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How Rotating Bezels Actually Work

Paul Altieri

Sure, rotating bezels look great. With a variety of colors and beautiful complications painted or engraved into their surfaces, it is undeniable that they add some truly fantastic aesthetic appeal. However, a significant number of people who own and wear luxury watches that have rotating bezels don’t actually know all that much about them, let alone how to use them.

Rotating bezels are designed to help measure everything from dive times to regatta races, and some like GMT bezels can be used in conjunction with an additional 24-hour hand to display a secondary time zone. A rotating bezel can often significantly expand the functionality of a wristwatch, so we think you should understand how rotating bezels work so that you can start using them properly in your everyday life. So, let’s get started!

Click here for our Ultimate Guide on Rolex Bezels.

How Rotating Bezels Actually Work Rolex Submariner 126610LB Timing Bezel

About Rotating Bezels

A bezel is the outer ring of metal (sometimes ceramic) that surrounds the face of your watch and its crystal. In the vast majority of instances, the bezel is located on the exterior of your watch and it is entirely separate from its internal movement.

Since it is located on the outside of the watch, it allows the primary functionality of the timepiece’s movement to stay the same, while still allowing the wearer to have access to additional information beyond just the hours, minutes, and seconds of the day. This enables a watch with a relatively simple movement to offer competitively advanced functionality.

Depending on the style of the bezel and the scales that appear upon it, rotating bezels can be used for everything from timing deep dives to displaying secondary time zones, to even

How Do Rotating Bezels Work Rolex Yacht-Master 116623 Timing Bezel

Different Types of Rotating Bezels

There are many different types of rotating bezels, and the kind of bezel can largely depend on the type of scale that is either printed or engraved on it. However, in terms of the actual motion of rotating bezels, they can either be bidirectional, unidirectional, or Ring Command (exclusive to Rolex).

  • Bidirectional
    – As the name suggests, bidirectional rotating bezels can be turned both clockwise and counterclockwise. This allows the wearer to quickly calculate how much time has elapsed or how much time is remaining. Additionally, some bidirectional bezels are marked with hours rather than a minute scale, which allows them to be used to display an additional time zone, rather than as a display of elapsed time.
  • Unidirectional
    – Unidirectional rotating bezels can only be moved in one direction – usually counterclockwise, and they almost always have a scale graduated for minutes rather than hours. Unidirectional bezels were originally developed as a safety feature, with its origins in the early days of scuba diving. The unidirectional movement of the bezel guarantees that if it accidentally gets knocked or moved out of place, it will only display that more time has elapsed, rather than less – which is especially useful while diving.
  • Ring Command
    – Ring Command bezels are something that is exclusive to Rolex watches, although a similar concept can be found on timepieces from other manufacturers. Although they are still located on the outside of the case, Ring Command bezels are actually mechanically connected to the internal movements of their respective watches. This means that rotating them allows users to interact directly with the movement to allow for additional functionality without the need for more buttons, pushers, or crown setting positions.

How Rotating Bezels Work Rolex GMT-Master II 126710BLRO Pepsi GMT Bezel

The Inner Workings of Rotating Bezels

Underneath the handsome ceramic or metal bezel, there are usually a number of different parts that connect the component to a watch and provide it with both its motion and functionality. Depending on the type of bezel and the features that it offers, these parts can range from small leaf springs to specialized washers, and they can differ significantly from one watch to the next – even if the bezels on the two watches offer identical motion and functionality.

Traditionally, it has often been small springs that provide rotating bezels with their ratcheting action and unidirectional motion. However, on the more recent generations of the Rolex Submariner – the versions fitted with ceramic bezel inserts, this system has been replaced by 4 spring-loaded rollers, one of which is angled on top to prevent clockwise motion. This updated structure provides a more stable motion, more symmetrical resistance, and that satisfying ‘click’ that so many collectors appreciate.

How Rotating Bezels Actually Work Rolex Sea-Dweller 116600 60-Minute Elapsed Time Bezel

How to Measure Elapsed Time with Rotating Bezels

Measuring elapsed time with a rotating bezel is actually a lot easier than you might suspect – it just requires a little bit of knowledge about how they are intended to work. With a unidirectional bezel, you simply spin the bezel counterclockwise until the zero marker (unusually an inverted triangle) is aligned with the minute hand. As time passes, the minute hand will move around the dial and you simply read the amount of elapsed time against the 60-minute scale on the bezel.

Should a unidirectional rotating bezel get accidentally knocked or moved, it will only ever display that more time has elapsed (rather than less), and this can be particularly useful for a number of different tasks. For example, if you are using a unidirectional bezel while scuba diving, it will only over-estimate the amount of time that you have spent underwater, which can be a lifesaving feature if you are using your watch to calculate decompression stops.

Even in everyday life, a unidirectional rotating timing bezel can be a convenient feature. Should you use it to track the amount of time left at a parking meter, accidental movement will only mean that you return to your car slightly ahead of schedule, rather than returning to your car and finding a parking ticket.

On the other hand, a bidirectional rotating bezel can move both ways; however, as long as they are printed with a 60-minute elapsed time scale, using them will largely follow the same overall process. While they may lack the built-in safety-feature of a unidirectional rotating timing bezel, having a bidirectional rotating bezel can sometimes be more convenient since it allows for much more rapid alignment with the minute hand when being used to time events.

How to Use Rotating Bezels Rolex GMT-Master II 116710BLNR Batman 24-Hour Bezel

How to Measure Additional Time Zones with Rotating Bezels

Rotating bezels that are designed to display additional time zones will either be marked with 12-hour or 24-hour scales. Additionally, nearly all bezels intended for displaying a secondary time zone will feature bidirectional motion, as there is no need for the built-in safety feature that is offered by a unidirectional rotating bezel.

For rotating bezels graduated with 12-hour scales, simply rotate it either clockwise or counterclockwise the number of hours that corresponds with the offset from your current time zone. For example, if you are currently in Los Angeles and are interested in tracking the time in New York City (which is three hours ahead), simply rotate the bezel so that the ‘3’ is directly above the 12 o’clock marker. From here, you can read the time in your secondary location by referencing the hour hand’s location against the 12-hour scale on your bezel.

On the other hand, rotating bezels that are graduated for 24-hours are designed to be used in conjunction with a watch’s 24-hour hand. The process of using a 24-hour bezel is more-or-less the same as using one with a 12-hour scale, except for the fact that you will reference the 24-hour hand’s position against the accompanying scale on the bezel, rather than the position of the standard 12-hour hand. The greatest benefit of the 24-hour approach is that it allows users to more easily track additional time zones with more than a 12-hour time difference, as it doesn’t require any math to convert times between AM and PM hours.

Rotating Bezels User Guide Rolex Yacht-Master II 116688 Ring Command Bezel

Rolex Ring Command Rotating Bezels

Lastly, there are those tricky Ring Command bezels. These require a bit more effort to properly figure out since each will function differently depending on the additional features offered by their respective watches. At the present time, Rolex only fits the Ring Command bezel on the two most complex watches in its entire catalog, and in each instance, the bezel both looks and functions differently.

On the Rolex Yacht-Master II, the Ring Command bezel is marked with a prominent 0-10 scale, and is used for setting the watch’s adjustable regatta timer for use either before or during a boat race. However, the Ring Command bezel on the Rolex Sky-Dweller follows the brand’s traditional fluted design, and it is not used for measuring time at all, as it has no informational scale printed or engraved upon it.

Instead, it is used in conjunction with the winding crown to permit a much more streamlined and setting process for both the secondary time zone display and the Sky-Dweller’s annual calendar complication. Despite its high level of functionality, setting the Rolex Sky-Dweller’s advanced Caliber 9001 movement is a remarkably easy process, and this feat is only made possible by the innovative Ring Command bezel.

How Rotating Bezels Function Rolex Yacht-Master II 116689 Ring Command Bezel

Paul Altieri

Paul is the company's Founder and CEO. He is responsible for all the day to day activities from purchasing, receiving, marketing and sales. Paul is a graduate of Boston College 1979 and resides in California with his family.

6 Comments
  1. Why do my bezels ( happens with many brands) freeze up and become difficult to rotate? What is the cure?
    Thank you.
    Albert Caruana

    • It is usually due to a build up of dirt and debris under the bezel. Sometimes this can be remedied by using water or a cleaning solution and rotating the bezel of the watch; however other times the bezel will need to be removed in order to restore its original functionality.

  2. One of my pet peeves is a misaligned bezel. I have seen it on just about every brand of watch, even $10,000 watches. Is there a way for a jeweler / watch repairman to micro-adjust the bezel (just a fraction of a millimeter) to get it to line up nearly perfectly, as you would expect on a watch in that price range? A misaligned bezel throws off the whole look of the watch sometimes. :((

    • That would really just depend on the specific watch and the type of bezel, as there are many factors to consider here. For example, fixed bezel vs. rotating bezel; alignment of the bezel in relation to dial vs. alignment in relation to the rehaut; type of bezel (single piece, bezel with insert, multi-component); material of bezel and/or bezel insert; etc.

      For many Rolex models, particularly those with ceramic bezels, adjusting the orientation of the bezel should really only be done by a highly experienced watchmaker with access to very specific parts and tools. These may not be things that your average jeweler or watch repair shop will not have at their premises. Other watches can have their bezels aligned far more easily by an experienced watchmaker with standard tools simply removing the bezel insert, and realigning it.

      Beyond that, there is always the factor of the amount of play that a rotating bezel is naturally going to have due to its design, as this can also influence the perceived effect of alignment. For example, a modern Rolex Submariner will more-or-less have zero play in its rotating bezel, but this is certainly not true for all other brands and watches (including even for older Submariner models).

  3. I am so glad I found your website, I have a Citizen eco-drive chronograph watch, not on par with a Rolex obviously.
    It looks fantastic with the rotaing bezel, but I didn’t have a clue how to use it. It has markings from 10 to 90 minutes, (I think) then inside on the watch face are markings 10 to 90, but each marker has the minutes marked, it starts of like 1, 2, 3,4 etc upto 25 then the markings change to 30, 35, 40 etc upto 70. I read your
    Instructions, but to be honest I am still none the wiser, I shall print them out if that’s okay. I can go through them carefully. Oh I forgot, you don’t turn the bezel by hand, you have to use the crown on the lower left hand side.
    Thanks again, Happy New Year.
    Roger.

    • Hi Roger,
      It sounds like you may have a slide rule bezel, rather than a standard timing bezel or GMT bezel. There are many different types of bezels, and the type of scale(s) printed on them can dictate both how they function and what can be done with them. A slide rule bezel features a logarithmic scale that can be used to perform a number of different calculations. You will often see slide rule bezels on pilot’s watches since they can be used to help multiply and divide values and convert units of measurement, functioning in a similar manner to an analog flight computer.
      The Breitling Navitimer is one of the most famous watches to feature a slide rule bezel. Check out this article of ours for more info – it uses a Navitimer as the example, but the same principles will work for any watch with a slide rule bezel.