In 2022 Rolex introduced new wristwatch models that represent an evolution of existing references — rather than producing anything that’s truly new — which has long been their modus operandi.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King (Ref. 126900) replaces the now discontinued Air-King (Ref. 116900), which was last updated in 2016. The Air-King design, which dates back to 1958, blends elements of Rolex’s “Professional” Explorer and Milgauss models, as well as the “Classic” Oyster Perpetual — with its signature pilot’s dial that places the focus on minutes rather than hours for optimal navigational time readings.
Offered in a 40 mm diameter 904L stainless steel Professional case, the next-generation Air-King now further distinguishes itself from these three abovementioned models thanks to its newly added crown guards, redesigned dial, and an upgrade to Rolex’s latest time only movement.
Rolex not only gave the Air-King its first crown guards, but they also redesigned the entire case, giving the flanks straighter profiles — like most of the Professional models — and reducing the lug width ever so subtly. The Air-King also received an Oysterlock safety clasp for the first time, with center links that have been broadened, even though you will have a hard time noticing this change without the discontinued 116900 sitting right next to it. The Air-King’s Oyster bracelet comes with an Easylink comfort extension, which allows for 5 mm of adjustment without a tool.
The dial has also been given a refresh, and while at a glance you might miss the difference, like the crown guards, the new dial is a more obvious clue that you’re looking at a 2022 Air-King, than the fraction of millimeter changes to the lugs and bracelet. One of the main differences is that Rolex changed the printed “5” at 1 o’clock to “05” which balances the aesthetics of the dial, so now — with the exception of the Explorer-style applied triangle at 12 and Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9 — all the minute/hour markers are two-digits. The other primary change is the addition of luminescent (Chromalight material) to the Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9. Previously these applied numerals were in solid 18K white gold, and they’re still made of 18K white gold, but now filled with lume. This increases legibility and presumably reduces the cost a bit. Finally, all of the minute/hour markers, not just the applied numerals, have also been given the Chromlight treatment, which was only applied to the hands and triangle on the outgoing reference 116900.
As for the movement, the aging caliber 3131 has been updated with Rolex’s latest generation time-only automatic caliber 3230. It’s worth noting that the Explorer, Oyster Perpetual, and Submariner all use the caliber 3230, while the Milgauss still uses the caliber 3131. Boasting Rolex’s Superlative Chronometer certification, the Air-King’s movement is adjusted to a rate -2/+2, fully cased up, before leaving the factory. Beating at 4Hz, caliber 3230 measures 28.5 mm in diameter, has 31 jewels, bi-directional winding, and a 70-hour power reserve.
The Rolex Air-King Ref. 126900 has a Twinlock winding crown with, protected by gaskets and an internal crown guard, as well as a screw-in caseback, and is depth rated to 100 meters.
Rolex has maintained the Air-King’s prominent minutes scale pilot-style dial while balancing it out in a way that Wes Anderson would surely approve. They’ve also added a more robust and accurate movement, better protected the crown, and enhanced nighttime legibility significantly — although the old solid 18K white gold 3, 6, 9 numerals were slightly more luxurious on the older 116900 iteration — making the next generation Air-King even more of a professional tool watch.
The retail price is $7,400.