The Rolex Air King proves that small design moves make a big difference

Among Rolex’s 2022 releases, whose title is unchecked is the men’s camera, crowned at nine GMT-Master II with black and green bezel — Sprite or Riddler, if you like the moniker. Moving the crown to the opposite side of the dial, making it more comfortable to wear on the left wrist, has provided the kind of Rolex stunt that enthusiasts love and created an opportunity for enthusiasts to post pictures of the watches. Another left-handed Rolex of the past. As a seasonal title watch, it is a heavyweight watch, but instead my curiosity was fueled by a re-release defined by more subtle modifications. I was thinking about re-launching a historic and confusing Rolex — the Air-King.

According to Rolex, the latest Air-King is an homage to the golden age of aviation in the 1930s, with large numbers and prominent minute markers on the dial to read navigation times. First released in 1945, it continued to grow a bit, until the brand discontinued the Air-King in 2014, so that for the first time in decades, the watch was affordable. , was attainable — if not beloved by watch enthusiasts — Rolex is gone.

Then, in 2016, the Air-King was reborn as a 40 mm watch with the dial we now associate with the model: the hours are marked at 3, 6 and 9, and the rest of the face numbers are corrected in five-minute increments with an inverted triangle at the 12 o’clock position. Furthermore, the crown motif is printed in gold, “Rolex” is printed in green – the striking design is a cause for comment among the brand’s most avid followers, as it creates giving an identity to the Air-King that is unmistakable with other products in the Rolex range. In my opinion, the overhaul puts the watch in a hard-to-describe category: It cannot exactly be called a tool watch — that is, to use Rolex’s fancy parlance, a watch with Professional status — as it lacks the crown guard and the characteristic curved edges of the case.

Fast forward to this year’s new model and the ambiguities are gone. Although the modifications are modest – in some cases almost imperceptible, except for those who enjoy a horological spot-the-difference horological – their cumulative effect is enormous. deep. The addition of a crown guard is considered perhaps the most impressive and obvious difficulty. But closer inspection will uncover a bunch of clever updates. For example, the case faces have been straightened and a new bracelet clasp brings the watch into clearer association with Professional watches such as the Submariner and GMT-Master II. The bracelet is almost a millimeter wider and the dial is almost bulged. Adding a zero before 5 on the minute scale means that every five-minute period is now always marked with two digits. And those numerals have been painted with a new layer of lume that Rolex says will glow more brightly for longer periods in the dark — and brighter 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 revamp the Air-King in this way tells us something bigger about the brand’s approach. If the company were solely focused on the short-term goal of quarterly profits, it would be much easier to create a new pastel Oyster Perpetual than to go through the trouble of completely rebuilding a model. Peripheral. Thankfully, this represents the vision of the major independent brands — kudos for Patek Philippe and Chopard — to have the power to improve their watch portfolio.

Patek could shift all production to its Nautilus and still not meet demand, but it has instead discontinued its best-selling Nautilus Ref. 5711 and the launch of two gold watches on the strap (including an amazing new Calatrava Ref. 5226G). Meanwhile, Chopard, having hit gold with the popular Alpine Eagle sports watch, suddenly made a big push for another, lesser-known model: the LUC Full Strike minute repeater, with just five pieces. LUC Full Strike Sapphires released this year.

In making these delicate, well-thought-out adjustments, Patek, Chopard and Rolex are prioritizing surprise over easy victory, keeping watch enthusiasts glued to the moves they make and keeps Swiss watchmaking as alive and exciting as ever.

A version of this story originally appeared in GQ magazine in August 2022 under the headline “Tweak to Perfection”.

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