You have to hand it to Carlos Rosillo and Bruno Bellamich, the joint overlords of Bell & Ross; for what’s frequently dismissed as a one-trick brand – the trick being (mostly) square watches inspired by aircraft cockpit instruments – they’ve been able to take their ideas in a remarkable variety of directions.
Close your eyes and think of Bell & Ross, and you almost certainly picture the BR 01 or 03, the square watches that became streetwise hallmarks of the big watch movement a decade or so ago.
But walking past the French brand’s boutique in Mayfair’s Burlington Arcade, which sits both geographically and spiritually in-between the Arcade’s austere vintage watch dealerships and the nouveau intruders of the fragrance and fashion worlds, it’s the great range of Bell & Ross models I’d either forgotten about or hadn’t known in the first place that never fails to surprise me.
There’s a great litany of oddities, exceptions and limited editions, which range from the inspired to the ignoble and all points in between. Whatever your lifestyle or your passion, Bell & Ross has you covered, so long as you’re ready to embrace a certain amount of high-concept thematic tinkering (and a socking great logo on the dial).
All-gold models with groovy waffle dials; diamond-studded white ceramic watches; the “radar” models with dials of concentric rotating rings, that are impossible to read but great fun; the mannered old-worldiness of the Vintage WW1 and WW2 round watches – including the loopy brilliance of the WW2 Regulator, with its rusty dial and undulating bezel; hulking steam-punk tourbillons, and great acres of skull watches. (Who are these hordes of high-end punks and rockers lapping up so many skull watches?).
My recent favourite discovery: a rose gold BR 01 with a dial resembling a roulette wheel. Forget trying to tell the time with it; but if you’re coming off a huge win at the tables (and downed enough vodkas along the way), maybe it’s just the thing.
A couple of years ago, Bell & Ross came out with a pair of very techy looking limited editions inspired by a futuristic motorcycle, the B-Rocket, which Bellamich had conceived himself – a kind of mood board made real. It was easy to assume that these were just more additions to the pile of passing high-concept ideas, with high-contrast, ultra-graphic dials that looked like indications from a piece of futuristic machinery. They were a world away from cockpit heritage, but also from conventional automotive-inspired watches; and it turns out they were seeding something new.
The B-rocket watches’ grey/black/red livery and tech-forward feel was maintained and elaborated later that year in a watch that was even more of a surprise. Named the BR-X1 Skeleton Chronograph, it seemed designed to out-Hublot Hublot, with an open-worked dial revealing a skeletonised chronograph module on on top of the movement; and a complex case in titanium and ceramic, in which the chronograph pushers seemed to be part-skeletonised extensions of the flank of the case itself. It’s a charismatic and rather powerful look, but is it Bell & Ross?
A watch retailer told me not long ago that, in the tough luxury market of the moment (this was pre-Brexit boom, mind you) the only thing guaranteed to sell over a certain price point was anything looking half like Hublot. That might be a tough pill for the watch world’s retro-loving taste arbiters to swallow, but the slew of watches mixing open-worked or futuristically skeletonised dials with macho, multi-material cases tells us there’s something in it. TAG Heuer, Zenith, Bulgari, Roger Dubuis, Girard Perregaux and a whole host of indie players (Linde Werdelin and Hautlence among them) have been getting stuck in.
If Bell & Ross’s wacky skulls and show-off tourbillons enabled it to get a foothold in the market for admirers of Hublot and its ilk – a clientele co-CEO Carlos Rosillo describes to QP as “luxury connoisseurs, passionate about things like yachts, people who enjoy life and have the means to do it” – then the BR-X1 has turned that into a full-on assault.
From the initial skeleton chronograph in titanium and ceramic, the BR-X1 collection has already ballooned to eight chronographs and six equally eye-catching tourbillons embracing a whole new design code for the brand. If the brand’s mainstream has been facing the eventual law of diminishing returns, this gives Bell & Ross a new, big and bold aesthetic and thematic platform.
“Our aim was to create a new and revolutionary version of our iconic square-shape case… a new generation of high-tech timepiece,” says Rosillo, who describes the BR-X1 as the fifth generation of his brand’s designs. “It marks a new chapter in the history of Bell & Ross,” he says.
Models to have appeared so far include a moody number with a case in forged carbon; the “Hyperstellar” in titanium with blue anodised highlights; and to mark Bell & Ross’s sponsorship, as of this season, of the Renault Sport F1 team: the RS 16, in carbon with yellow accents and a tremendously sporty yellow strap (creativity with straps is becoming a hallmark of the collection). The aviation marque is now a fully-fledged power player of the paddock, and with perhaps the most sporty and exciting-looking F1 watch out there. We didn’t see that coming.
The latest BR-X1 limited edition, however, sees Bellamich and Rosillo embrace their quirkier, tinkering tendencies again, and take case materials in the one direction Hublot has yet to: using wood. (There is, inevitably, a sapphire watch too, a version of the BR-X1 tourbillon, which is so valuable that within the brand only Rosillo himself is insured to transport it around).
Rosillo, a Savile Row-sporting Anglophile with a keen nose for history, is naturally a huge fan of 18th century marine chronometers and the heritage associated with them – like the cockpit indications, it’s one more “on-board instrument” to re-imagine in wristwatch form. His interpretation, in rosewood and hardened bronze, is perhaps the strangest Bell & Ross look yet, and properly steampunk; but with the BR-X1, you get the sense they are only just getting started.
If the idea of a French specialist in square cockpit (and now automotive) indulging a passion for classical British marine horology seems unlikely, Carlos Rosillo is having none of it. “Our aviation collection is actually a re-interpretation of on-board instruments. We are looking to extend our territory and explore new universes.”
The result is a startling selection of three watches – a BR 01 with a classical, Marine chronometer-style lacquer dial (£6,300), a BR-X1 skeleton chronograph (£18,400) and a BR-X1 tourbillon chronograph (£121,000) – with case materials of bronze, titanium and wood. The wood in question is Indian rosewood, hardened through techniques used for making boats, and resistant to distension and humidity. “It’s treated with varnish, as in cabinet making, and will get a patina over the years,” says Rosillo. And should it pick up a scratch, these can be polished out in servicing in the normal way.