Let's start with the obvious - what is a bezel? The bezel is the outer ring surrounding the watch crystal. It is the last barrier between the dial and thin air... But on the wrist it can become either an accessory that's adding depth to your look or it can stick out for itself. Generally, bezels can be classified into two categories, they can be functional or aesthetic. Several different bezel styles exist yet when these have been en vogue and what kinds of watches have been associated with them is not entirely clear.
April 26, 2022
Watch Bezels - A Guide to Function and Design
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
Let's start with the obvious - what is a bezel? The bezel is the outer ring surrounding the watch crystal. It is the last barrier between the dial and thin air... But on the wrist it can become either an accessory that's adding depth to your look or it can stick out for itself.
Generally, bezels can be classified into two categories, they can be functional or aesthetic. Several different bezel styles exist yet when these have been en vogue and what kinds of watches have been associated with them is not entirely clear.
So many great bezel-styles yet the heritage of the designs is hard to grasp... a good historical overview - until now - has been missing. Photo @goldammer.me
The perfect tool to answer such questions is quantitative data analysis. I assessed the bezels on over 6000 watches publicly listed on Chrono24 with examples from 1940 until the end of the last century.
So what's the deal with bezels? For how long have they been in integral part of the design process and how much attention should we pay them?
Shape: The smooth bezel is exactly as the name suggests; a simple metallic ring around the dial. It’s the purest bezel, which very well blends into the overall design of a watch.
Distribution: The smooth bezel can easily be described as the default choice for watches for almost forever. It is just in the late 1970s, early 1980s that bezel styles become something every watchmaker and customer thinks about. However, in the middle of the last century the smooth bezel held the monopole with a peak market share of 98%. Its clean and elegant design is still appreciated for most dress watches but generally has been adapted for almost all watch types except divers.
Popular examples: Rolex Explorer I, Patek Philippe Nautilus, Heuer Carrera 45, 1990s Omega Seamaster 120
Smooth Bezel: The default watch bezel until the 1980s, a smooth surface surrounding the dial. Photo: 1950s rose-golden Omega Constellation @goldammer.me
Shape: The fluted bezel is another classic bezel probably every watch enthusiast can name. It is defined through its gear-wheel like appearance. Naturally, so as it originally was used to better screw the bezel onto the case to improve water resistance; developed and first seen on the Rolex oyster-case in 1926[2-3]. Interestingly, this design was originally highly functional. But if we think about this style nowadays it is purely aesthetic. And this redefinition makes sense as the shape doubles the area for possible light refraction as compared to a smooth bezel. You can find this design in another variant as the so-called engine-turned bezel. It is a narrowly fluted design which features smooth areas at the hour marker positions.
Distribution: A very common design, traditionally most prominently found on Rolex pieces. Consequently, you can come across this style on many modern sports and dress casual watches, reaching its broadest distribution around 1980 (max. annual market share 28%).
Popular examples: Hanhart Pioneer One, Rolex Datejust 1601, Vacheron Constantin 222, Rado Purple Horse
Fluted Bezel: A very common design and the flagship bezel style for Rolex. Its cog-like appearance makes it pop out. Photo: 1970s Two-Tone Rolex Datejust "Buckley Dial" @goldammer.me
Shape: The gem-set bezel is what you find when you’re looking for the extra bling on your timepiece. As the name suggests here the bezel is filled with gems, which can range from rubies and sapphires to diamonds, whatever catches your attention the most. As often with precious stones, watchmakers have been trying to exemplify the jewelry side of a watch with this style. Thus, gem-set bezels often come with watches that have a feminine focus group.
Distribution: In light of the quartz-crisis of the 1970s and 80s watchmakers had to become more creative and needed to reinvent the image of traditional horology. Contrasting high-class watches from cheap quartz alternatives was important. Thus, defining a watch as a fine piece of jewelry makes a lot of sense and this is exactly what we see starting in the early 1980s (peak annual market share 5%). Gem-set bezels are just one factor in this transition of the market but we can nicely see how popular they become with dressier watch options. Additionally, in the 1980s the “Wall Street lifestyle” was on the forefront. This style particularly fancied the obvious display of wealth with for example expensive suits and in the watch market the increase of golden and bicolored timepieces, which definitely helped to pump up the gem.
Popular examples: Rolex Daytona “Rainbow”, Patek Philippe Twenty-4 & almost all modern Cartier collections have diamond-bezelled options
Gem-Set Bezel: The style that gives your piece the extra wow-factor and makes it clear that you’re wearing a fine piece of jewelry rather than a highly functional timepiece. The classic option of the 1980s brought to perfection in this modern Overseas. Photo: Modern Vacheron Constantin Overseas 33mm - Courtesy of Vacheron Constantin
Shape: The Greenwich Mean Time, or short GMT, is in the watch world synonymous with the travel time complication or in other words a watches ability to indicate at least two time zones. This is often accomplished by using an additional hand pointing to a 24h scale imprinted onto the bezel. And that is the GMT bezel. Quite commonly the bezel is colored in two segments, from 6 to 18 for day and from 18 to 6 for night hours.
Distribution: This highly functional bezel style has always been particularly useful in aeronautics. Being around since the first long distance flights, it is however most well known from Rolex’s iconic GMT Master. With the increasing popularity of commercial air travel starting in the 1960s and 1970s the GMT complication has become mass-marketable (max. annual market share 15%), a household design that is rarely missed in any watch brands lineup, especially in the sports watch segment (21% market share).
Popular examples: Longines Weems, Rolex GMT Master II, Grand Seiko SBGN005, Tudor Black Bay Heritage GMT, Breitling Avenger GMT
GMT Bezel: A highly functional design with the possibility to indicate a second time zone. Photo: vintage Enicar Sherpa Guide with World-Time bezel @goldammer.me
Shape: The diver bezel was originally a tool to avoid running out of oxygen under water or to help with decompression during the ascent. It is a way to handily clock elapsed time by subdivided the bezel into a 60-minute count-up, which is typically rotational (uni-directional for a classic dive watch). This way one can easily keep track of “bottom time”. The advantage of timing with this bezel-type is that it can be operated even with gloves and does not affect the water resistance like the pushers of a chronograph would.
Distribution: The first mentioned example of a dive bezel was Rolex’s Zero-Graph from the 1930s. However, the design did not enter the mass market until the early 1950s when Rolex, Blancpain and Zodiac all released watches with rotational dive bezels[4-5]. Since then the dive bezel has only increased in popularity over the years and at its peak in the 1990s topping 20% market share.
Popular examples: Rolex Zero-Graph, Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Rolex Turn-O-Graph, Zodiac Seawolf, Omega Ploprof, Seiko 6309-7040 “Turtle”
Diver Bezel: Invented as the world’s most life-saving bezel it grew in popularity and has left its mark on many wrists, both dry and wet. Photo: Vintage Tudor Submariner Date @goldammer.me
Shape: The stepped bezel is best explained as two rings – non-equal size – put on top of each other. It is a playful variation of the smooth bezel style that adds depth when directly looking at the watch face.
Distribution: The stepped bezel is another classic dress watch design. It has never been the most popular style but interestingly it had an impact on the watch market several times over the last century. In the 1940s it even has been one of the very few options to the smooth bezel. And with its subtle elegance it found its way back into the watch collections in the late 20th century eclipsing 8% market share in the mid 1990s.
Popular examples: Vacheron Constantin Patrimony (81180), Cartier Santos, Patek Philippe 2499, IWC Ingenieur 3506
Stepped Bezel: The playful little brother of the smooth bezel that celebrated a novel wave of appreciation late in the last century. Photo: Rosegolden 1950s Movado "Pyramid" Dial @goldammer.me
Shape: Under the umbrella of the tachymeter fall all bezels that help to compute the speed of any sort; be it either as true tachymeter (travel speed), telemeter (distance of event based on visible vs. audible effect), decimeter (dividing the 60 minute scale into 100 segments), or pulsometer (heart rate). It is a scale on the bezel that is used to transfers time into another physical measure. For example the tachymeter scale converts clocked time needed to travel one unit of distance into speed. It simplifies mental computations and is inherently tied to the chronograph (stopwatch) complication.
Distribution: Tachymeter and other scales have been widely adapted in chronograph watches all throughout history, however only up until the 1960s mostly on the dial. Only in the middle of the last century the scales started to move to the bezel. Heuer introduced a novel rotating tachymeter in 1958, which led the way towards a new step in chronograph design. Fittingly the 1960s and 70s have been a hot time period for chronograph watches and thus the tachymeter bezel spiked in popularity as well. But the interest in chronograph watches increased further into the modern era peaking in the late 1990s with an annual market share of close to 20%.
Popular examples: Heuer Autavia, Rolex Daytona, Omega Speedmaster, Seiko 6139-6002 “Pogue”, Tudor Big Block Chronograph
Tachymeter Bezel: The chronograph-associated bezel-scale to simplify computing the speed of travel. As it is highly linked to the success of the chronograph itself it is especially prominent around 1970 and in the late 20th century. Photo: Vintage Omega Speedmaster @goldammer.me
We took a closer look at seven different bezel styles and interestingly the bezel has not been an active part of the design process until the 1960s. There are two factors that influenced the development of novel bezel styles.
Bezel Overview: There are three kind of bezels: the smooth, the functional and the aesthetic.
On the one hand, watches were increasingly used as sturdy tools. Dive watches, racing chronographs and travel watches all have in common that their extra timing functions need to be legible and easily operated. A small extra crown wouldn’t do the job in these cases and the extra space and practicality of the bezel were by far the better option.
On the other hand, the quartz crisis happened. Up until 1969 mechanical watches were artisan devices, a fine craft. With the emergence of cheap and highly accurate quartz watches the status of the industry changed. To loosely quote Gary Kasparov: Be happy when you’re in a conflict, as you can be sure you have to act.
the 1980s have been a tough time for the watch industry... should you go Haute Horologie or High Fashion? @goldammer.me
High-end watchmaking had to reinvent itself and one road was to establish conventional mechanical watches as jewelry, in a way the opposite of the affordable electronic watches. Well it was also the era of the Wall Street lifestyle and a certain bling did not hurt as well.
Thus, from the 1970s onward aesthetic bezels were on the rise, substantiating the new image. And now one should say that the watch industry is always doing the same. Including and embracing the empty metallic ring around the crystal as an integral part of the overall watch design – for function or for visual appeal – was and is a true revolution.
Side Note: This guide is missing a few classic styles - like for example the coined and guilloched bezels. Additionally, I subsumed engine-turned bezels under fluted bezels. In the end, I had to leave those out as there was just too little data (at the moment) to draw a conclusive picture about the distribution of those styles. I might be able to add them individually at a later time point. There are a few other bezel guides which you can check in the references for further info on the topic.
Check out our guides here:
The Modern History of Watch Case Making Part I
The Ultimate Watch Hour Marker Guide Part I
 Watches from Chrono24, extracted 2020 Nov. 29th; Karlsruhe, Germany;
 Rolex Fluted Bezel: Complete History; Millenary Watches;
 Fluted Rolex Watch Bezels: Seminal Bling; Ariel Adams, ABlogToWatch;
 The Dive Bezel: Its History and its Use; Jason Heaton, Revolution Watch;
 The Revolutionary Turn-O-Graph; Phillips;
 The History of the Chronograph; Crown & Caliber;
 What is a Watch Bezel? Different Scales and How to Use Them; Charles-Philippe, Bespoke Unit;
All Rights on the text and graphics reserved to the Author.