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The Rolex Air King that Became a Field Watch

Word is quickly spreading across mass media that a detectorist recently recovered a Rolex lost many years ago by a farmer in England.
Did a cow eat a Rolex?
When I read the initial coverage in British regional and national press, parts of the story seemed very confusing to me. So I did a little sleuthing and got in touch with a family member of the watch's original owner, who kindly agreed to answer some questions and share pictures of two watches involved in the chain of events. So here is my take on the tale.

The articles I read suggested that the recovered Rolex had been eaten by a cow when it disappeared from farmer James Steele's wrist in 1974. If true, that means, at some point, the watch made a journey through the four chambers of the cow's stomach, exited stage tail, and lived in a field until the metal detector started wailing and the watch was recovered this year. So, the first question I asked of Steele's son, Andrew, was "How certain is your Dad that a cow ate his watch?" I asked this because I couldn't figure out how husbandry would result in a watch in a cow's mouth. Was there some kind of mouth inspection happening? Perhaps doctoring of a tooth? Or was there a treat available and the cow over-eagerly mouthed James' hand and wrist?

Admittedly, I am fairly ignorant about the care of farm animals. I did volunteer for feeding shifts at a theraupetic horse riding charity, but that really only provided an introductory familiarization with one type of livestock. When I tried to learn about the speed of digestion in cows, I encountered an article from Oklahoma State describing "Hardware Disease." For cows, "The weight of metallic objects causes them to fall to the bottom of the reticulum, where they remain. Unlike other animal types, where foreign objects typically move through the gastrointestinal tract until they either cause a blockage or are passed, the anatomy of the reticulum and the weight of the object nearly guarantee that the piece of hardware remains there forever."

Andrew Steele informed me, though, that his father did believe that a cow ate the watch. When James realised his Rolex was missing, he could only locate the bracelet. The cows were about, so it seemed plausible that one of them inadvertantly ate the timepiece. Seems plausible to me as well. At this point, I'm not sure we'll be able to determine, with 100% confidence, the chronology of the Rolex's life over the past 50 years. It seems incontrovertible, though, that the Rolex was recovered this year (Andrew explained that he hired the detectorist because he'd found at least one interesting item in the field in the past and he was curious if there were more).

James replaced his lost Rolex with another Rolex. I asked Andrew why his father chose that brand. Andrew explained, "[my father's] Uncle was given a Rolex for his wedding present and my father thought such a watch was very becoming on a young man so he bought one for himself ... My father preferred elegance over decadence which is what Rolex stands for." For me, James followed a very familiar path leading to brand loyalty: familiarization through family or friends and then personal experience which cements the relationship.

As part of my email exchanges with Andrew, I asked for pictures of his father's Rolexes and he was kind enough to send them along. Both are Air Kings. Andrew notes that the first Rolex, the one lost and recovered, was manual wind. So, let's talk about the watches.

The recovered watch appears to be a Rolex Air-King "Super Precision" reference 5500 featuring the caliber 1530 movement.
The recovered Rolex Air King.
This timepiece dates to 1957, which means the watch should be an automatic (the dial is pretty clearly marked "Oyser Perpetual"). The recovered watch also has dauphine hands, pointed baton applied indices at 3, 6 and 9, and arrowhead applied indices at all hours other than 12, where the famed applied coronet resides. As you might expect of a watch exposed to the elements for 50 years, its condition is rough. A piece of the bottom-most bracelet end link is present but it appears to have shorn, which likely caused the watch to separate from James. The crown is missing, which may have allowed water to intrude on the case. There is rust discoloration on the hands and dial. The crystal is in remarkably decent shape and seems intact (aside from some abraisons).

James replaced his Air King "Super Precision" with an Air King Date, likely reference 5700 dating to 1958.
The replacement Rolex Air King Date.
He wears the watch on a jubilee bracelet. Compared to the earlier watch, we find a date complication with cyclops, baton hands and baton indices.

The story of the recovered Air King, which literally lived the life of a field watch for five decades, is not yet complete. Andrew Steele tells me that he has communicated with Chronoglide, a watch repair and service shop in Holland. I've watched Chronoglide's livestream on Twitch on Tuesdays, now and then, and I have great confidence that watchmaker Kalle Slap and his team will make significant strides towards restoring the Air King field watch. And, their close inspection of the watch's condition may reveal more details about the life it lived over the past 50 years.
My book on the history of Rolex marketing is now available on Amazon! It debuted as the #1 New Release in its category. You can find it here.

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