Rolex Bezel Inserts
With the invention of the tool watch, for which Rolex can claim most responsibility, the bezel went from being merely a decorative component to one which became integral to a model’s extended functionality.
By engraving the bezel’s insert with a scale of some sort—either a 60-minute, 12 or 24-hour scale, or a tachymeter, etc.—it could be brought into play in a number of ways. Whether you wanted to time racing laps, keep tabs on a second or third time zone, or ensure you didn’t run out of air underwater, the bezel was really what defined the tool watch.
Since those earliest days of the 1950s, Rolex’s surrounds have changed and evolved just as much as any of the other major elements which make up a wristwatch. Materials have come and gone, superseded by newer, more advanced alternatives as technology allowed. But in addition to that, the color schemes Rolex has chosen over the years for their bezels have entered into the common horology lexicon, earning some of the most iconic nicknames in the industry.
It is a fascinating subject, and one we are yet to address here on our blog. So, for clarity and ease of reference, we are going to go through each distinct model and lay out its most famous bezel inserts.
The Rolex GMT-Master
There’s only really one place to start and that is with the Rolex watch that arguably depends the most on its bezel for its identity.
When the original GMT-Master was released, its rotating surround and additional hour hand meant it could be used to show the time at a second destination—perfect for long distance travelers and the air crews who transported them there. The watch was, in fact, commissioned by Pan Am Airways for that very job, with the newly experienced phenomenon of jetlag (caused by the advent of the jet airliner and its ability to cross several time zones) wreaking havoc on pilots. Monitoring the hour at the eventual destination as well as at home was shown to help mitigate some of the worst effects.
The debut reference, the ref. 6542, came into the field with a bicolor bezel engraved with a 24-hour scale; the top half, from 18:00 to 06:00 in blue to represent the nighttime hours, the bottom half, between 06:00 and 18:00, in red to denote the daytime.
That original ‘Pepsi’ bezel (so called for its resemblance to the famous soft drink can’s color scheme) was created in the world’s first synthetic plastic, called Bakelite. Durable and easily molded, Bakelite would have seemed the ideal choice for Rolex in the 1950s.
However, it wasn’t long before the material’s shortcomings were exposed. Worn in tropical climates, it was quick to fade and even quicker to crack. Whether or not that alone would have caused Rolex to recall the watches it had already sold we will never know. But the ref. 6542 had bigger problems than its fragile bezel insert. As it turned out, the 24-hour numerals etched into its surface were filled with luminous radium, the extreme dangers of which were only then becoming apparent. In 1959, the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) ordered Rolex to bring in the 605 GMT-Masters they had imported to the U.S. market and replace the Bakelite insert with an aluminum one. Moreover, any ref. 6542 sent into Rolex for a service, anywhere in the world, would have its surround swapped out as a matter of course. As a result, any example surviving today completely intact is a fabulously rare and valuable watch.
But of course, the Pepsi livery isn’t the only one the GMT-Master has been given over the years. Take a look at the list below:
The Root Beer — this originally surfaced in the early 1960s and has gone through several variations since then. The first Root Beer GMT was the ref. 1675/3, which also happened to be the first Rolesor version of the watch. It got its name from the contrast between the two-tone case and the brown dial and bezel.
Later on, that solid color bezel would receive the bicolor treatment and be split into brown at the top and gold below. Along the way, the Root Beer picked up a succession of other nicknames, such as; Tiger Eye, Tiger Augen, the Clint Eastwood and the Dirty Harry (the follow-up to the ref. 1675/3, the ref. 16753, was reportedly the actor’s favorite watch and he wore it in several movies).
Most recently, the Root Beer made a triumphant return to the collection in 2018 with the ref. 126711CHNR and the ref. 126715CHNR, the Rolesor and solid yellow gold models respectively. Each is fitted with a black and brown bezel insert crafted in the brand’s proprietary Cerachrom, an extremely hardwearing ceramic alloy which is given a fine coating of platinum dust to seal in the lustrous finish.
The Coke — the obvious next step for Rolex after the success of their Pepsi bezels. The Coke surrounds featured a mix of black and red and first appeared in 1983 on the ref. 16760, otherwise known as the Fat Lady. The debut reference of the GMT-Master II, it got its unflattering nickname (alternatively ‘the Sophia Loren’) because of its enlarged case, necessary to accommodate the new Cal. 3085, the first movement to uncouple the watch’s two hour hands, allowing it to now track three time zones at once.
The last time Rolex has issued a model with the Coke bezel was on the ref. 16710, made from 1989 to 2007, meaning there has never been a Cerachrom version. And many fans think it’s about time!
The Blueberry — the rarest of the GMT-Master’s bezels, the solid blue insert was fitted to very select models of the ref. 1675 from the 1970s. Unlike the others on the list, it was never an official option for the general public, but rather a special order variant reserved for select retailers and military groups, such as the UAE Air Force. An easy one to fake, genuine examples are now highly collectible.
The Batman — something of a landmark for the GMT-Master, and Rolex themselves, the blue and black insert now known as the Batman was the first time the manufacture managed to perfect the bicolor process on their Cerachrom alloy. Launched in 2013 to huge acclaim, it is still in the collection, along with the Pepsi, and can be had on either an Oyster bracelet (called the Batman) or the Jubilee (called, unkindly, the Batgirl).
The Rolex Submariner
Probably the next in line when it comes to famous Rolex surrounds. One of the earliest examples of the diver’s timing bezel, it’s remit was even simpler than the GMT-Master’s. Engraved with a 60-minute scale, it could be used to keep track of a Scuba diver’s time underwater, or indeed, just about any other pursuit which lasted less than an hour. At the start of the activity, the wearer turns the bezel so the zero marker lines up with the minute hand, and then just reads off the elapsed time as the hands go around the dial. Incredibly easy and virtually foolproof, the Submariner has myriad uses both in and out of the water.
But again, the Sub’s bezel insert has progressed over time. While every example has had Arabic numerals at the 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 minute marks, with plain batons at the 5-minute points in-between, the earliest references were missing the series of hash marks for the first 15-minutes we find on later watches. They were added around 1957, about 4-years into the watch’s run, and are still used today.
But on some very special, military-issued pieces, known as the MilSubs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, those hash marks continue all the way round the bezel for greater timing accuracy, just as they are on the Sea-Dweller and Deepsea.
Similarly, the red triangle marking the zero minute location was used on some of the early models but was quickly switched for a silver replacement. This was for two reasons; firstly, the red faded quickly and secondly, red color wavelengths are completely absorbed at very shallow depths underwater, rendering the triangle fairly useless for diving.
Unlike the GMT-Master, there have only been two material and three color options in the Submariner’s bezel history. Even though it was released at virtually the same time as the dual time zone watch, the Sub never had a Bakelite insert. From its debut in 1953, all the way up to 2008, the insert was aluminum. From then to now, the brand has given the watch Cerachrom bezels.
As for the colors, the first non-black-bezeled Sub was the blue ref. 1680/8 from 1969 (or thereabouts; no one seems too sure for some reason)—also the first yellow gold example of the watch and the first reference to house a date display. The Submariner then had to wait until its 50th birthday, 2003, for another shade. The so-called Kermit, the ref. 16610LV, outfitted the model with a green surround.
Today, black, blue and green are still the only colors in which the Sub is issued, although they are now Cerachrom across the board.
The Rolex Daytona
The ultimate racer’s timepiece, the Daytona is now an undeniable legend. It is also the Rolex sports watch that offers the most in terms of bezel diversity.
Dividing the model up into its three generations—manually winding (1963-1988), the ‘Zenith’ Daytonas (1988-2000), and the current iteration—all three have had a healthy mix of bezel styles.
From the beginning, there have always been certain models with no insert at all, the tachymeter scale engraved directly into the metal, whether that be steel, or any of the three flavors of gold. In fact, the whole of the middle Zenith generation were that type.
The initial references from the ‘60s through to the ‘80s were half and half; some had engraved metal, others had an insert made from black acrylic.
These days, the collection is also split down the middle. There are plenty of gold examples with the scale etched directly into the bezel itself, and others, including the only two steel pieces, which have black Cerachrom surrounds.
Interestingly, the variety of bezel on the current range seems to be dictated by the bracelet in play. On the gold models, only those sitting on the rubber Oysterflex strap have Cerachrom, while those on the Oyster bracelets have no inserts. Only the steel and platinum watches have both a metal bracelet and ceramic insert.
But that is not the full story. The Daytona is by far the most dandified of Rolex’s tool models. There have been a slew of gem set bezels running almost its entire history, all the way back to the initial four digit references, such as the ref. 6269 from the late ‘70s. Diamonds, emeralds and rubies have featured heavily in the watch’s look, disregarding the tachy scale completely in favor of status symbol chic.
Perhaps the most famous use of these precious stones can be found in the shape of the Rainbow Daytonas, a trio of gold examples with an array of 36 sapphires set in the bezel, in a gentle blend of colors cascading one to the other.
The bezel plays a vital role in the look of any watch, and a Rolex in particular. Over the years, the brand has employed the surround for both practical purposes and aesthetic ones. Many of their models are identified specifically by the type and color of their bezels, and the component has grown and developed alongside other important elements.
Leave a comment below telling us about your favorites among the many different varieties of Rolex bezel.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.