For a relatively young company, Bell & Ross with its aviation-inspired aesthetic has steadily climbed into the rarefied air of “brands you recognize at a glance from across the room.” The watchmaker founded in 1992 by longtime friends Bruno (“Bell”) Belamich and Carlos (“Ross”) Rosillo has laid claim to the amalgam of massive, matte-black square case, with big, legible dashboard dial, as its identifying style in much the same way that Richard Mille has seemingly appropriated the classic tonneau case-with-skeleton-dial combo as its signature visual element.
Watch brands rarely achieve success as one-trick ponies in the market today, however. Bell & Ross has wisely expanded from its cornerstone model, the BR-01, and the Instrument collection it spawned, populating its Vintage collection with more traditional, and more historically evocative, round-cased watches. But the quadrangle case, round bezel, and four visible screws remain the maison’s most recognizable hallmarks. Even when Bell & Ross ventured into making a professional-grade divers’ watch, though it started out with a round case — which, of course, could be made water-resistant with fewer technical challenges than could a square one — it ultimately achieved its goal with the square-cased BR 03-92, whose only major departure from the mainline BR 03 models are in its rotating dive-scale bezel and its non-numerical hour markers.
Thus, when Bell & Ross finally turned its attention to developing the one style of watch that was absent from its lineup — a true sport-luxury gents’ piece on a bracelet — Belamich and Rosillo went back to the collection’s four-sided roots. One might say they chose to think inside the box rather than outside it. “It was not so much about filling a niche or a wish list as exploring a new territory,” says Rosillo, Bell & Ross president and CEO, when asked about the development of the new collection. “It’s an evolution from the BR 03 but you still recognize the Bell & Ross DNA, the basics that make the icon — the circle in a square with four screws. But the BR 03 was never designed to be worn with a bracelet, and to make an instrument into a true jewelry watch, you need a bracelet. So the first goal was to create a watch with integration between the bracelet and the case, which we had never done before.”
The new BR 05 collection, which launched at retail this fall after a hush-hush sneak preview for select media insiders at Baselworld 2019, is the result of that years-long process. Dubbed by Rosillo as the brand’s “urban explorer,” the BR 05 is the first Bell & Ross model in which the angular case is integrated into a metal bracelet. Why “urban?” Because, according to Rosillo, the proverbial urban jungle of big-city business and social life remained the last terrain for a Bell & Ross timepiece to inhabit, after the skies (with the cockpit instrument-inspired BR 01 and BR 03 and vintage-military BR V1 and BR V2); the sea (with the BR 03-92 dive watch and its predecessors); and the racetrack (with the BR V3-94, BR X1 and other models designed in collaboration with the Renault F1 racing team). Rosillo, as is his wont, clarifies the concept behind the BR 05 with an analogy to the automotive industry. “A brand we have always admired is Land Rover,” he says. “Their products have very professional and military roots similar to Bell & Ross. The Defender is still more military-oriented, more for the countryside, while with the Evoque they went from the professional to the urban, from the countryside to the city. Think of the difference between the BR 03 and the BR 05 as being essentially the difference between your flight jacket and your dinner jacket.”
Describing the BR 05 as the Evoque to the BR 01’s Defender is apt when one delves into the new watches’ details. The case, with its softly angled corners, satin-finished flat surfaces and polished bevels, measures a relatively modest 40 mm — downsized from the hulking 46 mm of the BR 01 and the still stately 42 mm of the BR 03, and only slightly larger than the smallest Instrument model, the 39-mm BR S. The subtle elegance of the finishing is also evident on the newly designed bracelet, which sports a polished surface on its soft rectangular center links and a satin-brushed one on its H-shaped outer links. The bracelet has been designed to curve easily and flexibly to accommodate a variety of wrist sizes, and fastens to the wrist with a double-folding steel buckle. The latter element, with its two quick-release push-buttons, has also been finished in decidedly luxurious fashion, with a combination of polishing and satin brushing and a subtle Bell & Ross ampersand-in-a-circle serving as the locking mechanism.
Bell & Ross’s dedication to the BR 05 as a new pillar in its portfolio of timepieces is clear from the variety of colorways, case materials, and dial executions being offered, including one with a skeletonized movement, a rarity at Bell & Ross outside of its very limited “Experimental” pieces. Three of the non-limited references are in steel cases, with dial options of black, gray, and blue, all with a sunray motif, a 3 o’clock date window, and applied, luminous-coated numerals and hour indices. A fourth model is housed in an 18k rose gold case and integrated into a bracelet of the same precious metal. The introduction of a gold watch into its core collection is notable for Bell & Ross, which has worked in a variety of case materials, from titanium to ceramics to bronze to even solid sapphire, but only rarely offers pieces in gold; the “Grand Date et Réserve de Marche” version of the BR 03-90 and one iteration of the BR S-92 Automatic are among the few outliers. Each model is also available on an integrated rubber strap for a sportier look.
All of the BR 05 models are powered by a self-winding mechanical movement that Bell & Ross has dubbed BR-CAL.321 (BR-CAL.322 in its skeletonized version), which uses a Sellita SW300 as its base and is enhanced with an all-new, wheel-shaped, openworked rotor that spans the breadth of the movement
With all the BR 05 models designed to include exhibition casebacks — it is, Rosillo confirms, the first full Bell & Ross family with this feature — Belamich, the designer of the duo, paid special attention to developing a distinctive rotor. “We based the caliber on an SW300, with special finishes, a chronometer-type balance wheel and hairspring, and an exclusively developed 360° rotor, which completely covers the movement but without hiding it,” Belamich said. “But this was a technical challenge: it was perfectly balanced, but it had to be unbalanced so that it could work. The mass therefore had to be revised and corrected, thus creating a disproportion of its weight.” Belamich’s inspiration for the rotor’s look? None other than the wheel rim of a Range Rover car.
The most striking display of the movement, of course, is in the BR 05 Skeleton, a 500-piece limited edition in a steel case with the skeletonized BR-CAL.322 visible through a clear dial. The model represents another relatively rare horological venture for Bell & Ross, which had previously reserved skeletonization for only its rarest and most haute-de-gamme pieces, such as the BR X-2 Tourbillon. “We wanted to show that not only the case but the movement is sophisticated,” says Rosillo. “In the car industry the engineering inside is even more important than what’s outside, which is why in a lot of sports cars you can see through the engine. This is an engine custom-made for Bell & Ross. And in watchmaking, the beauty of a skeleton is that you can show the sophistication of the movement without taking it off and looking through the back.”
The BR 05 will of course, and inevitably, invite comparisons to many famous predecessors in the sport-luxury timepiece arena. The rounded square of the bezel, and the integrated design of the bracelet, will have many thinking “Patek Philippe Nautilus.” The visible screws in said bezel will remind others of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or Hublot Big Bang (the latter, of course, having also been accused in some quarters of being a knockoff the former). The combo of exposed screws and soft-square bezel will also invite comparisons to a model that preceded both, the Cartier Santos-Dumont. Though it would be fair to point out that while a bit of all of these elements are present, the deck is in no way stacked toward any obvious lineage to any particular model. The circular crystal inside the square frame is very un-Nautilus-like, as are the Arabic numerals, distinctly different from the Nautilus’s bar indices. And of course, Nautilus bezels do not have visible screws. The bracelet design is probably the most similar element here; beyond that, perhaps also the crown-protecting “shoulders,” which are nevertheless much smaller than those of the Nautilus and are not balanced out on the opposite side of the case. Visible screws aside, no one is mistaking the BR 05’s bezel for the octagonal one of the Royal Oak or the round one of the Big Bang. Whereas each of those models has eight screws on the bezel, the BR 05 has four, one in each of the four rounded corners, to emphasize the shape of the square, which has of course become a hallmark of Bell & Ross’s dashboard-inspired design. More accurately, it is circles inside squares that have most clearly defined the Bell & Ross brand. The Santos case, while it does have exposed screws and a soft square bezel, has a much more complex, curvier case design, a square-shaped dial and crystal rather than a round one, and of course, classical Roman numerals rather than large Arabic ones.
From across a room, at least to a knowledgeable watch aficionado, the BR 05 is still likely to be identifiable as a Bell & Ross. As is evident from the sketches that accompany this article, most of which are sans logo, Bell & Ross’s founders have great confidence in the visual shorthand that their brand’s flagship collections have established and high hopes that it translates as successfully to its newest pillar. Summing up the BR 05 as the brand’s “jewel of strength,” Rosillo insists, “You don’t need the name to recognize a Bell & Ross watch. All these watches have been designed by the same man, the same brain, and Bruno is a man who doesn’t compromise. That will always be the essence of our brand.”
Manufacturer: Bell & Ross
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date
Movement: BR-CAL.321/322, automatic, based on Sellita SW300, 25 jewels, 28,800 vph frequency, 38-hour power reserve, skeletonized in 322 version
Case: Stainless steel or 18k rose gold, nonreflective sapphire crystal, bezel with four visible screws, sapphire exhibition caseback, w
Dial: Blue, black, or gray sunray or openworked skeleton; applied numerals and indices coated in Super-LumiNova
Bracelet and clasp: Steel or 18k rose gold bracelet or rubber strap, integrated into case, with folding buckle in steel or gold
Dimensions: 40 mm diameter
Prices: BR 05 Blue Steel, Grey Steel, Black Steel: $4,400 on rubber strap, $4,900 on bracelet; BR 05 Gold: $21,500 on strap, $32,500 on bracelet; BR 05 Skeleton (limited to 500 pieces): $5,900 on strap, $6,400 on bracelet
Update: In Autumn 2020, Bell & Ross added a Chronograph model to the BR 05 collection. You can read all about it here.