Have you ever wondered how a watch bezel is made? Not only what the insert is made of but how it spins around, clicks or no clicks? Well, although I am not an engineer, I have become quite obsessed with how bezels are constructed, what makes them click and not click, turn in one direction or both, and what are the advantages of one type of bezel mechanism over another. In this article I’ll also briefly talk about three types of bezel constructions: friction, springs, and ball bearings. As always, keep an open mind as I’m an extreme watch enthusiast, but perhaps not yet an official expert. I have learned a lot however about watch bezels and look forward to sharing with you.
First Type of Watch Bezel Mechanism: Friction-Fit
The first type of bezel mechanism is friction-fit and is the original type of bezel construction. Simply put, there is no click. The bezel is tightened around a raised part of the watch case in order to spin in either direction without falling off. This is the type of bezel one could find on the first pilot and dive watches, including the first Rolex Submariner for example. And this type of bezel can still be found in 2023 on entry-level Seiko’s and vintage-inspired watches. Making this type of bezel is cheaper than other mechanisms and provides a unique, almost old school experience.
Friction-fit bezels come with two downfalls: first, how good the bezel rotates changes over time, either by becoming too loose in which case the bezel spins freely or by becoming stuck. The latter happens after many years of use when gunk and dirt gets stuck between the bezel and case. Of course, this can be fixed by removing the bezel and cleaning it. The second downfall is that the bezel can easily move during certain activities, for example diving which could cause a big problem for divers who wouldn’t be able to accurately track their bottom time. (Luckily, nobody uses dive watches to actually dive anymore.)
Second Type of Watch Bezel Mechanism: Click-Spring
The second type of watch bezel construction is click-spring which is the most common type nowadays. In a nutshell, a circular or semi-circular spring is mounted on the case by way of aligning pins of the click-spring with tiny holes in the case, and by then inserting the bezel insert onto the spring. Sometimes, the spring is built-in the bezel insert and held in place on the case by way of grooves. This allows the bezel to rotate in either one direction or another without spinning back the opposite ways. Rolex and Blancpain famously made the first unidirectional click-spring bezels for their dive watches so that divers wouldn’t have to worry about a bezel moving during a dive.
A well-made click-spring bezel will last you a lifetime, but a poor one won’t. I’ve handled watches with this type of bezel construction that lost performance over a period of just a few months of regular use. In these cases, the click becomes smoother and the bezel rotates too easily. Moreover, I couldn’t tell you what makes a bezel rotate in both directions but it is common, especially on GMTs. And even in this case, the bezel action can deteriorate over time if it is not well-made. A final note: these types of bezels can come with 24, 48, 90 or 120 clicks depending on the type of watch. (There are actually more variants, however they are not as common.)
Here is a video on YouTube that I found cleaning and showing a Rolex Submariner 16610 bezel assembly
Third Type of Watch Bezel Mechanism: Ball-Bearings
The third type of watch bezel mechanism is the one that uses ball-bearings instead of springs. A ball-bearing is basically a tiny ball made of metal that sits between the bottom of the bezel insert and the case and is mounted on small springs. Generally, ball-bearing bezels rotate in both directions and have a distinctive click, one that sounds louder and feels sturdier and more precise. In the best case scenarios, the bearings are made of ceramic which are more resistant than metal ones and will resist wear and tear better. Making ball-bearing bezel inserts is more expensive than click-spring bezels.
Although I haven’t experienced many of these types of bezel mechanisms, I found that in general turning the bezel requires a little more effort. I can’t explain why exactly that is but that’s how it works. Ideally, ball-bearing bezels come with deep grooves on the outside of the bezels to make them easier to grip and rotate. I also found that this type of construction makes it easier to make bezels that can be easily removed and interchanged for other ones, while click-spring bezels aren’t, at least for someone like me.
I’ll say it again: I didn’t mean or intend to write a scientific exposé. It’s just that overtime I realized that there are different ways to go about making bezels and that each type comes with its pluses and minuses. As mentioned above, friction-fit bezels are often used on cheaper watches and vintage-inspired timepieces, while click-springs and ball-bearing bezels are more often used on more expensive dive watches. There are also different levels of refinement for click-spring bezels, some being so smooth that it feels as if I am opening a Swiss safe.Featured image: @rolexdiver on Instagram