The Bezel on a Watch Guide
The average watch is made up of about a hundred parts, and we certainly can't describe them all in detail. But one of the most unique, which has evolved over time to a degree of sophistication unexpected by the common public, is the bezel. So, are you ready to "dive" into this obscure but essential element with us?
What is the bezel of a watch?
The bezel is an element, usually metallic, that surrounds the watch's glass. In many cases, it connects it directly to the case, while in others, it is fixed in turn and encircles it. The bezel can be fixed or rotating, and is typically attached to the case with a snap-on or screw-on system, especially in automatic watches made for divers that must withstand high water pressures.
In many cases, the bezel is very simple. Still, we find that watches have different bezel types, finished and decorated in different ways, as besides being a functional element, it also has an important aesthetical function. It usually is made of metal, but there are exceptions, especially when it comes to rotating bezels.
The birth of the watch bezel
In ancient times, watches were worn hanging from the belt or in the pocket - and to shield the delicate hands, watchmakers resorted to different protections such as lids, usually pierced and decorated with engravings, chamfers, and precious stones. However, with the simplification of timepieces, and their transformation into reliable instruments for measuring time, cases began to be simplified as well, and the same happened to their lids. So much that around the beginning of the nineteenth century, most pocket watches had a full cover to protect the dial. This solution was called "full hunter" - a name that perhaps was used because it was necessary to give adequate protection of the dial to defend it from the most demanding activities, such as hunting.
But to make it easier to read the hours, people began to drill a central hole in this cover so that the hands would remain protected, but at the same time, people could read the time without opening the lid. This type of cover was named "half hunter," and in time, someone thought of putting a glass cover over this hole to protect the dial from dust and other elements. The bezel was born - without knowing it.
Over the years, this glass became larger and larger and took on a convex shape to better protect the dial surface. Likewise, the metal frame that supported the glass started to get smaller and smaller until it took on its present bezel shape, where its protective function became insignificant compared to that of connecting the glass to the case. Eventually, bezels lost their last traditional connecting element - the hinge that linked them to the case and allowed them to be opened and closed - and so today, most bezels use either a pressure or a screw system to secure them to the cases.
Do all watches have bezels?
Watchmaking has seen the introduction of a vast number of different systems, partly because human creativity was stimulated by the presence of patents, which prevented companies from using technical solutions patented by others without paying a royalty.
Therefore, many brands have been ingenious in finding alternative technical solutions for different elements and systems of watchmaking - and one of them is the way bezels are secured to the case. We must say, however, that the removable bezel solution, although not the only one, is by far the most widely used in mechanical and quartz watches - especially since, even if most people are unaware of it, most watch components are usually outsourced by brands, and it is always preferable to standardize production processes to maximize profits.
How is a watch bezel made?
A watch bezel is a metal element, so it is made by machining, which can vary depending on how it fits with its support, the case.
The prevailing technical solutions used in traditional bezels, that is, the fixed ones, are two and are similar to those used for the case backs: the snap-on solution and the screw in solution. The snap-on system is the simplest and least expensive: it is also the one that provides less protection from external elements, especially water (which, we must emphasize, has become an important element only in the last hundred years). In practice, it is a profile that engages through pressure on a flange on the watch case: on this, there may be a thin gasket to ensure a better sealing.
Instead, the screw-in closure system is used extensively in dive watches and typically involves a bezel that is screwed on the case to ensure a water resistant closure. In these cases, there is most often a gasket seal. However, this system is more expensive and technically complicated to implement.
Early bezels were usually hinged on one side and thus opened "book-like" to give access to the dial. This type of solution - which does not ensure any water resistance - can still be found on vintage watches, especially trench and marriage watches.
Remember that there are different types of bezels: for example, bezels on diver's watches are a particular case. Their function is to rotate and provide indications of periods, especially relating to the remaining autonomy of oxygen in the tanks, and are often made to ensure a unidirectional rotation of the bezel, proceeding in "steps," with an internal spring that marks the minutes precisely.
These external bezels are generally made with a metal base, which can be covered with other materials, such as ceramics, which have been widely used recently. In contrast, initially, a special resin called bakelite was used. Some companies, such as Hublot, have indulged in the making of particularly creative bezels, inserting resins, enamel, and even leather surfaces.
We also want to mention that in some particular cases, the bezel can have a control function - such as being connected to a mechanism to operate some complications of the watch movement. For example, this is the case with some high-end timepieces, such as the Rolex Skydweller and Rolex Yachtmaster.
Can you add a bezel to a watch?
A watch, as well as a mechanical object that has a precise function, is composed of a case, usually made in metal, which can then be worked in different ways - sometimes inserting elements and details not initially present. Thus, it is technically possible to insert a modified bezel on a pre-existing watch. However, one must remember that this type of modification is generally not appreciated by the traditional watchmaking world because it ruins the originality of the timepiece.
To give a practical example, it has become fashionable for some to practice what is known as "icing" - that is, modifying the case, bracelet, and bezel of watches by inserting precious stones to make fancier versions of the timepieces.
Unless this is made by an established designer, or by a celebrity, particularly in vogue, this intervention reduces the value of the watch substantially - you can take a look at a marketplace such as chrono24 or similar to witness the value of these "modded" pieces compared to those of the original references. Obviously, this reasoning does not apply to the factory "Ice" versions: for example, the Rolex GMT Master II Ice currently represents the Rolex watch with the highest list price, about $400,000.
What is the base metal bezel on watch?
For robustness reasons, watches have always had metal cases and bezels to protect the dials and movements. At first, these were made of precious metals, but over time, and as watchmaking became more popular, the industry began to use other less expensive metals, often along with processes to improve their aesthetics.
So, to replace a metal like silver, very popular in pocket watches, an alloy called argentan, or alpacca, also known as German silver, was adopted, and it guaranteed an excellent aesthetic result.
Another very popular solution was using an alloy of brass with other metals, which was called "base metal" because it served as a base for metal covering via an electro galvanic process: the so-called plating, usually done using a layer of chrome or gold. And this brass alloy, not particularly beautiful in itself, worked very well as a base.
Over time, stainless steel watches became prevalent. Steel became easier to work with and slowly replaced base metal even in less expensive watchmaking, with the result that today it is almost no longer used. In addition, the traditional electrolytic bath plating system has also fallen into disuse, replaced by other more modern techniques that allow for better adhesion of the plating material to the substrate. So, if you find yourself with a base metal bezel that is probably showing the signs of time, you'll want to take it to a jeweler for maintenance and possible re-plating.
As you can see, the humble bezel has a very important history and function in watchmaking, indeed unsuspected by many. And we are sure that now this short article will have helped you make it less mysterious!