Vintage Eye for the Modern Guy: Rolex Air-King

Keeping with the aviation theme from last week’s article on the Stowa Flieger Klassik 40 Baumuster B, we come to this week’s featured timepiece: the Rolex Air-King. This series is one of the longest-running production models within Rolex’s modern lineup, with only the iconic Datejust and the original Oyster Perpetual rivaling it for longevity.

The Air-King, like the Datejust, was first released in 1945 as part of a larger collection of “Air” models meant to honor the British Royal Air Force for their service during the 1930s and ‘40s — a collection that also included an Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, and Air-Giant. While the Air-King (pictured above) outlasted its three fellow “Air” watches, it was not until 1953, with the “transitional” Ref. 6552 model, and then in 1957, with the appearance of the Air-King Ref. 5500, that the model acquired its familiar modern aesthetic. Since then, the Air-King has been positioned as one of the more affordable options within the Rolex portfolio, and— after being briefly discontinued in 2014— was resurrected in 2016 as the Ref. 116900 (below).


Today’s model features a 40-mm steel Oyster case, with a screw-down crown and an accompanying oyster bracelet. On the black dial are applied white-gold numerals, with traditional 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals for the quarter-hour marks, and the remaining numerals increasing by increments of five in a look reminiscent of the navigational tools of airplanes; at the 12 o’clock position is an applied triangular hour marker commonly found on many pilots’ watches. Below it you’ll notice the printed Rolex logo, with accents in gold and Rolex green, and a printed, vintage Air-King logo toward the bottom of the dial. Indicating the time is Rolex’s signature “Mercedes” hour hand and a sword-style minute hand, with another Rolex green-accented lollipop hand displaying the running seconds. The Air-King uses the automatic Rolex Caliber 3131, the same movement currently used for the Rolex Milgauss, which stores a 48-hour power reserve. The watch is available at retailers worldwide, with the brand currently pricing it at $6,200.

Comparing the modern watch to its vintage counterparts, there are a few noticeable similarities. These include the general shape of the of the Oyster case — a style seen on almost all watches since the middle of the 20th century — and, similarly along these lines, also the Oyster bracelet. Specific to both the vintage and contemporary Air-King models are two primary details: the vintage Air-King logo established in the early iterations of the piece, and the quarter-hour numeral markers for the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions. While these numerals are not exactly in the same style as those on early Air-Kings — firstly, because most vintage models of the piece predominantly featured tick marks, diamonds, or some other stylized non-numerical hour markers; secondly, because the font and sizing are a bit more rounded and proportionally enlarged to the modern dial — the heritage of the watch is still recognizable.

Among the differences between the historical and modern watches, many are easily noticeable. These include the enlarged, 40-mm case, as compared to the vintage model’s 34-or-so-mm; the addition of the non-quarter-hour numerals and the triangle at the 12 o’clock mark; and other details such as the choice of hands and the green colored highlights. There’s no mistaking the contemporary Air-King as a modern Rolex creation rather than a direct historical homage. In my view, the modern Air-King seems more a desendant of the Rolex Explorer (vintage model pictured below), especially with its dial layout and choice of hands (which may partially be a result of Rolex sharing manufacturing between the two models, but that is, of course, a subject however this is for another article).

Comparing today’s Air-King to the historical models in the series, especially from References 6552 and 5500 onward, it’s clear that Rolex did not set out to build a direct replica of any one watch. However, there are some interesting homages within the choice of numerals, and even more subtly within the coloring and hour markers. While the greens and gold of this reference are not seen in any vintage Air-King pieces, as far as I am aware, they do call forth the traditional colors of the brand, used historically on advertisements and packaging and also used directly on some dials. Additionally, the hour markers — with the rising increments of five and the triangular marker at midnight— do work to channel the heritage of vintage pilot’s watches, even if these features haven’t been seen in vintage models of the Air-King series.

Rolex has done what it tends to do in the modern era for its watches with historical lineages: leave enough clear details to maintain a piece within the framework of its series, while changing enough to push the style forward for modern consumers. As with many Rolex timepieces, myself and other collectors would like to see a more direct homage by the brand. Until this unlikely event, check out this vintage-style advertisement I found through the brand’s Instagram, below. The £45 option, adjusted for inflation, is about $1,300, in case you’re curious.


Technical specifications of the MB and F Legacy Machine 2

In 2011, Maximilian Büsser and his friends (MB & F) cut us the breath with its admirable Legacy Machine. A watch of avant-garde making an incredible tribute to the watchmakers of the 18th century. Two years later, MB & F continuing the development of this collection with the arrival of the Machine 2 Legacy. Always developed in partnership with Jean-François Mojon and Kari Voutilainen . You don’t change a winning team. Certainly, the wonder of the first time disappeared… But the magic remains intact. Max and his friends have the gift to make us dream and we dive back to childhood with watches completely non-standard and mysterious…

The collection of Legacy Machines re-interpret remarkably inventions signed by major watchmakers of history. If the Legacy Machine N ° 2 appears contemporary, with its two pendulums hanging from four high arches over the dial, there is nothing paradoxical. Do not be mistaken, this is a watch inscribed in the story line, long of 250 years, drawn by three of the greatest watchmakers who have ever lived: Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807) and Antide Janvier (1751-1835). Explanations…

Watch legends of the 18th century have in common not only their creative genius, but also the fact that they have built clocks and watches to two pendulums. Oscillating height, double rocker highlighted in the LM2 is inspired by the double historical regulators and their tribute. These mechanisms are among the rarest in watchmaking. Even more rare are the models that regulate a single train of gears – more often found two independent movements. In the Legacy Machine N ° 2, the average of the balances markets is established by a differential.

Under a dome domed Sapphire, the dial of the Legacy Machine No. 2, whose base is in fact the top plate delicately decorated movement, is a perfect illustration of the symmetry. From top to bottom: the balance between the small dial in white tight lacquer accented with hands in blued gold, at 12 hours, and the great differential elevated at 6 o’clock. From left to right: mirroring the two floating hangers and their exhausts which extends to the position of the door-peaks in the spiral.

Although the two balance wheels which oscillate levitating attract and hold the eye of the beholder (difficult to detach), it is the great planetary differential enhanced on the dial which is the true heart of the Legacy Machine N ° 2. “Create a complex high-precision mechanism is the feat” highlights the brand in its release. The rarity of multiple regulators connected by a single differential watches evidenced. Its role is threefold: provide power to each of the regulators, record rates of each balance and transmit the average markets to the Cog to ultimately intervene in the time display.

Like that of the LM1, the movement of the Legacy Machine N ° 2 was developed, under the directive of MB & F, by the watchmaker Jean – François Mojon (best watchmaker to the Grand Prix D’horlogerie de Genève 2010) and his team of Chronode. The aesthetic was placed under the responsibility of the renowned independent watchmaker Kari Voutilainen. He defined the hand finishes in ensuring their compliance with the exception of the 19th century watches movements. The refined finishes are without equal: Côtes de Genève impeccable, kittens in gold, polished bevel mirror and angles deliberately reentrant, impossible to complete machine. Spirit of transparency of MB & F requires, the names of the responsible men of the movement are carved by hand on the back.

Even today, despite design assisted by computer (CAD) software and very high-precision CNC machines, it takes expertise to assemble and adjust complex mechanical movements by providing a high-performance timekeeping in different positions. As the either flat or vertically – focused on the top, bottom, left or right – the components of the movement, in particular the balance, are slightly affected. In turn, they interfere on the precision of the time.

In the 18th century, while production techniques involved more tolerance and oils were of low quality, it was almost impossible to adjust a movement with high precision can we expect today. It is therefore not surprising that the greatest watchmakers of the time have tested a variety of mechanisms to improve Chronometry.

While Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807) work its two mechanical regulators, Abraham – Louis Breguet (1747-1823) and Antide Janvier (1751-1835) created double regulator watches using the resonance to the average of the two pendulums markets. It should be noted that most of the watches of the genre, especially those who used the resonance, had only two not regulators but also two complete movements.

These watchmakers geniuses realized that a limited number of clocks and watches to double regulator (some each), which indicates that they doubted that the result is at the height of the effort. Nearly a hundred years later in the 1930s, some students among the best in the school of watchmaking in the Vallée de Joux realized pocket watches to dual controller with a planetary differential to make the average of the balances markets. They were generally two copies – one for them, one for the school. It is estimated that there are ten in the world.

After seeing one of these pocket watches, Philippe Dufour, independent watchmaker in the Vallée de Joux, was inspired to create his Duality. Launched in 1996, is the first wristwatch equipped with two pendulums connected by a differential known. Subsequently, there were very few examples. “The advantage of a planetary differential” recalls mark, “is that the two pendulums fighting at their natural pace, the differential averaging two completely independent frequencies. In other modes of coupling, the first rocker produced a slowdown or one acceleration of the other, which leads to slight pressure in the system’.

If the Legacy Machine N ° 2 may appear as a traditional round watch, its three-dimensional architecture delights the eye to several points of view. What appears at first glance as the main dial is actually the top plate of the movement. It has been finely decorated and plated (or blued for the Platinum model). The Legacy Machine name is engraved on the hand under the differential. The dial of the hours and minutes is slightly raised from the baseline. Its fine outline highlights or the purity of the tense white lacquer surface obtained by applying multiple layers, successively heated so they spread perfectly. White contrasts with the bright blue of the needles in gold, slightly curved to the convex shape of the dial. To enhance the aesthetic purity of this dial punctuated by traditional Roman numerals, placed mounting below replaces screws which might impair the aesthetics.

Planetary differential emerges proudly from the surface, supported by a polished bridge set with both arms bent, mirror of three large rubies. This complex mechanism is the key element of the double control system. It appreciated all the more it is placed just above the movement. Oscillating pendulums created custom wheels are suspended in height compared to the dial and the differential. Both regulators, spiral Breguet and four adjustment screws, are reflections of the other and they react inversely to the different forces. The distance between the wheels was carefully calculated to avoid the phenomenon of resonance that would interfere negatively on the regulation.