Sunday Morning Showdown: Rolex Air-King Rate it or hate it? Whose side are you on? by Robert-Jan Broer March 29, 2020 MIN READSunday Morning Showdown: Rolex Air-King
In this Sunday morning column, two of our writers go head-to-head in an epic showdown for the ages. Strong opinions and hysterical hyperbole are welcome (so feel free to join in with the fun in the comments section below). And don’t forget to let us know which watches you’d like to see torn to shreds/effusively exalted next week. We’ll try and feature as many of our readers’ choices as we can. This week, the youthful Rolex Air-King is the subject of this macho tug-of-war twixt RJ and Jorg. Enjoy!
When Rolex introduced this Air-King reference 116900 in 2016, it simply confused me. I even wrote that in this article on Fratello later that year. It appeared to me that Rolex used their 40mm Milgauss case and put in the Explorer dial with some additional printing. Confusing, I’d say. But, as times passed by, I started to warm up to this quirky Rolex.
Designwise, it might be a bit of a mess. That’s probably going to Jorg’s angle of attack. His professional background in the design industry may well give him a lot of ammunition, but not everything has to make sense in order to enjoy it. Some people like the Fiat Multipla. Others like feet. And I like this Rolex Air-King 116900. But it took me a while to warm-up to the range. Let’s explore just why I did.
Rolex Air-King 116900 — Showdown!
A little background on the dial though, before we start our Sunday Morning Showdown on the Air-King 116900. Both the colored Rolex wordmark and logo and the double-digit numbers on the dial are inspired by the instruments on board of the supersonic record-setting car, the Bloodhound SCC. Rolex has been supporting this project since 2011. At some point, the brand provided the Bloodhound SCC project with a speedometer and a chronometer. These board instruments look very similar in design to this Rolex Air-King 116900 we have here today for you.
Interestingly, that makes this watch perhaps even more worthwhile investigating. The Bloodhound SCC project came to an end and continued as Bloodhound LSR, without Rolex as a sponsor. Despite this, Rolex is still showing this Air-King prominently on its website. It might not hang around for long, though.
So, Jorg, tell me. What’s not to like about something so familiar yet so different from everything else the brand has been doing in the Oyster collection? I know most people are lusting after the GMT-Master, Submariner, and/or Daytona, but if you dare to be different, and like the quirkiness, why not go after this Rolex Air-King 116900? Even our own colleague and senior watch guru Gerard Nijenbrinks added one to his collection. Or is it only for those, like Gerard, who have or have had everything already?
Good lord! The Fiat Multipla and feet! What images! What horror! You know we see eye to eye on both of those things. There have to be hate groups for both of those on the internet somewhere that we can become avid supporters of. If not, you and I have another purpose in life. But let’s discuss that some other time and focus on the Rolex Air-King for a minute.
You were right in thinking there is a lot to say about the design of the current Air-King. Don’t worry, I’ll get to that. But my disliking of the watch is not just based on the design. It’s the lack of a consistent story, the absence of any technical distinction, and the messy design that makes the Air-King a completely irrelevant Rolex. I will go as far as saying that if the name Rolex wasn’t on the dial, this would have been delisted by any brand other than Rolex a long time ago.
RJ: You also didn’t like the movie Freddy Got Fingered, so I think my preference for quirky stuff goes perhaps a bit further than yours.
Jorg: Haha, I knew that had to pop up somewhere in this story. But that’s a thin line though. Where does quirky actually become straight-up crazy? Anyway, if you are choosing a Rolex from the current collection, your first choice would never be the Air-King. I just find that idea incomprehensible. Okay, if we limit the choice to Rolex watches within the same price range, let’s say between 5K- 7K, the Air-King would be slap bang in the middle.
And it leaves out the Milgauss because its bigger brother also has the bigger price which makes it an unfair comparison. But the price range will give you the option of an Oyster Perpetual, an Explorer I or a Datejust. Oh and the Air-King of course. See, it’s so easy to forget because the other three are serious options and the Air-King is not.
Which brings me to the reason why it could be for some? (See, I’m really trying here). The story of the Air-King name is one full of history as part of the Rolex “Air” series that was inspired by aviation and launched at the end of World War II. So the Air-King has always been part of Rolex’s connection to aviation with a serious history going back decades.
Why the brand would decide to introduce a watch whose design is inspired by the onboard instruments of a racing car as part of a temporary collaboration with an automotive team is beyond me. And it’s also not what we know from Rolex. If there is one brand that has always been consistent with the stories attached to their watches, it’s the Crown. If you look at the Rolex website today, the brand markets the Air-King as an “homage to aviation.” We all know that’s a very shaky story, to say the least. That makes it an unfitting marketing campaign for the Rolex brand.
RJ: Not everything has to make sense all the time, that goes for design, but also for stories. 50% (roughly) of the watch brands out there come up with some BS stories on how a watch is conceived. Sometimes, a bad story (or no story) is part of the fun.
Jorg: I fully agree with that. Good design doesn’t always have to feel comfortable straight away and proper storytelling is often hard to find. But Rolex is a brand that generally does that very well. And for me, the Air-King falls short on both. Especially the design. Nothing is as shaky as the design of the Air-King for Rolex standards especially.
The one thing I understand is that Rolex had to do something about the design of the Air-King. When Rolex decided to pull the plug on the previous generation Air-King (ref. 114200), there was never the option of going from 34mm to 40mm and keeping the same design trades, That would mean you would end up with a watch that looks pretty much like an Explorer I. But I’m positive that Rolex executives and designers could have come up with a better idea and better execution than the current Air-King.
Its design is made weirder by using two scales on the dial in different executions. The combination of the green Rolex wordmark and the yellow Crown is not very visually pleasing. And moving the Air-King wordmark to the lower half of the dial is a break from tradition that also feels forced and unnecessary.
One final addition is that technically the Air-King uses the same case and movement as the Milgauss. What we end up with as a result is, to be frank, a mashed-up mess. The best thing I can say about the Air-King? It is quirky. I mean, we both share an infinite amount of love for quirky stuff, but this is where I have to pass. I’ll gladly pay the extra €1,800 for the Milgauss if I want a quirky Rolex.
At least the story of the Milgauss checks out and it is way better looking than the current Air-King. So I can only hope that you are right Robert-Jan and that Rolex will come up with a watch that can wear the Air-King name with pride. So we can get back to checking out quirky stuff we both like. Because I know that will be a lot more fun than taking one more look at the current Air-King.
The previous Air-King never really deserved a prize for originality. Back then, Rolex had a number of 34mm watches like the Oyster Perpetuals and Oyster Perpetual Date models. They all kinda looked similar, including the Air-King. I liked some of the later versions with different dial colors, but it didn’t really stand out from their collection. You can say what you want about today’s Rolex Air-King 116900, but that’s a conversation maker right there.
With the 40mm case, it is at least a bit modernized and wearable by solidly built men. Additionally, it has the anti-magnetic movement from Rolex, the caliber 3131 (with a Faraday cage, which the later caliber 3132 hasn’t). Rolex guarantees an average accuracy of -2/+2 seconds a day, which should be good enough for everyone unless you are in Japan running to catch their train (they are even more spot-on).
The thing is —and here’s perhaps where you go wrong with the limit of the choice to Rolex watches between 5 and 7K Euro — this Air-King is not for people who just want to buy one good watch for the rest of their lives. As you know, I’ve been buying and selling various Rolexes on and off since 2003, and I’ve had GMTs, Subs, Sea-Dwellers, Yacht-Masters, Datejusts etc. And in all honesty, I would pick a Sub or GMT if I could only have “one Rolex” over an Air-King (and I did). But, as an “extra” Rolex to the collection, I wouldn’t mind owning an Air-King 116900. I wouldn’t mind at all.
Jorg: But you don’t and you haven’t owned one. There must be a reason for that. Why would you change your mind now?
RJ: Well, there are days I have no 6000 Euro in my pockets, believe it or not. However, because the story on the Air-King 116900 is a bit shaky, the design is a bit off, it makes it even more desirable to me. The rest of the collection is a bit too perfect. All the watches are products of careful evolution. Rolex so rarely goes crazy that it’s worth taking note when it does. Think of the King Midas or the Prince re-edition, or even the Daytona Rainbow and Leopard (or whatever the thing is called). They are mad, but they are maddeningly desirable because of it. I think that history will be kinder to these pieces than we think. And I’m not even talking about the possible value increase in a galaxy far (far) away, but about the fun of owning a Rolex that is a bit off-base.
Yeah, I am digging this one. And if Gerard and our friend-of-the-show Kristian Haagen both bought one last year, it must be quirky and cool enough to own one.
Jorg: I hate do disagree with both Gerard and Kristian as they certainly have been around long enough to recognize a watch that is cool and quirky. But I’m sticking to it, it’s definite “no go” for me. But I’d love to find out what our readers have to say about it. Will they back up you and our “Masters Of Cool & Quirky” or is it a hard pass. Let us know!
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About the author
Ever since he was a young child, Robert-Jan was drawn to watches, even though it were digital Casio and quartz Swatch models at the time. In the mid-1990s, his interest increased when he started to read about mechanical watches in… read more
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