Rolex Air-King Ref. 14000 Review

By Greg Bedrosian

The Air-King is an often forgotten, unsung hero of the Rolex sports model lineup. Its roots begin all the way back to June of 1940 before the United States entered World War II when Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut. The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) launched air attacks on southern England. The next year would be a terrifying time for England as Germany launched wave after wave of aircraft to attack strategic military targets as well as densely populated cities such as London. The period is known in history as the Battle of Britain.

Air-raid sirens sounded and RAF (Royal Air Force) pilots scrambled to their Spitfires and Hurricanes to defend their countrymen seeking refuge in basements and shelters. Hans Wilsdorf (founder of Rolex) created the “Air” series of watches to honor the heroism of those pilots. The Air-King is the last remaining model from the series.

The Rolex Air-King literally flies under the radar. The Air-King is considered to be “entry-level” in the world of Rolex. It can be a tempting model when comparing the price point of the Air-King to other Rolex steel sports models from the 1990s. I was lucky enough to be lent a reference 14000 from my uncle, Rick Bedrosian. He’s a professional musician, photographer, and foodie. You can learn a lot about a person by connecting them with their watch. Click here for more on Rick’s adventures. Oh, there’s one more thing: prepare for a bunch of reference numbers.

The Case:

The Rolex Oyster case is familiar to most. In fact, it’s downright iconic. You’ll find variations of it on everything from the Datejust to the Daytona. While the design might be iconic, there are small changes to the shape between models and eras. The Air-King reference 14000 was produced from 1989 to 1999. Its predecessor, the reference 5500, was produced for 31 years, making it one of longest production runs of any Rolex model.

The hang-up for most is the case width of 34mm. For modern men’s standards, this watch would be considered “too small”. Even my wife thought that it “looked a little small” on my wrist. One of the modernizations to the Rolex case is the lugs. The drastic change is very recent (2012ish). The design change has trickled all the way through their catalog. As Rolex’s modern watches get thicker lugs, the thin and sharp lugs of the 14000 reminded me of a style that is much more “classic”.

The case is only 11.2mm tall, allowing the Air-King to slide under any shirt cuff with ease thanks to a smooth bezel. The lug to lug is 42.8mm. This makes the watch a great choice for anyone, male or female, with a wrist size of 7” or under. I was surprised how effortlessly the case wears. The case quality is nothing less than you would expect from Rolex’s reputation. That reputation is what drew my uncle Rick toward the brand when he was looking for his first luxury watch in the late 90s.

The only drawback is that on my 6.75” wrist when viewing the watch at a three-quarter angle, it can look a little small by today’s bulky standards. The Rolex signed 5.2mm crown has a single bar indicating that the watch is steel and has a twinlock winding crown. Keep it cranked down and you can go for a swim carefree!


 
 

The Dial:

The dial is one of my favorite parts about the Air-King 14000. It’s a sliver with a very subtle sunburst radiating out from the middle. It’s a great touch on an otherwise plain dial.

It’s beyond balanced. It’s so clean and pure with very little text. There are eleven sticks indicating the hours with the Rolex crown at twelve o’clock. There is no date complication and no magnifying cyclops. Some Air-King-Date variants did have this feature.

The hour markers each have a small dot of Tritium. They still work 20 years later after a bath in direct sunlight. On the bottom of the dial, you will still see “T Swiss T”. That signifies the Tritium is less than 7.5mC. This was the end of the trace amounts of radioactive materials used by Rolex. In the 2000s Rolex would switch to LumiNova on their dials.

The stick hands themselves have the same treatment. 20 years later they still glow, but not as brightly as the hour markers. Overall, they are easy to read. It’s no-nonsense, perfect for a quick glance while checking your flight log. Or in my Uncle’s case, watching the billable studio time escalate while the rest of the band goofs off.

The Movement:

The Air-King 14000 has an in-house (developed and manufactured by Rolex) caliber 3000 automatic, self-winding movement. The specs list it as having a 42-hour power reserve, but due to the age, most unserviced movements will have less than that. It is not COSC certified. I noticed an accuracy of -7 seconds per day. Not bad for its age and lack of servicing.

The caliber movement is shared with other Rolex icons of that area such as the no-date Submariner and the Explorer. Pulling this watch out of the box while I was borrowing it was very refreshing. The motion from just handling it started the movement back up almost instantly.

My uncle has never fully serviced the watch in the twenty years that he’s owned it. He has only had one issue: the rotor was spinning freely and not winding the watch. It wasn’t a cheap repair at the local AD (authorized dealer). At the time it would have been better to get a complete service of the movement for only a few hundred dollars more. The Rolex AD that he purchased it from in our area is not known for their post-sale service and didn’t even think to recommend a full service. With the manual winding becoming a little “crispy”, a full service should be done on this watch soon.

The Bracelet:

I thought that all men’s Rolex stainless steel sports watches of that era had 20mm bracelets. This model does not. The Air-King’s Oyster bracelet has its reference 76350 / 19 stamped on the back of the first link, which should have been the giveaway. The 19mm bracelet tapers gently all the way down to 14mm at the clasp. The important thing is that the size and taper are scaled correctly.

The clasp is different from that of an Explorer or Submariner of the late 90s. There is no safety lock on the clasp. Despite that, I never felt like the twenty-year-old watch was ever unsecured to my wrist.

Final Thoughts:

Is it easy to tell time? Yes
Would I #watchfast it? Yes

5 Things that I love
Outside of the Rolex bubble
Very clean design
The historical tribute to the RAF
Availability of pre-owned 14000 / 5500 models
Superb quality on all fronts

5 things that I hate
Preconceived opinions about Rolex
Getting used to the 34mm case size
Servicing is not cheap
Many alternatives at the same price-point
If not for a19mm lug width, it would be a “strap monster”

The size of the watch took me a little bit to get used to. Most things in life are relative. After a few hours on the wrist, the 34mm case seemed right at home. Some might think that the all-silver Air-King 14000 is too plain. I appreciated that I could wear the watch with just about anything. It reminded me of the watches of yesteryear. I felt like in its heyday, this could easily be your “one watch”. Keep in mind the ultimate power-move solid gold Rolex Day-Date (Ref. 18238) aka the “President” of this era only had a 2mm larger case.

Another thing that I really appreciated is how well my uncle takes care of things. The bracelet had almost no “sag” and was still very tight. My uncle didn’t hand me just the watch to borrow. He had the full 110% kit with it. One of my favorite parts about the experience was looking through the 1999 Rolex catalog that he had in the box. It was much smaller than the textbook-sized Rolex catalog of today. I imagined myself in his shoes looking at the 16610 Submariners and 16710 GMTs trying to make a decision. Would I have picked the Air-King as well in 1999? That’s a tough call.

If you want to toast champagne as you vacation around the world, a Rolex GMT Master might be a great “flyer” watch for your collection. If you’re more inclined to load up two wings full of .303 cal and pull some g’s to handle some business, the Air-King might be a better choice. Not to mention, the Rolex Air King 5500 and 14000 are the most accessible ways to get into Rolex. If you can get over the 34mm size, it’s a tremendous value. This watch has it all: the brand, the quality, the history, the style. And best of all, the Air-King hasn’t been sucked into the vintage Rolex price bubble… yet.


Check Out The TBWS Podcast

Wrist Watch Podcast