One of Rolex’s trademark features is the bezel. More than just a ring outside of the crystal, the bezel serves as both a functional element as well as a structural one. Part of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf’s thinking when he conceived the Rolex Oyster Case was the bezel. Wilsdorf saw a truly waterproof watch as a solid piece of steel sandwiched between a screwed in caseback, and a screwed in bezel. With both the crystal and caseback screwed onto rubber seals embedded in the middle case, the watch was truly sealed like an oyster.
The Rolex Oyster case has evolved since the first one in 1926. Early Rolex bezels were serrated for a special Rolex tool to fit over the crystal/bezel assembly for torquing into the case. Now, Rolex bezels are not screwed into the case, but rather pressed onto the case holding a synthetic sapphire crystal in place and water sealed with a Zytel gasket. With the bezel and the crystal press-fit into the case, the bezel could also double as a foundation for other bezel functions.
Starting in the early 1950’s, Rolex unveiled a rotating bezel on its Turn-O-Graph model. The Rolex Turn-O-Graph was a hybrid dress / tool watch and was one of the first watches in the tool watch genre that evolved throughout the 1950’s. Combining a rotating bezel onto a Rolex DateJust dress watch mixed both boardroom appeal, and sport watch utility. A rotating bezel marks elapsed time within a 60 minutes such as the number of minutes left on a parking meter, or hamburgers on a grill. A rotating bezel allowed for simple tracking of elapsed time without the complexity of a chronograph stopwatch.
The Rolex Turn-O-Graph was later nicknamed the Thunderbird after the United States Air Force flying acrobatic team. The Rolex Thunderbird was used by the Airforce because of the utility that comes with a rotating bezel and Oyster case toughness. Not too soon after the release of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph Thunderbird was the Rolex Submariner and GMT in 1954. Both the Rolex Submariner and the GMT marked Rolex’s successful run of making what were considered “tool watches.” Rolex tool watches combined Rolex elegance and quality found on the DateJust but with larger dials, larger hands with more glow in the dark tritium, and rotating bezels.
The Rolex Submariner was Rolex’s first diving watch that was designed for the ocean depths introduced by the budding underwater sport of SCUBA diving, SCUBA diving was hitting the post-war masses, as well as transcontinental air travel. At the request of Pan American Airlines, Rolex designed a watch that helped pilots measure time among time-zones. Both the Submariner’s and the GMT’s core utility is the bezel. Next week, we’ll look into the various bezel designs found on Rolex watches and the utility for the wearer.
– Sheldon Smith