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Watch parts in focus: Bezel

Just like the watch crown, the bezel provides both practical and aesthetic benefits to the watch. While the bezel is of immense importance for divers' watches or models with a GMT function, it is often omitted completely in dress watches or, as for example in the case of Breitling, it has become an important part of the design. What the bezel of a watch is and what developments it has undergone will be explained below.

  1. What is a bezel?
  2. Development of the bezel
  3. Bezel materials and their features
  4. Short bezel alphabet
  5. Is it possible to change a watch bezel?

What is the bezel on a watch?

The bezel of a watch generally refers to the outline of the dial. The term derives from the French word "lunette" which means "small moon". The bezel is therefore a sort of decorative ring that is placed on the watch case and holds the watch glass. Fixed or rotating, technically speaking the bezel is always part of the watch case.

The development of the bezel

As early as the 1930s, Rolex was already experimenting with the idea of a bezel, but it was not until divers' watches became more prominent in the 1950s that brands began to take a closer look at this concept. In 1953, Blancpain, Zodiac and Rolex then launched the first watches with bezels.

At the beginning, these bezels could still be rotated in both directions, which in practice could be fatal. If a bezel was moved during a dive by an unintended knock, the entire oxygen calculation could be messed up quickly. Blancpain therefore introduced the unidirectional rotating bezel, which enabled a secure adjustment and handling. In the event of an accidental rotation, this type of bezel is only adjustable in a way that the remaining diving time is shortened. Thereby, the safety risk for the diver has been eliminated. Until today, the unidirectional rotating bezel is the standard for every diving watch. Another precautionary measure was to move the bezel to the inside which led to the development of inner bezels in the 1960s. These are set from the outside via the watch crown.

Once the bezel had proven its value, designers began to play with its shape, establishing several archetypes still popular today. Be it the domed bezel of a vintage Breitling Superocean, the fluted bezel by Rolex or a simply decorative diamond bezel – there were no limits to creativity. Many designers integrated the bezel into the overall design language of their watches and thus created a high recognition value. Gérald Genta succeeded in doing this, for example, with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak which became a true icon in the watch world due to its octagonal bezel with the prominent screws. Genta also demonstrated his skills with the Bvlgari Bvlgari, by placing the company's name on the bezel for the first time.

By the way, the shape of the bezel naturally adapts to the shape of the case, which is why there are square or octagonal bezels in addition to round ones. However, almost exclusively the round bezels have another function, while the bezels adapted to the shape of the watch serve more visual purposes.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 14790ST.OO.0789ST.08 stainless steel watch with blue dial and octagonal bezel

Bezel made of aluminium, steel or ceramic?

When it comes to the material of the bezel, watch enthusiasts nowadays have several options. The three most common materials are aluminium, stainless steel and ceramic. We have summarized the advantages and disadvantages of these materials for you in the following table.

  • + fading bezels are popular among many collectors
  • + better readability due to the matte finish
  • + exchangeable inlays
  • - fades over time or when exposed to sunlight for too long
  • - scratch-prone
  • - susceptible to breakage
Stainless steel
  • + shatter resistant
  • + seamless transition between case and bezel for modern look
  • - scratch-prone
  • - reflects in sunlight
  • + scratch resistant
  • + colour does not fade and adapts to light exposure
  • - can burst under pressure
  • - expensive to replace
  • - inlays not changeable

Some of Rolex's Professional models are equipped with a Cerachrom bezel made of extremely hard ceramic to guarantee long-lasting beauty and functionality. Some watch manufacturers use sapphire crystal or hardened mineral glass to protect the bezel or choose titanium carbide as a coating to make the watch even harder and more resistant.

Short bezel alphabet

  • 24-hour bezel: Allows the wearer to read the time in a 24-hour format. With fixed (non-rotating) bezels, this 24-hour format is often indicated by an additional hand. A popular example is the Rolex Explorer II with a fixed 24-hour bezel made from steel.

  • Bidirectional rotating bezel: In contrast to unidirectional rotating bezels, this type of bezel, as the name suggests, can be turned in both directions. This makes it possible to measure time in relation to a specific event, such as a starting signal. Well-known examples of watches with bidirectional rotating bezels are the Rolex Yacht-Master and the Rolex GMT-Master II. Although the bidirectional rotating bezel lacks the safety aspect associated with the unidirectional rotating bezel, it can be operated faster.

  • Rolex Yacht-Master 116655 watch with bidirectional rotating bezel

  • Domed bezel: A domed bezel describes smooth bezels with rounded edges that result in a curvature. This type of bezel is often found on steel Rolex watches, such as the Air-King or Datejust. However, they can be made of other materials, such as the Explorer (ref. 127342), which features a cambered yellow gold bezel.

  • Count-down bezel: The opposite of the count-up bezel. It indicates how much time remains until an event occurs. Turn the bezel so that the zero point is located opposite the minute hand. You can find this type of bezel in pilot’s watches such as the Sinn U212.

  • Count-up bezel: This classic type of bezel is also referred to as a diving bezel and is particularly used in diving watches such as the Rolex Submariner. It allows you to measure how much time has already gone by. Set the zero point to the minute hand in order to plan a dive.

  • Unidirectional rotating bezel:  This bezel serves the same purpose as the count-up bezel and is commonly used in diving watches. Since it can only be turned in one direction, this type of bezel ensures the safety of the diver in the event of an unintentional adjustment, as the previously calculated time that remains for diving can only be reduced. The Omega Seamaster Diver 300M, for example, is equipped with such a bezel.

  • Fluted bezel: This type of bezel can often be found on the Rolex Datejust. These are made of gold, fluted, as the name suggests, and in the case of the Rolex bezels, have polished surfaces that provide an incomparable sparkle when held in the light. There are, however, more practical versions without polished surfaces. The fluted bezel is primarily designed to provide a better feel.

  • Smooth Bezel: A smooth bezel is typically a simple bezel with no other function, which only serves to connect the watch crystal to the case. See also: Domed bezel.

  • GMT bezel: Another classic among the bezels. With the help of this bezel and an additional GMT hand, you can display a second and even a third time zone on a GMT watch. Many GMT or dual time bezels are bicoloured to make it easier to differentiate between day and night time. Many watches with these bezels, such as the "Coke" or the "Pepsi", have become stars of the watchmaking world thanks to their distinctive colouring.

  • Rolex GMT-Master II 16710 watch with black and red GMT bezel

  • Compass bezel: Generally speaking, any bezel can be used as a compass. However, there are also bezels with the cardinal points and angular degrees specifically designed for precise orientation. Even today, watches with such compass bezels can be very useful additions to the digital displays in airplane cockpits.

  • Navigation: Particularly pilot’s watches such as the legendary Longines Lindbergh have special, highly complex bezels for navigation. These days, GPS systems are often used instead.

  • Pulsometer: These watches, specifically designed for medical professionals, are used to measure the heart rate. They often come with an asthometer for calculating the respiratory rate.

  • Ring Command bezel: Ring Command bezels are a Rolex invention and describe bezels that activate further functions of the movement by rotating them. So far, these bezels can only be found on the Rolex Yacht-Master II and the Rolex Sky-Dweller. The name Ring Command refers only to the function and not to the design, as these two different watches illustrate. Learn all about how a Sky-Dweller and its Ring Command bezel work here.

  • Slide rule bezel: This bezel is also commonly found on pilot watches. Some people would probably just reach for their smartphone, but the mathematically skilled can use a slide rule bezel for more complex calculations. Don't worry, the instructions for operating these bezels are included free of charge when you buy such a watch.

  • Breitling Navitimer 1 B01 Chronograph 43 AB0121211B1P1 pilot's watch with slide rule bezel

  • Tachymeter bezel: The tachymeter is one of the important features of chronographs such as the Omega Speedmaster and Rolex Daytona. A tachymeter shows the proportionality of a unit to an elapsed time. The most common use is the calculation of km/h.

  • Telemeter bezel: With a telemeter you are able to measure distances. It is based on the simple equation that distance equals time and speed. In the past, bezels of this type were frequently used in military watches. This enabled soldiers to determine the distance of opposing positions based on the muzzle flash and subsequent shot.

Is It Possible to Switch Bezels?

If you want to change the bezel of your wristwatch because you would prefer your Datejust more with a fluted white gold bezel than with a domed bezel, for example, this can usually be done by a watchmaker. However, it is important to keep in mind that this type of modification is frowned upon by concessionaires and the watchmaker, because such a modification would mean changing the reference number. In advance, you should consider whether you want to send the watch to the manufacturer again at some point, since you may no longer receive any service for a customized model.

Apart from that, it is possible to swap the bezel yourself, depending on the model. There are numerous descriptions and instructions on the Internet. However, we do not recommend replacing the bezel yourself and would recommend having the bezel changed by a professional instead. Nothing would be more unfortunate than damaging an expensive luxury watch in the process. If you entrust your watch to an experienced watchmaker, you can avoid the possibility of broken watch parts, scratching the case, and a lot of frustration.

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