"The Man Who Would Be King," or "5500"

5500.jpg 1.jpg

Air King 5500, TMO 2020 ©

 In November last year, I was in Geneva, for the recent auctions held by Antiquorum, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips; during which we saw the sale of the most expensive watch ever sold at auction, at Christie’s Only Watch, which doubled the price of the Paul Newman, Paul Newman Daytona.


I flew out with a friend of mine on the Friday and we managed to do all four previews in a day and a half, before heading to the said, Only Watch auction. In this time, I think we looked at somewhere in the range of 300 watches, and in great detail. The nice thing about the Previews prior to the auction is you can sit down and go through each piece with a fine tooth loupe or  (as I did) macro lens and really get close and personal with pieces you regularly can only see through glass. It is something, if you are into watches I really cannot recommend enough. Being able to sit down, in the four seasons hotel in Geneva and be served coffee all day by smiling Swiss interns (for free, I might add) and go over obscure Rolex references, is something every watch lover should do at least once. Aside from anything else I learnt more in those two days about watches than I had in weeks of staring at a computer screen.

On the way home, I bumped into a watch dealer sitting in the departures lounge of Geneva Airport, we had  met briefly at a couple of the previews . It was about 5 o’clock and we decided that we deserved a beer, although there wasn’t a bar in sight, we found a kiosk and at £10, a can of Heineken (yeah… Switzerland) we took a seat on a metal bench in front of the gate and cracked a couple of cold ones.


I realised that we had been on the same flight out together from his watch (as we hadn’t met until one of the previews). He was wearing an Explorer 5500, an early precision reference of the famed Rolex time only Oyster. He quickly went on to add that it was not the original dial, I inspected the watch and he told me the the only thing incorrect was the accent on the “c” in “Precision” at six o’clock. Now, The Air King 5500 was one of the longest running references for Rolex, being available from 1957 to sometime in the early 1990’s; it’s a solid choice for anyone looking to buy an entry point Rolex; they retail around £3-4k currently.


Explorer 1016, TMO 2020 ©

Weirdly, -as ever-  Rolex also offered the 5500 with a different dial option in the way of an Explorer dial, much in the same way they offered the early Daytona’s with an Exotic dial, and with no reference to the dial type on the paper work… so you can see what I’m getting at.


Not only does the reference of the watch suit the dial type, but the later 1530 movements used in the Super precision Air King, were also used in the 5504 Explorer which was COSC certified as a Superlative Chronometer. Previously it was not offered for COSC testing as it carried a larger import tariff on the US market…


So… Not that I’d ever suggest such a thing, but if one, did ever come across an Explorer dial which might fit a 34mm Rolex Air King 5500, and decided to swap the dials out… It wouldn’t be too cheeky.


Would it?

Words by Tom Heap

Images by Tom Heap

Air King 5500, TMO 2020 ©








  • Instagram - Black Circle