Watches with circular crystals are sometimes fitted with an outer frame known as a bezel. Bezels can be either decorative or functional. Some are actually both. Most fascinating is the number of functions designers can achieve with bezels. A functional bezel can do everything from measure the number of events that happen in a given amount of time to helping you find your way home if you're lost in the woods.
If you ever wanted to know everything there is to know about watch bezels, this guide is for you. It is broken down into four sections for easier navigation. As you read, you will learn about:
- Bezel movement
- Bezel finishes
- Decorative bezels
- Functional bezels
Whether a bezel is intended to be decorative, functional or both, it is a feature found only on watches with circular crystals. Yet not all circular watches have them.
Bezels tend to be limited to round watches because their function requires movement. However, a stationary bezel added for decorative purposes doesn't move. Thus, it is possible to design a square or rectangle watch with a decorative bezel. It's just not done that often. The details of bezel movement may not matter to you as you shop for new watches. As long as you understand the functionality of a particular bezel, that is all that matters.
There are three options for bezel movement:
A stationary bezel does not move. It is fixed in place. It may be adorned with additional decorations or left plain, with just the finish showing through. Stationary bezels can be thin, thick, or somewhere in between. This JDM Military comes with a 5 year warranty and has a stationary bezel.
A bidirectional bezel can be fully rotated – in excess of 360° – in either direction. This allows for maximum function and efficient use.
A unidirectional bezel can only be rotated in one direction to 360°. It can be rotated back in the opposite direction, but it can never exceed 360° in rotation. Unidirectional bezels are typically found on dive watches for safety purposes. If one displays an incorrect reading, the reading is generally overstated rather than understated. This Luminox XB.3745 has a unidirectional bezel and a screw down crown.
Bezels can be as unique as the watches they are found on. Designers sometimes differentiate their bezels with the finish. The five most common finishes are:
Bark Finish – A bark finish so named because it resembles the bark of a tree. It is a finish generally reserved for vintage watches, or modern watches intended to mimic the vintage look.
Diamond/Gem Set – This finish boasts diamonds or other precious gems embedded in the bezel. The bezel material is usually something like gold or platinum, two metals that readily accept gems.
Engine Turned – An engine-turned bezel is a machined bezel with a slightly rough finish. Different patterns can be utilised to create different textures depending on how the bezel complements the rest of the case.
Flat/Smooth Bezel – The most common finish is the flat and smooth finish. It allows for maximum function by giving designers more surface area to work with.
Fluted Bezel – A fluted bezel is easily recognised by its distinct ridges. The ridges may encompass the entire bezel or be relegated to the outer edge. In either case, ridges provide a little extra grip when rotating the bezel.
Bezel finish can add to the price of a watch depending on the materials chosen and the craftsmanship necessary to construct them. Flat and smooth bezels are the most economical to produce.
There isn't much to say about decorative bezels other than that they are aesthetic features only. More expensive decorative bezels are adorned with precious gems. Less expensive bezels may achieve decorative appeal through colour, size, or combination of both. A decorative bezel is occasionally utilised to secure the crystal and prevent movement in the event of impact. Decorative bezels can be made with plastic, stainless steel, ceramic & other precious metals.
The bulk of what you need to know about bezels lies in their many functions. Some functional bezels are extremely easy to use. Others are somewhat complex, taking time to fully understand and use. Needless to say that functional bezels add both value and utility to any watch.
There are 13 different types of functional bezels we will look at:
Plain Bezel, 24-Hour Bezel, Compass Bezel, Count-Up/Dive Bezel, Countdown Bezel, Decimal Bezel, GMT/World Time Bezel, Pulsometer Bezel, Ring Command Bezel Slide Rule Bezel, Tachymeter Bezel, Telemeter Bezel and a Yacht-Timer Bezel.
A plain (round) bezel may not appear to have any viable function – like telling the time in another time zone, for example – but that doesn't mean it is completely without function. As previously stated, bezels are sometimes added to further secure a watch's crystal. Such a bezel usually won't display markings of any type. It can be made from just about any material the watchmaker chooses.
Installing a plain bezel to secure a watch's crystal is a strategy intended to protect the crystal in the event of impact. As you might imagine, impact is a normal problem with wristwatches. We all use our hands to do lots of different things. It is normal for a watch to bump into things like drawers, doors, furniture pieces, and so forth. Keeping the crystal secure reduces the chances of dust, dirt, and moisture getting inside the watch.
Also known as a UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) bezel, the 24-hour bezel makes it a snap to tell time in 24-hour format. Best of all, no rotation or adjustment is necessary. Bezel markings already correspond with the 12-hour markings on the watch display. One glance tells you the time in 12-hour format; a second glance tells the time in 24-hour format.
The 24-hour time format is referred to as Coordinated Universal Time due to the fact that it matches up with the international standard ISO 8601. It is the format most commonly used to tell time around the world. It is based on dividing the day into 24 hours with 60 minutes apiece. A particular time reading tells you exactly how many hours and minutes (and sometimes seconds, too) have elapsed since midnight. Thus, 06:30 indicates six hours and 30 minutes have passed.
Do you think you could find your way out of the forest without a magnetic compass to guide you? You could if you had a round watch outfitted with a compass bezel. Compass bezels are easily recognised by the directional markings for North, South, East, and West. By combining the markings with the position of the sun, a compass bezel can help you figure out what direction you are moving in.
To tell direction, you first rotate the bezel until the South mark is positioned half-way between the hour hand and 12 o'clock. This is for the northern hemisphere, by the way. If you are in the southern hemisphere, you use the North mark instead. Next, point the hour hand in the direction of the sun. Now the directional markings are properly oriented. They will tell you all four directions. Note that during daylight saving time, you must orient the bezel as previously described, then subtract one hour.
The count-up bezel is often referred to as the dive bezel because it was designed specifically for divers who need to track their time underwater. A typical count-up bezel is based on a 0-60 scale, representing the 60 minutes in an hour. Divers need to know this in order to calculate the amount of air they have remaining in their tanks.
To use a count-up bezel, you rotate the bezel until the zero aligns with the minute hand. Now, you can tell how many minutes have transpired with just a glance. These types of bezels typically divide the first 15 to 20 minutes into one-minute increments for the purposes of timing decompression stops. The remaining 40 to 45 minutes are generally divided into five-minute increments.
A countdown bezel is just as easy to use as a count-up bezel. It works the same except that you are counting in the opposite direction. This type of bezel is used to count down the amount of time before a given event. For example, perhaps you have dropped off your car for an oil change. You have been told to come back in 40 minutes. A countdown bezel will countdown the time for you without you having to remember what time to return.
To use a countdown bezel, rotate it until the remaining amount of time aligns with the minute hand. In our example, you have 40 minutes until you can pick up your car. So rotate the bezel until the 40-minute mark aligns with the minute hand. Now you will be able to tell exactly how much time remains simply by glancing at the bezel and its relationship to the minute hand.
A decimal bezel is used in conjunction with a chronograph to measure time in tenths or hundredths of a second. This is useful for measuring the passing of events in industrial and scientific environments. Using it requires you have a fairly good grasp of how your chronograph works. It takes getting used to, but a decimal bezel can prove invaluable once you figure it out.
To use a decimal bezel, you first rotate the bezel until the zero mark aligns with the chronograph hand. Start the chronograph at the beginning of the event and stop it when the event is complete. The chronograph hand will point to a mark on the bezel. That is the amount of time that has elapsed. Essentially, a decimal bezel is a mechanical stopwatch.
If you are the kind of person who likes to keep track of Greenwich mean Time, the GMT bezel is perfect for you. Though GMT is no longer used by the scientific community, many of us still use it as a reference point when considering different time zones. This makes the GMT bezel ideal for travellers who frequently cross time zones. Some watches are fitted with multiple GMT bezels for tracking more than one alternate time zone.
To use a GMT bezel, you first must know the difference between your local time and the time zone you want to track. The bezel will click to represent each successive time zone you pass as your rotate. If you want to track a time zone five hours ahead of your own, rotate the bezel five clicks counter clockwise. If you want to track the time zone five hours behind yours, rotate it five clicks clockwise.
A pulsometer bezel is a specialised bezel for medical use. It is designed to help doctors and nurses quickly determine a patient's heart rate. It is used in conjunction with a chronograph and measures time according to a calibrated scale. A typical scale is either 15 or 30 beats.
This particular bezel does not need to be rotated. Instead, you start the chronograph and count the designated number of beats – either 15 or 30. Then stop the chronometer. Look at the number on the bezel corresponding to the rate scale you chose. It will tell you the patient's heart rate in beats per minute.
We would not have included the ring command bezel if it were not so fascinating. Why? Because it is exclusive to just two styles of Rolex watches. The bezel is multi-functional and is actually linked to the movement inside the watch. It is a valuable bezel to yacht owners, aviators, and other types of watch wearers with special needs. Due to its complexity, we will not describe how it works in this guide. If you own a Rolex with the ring command bezel, consult your operator manual for more information.
If you have ever been fascinated by how people did complex mathematical operations prior to the invention of the calculator, the slide rule bezel will fascinate you as well. This type of bezel is actually a two-piece bezel that combines two logarithmic scales that facilitate maths. It is so named because it functions similar to a slide rule.
The specifics of working a slide rule bezel depend on the calculation you want to achieve. But for basic multiplication, it is fairly simple. Imagine you want to multiply 19 by 6. Rotate the outer bezel until the 19 aligns with the 10 mark on the inner bezel. Now look at the number on the outer bezel that aligns with the 6 on the inner scale. If you did it incorrectly, that number should be 114.The slide rule bezel is one of the more complicated bezels to use. It is great for maths and science geeks. However, it may be more work than you want to put in. It might be easier for you to pull out your phone and use your calculator app.
The tachymeter bezel is one of the most commonly found bezels on chronograph watches. Its main purpose is to measure elapsed time over a particular increment. A good example is measuring speed in kilometres per hour. You can use it to measure the speed at which your car is travelling or the speed at which a football is kicked into a goal.
This bezel does not require any rotation. It is all about the chronograph. Start the chronograph at the start of the event you want to measure. Stop it when the event concludes or, in the case of a repeatable event, when the next event in the cycle starts. The chronograph hand will point to a number on the bezel indicating the number of units per hour. To make this bezel work, you have to know your scale. If you were timing a runner to determine his speed, for example, you would have to know the distance he ran in the allotted time. That is how you would determine the scale for a kilometres per hour measurement.
The telemeter bezel is one of the more interesting watch bezels out there. It is used to determine the distance between you and an event that can be both seen and heard. Perhaps you want to measure how close lightning is during a storm. This bezel would tell you. Note that the bezels readings are based on the speed of sound. Since that speed can change based on several variables, any measurement you take with a telemeter bezel will be just an estimate.
Again, this bezel does not need any rotation or adjustment. Just start the chronograph at the time you see the event; stop it when you hear the event. If you are measuring lightning, start the chronograph as soon as you see the flash. Stop it as soon as you hear the thunder. The hand on the chronograph will point to a number on the bezel telling you the distance in kilometres or miles.
Last but not least is the yacht-timer bezel. This is a specially designed bezel for yachting crews. Its purpose is to count down the amount of time before a race begins. This is to prevent yachts from crossing the start-finish line ahead of schedule. A typical yacht-timer bezel is based on a 10-to-1 scale.
Using a yacht-timer bezel is as simple as rotating the bezel until the zero mark lines up with the official start of the race. Once aligned, you can tell how much time remains by checking the alignment of the minute and hour hands against the numbers on the bezel. There are many other manufacturer specific bezels not mentioned in this post. Bezel functionality is limited only by a designer's imagination and the natural constraints of telling time. It is pretty amazing that such a simple piece of technology can do so many incredible things.