When I first ventured into the watch world, I was confronted with heaps of terminology, dos and don’ts, and seemingly unwritten rules. And while this is a rite of passage for newcomers to any hobby, it was relatively tricky to find beginner-friendly explanations that weren’t bogged down with too much information. The watchmaking industry has an incredible history stretching back centuries, so it’s no wonder that the lore is so extensive. It’s great for aficionados, overwhelming for rookies. In that spirit, let’s take a sweeping look at one of the most fundamental features of a watch, the bezel, and learn what purpose it actually serves.
What is a watch bezel and what does it do?
In its most primitive form, the watch bezel is a ring that holds the crystal protecting the dial in place. However, watch manufacturers have long since discovered the advantages of leveraging this extra real estate to provide the wearer with information that goes beyond the watch’s standard time display. Depending on the type of watch, the bezel can play a vital role in the timepiece’s overall functionality. One simple application is found on diving watches. The bezel on this type of timepiece features a scale counting up to 60 minutes. There are usually markings at one-minute intervals up to the 15-minute mark, and five-minute intervals thereafter. This type of bezel was originally designed to measure how long the wearer (aka the diver) had been underwater, and thus let them know when it was time to resurface. Diving bezels are easy to use: the diver turns the bezel’s zero marker to line up with the minute hand before submerging. A diving bezel is unidirectional, meaning it can only be turned in one direction, in this case counterclockwise. This is a safety feature that prevents any knocks from tampering with the measurement and showing the dive time as shorter than it actually is – that could prove fatal! In this way, the wearer can time up to one hour by comparing the minute hand to the marks on the bezel. You’ll also hear them being referred to as count-up bezels. Of course, you don’t have to be a diver to make good use of a diving bezel, you can join the ranks of “desk divers” who use it to track how long it takes you to run a mile or time a coffee break.
What types of watch bezels are there?
There are numerous bezel types with various aesthetics and degrees of complexity. Let’s move on to chronographs, i.e., watches with a stopwatch function. The bezel on a chronograph usually hosts a tachymeter scale, though this scale can also be located on the outer edge of the dial. This bezel type is a bit more technical; in combination with the chronograph function, the gradations are used to calculate units per hour, usually an object’s speed. Unlike the diving bezel, it’s fixed in place. In the interest of avoiding the “too much information” I griped about earlier, I won’t go into the nitty-gritty, but it’s a neat tool that’s often overlooked. Two famous models with this type of bezel are the Omega Speedmaster Professional and the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.
Other Popular Examples
While some bezels can be used to take measurements or make calculations, others serve as a compass or show the time in a different time zone. Let’s look at the latter. When it comes to GMT watches, you generally read the local time from the dial as usual; however, with the help of a 24-hour scale on the bezel and an extra hand on the dial, you can also tell the time in a second time zone (or even a third, depending on the model). On watches like the Rolex GMT-Master II, the wearer first sets the GMT hand to the second time zone using the 24-hour scale. That means that if it’s 3 pm, the GMT hand points to 15:00 hours on the bezel. Next, they set the independently adjustable hour hand to the local time, i.e., the place where they are at the moment.
Bezel Materials, Colors, and Characteristics
Considering its location framing the watch dial and its vital job of holding the crystal in place, a watch’s bezel needs to be robust. The bezel itself is usually made of the same material as the rest of the case, while the bezel inlay can be made of aluminum, ceramic, and the like. Watch brands tend to embellish this surface with diamonds and other decorative elements on women’s watches. Sports watches with rotating bezels generally have grooved bezels, as they need to be easy to grip and rotate with gloves on.
Beyond functionality and practicality, watch bezels are often the distinguishing feature on cult watches. Take the Rolex GMT-Master II “Pepsi”, for example. The purpose of the bold red and blue halves of the GMT bezel insert is to display whether it is day or night in the second time zone (red for daytime, blue for night). This timepiece is treasured by collectors and watch fans and serves as proof that a watch’s bezel can be hugely recognizable and offer fantastic advantages that have little to nothing to do with its “real” purpose. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is another great example. Although the bezel doesn’t offer a complication, its octagonal shape and decorative screws are just as highly valued in the watch world.
Changing a Watch’s Bezel
There are a few reasons why you might be tempted to remove the bezel or bezel insert from your watch; perhaps it’s suffered some damage, or it’s not rotating like it used to, and you’d like to take a look at what’s going on below. However, removing these elements is not the same as removing a bracelet or strap, and the risk of damaging your watch is high. If your timepiece is really in need of an overhaul, bring it to a watchmaker instead. This will save you a lot of heartache and keep your warranty intact. At the same time, don’t underestimate the individual character a bit of wear and tear can award a timepiece.
There’s usually a lot more to a watch’s bezel than meets the eye. They offer prime real estate for extra functions without adding to the timepiece’s movement or cluttering the dial – or they’re purely decorative. What do you think? How important is a watch’s bezel to you?