 40mm-Oystersteel-timepieces. The retails price totals 5,800 euro, the spirit of the new Rolex Oystersteel Air-King is different, it is much more masculine than the original one and it is in my opinion a valid alternative, a more sporty one, to a Milgauss or a Day-Date 2.
(Photo credit: Horbiter®'s proprietary photo-shooting)
Gaetano C @Horbiter®