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How Rotating Bezels Actually Work

February 1, 2019

BY Paul Altieri


Sure, rotating bezels look great. With a variety of colors and beautiful complications painted and ingrained into their surfaces, they add awesome aesthetic appeal. However, chances are that half the people who own a luxury watches with a rotating bezel don’t actually know all that much about them.

Rotating bezels are designed to help measure everything from dive times to regatta races – granted, the later is not a feature you’re bound to use daily. Nonetheless, we think you should understand how rotating bezels work and how to properly use them. So, let’s get started! 

rotating bezels

The rotating bezel on the Rolex GMT-Master is marked with a 24-hour scale, which allows it to be used to reference a second time zone.

The Basics

In the vast majority of instances, the bezel is entirely separate from your watch’s movement. A bezel is the outer ring of metal – sometimes ceramic – that surrounds the face of your watch and its crystal. Since it is located outside of the watch, it allows the primary functionality of the timepiece to stay the same while still allowing the wearer to reference something other than just the hours, minutes, and seconds of the day. Like we mentioned above, rotating bezels are used for everything from timing deep dives to displaying secondary time zones, to even configuring countdown timers for boat races.

rotating bezels

The rotating, red and blue “Pepsi” bezel on the latest Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 126710 is constructed from Rolex’s proprietary ceramic material.

There are also three types of rotating bezels:

  • 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 rudimentary timer.
  • Unidirectional
    Unidirectional rotating bezels can only be moved in one direction – usually counterclockwise. However, this is strictly a safety feature, rather than a lack of versatility. The unidirectional movement guarantees that if the bezel gets accidentally moved or knocked out of place, it will only display that more time has elapsed, rather than less – which is especially useful while scuba 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 connected to the internal movements of their respective watches, and allow for additional adjustment and setting positions without the need for additional buttons, pushers, or crown positions.  
rotating bezels

The Ring Command bezel on the Rolex Yacht-Master II is linked to its internal movement, which allows it to be used to set the watch’s adjustable countdown timer.

The Inner workings

Underneath the handsome ceramic or metal bezel, there are usually a number of different parts that connect it to a watch and provide it with is 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 can significantly differ from one watch to the next – even if the bezels on the two watches offer identical functionality.

Traditionally, it has often been small springs that provide rotating bezels with their ratcheting action and unidirectional motion; however on the most recent incarnation of the Rolex Submariner – the version with a ceramic bezel insert, this system has been replaced by 4 spring-loaded rollers, one of which is angled on top to prevent clockwise motion.

rotating bezels

Older Rolex Submariner watches were fitted with bidirectional bezels; however the latest models all have unidirectional bezels as an added safety measure.

Measuring time with Rotating Bezels

Measuring 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 so that you can count elapsed time – like how much time you have spent submerged while diving. The added assurance that the bezel can only move one way means that even if you do manage to knock it out of place, it will only ever appear as though you spent more time underwater, not less (which could potentially be a fatal mistake).

On the other hand, a bidirectional rotating bezel moves both ways, allowing you to either track the amount of elapsed time or count down from a set time (up to 60 minutes). Simply rotate the bezel clockwise or counter clockwise, aligning either the 0-minute marker or the desired minute value indicator (if using it as a countdown timer) with the minute hand of your watch, when you are ready to start measuring the time – simple as that!

How Rotating Bezels Actually Work Rolex Yacht-Master Platinum

The bi-directional rotating timing bezel on the Rolex Yacht-Master can be used to time events up to 1 hour in duration.

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 their 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 Sky-Dweller is of Rolex’s traditional fluted design, and is not used for measuring time at all, but rather it is used in conjunction with the winding crown to permit facilitated adjustment of the annual calendar complication on the Caliber 9001 movement.

rotating bezels

At the present time, the Yacht-Master II and Sky-Dweller are the only Rolex watches that are fitted with Rind Command bezels.




6 Responses to “How Rotating Bezels Actually Work”

  1. Albert G. Caruana says:

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

    • Paul Altieri says:

      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. Brett says:

    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. :((

    • Paul Altieri says:

      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. Roger Sweeting says:

    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.

    • Paul Altieri says:

      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.

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