When it comes to watch bezels, there are many different kinds and each one has its own specific purpose. Some bezels are fixed, others rotate; some are designed for measuring time, and others can be used to display additional time zones or calculate speed and distance. With that in mind, among all of the various styles of watch bezels, some of the most common are rotating timing bezels.
As their name suggests, these bezels rotate and they typically feature 60-minute scales, which allows them to work in conjunction with the minute hands on watches to measure the timing of events. However, within the greater category of rotating timing bezels, there are both the elapsed-time variety, and those that feature countdown scales. While both styles offer a similar core design, the way that they go about measuring time is actually the complete opposite. So, what exactly are the differences between elapsed-time bezels and countdown bezels, and which one is more practical in our everyday lives?
Key Differences: Elapsed Time vs. Countdown Bezels
The single greatest difference between elapsed-time bezels and countdown bezels, is that an elapsed-time bezel measures the duration since the start of an event (like a stopwatch), while a countdown bezel is intended to count backwards from a predetermined amount of time (like a timer). What this means is that an elapsed-time bezel will feature its 60-minute scale oriented in a way that increases as you move clockwise around its surface, while a countdown bezel will have its scale printed in the exact opposite manner.
Additionally, the direction that the bezel rotates can also differ between styles. Elapsed-time bezels can often feature unidirectional movement (counter-clockwise only), which is a trait inherited from dive watches, as it was a necessary safety feature to help prevent accidental movement of the bezel resulting in decompression sickness. However, there are also plenty of elapsed-time bezels out there with bidirectional motion, although they are most frequently found on either vintage models or timepieces that are not specifically dive watches. On the other hand, the vast majority of countdown bezels feature bidirectional motion, as there is no safety benefit of restricting it’s motion to a single direction, and operating the bezel is flat-out easier when you can rotate it in either direction to align it with the minute hand.
Elapsed Time Bezel Pros and Cons
The “count-up” approach of elapsed-time bezels is most useful when you need to measure the duration of something, but you aren’t sure exactly how long the event will be. For example, if you want to keep track of the run-time of a meeting, an elapsed-time bezel is perfect because you can simply align it with the minute hand at the start of the meeting and reference the amount of time that has passed by using the minute hand’s position against the scale on your bezel.
However, elapsed-time bezels are generally less practical when you know the actual duration of the event and just need a way to keep track of when that amount of time has passed. For example, if you know that you have 30 minutes of time on a parking meter, you can track the amount of time that has passed using an elapsed-time bezel, but you will still need to remember that you had 30 minutes, because your bezel will only tell you know how much time has passed since you first parked.
Countdown Bezel Pros and Cons
Countdown bezels are almost the complete opposite of elapsed-time bezels when it comes to the circumstances when they are most practical. Countdown bezels are generally best when you know the duration of the event up-front, such as when you add a specific amount of time to a parking meter, or when plan to leave something in the oven for precisely 20 minutes. Their descending scales allow you to set the desired number at the start of the event, and then all you need to do is wait for the minute hand to reach the zero-marker on the bezel.
However, countdown bezels are typically a bit less practical when it comes to measuring the actual duration of an event, simply due to the fact that they count backwards from a specified amount of time. Additionally, since countdown bezels often feature bidirectional motion, they’re generally slightly easier and more intuitive to operate. However, as they can move in either direction, they are also more likely to get accidentally bumped or moved out of place compared to their unidirectional counterparts.
Which Timing Bezel Is More Practical?
Regarding which style of timing bezel is the most practical between the two, answers will differ between individuals, depending on their specific lifestyle and how they intend to use their watch. However, when it comes to the frequency that you see each style of timing bezel out in the wild, it’s undeniable that the elapsed-time variety significantly outnumbers its countdown sibling. Granted, this can likely be attributed to the widespread popularity of dive watches as a whole, rather than the just the outright practicality of their bezels. However, it is still surprising how much more prevalent the elapsed-time bezel has become over the years, even on other types of wristwatches. While the popularity of dive watches might explain the prevalence of elapsed-time bezels, it does not explain why the countdown bezel is almost a relative obscurity when it comes to modern watches.
Some people would even argue that countdown bezels are actually better suited for multipurpose use in our modern lives. We frequently know the approximate duration of an event, meaning that we often just need a quick and convenient way of keeping track of where we are within that interval of time. Admittedly, it can be a bit jarring at first to look down and see the number ‘50’ located next to the 2 o’clock marker, but for everything from keeping track of laundry machines and parking meters to timing the cook on a batch of cookies, a countdown bezel is objectively more practical.
*All photos courtesy of their respective manufacturers.