Earlier this year, GQ watch columnist and artist Wes Lang wrote about why he loves the relatively unheralded Rolex Air-King: “The bold logo, the green second hand, the white-gold 3-6-9 markers, and the O.G. ‘AIR-KING’ make [this watch] fuckin’ fun.” Let’s focus on that third quality for a moment: those radical Mission Impossible-font 3-6-9 markers. As Lang points out, they’re part of what makes this Rolex model so f-ing fun—bold, flashy numbers crashing into the typically understated Rolex universe.
Last week, though, those numbers were the cause of even more attention in the watch world. WatchFinder.com reports that a Rolex Air-King was put to market, purchased, and worn around until someone pointed out the mistake: In addition to its regular 9 marker, it has another in the position where the 3 should be.
In any other market, with any other product, this would be a pretty straightforward issue: an unseemly defect that prompts a stern letter to the manufacturer. But in the topsy-turvy world of watches, what typically might be considered a “defect” is actually a boon to the value of the watch. “Dials with such errors are indeed quite rare to see,” says Paul Boutros, head of watches for the Americas at Phillips auction house. “Due to how obvious the error is, it has great appeal to collectors.”
This watch benefits from a couple factors. Chief among them is the fact that Rolex hardly ever makes a mistake like this—that’s what makes a watch like this “rare” in Boutros’s eyes. It’s specifically because this watch passed so many eyeballs with the mistake undetected that collectors and those at auction houses are so excited about it. Rolex is known for an intensive quality-control process that includes several internal checks before the watch is sent out to COSC, an organization in Switzerland that tests a watch’s accuracy, after which it comes back to Rolex for a final round of looks. “The modern Rolex is recognized for exacting quality control,” says Nate Borgelt, head of sale for Sotheby’s Watches in New York. “This in turn makes it interesting to see small variations or errors, especially in modern-day productions from the brand, which are certainly outliers. In the world of watch collectors, outliers mean rarity, and rarity can prove highly desirable.”
Both Boutros and Borgelt believe the extra 9 marker on this Air-King only serves to make the watch that much more valuable. “We believe it would sell for a significant premium above its retail price,” Boutros says. (That retail price is approximately $6,200.) Brandon Frazin, a watch specialist at Christie’s, is less sure a mistake like this instantly ups the value of this particular watch, because the Air-King isn’t a very sought-after Rolex model. But, he adds, all that can change quickly in the vintage watch market. “Other models that were unpopular in the past, like the Daytonas with the Exotic/’Paul Newman’ dials are now some of the most sought after watches in the world,” Frazin says. (That’s almost certainly an understatement: Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona is the most expensive wristwatch ever sold.)
And, of course, there is a precedent for messed-up, discolored, and unloved watches turning into auction superstars. In fact, the whole auction world typically turns on nominally mass-produced items that have morphed into one-of-a-kind pieces. Take watches with a “tropical” dial, for example: “tropical,” after all, is just a romantic way to say that enough exposure to sunlight mutated the dial’s original color. But because a tropical dial makes a watch unique, it becomes a marker of collectibility.