The King of the Oysters…

by bulang - Sep 03 2015

Every story has to have a beginning and my story begins in the summer of 2002. I had been working as a freelance musician and University Lecturer in London for five years and in early 2002 met a girl who was to become my wife. I left my position at the university and wanted to buy something to mark this new chapter in my life. I had been interested in acquiring a Rolex Oyster for some time, but my research made me realise there were so many variations and model numbers; it was dizzying!

I eventually settled on the idea of acquiring an Air King. I liked the cleanness of the dial, without the date bubble on the crystal, and I saw some example from the 1960s on rivet bracelets, which I was strangely drawn to…and still am! E-Bay wasn’t quite the minefield it is today back in 2002 and so I found what I was looking for. For reasons that escape me, I missed the final bidding on the watch but there was Liverpool number listed on the auction and so I rang it and had a fantastic conversation with a man called Mr Milton, who ran a shop in Liverpool (Haywood Milton is now somebody I would call a friend and a leading expert on Military and Comex Rolex watches). He had nothing really suitable in stock, but suggested I ring a friend of his who owned a shop in Southport – Mike Wood.

I rang Mike and explained my circumstances and he told me he had four watches that would fit my criteria and budget. So my future wife and I set out for Southport and I met Mike for the first time. Mike’s shop in Southport was the first time I had seen so many vintage Rolex watches in one place. I was captivated by all the beautiful watches with different dials and bezels – I was hooked!

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We examined the four watches Mike had laid out for us and my wife was immediately drawn to one with applied numbers on the dial, which stood out against the others with applied baton markers. The stretch rivet bracelet was in beautiful condition and the pearl-esque effect on the dial in certain lights was captivating. The deal was done and Mike sized the bracelet for me and I proudly wore the watch on the drive home.

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The watch was an Air King reference 5500 from 1967. I still have it and wear it for special occasions. In the thirteen years that I have owned it I’ve only ever seen two others like it, making it quite a rare dial variation. The stretch rivet bracelet, ref 6635, gives the watch an elegant look and weight feels very balanced in the wrist.

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The Air King name was first used in 1945 and appeared in the Rolex line up until 2014, making it one of the most enduring Rolex models for its near 70 year run. The longest reference run was the 5500 which was introduced in 1957 and was in the catalogue until 1989 when it as replaced by the sapphire glassed 14000. The 5500 was a Precision of Super Precision model (not chronometer rated) and featured the work horse calibre 1520/30 movement. In 2007 the 114200 was introduced with the COSC chronometer rating for the first time. The 34mm size of the Air King is classic and is considered one of the most versatile models, being the perfect hybrid sports-dress watch.

The Air King is well known as a presentation watch and there are lots of examples of Air Kings with company logos applied to the dials. In fact, the 2008 Antiquorum ‘Revolution’ sale, which was a Rolex themed auction focused entirely on Rolex sports models had a section dedicated to the Air King as a tribute to its role on the evolution of the Rolex sports watch. Included were some of the most well known ‘logo-dialled’ watches from companies such as Winn Dixie (US Supermarket chain), Pool Intairdril (Libyan Oil Company) and Dominoes Pizza.

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The reference 5500 is interesting as it was used for a number of models including the ‘Air King’, ‘Metropolitan’, ‘Everest’ and ‘Explorer’. The ‘Explorer’ watches were produced as both the familiar black dialled 3-6-9 watches and also as the rarer ‘Dress-Explorers’. The 5500 Explorer was produced for the Commonwealth market and was marked as a Precision watch, which was different to the chronometer rated Explorer references.

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Explorer ref 5500 (H Milton Collection) with matte dial

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Explorer ref 5500 (H Milton Collection) with rare luminova service dial

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3 reference 5500 – Explorer matte dial, Air King and Explorer with service dial