The Rolex Air King Proves Tiny Design Moves Make a Big Difference

Among Rolex’s 2022 releases, the uncontested headline grabber was the southpaw, crown-at-nine GMT-Master II with the black-and-green bezel—the Sprite or Riddler, if you’re into nicknames. Moving the crown to the opposite side of the dial, which makes it more comfortable for wearing on the left wrist, delivered the sort of stunt Rolex that geeks love, and offered a chance for obsessives to post pictures of other left-handed Rolexes of the past. As a seasonal trophy watch it’s a slam dunk, but my curiosity was instead piqued by a reissue that was defined by more subtle modifications. I’ve been thinking about the relaunch of a historic and perplexing Rolex—the Air-King.

The latest Air-King is an homage to the golden age of aviation during the 1930s, according to Rolex, with large numbers and prominent minute markers on the dial for navigational time readings. Originally released in 1945, it continued to evolve slightly, until the brand stopped making the Air-King in 2014, so that for the first time in decades the once affordable, attainable—if not exactly beloved by watch enthusiasts—Rolex was gone.

Then, in 2016, the Air-King was reborn as a 40-mm watch with the dial we now associate with the model: hours marked at 3, 6, and 9, and the rest of the dial calibrated in five–minute increments with an inverted triangle at 12 o’clock. Furthermore, the crown motif was printed in yellow, “Rolex” printed in green—the striking design was a cause for comment among the brand’s most passionate followers, as it created an identity for the Air-King that couldn’t be confused with other pieces in Rolex’s range. In my opinion, the overhaul left the watch in a category that’s difficult to characterize: It couldn’t exactly be called a tool watch—that is, to use Rolex-preferred parlance, a watch with Professional status—as it lacked a crown guard and featured curved sides to its case.

Fast-forward to this year’s new model and the ambiguities have vanished. Though the modifications are modest—in some cases barely perceptible, except to those who delight in the PhD-level sport of horological spot-the-difference—their cumulative effect is profound. The addition of a crown guard counts as perhaps the most dramatic and obvious fiddle. But closer inspection reveals a variety of smart updates. For instance, the sides of the case have been straightened, and a new bracelet clasp has brought the watch into clearer alignment with Professional timepieces like the Submariner and the GMT-Master II. The bracelet grew almost a millimeter wider, and the dial was bulked up nearly as much. The addition of a 0 before the 5 on the minutes scale means that every five-minute interval is now consistently marked by two digits. And those numerals were painted with a new lume that Rolex says will glow more intensely for longer in the dark—and will shine whiter than white in daylight. Inside, a new movement reduces the height of the watch from 13.1 mm to 11.59 mm.

Rolex’s decision to improve the Air-King in this way tells us something bigger about the brand’s approach. If the company was merely focused on the short-term goal of quarterly profits, it would be far easier to simply create a new pastel-colored Oyster Perpetual than go to the trouble of completely reengineering a peripheral model. Thankfully, this typifies the vision of large independent brands—kudos to Patek Philippe and Chopard too—that have the power to improve their catalog of timepieces.

Patek could turn its entire production over to its Nautilus and still not meet demand, but instead it discontinued its best-selling Nautilus Ref. 5711 and launched two gold watches on straps (including a great new Calatrava Ref. 5226G). Meanwhile, Chopard, having struck gold with the popular Alpine Eagle sports watch, unexpectedly made a strong push for a different, lesser–known model: the L.U.C Full Strike minute repeaters, with only five of the L.U.C Full Strike Sapphires being released this year.

In making these considered, subtle adjustments, Patek, Chopard, and Rolex are prioritizing the unexpected over the easy win, keeping watch enthusiasts glued to the moves that they make, and keeping Swiss watchmaking alive and as exciting as ever.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of GQ with the title “Tweaked to Perfection”.