It serves to assert an identity, to flaunt a design; it sparkles with precious stones and can even absorb kinetic energy if a timepiece is inadvertently dropped, by separating from the watch in order to protect it, as on the new Inox by Victorinox. The – generally fixed – bezel of a wristwatch has what it takes to make a difference. The term bezel refers to the kind of frame topping the case and in which the watch glass is generally fitted. It should not be confused with the flange or inner bezel ring, an inside component that is the meeting point between the rim of the dial and the case middle. On pocket watches, the bezel already served to clamp the protective glass in place. In certain cases, it could be raised using a tiny hinge to enable time-setting. However, the transition to wristwatches and the harsher conditions to which they are subjected forced watchmakers to do things differently. The bezel now needed to remain in a fixed position, to resist shocks and to guarantee water resistance. At the same time, it could be assigned new tasks such as bearing time or measurement scales when the dial was already brimming with indications. Subsequently, the bezel also became mobile and took on an additional function such as in scuba diving. But that’s another story. The fixed bezel has meanwhile taken its own path.
In 1926, Rolex developed a construction in which the bezel was screwed into the case middle to enhance water resistance.
Protecting the heart
The fluted pattern on today’s Rolex watches has an almost century-long history. In 1926, the brand with the crown logo developed a construction in which the bezel was screwed into the case middle to enhance water resistance. To ensure a dedicated tool could get a proper grip on the bezel, ridges were cut into it. Since then, this notching or fluting has become a signature feature. At the time, the watch glass was affixed to the bezel by cementing it or driving it in. However, so as to better isolate and protect the heart of its watch, Rolex devised a new structure that was made possible by the advent of watch glasses made of plexiglas – a material that enabled distinctly more complex shapes that would have been impossible to create previously. From then on a vertical edge pointing downwards from the circumference was wedged inside the case middle. Referred to as “chimney” or “glassbox” glasses, they were pressed ever harder against the case middle as pressure increased. This technique did not however eliminate the use of screw-thread methods for securing the bezel.
Screws are regular allies on bezels. Cartier soon began using them, such as on the Santos that still features these elements. They are one option for affixing the bezel, and generally the back, to the case middle. Several types of methods have developed over the years for holding cases and bezels in place, the two main other ones being clip fastening or clamping via screw threads placed around the inner rim of the case middle. Depending on the quantities to be produced, the tools available and and the degree of precision, one or other of these methods is selected.
Screws can also be diverted and transformed into a fundamental aesthetic element. The Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet is vivid proof of this, with its hexagonal screw heads that are essentially decorative in that they are held from the underside. For how could one actually turn an angular screw head in a cavity of the same shape? On Hublot watches, while the result is strikingly similar from a stylistic viewpoint, the fundamental idea stems from the very name of the brand, hublot being the French word for a porthole secured by a number of bolts. This “window onto the sea” had indeed already inspired Patek Philippe for its Nautilus, a legendary model that is celebrating its 40th birthday in 2016 and which is named after the Captain Nemo’s famous ship dreamed up by Jules Verne. At the time, the advert for this watch proclaimed: “One of the world’s most expensive watches is made of steel!”
At the end of the 1970s, Corum and Bulgari were caught up in a legal battle regarding a bezel design
In the late 1970s, Corum and Bulgari were caught up in a legal battle regarding a bezel design. Jostling for precedence were two recent models that were already in fashion: the Corum Romulus and the Bulgari Bulgari. They shared thecommon denominator of a bezel serving to bear a decoration that gave each model its true ‘soul’. In 1966, Corum’s co-founder and brilliant watch designer René Bannwart evolved the brand’s Hourless model launched in 1958 by adding Roman numerals to the bezel of a watch adorned exclusively by the logo printed on the dial. First engraved and then enamelled, the motif subsequently appeared in engraved form only. The Rome-based Bulgari in turn decided to work on its bezel by engraving its name, initially once and then twice. Launched in 1975 and reserved for the brand’s best customers, the first version of this model featured a cartouche-shaped screen with a digital liquid crystal display, powered by a quartz movement. In the end, Corum succeeded in proving it had come up with the idea first – a fact that did not prevent the two models from continuing to co-exist.
A touch of art, a hint of R&D
The bezel can also host precious stones or other forms of craftsmanship. It is often the scene of a jewellery accent added to a model to give it the desired feminine touch. In this domain, Roger Dubuis with its Excalibur Spider Skeleton Flying Tourbillon and Ulysse Nardin with its Marine Perpetual both introduced a new patented process that was new to the watch industry. This consisted of setting precious stones – meaning 60 baguette-cut diamonds totalling 2 carats on the Roger Dubuis models – into a rubber moulding over the metal bezel. This novel technique, calling for perfect mastery of a technique based on plastic deformation, is intended for a broad audience, if the appeal of jewelled watches to Middle Eastern male clients is anything to go by. Some brands strongly committed to artistic crafts such as Piaget even like to extend the dial motif onto the bezel.
Sometimes the bezel also involves R&D departments. Hublot for example produces some versions in Magic Gold, its own gold alloy injected under very high pressure with inert gas at a high temperature, thus enabling it to fill the pores of a ceramic block and create a fusion that results in almost perfect scratch-resistance. Omega also entered this arena in 2014 by presenting a Seamaster topped by an orange ceramic bezel, an extremely rare colour achieved by means of materials incorporating rare earth elements. Omega also uses platinum-based Liquidmetal® to create inscriptions by pouring material into cavities hollowed out of the bezel. Finally, Rolex has developed its own technology for producing two-tone ceramic bezels featuring an extremely clear distinction between the two shades. Fans love this feature and have even nicknamed the recent Rolex GMT Master II “Batman” because of this distinctive blue and black circle.