If you’re new to your appreciation of fine watches, you have undoubtedly read a lot of references to and heard a lot of opinions about watches’ bezels. It is somewhat of an esoteric term but it describes something very simple and essential. The bezel is the front part of the case (often but not always ring-shaped) that frames the dial and secures the crystal. Bezels can be made of the same material as the case middle and/or the caseback, but can also be made of a different material. Here we run down the various types of watch bezels you’re likely to encounter.
Polygons and Exposed Screws
Watch cases, of course, are not uniformly round, which means that bezels, the front-facing parts of those cases, can also be found in a variety of shapes — sharply squared or rectangular, like the Cartier Tank and Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso (above); softy cushion-shaped, like the Panerai Luminor and Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921; oval-shaped, like the Breguet Reine de Naples and other luxury ladies’ models; tonneau (“barrel”-shaped), like the Hublot Spirit of Big Bang and many Richard Mille models; and a host of others that combine elements of these and other polygonal shapes.
The shape that has proven to be the most popular and influential is the octagon: eight-sided bezels have proliferated ever since Audemars Piguet launched the Royal Oak (above) in 1972, and watchmakers have also dabbled in other unconventional shapes: the sharply faceted bezel of the Zenith Defy Revival is dodecagonal (12-sided), while the modern version of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas is defined by its hexagonal (six-sided) bezel.
The stationary bezel of the Royal Oak was radical in another regard: rather than being smooth on its surface, it was punctuated on each of its eight facets with visible screws, utilitarian elements that are usually hidden from view. Other sport-luxury watch models have adopted this look as well, including the Hublot Big Bang, whose hexagonal-inspired bezel sports six visible screws, the Chopard Alpine Eagle (above), with four sets of paired-up screws at each cardinal point of its round bezel; and Bell & Ross’ BR 01 Instrument models, with an exposed screw in each corner of the softly squared case’s bezel.
The simplest bezels, i.e., the ones found on dress watches, are stationary and spartan, with either a smooth or polished finish and no additional ornamentation or information added to what’s already displayed on the dial. By contrast, the bezels on sports watches and tool watches — even the ones firmly falling into the luxury category — are often designed for utilitarian purposes and either printed or engraved with a scale that can be used in concert with the watch’s hands to make calculations. Such bezels can be either stationary or rotatable. Rotatable bezels can be moved either in one direction or both directions (clockwise and/or counterclockwise), depending on the watch and the intended usage of its scales. The concept of a moving outer bezel with a functional purpose goes all the way back to the 1920s, when Phillip Van Horn Weems applied for a patent for this type of watch and applied it to the Navigation Watch and eventually the Lindbergh Hour Angle Watch that he helped develop for Longines (modern version of the Hour Angle pictured above). Rolex introduced a 60-minute rotating bezel to an early and now very rare chronograph watch, the Ref. 3346 Zerographe, in 1937. It also produced what was likely the first serially produced watch with a rotating bezel, the Turn-o-Graph, in 1953, whose design influenced several of the Rolex models highlighted below, most directly the Submariner and GMT-Master.
One of the most popular sports-watch bezels is the type found on divers’ watches. Pioneered by the original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms in 1953 (modern version featured above), and now a ubiquitous element of watches intended for underwater use, this style of bezel is lockable and rotates in only one direction (counterclockwise). It is inscribed with a 60-minute scale for the purposes of setting dive times; many dive-scale bezels have their first 15- or 20-minute sector highlighted because most timed dives will fall within this range. Coinciding roughly with the rise in popularity of scuba diving in the wake of Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan’s invention of the Aqua-Lung, It was also a potentially life-saving invention: its unidirectional design prevented a diver from accidentally jarring the bezel in the wrong direction for an inaccurate reading of how much time he’d spent underwater, and thus miscalculating how much oxygen he had left in the tank. The edges of divers’ bezels, most of which ratchet with a series of 60 individual clicks for precise setting of the dive interval, tend to be designed for easy gripping by a diver wearing thick gloves — fluted in a coin-like texture, like the Rolex Submariner, or scalloped with large indents like the Omega Seamaster Diver.
Another common and widely seen tool-watch bezel is the one found on GMT watches. The design that paved the way for all that would follow is the one that made its debut on the first Rolex GMT-Master, released in 1955. Developed in cooperation with its intended users — pilots for TWA Airlines, one of the foremost American carriers in that Golden Age of commercial aviation — the GMT-Master (above) featured a bidirectional bezel with an insert that was graduated to 24 hours and divided into two equal sectors of red and blue, a clever and eye-catching visual shorthand to identify daytime and nighttime hours on the 24-hour scale. This scale worked in concert with a third hour hand on the dial to indicate the time in a third time zone as determined by Greenwich Mean Time (hence “GMT”). The thinking behind the watch was that it would allow pilots on long-haul flights to keep track of the time in both their home city and destination city simultaneously. Rolex added variations on the original red-and-blue bezel, nicknamed ‘Pepsi,” over the years, and numerous other dual-time watches have adopted a version of this simple yet very useful hand-and-bezel system, some opting for a similar bicolor insert to distinguish day and night hours, others for a simpler look in plain steel or another material.
A bezel scale found almost exclusively on chronograph watches is a tachymeter (or tachometer), a series of graduated numerical readings that is used in conjunction with the chronograph’s seconds hand to measure an object’s speed over a predetermined distance. It is often used to determine miles or kilometers per hour and is thus a common feature of chronograph watches whose design is inspired by automobile racing. The Omega Speedmaster (above), introduced in 1957, was the first watch to incorporate this scale onto the watch’s bezel; previously, it had only been used on the periphery of the dial. The “Speedy,” while now much better known for its role in the moon landing than for its intended usage for motor racing, remains one of the most popular tachymeter-equipped chronographs, along with the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, introduced in 1963; both have been immensely influential in the design of many chronographs that followed them. For a primer on how to use a tachymeter bezel (which should always be stationary rather than rotating), check out our guide to tachymeter watches here.
Circular Slide-Rule Bezel
In 1941, pilot’s-watch specialist Breitling contributed its most significant watchmaking invention for aviators, and one that is still almost exclusively associated with the brand despite its never being patented. The original Breitling Chronomat was the first wristwatch equipped with a compact, wrist-worn version of the E6B slide rule, a logarithmic tool that enabled pilots to make critical calculations to determine factors like their aircraft’s fuel consumption, distance traveled, and rates of climb and descent. Essentially, it combines a mobile scale on a bidirectional bezel with another fixed scale on the dial itself; the concentric scales for standard mileage (STAT), kilometers (KM) and nautical miles (NAUT) can be aligned precisely right on the wrist to make conversions at a glance. While the advance of technology has rendered this clever but very low-tech element quaint and all but obsolete, the slide-rule bezel adds appealing visual interest to a watch for many, especially actual pilots and aviation enthusiasts. In 1952, Breitling added the slide-rule element to the Navitimer (above), the watch with which it is still most associated; you can learn more about the Navitimer and its history here. A handful of other tech-heavy pilots’ watches, like the Citizen Promaster Nighthawk and Hamilton Khaki Aviation Converter, use one as well. Like the divers’ bezel, a slide-rule bezel will most often have a serrated edge for easy gripping by gloved hands.
A pulsometer (also called a pulsimeter or pulsograph) is another type of scale used to measure heart rates, and watches equipped with this type of scale are classically known as “doctor’s watches.” To record heart beats per minute, the user simply starts the chronograph timer, counts the number of beats before the hand gets to the number the scale is calibrated for (either 15 or 30), then stops the hand for the reading. Pulsometer watches are fairly rare these days, and examples with the scale incorporated onto the bezel rather than the dial are even rarer; one of them is Omega’s CK2298 version of the Speedmaster (above), which adorns its bezel with a pulsometer rather than the standard tachymeter.
World Time City Ring
Somewhat rare but arguably one of the most useful bezels are those that can function as a compass. These should be bidirectionally rotating and be inscribed with indicators for north, east, south, and west at equidistant points around their circumference. Montblanc’s 1858 Geosphere models (2021 Reinhold Messner Limited Edition pictured above) are among the most prominent examples on the market today, with a ceramic compass insert in the turning bezel that can be oriented (as per the watch’s alpine exploration theme) to aid in direction-finding on a mountain trek or other outdoor adventure.
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