In-Depth with the Rolex Air-King
And auction season is here
For Your Reference: Rolex Air-King Reference 5500
I’ve given a brief history of the Rolex Air-King before, but today we’re going in-depth on the longest-running model in the Air-King’s history: the Air-King Reference 5500. Manufactured for over 30 years, the Ref. 5500 is one of the longest-running models in the entire history of Rolex. Introduced in 1957 and remaining in production until it was replaced by the Reference 14000 in 1989, it’s truly an iconic Rolex model.
The Ref. 5500 is a continuation of the Air-King name that Rolex first introduced with the Reference 4925 in the 1940s alongside names like Air-Giant, Air-Lion and Air-Tiger that flamed out. Rolex originally introduced the Air-King as a variation of the Oyster Perpetual, intended to honor RAF pilots who served during World War II.
While this particular Air-King may not drive the passion of collectors like some more popular Rolex models, there is still plenty here for a budding enthusiast to sink his or her teeth into. And, since the Air-King continues to fly under the radar, even the most rare of Air-Kings can typically be had at an affordable price.
The standard, catalog Air-King Ref. 5500 measures 34mm in diameter; petite, even by standards of its era. The entire Air-King lineup (until the modern version, that is) is notable for its simple, clean, time-only design.
There is often confusion about whether there was an Air-King reference 1002. There was not. The Reference 1002 was an Oyster Perpetual produced from the 1950s through the 1980s, with the same case size as the Ref. 5500, but featuring a COSC-certified caliber 1560 movement. Because they had the same case size, Rolex often used case backs stamped 1002 on Air-King 5500 models. In earlier years of production, you might find an Air-King with the inside case back stamped “5500”, but by the 1970s, they’re typically stamped “1002.” This is not a service case back and can be completely correct and original.
Due to U.S. import laws designed to protect fledgling domestic watch manufacturers at the time, the movement inside the Air-King Ref. 5500 varied. The caliber 1520 had either 17 or 26 jewels, while the caliber 1530 had 17, 25, or 26 jewels. The U.S. and Canadian markets suffered through the downgraded movement. For examples with the caliber 1520 inside, Rolex used the word “Precision”, or no text at all, at the 6 o’clock dial position. Those with the caliber 1530 used the words “Super Precision.” Neither were COSC-certified movements. These aren’t exactly top-of-the-line movements: you can often hear them rattling around on your wrist like a beat up Seiko 5, but the movements are also robust and known to be easy to service. This, along with the relative affordability of a vintage Ref. 5500, makes it the perfect daily wearer.
I have not found definitive statements on this, but it seems the material of the hour indices varied over the Ref. 5500’s production run. While earlier models have markers made of typical silvery metals, later runs — starting around the mid 1970s — seem to feature white gold markers that often have (or have developed) a yellow tint. I have also seen later versions that feature prominently gold indices and hands, giving the watch a more luxurious aesthetic.
Read the full For Your Reference for more on the Air-King, including:
Rare early variations, including when you’ll find radium lume
Correct colored dials
Co-branded (Domino’s!) dials
Middle East stamped dials (including the most expensive Air-King ever auctioned)
Other 5’ series Air-Kings produced alongside the Ref. 5500
Conclusions on the King
While anyone can get their hands on a Ref. 5500 Air-King if they’ve got a couple thousand bucks to spare — indeed, that’s part of this humble watch’s charm — truly rare and interesting examples are increasingly difficult to find. Royal crests, company logos and jeweler stamps, and rare early versions all provide interesting areas of exploration for collectors to pick up an affordable vintage Rolex with some character. The Air-King offers an affordable avenue to dive into vintage Rolex with limited risk and investment, though there are always land mines to be aware of.
For 2,500+ words and everything you could ever want to know about the Air-King Ref. 5500, read the entire For Your Reference: Rolex Air-King
With the 4 largest watch auction houses hosting nearly 20 auctions over the next 3 months (not to mention the plethora of small auctioneers), the number of “important” and exciting watches up for auction through the rest of the year is an order of magnitude larger than what one humble blogger can cover. As such, I’ve compiled a schedule with links to all the major auctions happening through the end of the year.
Up next: Sotheby’s Important Watches in Hong Kong this week, and Christie’s Online, with bidding open until October 15. Here are a few picks from Sotheby’s, leading off with an Explorer that has a special connection to the Rolex Air-King.
Before the Rolex Explorer got its own reference — 1016, which would go on to become an icon in its own right — the “Explorer” moniker appeared in a number of case references, including reference 5504. Sotheby’s has a particularly nice tropical example on offer in this week’s Important Watches Hong Kong auction.
You can also find an Air-King in a reference 5504 case on occasion; these were produced before the Ref. 5500 came into its own. The reference 5504 case measures 36mm, slightly bigger than the Air-King’s standard reference 5500 case, earning 5504 Air-Kings the “jumbo” nickname.
Rolex GMT-Master Reference 1675. This example of a GMT-Master is everything you want: glossy gilt dial, radium lume (with an exclamation point at 6 o’clock), small GMT hand, sharp lugs, and “Cornino” crown. Estimate $60,000 to $75,000.
Two Reference 6538 Submariners. The Submariner, featured prominently on Sean Connery’s wrist in a number of Bond movies. It features an 8mm crown, differentiating it from the smaller crown Ref. 6536. Sotheby’s has both a four-line and two-line version of the “Big Crown” up for auction, and both are in superlative condition. Estimates: $200,000 to $400,000.
There are 392 lots on offer at Sotheby’s on October 8 — a ton of Rolex, Patek, and a lot of bling — check out the full list for more.
Who says you can have a decent watch auction in Chicago? While the rest of the world is gearing up for the fall watch auction season, Hindman Auctions hosted a watch auction of its own last week, headlined by a couple Pateks and some other modern gems. Here’s a look at just a few of the pieces that sold in the West Loop.
Headlining Hindman’s Chicago watch auction was a Patek Phillipe Reference 5396 in 18k white gold. There’s nothing particular crazy about this watch: it’s just a great, modern, serially produced annual calendar with a moon phase. While it’ll cost you upwards of $50,000 at your local Patek dealer, they can be had at a significant discount on the secondary and auction market. Hindman put up a nice, clean example from the estate of the original owner.
Overall, the watch is a nice introduction to more complicated Patek, with all the design hallmarks of the brand’s more complicated perpetual calendar chronographs present — a gateway watch for sure. The caliber 324 inside is classic Patek: self-winding, 34 jewels, and 347 total parts. Lot 53 sale price: $25,000
If modern calendar complications aren’t your speed, this little vintage Calatrava might be more your style. The Reference 96 is the first Calatrava, and thus often thought of as the Platonic ideal of the perfect dress watch. It’s simple and understated; Bauhaus but elegant; vintage but timeless.
Measuring just 31mm, they’re not as popular as some later Calatrava models, but perhaps that’s changing. This example from Hindman’s auction had an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. It shot past that range, hammering for $20,000. Vintage Patek in stainless steel always commands a premium, but it seems no one saw that result coming for this humble 31mm time-only piece. Lot 22 sale price: $20,000
The Swiss watch industry reported an export value of 1.5 billion Swiss francs in August 2019, an increase of 1.5% compare to one year prior. This continues the slowing upward trend of 2019; through 8 months, export growth is at 1.9%. It’s not a bad showing considering the global political and economic challenges, but is substantially down from the industry’s strong 2018 which saw growth of 6.3%.
Ticks & Tocks
🤾♀️ The new luxury sports watches of 2019; we’ve got more choices than just the Royal Oak and Nautilus nowadays. 🏗 Patek’s got a new manufacturing facility, but it’s still limiting production growth to 2-3% per year (an interview with Thierry Stern). 🤦♂️ Bieber buys a “vintage rare watch” as a wedding gift … to himself. 👎 Which complications decrease your interest in watches?
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