Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King 40mm Oystersteel.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King 40mm Oystersteel.
Image: Supplier

There were so many spectacular novelties presented at Watches & Wonders 2022 in April that it was difficult to pick just one favourite or just one that captured this moment in time. Even throwing an imaginary vault of cash at the task made it no less challenging. But, in the context of a world placed at what, I hope, is the dawning of a new Renaissance, there is one brand that stands out by putting the arts and sciences and planetary health ahead of profits.

While Rolex offers cachet for those in search of social validation, the manufacture’s provenance and patronage of the humanities and earth sciences are far more important to those of us with values that are worth more than the sum of our acquisitions.

Rolex built many of its original watches as tools for the early explorers of air, land, and sea, using their various quests as rigorous testing grounds for these pieces. Today, exploration is less about conquering nature and more about understanding how to co-exist with it, yet it is no less demanding on a timepiece.

The first Air-King was released in 1958 as a nod to the 1930s’ pioneers of flight. As air travel opens up and new itineraries suggest the traversing of multiple time zones, the new-generation Air-King Ref 126900 is certainly an excellent contender in what is looking like the year of pilots’ and GMT watches.

This year’s model preserves the aeronautical heritage of its origins, which go back to the Rolex Oyster, by further evolving the controversial Ref 116900 released in 2016. Refinements have been made to almost every aspect of its 40mm Oystersteel case, bracelet, and dial. While these updates are subtle at first glance, holding the refs 116900 and 126900 side by side and feeling them on the wrist reveal just how remarkable the improvements are.

The Ref 116900 was the first Air-King to feature a glossy black dial and instrument-gauge aesthetic, with large Arabic-numeral hour markers and a prominent minute scale. It was through that model that the case was also increased from earlier 34mm or 36mm options to that of the modern 40mm Milgauss.

For balance, this year’s dial changes see the “5” being replaced by a “05” minute marker. The hour markers are more refined, with slim polished-steel rims and Chromalight filling. Overall, the crisper numerals improve legibility. The case also has a cleaner geometry than its predecessor and crown guards have been added — a unique feature for a Rolex model with a polished bezel. The adjusted profile also improves wearability, while its slenderer lugs add to the general elegant sportiness of the Air-King.

The new bracelet is also broader at the lugs to accommodate the new design. I do love classic dashboard instruments, so, no matter how subtle, its more eloquent design got my attention while the anoraks in the room pawed the left-handed GMT-Master II.

Inside the Air-King beats the Calibre 3230 with its patented Chronergy escapement. Made from nickel-phosphorus, this automatic movement has enough magnetic resistance for Rolex to remove the shield that was found in its predecessor, and the Paraflex shock absorbers improve its shock resistance. For even more practicality, the power reserve has been extended to 70 hours and the watch is resistant to 100m. The Air-King joins the recently downsized new-gen Explorer 36mm in the Professional collection.

R115 300, or Rolex Watch Co SA 011 784 9230

 From the May edition of Wanted, 2022.

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