Being a material so often seen and experienced, it can be easy to overlook ceramic as one of the most exciting materials around.
Best known for its place as the chief component of fine tableware, oversized flower pots, college art electives, and Seth Rogen’s latest twitter-fueled hobby, the material is also of rising prominence in the world of luxury timepieces primarily thanks to its use in the production of watch bezels. Since its popular introduction to the industry a little over a decade and a half ago, ceramic bezel inserts have consistently gained traction among brands and consumers, and for good reason. Today we explore why this is the case, and why you might just want a ceramic bezel on your next watch.
Much of the shift towards ceramic bezels can be traced back to Rolex, as with many modern trends in the watch world. Back in 2005, Rolex introduced their very own proprietary ceramic material, then applied as a bezel insert in what was then the latest iteration of the GMT-Master II, the Ref. 116710. Combining the words “ceramic” and “chroma,” the Greek term for color, Rolex dubbed the patented material Cerachrom, which features a proprietary mixture of aluminum and zirconium oxide powders with gel substrate. After firing these materials at several thousand degrees to form bezel inserts, they’re then left to cool, and later finished with various methods of precious metal PVD appliques, diamond engraving, and meticulous polishing for an overall lustrous look.
While Rolex was not the first maker to use a ceramic bezel in its watches, it was certainly the first to popularize its usage, with Cerachrom’s development representing the cutting-edge of material science technology in the watch world in 2005. Since its introduction, Rolex has incorporated their proprietary ceramic insert into not only the GMT Master II range of watches, but also their Submariner, and Sea Dweller watches, now each fitted with a rotating Cerachrom bezel. Within the Submariner collection, this evolution began with references like the 116610LN and 116618LB, and has since continued with the more recent references including the 124060, 126610LN, 126610LV, 126613LN, and 126613LB. Perhaps most notably, and to the delight of heritage focused collectors, the reference 116500LN Rolex Daytona was also given the ceramic bezel treatment, mimicking the appearance of vintage Daytona watches fitted with black acrylic bezels.
To little surprise, after the introduction of the Rolex ceramic bezel, many prestigious brands began developing proprietary ceramics of their own for use in bezel inserts to be fitted on their watches. Today, nearly every watchmaker of note produces at least one timepiece equipped with a ceramic component.
While much of the contemporary shift towards fitting watches with ceramic bezels has to do with a widespread, luxurious perception of the material as a result of Rolex’s efforts, the transition is more so a result of the inherent qualities of ceramic which make it ideal as a watchmaking material.
The last generation’s material of choice for bezel inserts, aluminum, is lightweight and pragmatic in many ways, but is also relatively soft, prone to scratches, and susceptible to color fading over time with exposure to ultraviolet rays . A ceramic insert, on the other hand, addresses each shortcoming of aluminum inserts with confidence, being notable for its extreme hardness, scratch resistant properties, and resilience in the face of UV exposure. Furthermore, ceramic bezels are also lightweight, in addition to being incredibly heat and corrosion resistant, making its application perfect for tool watches.
Considering all of this, it’s not so much that aluminum inserts were of poor quality, in fact, they're still used in many modern watches, and not just those which channel the aesthetics of vintage favorites. Rather, ceramic inserts represent such a major advancement for the longevity of watch bezels that most notable watchmakers naturally felt compelled to switch to it as their default bezel material of choice. It was much the same as in the 1950s when aluminum itself became the standard choice across the industry, at the time beating out acrylic-based bezel inserts for its own relative superiority in durability.
While ceramic might seem like little more than a talking point from a surface view, it’s in fact a serious material you very well may want when purchasing a modern sports watch. Its superiority in durability has made it the material of choice for Rolex’s next generation of professional-grade sports watches, including the GMT-Master II, Submariner, and Daytona collections, which all now use ceramic bezels or bezel inserts most of their in their standard steel references. Furthermore it has also become the clear winner for almost every other major brand’s bezel inserts, including most standard production references like the latest Seamaster Diver 300M Master Co-Axial 42 from Omega, along with pieces from TAG Heuer, Tudor, and increasingly many more.
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