Bell & Ross creative director Bruno Belamich and CEO Carlos-Antonio Rosillo — whose surnames form the Franco-Swiss watch brand — feel like two very different gears that perfectly fit together, as though they make up the wheel train at the centre of a complex watch movement. “It’s like an old couple. We don’t have to talk to understand each other,” quips Belamich.
This is the first time both founders have been in Malaysia together, but frequent-flyer Rosillo is no stranger to the country. He says: “I’m used to the Malaysian market because, before the pandemic, I came every year. I enjoy Malaysia and feel like I am in my element. I have friends here. I’m happy not only to come back but also do this trip with Bruno. It’s an adventure of Bell and Ross together.”
Locals have always responded well to the brand’s designs, which Rosillo attributes to a few main reasons. “First, it’s because Malaysians like the creativity of the brand. Second, because the team here is excellent. The whole team has done an excellent job explaining the brand to the local market in a very clear way. This is why Malaysia is a key market for us.”
The world of horology, while definitely in the luxury sector, is not one that can run from a money-making perspective alone. “Do you know how to become a millionaire in the watch business? You have to be formerly a billionaire,” jokes Rosillo, and he is not entirely wrong. “What I think is important is to have the right balance between passion and the financial aspect. I was in investment banking. Very few people have a passion for money, and for those who do, I hope they have a big fortune to be happy. In the watch business, the key is passion and culture.”
Belamich chimes in: “Before managing, before marketing, before all this, it’s the feeling of the product that matters. It’s the same in the movie industry. I’m talking about movies because, through watches, we have to tell stories. And a good watch is the one that tells you a story without the communication around just itself.”
With watch businesses, it is not often that you get to meet the founders, as many have histories stretching more than 100 years. But do not count Bell & Ross short, as there is a special energy that comes from its youth. “This is very important because we see so many old brands just looking at the patrimony of the past and, as a young brand, we are permanently challenging, changing and looking forward,” explains Belamich. “Asking ourselves what could be complementary or what has the market has never done. That’s what we like. To be unique and have what I call the wow effect — what could be the next wow effect to give you this sensation, this emotion.”
The origin story
Paris-born Rosillo was interested in business. Graduating from École des Hautes Études Commerciales, a reputable business school in his home city, he went on to join American consulting firm Strategic Planning Associates as a strategic adviser. Rosillo later was a manager in the industrial and financial affairs department of Banque Bruxelles Lambert France (formerly Banque Louis Dreyfus), before embarking on this horological adventure.
Belamich, on the other hand, had a talent for design. He had a knack for drawing as a child and growing up in the 1980s, during the technological revolution, influenced his interest in innovation. The watch that sparked Belamich’s love for timepieces was a LIP watch by design pioneer Roger Tallon, given to him by his father as a 16th birthday present. He designed his first pieces while enrolled at École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle.
After serving two years in the military in New Caledonia, Belamich settled in Hong Kong for a six-month placement in a design agency. Returning to Europe for his studies, he also worked for Sinn, a German watchmaking brand that focused on navigation watches. It was here that Belamich shared his passion for functional watchmaking with Helmut Sinn, a key name in Bell & Ross’ history. His final dissertation certainly paved the way for what was to come as it was entitled “The launch of a watchmaking brand specialising in the production of functional watches for professional use”.
Childhood friends, Belamich and Rosillo found in 1992 that there was a gap in the watch market for precise military watches that were tough. The partners had a joint vision to manufacture utilitarian timepieces for professionals and, with the help of legendary watchmaker Sinn, Bell & Ross was born. It took two years of research and development before the release of the brand’s first timepieces, sold under the label Bell & Ross by Sinn.
The compatibility between Rosillo and Belamich translates perfectly into the makeup of the brand, even from the start. “The complementarity is shown in the logo with the ampersand. It’s a symbol that is a very inspiring union of competence. We have cultivated this philosophy, which is to have complementary skills,” explains Rosillo. With one armed with business acumen and the other a flair for design, they seamlessly made up the central, foundation puzzle pieces of Bell & Ross.
The founders have always been learning together, and they express the importance of having the right people to help develop a watch company. “My expertise is design and Carlos’ is marketing and commercial finance, but one plus one is not enough. You can’t build a brand alone. The secret is to find good people, experts in their field for everything, like managers, watchmakers, logistics, design, communication, legal, all that,” says Belamich. It truly takes the whole team.
Asked whether there was a specific moment when either partner realised how successful Bell & Ross would be, Rosillo likens the experience to building a family. “It’s like having kids. You know that it’s going to be different and big, but you don’t know how. And so you give them the proper education to see if you’re going to have a very happy and nice family life. This is also what happens in business, I would say.”
Looking back on the last 30 years, there have been a few main milestones responsible for Bell & Ross’ upward trajectory. “We started with no money, but we had passion. The first big step was our meeting with Helmut Sinn. The second important step was the meeting with Chanel,” says Belamich. In the 1990s, Chanel began to financially back the watch house, allowing it to move its manufacture to Switzerland.
What makes Bell & Ross unique as a brand is its bi-cultural background, which some say is actually tri-cultural. Its French sensibilities and Swiss manufactured movements, along with a little German from its history, give it that additional layer of culture.
A major highlight for the brand was the launch of the BR-01 in 2005. When everyone else was round, they were square. “We explored all those vintage watches that the market forgot, but after that we were convinced that a strong brand has to have its own design. The brief was to find this iconic design, and we turned to our DNA — the universe of aviation — and we said, ‘Okay, our iconic watch has to come from that.’ So, we looked at the dashboard. Why? Because the best functional clock is the one designed for the plane dashboard. We looked at this instrument and said, ‘Let’s do that for the wrist.’ This is now our motto: From the cockpit to the wrist,” explains Belamich.
The BR-01 sports the iconic circle within a square case and is perhaps the most recognisable Bell & Ross watch. It cemented the brand’s link with aviation. “People were interested — but not all the people, as I remember during the first Basel fair with this watch, many said it was crazy. Other people said, ‘Wow, very interesting. I want that in my collection,’” adds Belamich.
Soon after came the BR-03, an evolution of the 01 with a more wearable 42mm case. A recent release with this emblematic shape is the BR-05, made with the urban explorer in mind. “We’ve built this story of our brand step by step, from new men without money, only passion, to mature men — I will not say old men — who create powerful and unique watches. Any collector or passionate watch owner will want it in their collection, because they can’t find it somewhere else,” says Belamich.
The latest Bell & Ross timepiece to join the aeronautically inspired part of the family is the captivating BR-X5. What is significant is the timepiece’s beating heart, the BR-CAL 323 calibre, developed in partnership with Kenissi, a Geneva-based movement manufacture. This movement, which boasts a 70-hour power reserve and a COSC certification, took several years to complete to meet the exacting standards of Bell & Ross.
Even the 41mm case of the X5 has quite a unique sandwich-type construction to create a streamlined lightness in the design. “For this engine, for this exclusive motor, we wanted to design an exclusive new case, which comes from another iconic piece, the BR-05, but with a more sophisticated demonstration of our know-how in case design. So, we looked at all the material innovation, all the finished innovation, and we mixed it all together but keeping it in a wearable, ergonomic design, which gives this multi-component case that form,” says Belamich.
There are three variations of the BR-X5: the edgy and urban Black Steel, elegant Ice Blue Steel, and the Carbon Orange, complete with microblasted titanium case that has a DLC (diamond-like carbon) finish and matte carbon upper and lower inserts. On the sunray or matte dial, you can read the hours, minutes and seconds, as well as make use of the date window at three o’clock and power reserve indicator at nine o’clock.
Bell & Ross threw an incredible launch party for this new timepiece on the 57th floor of the newly opened The Exchange TRX. “Continuum of Time & Space” themed, guests were invited to walk through a multi-sensorial experience that allowed them to travel from dark to light. The final space, or fourth dimension as it was called, had the X5 as its focal point and was where the party truly began, with flutes of champagne and good company.
For Options’ photoshoot, the two founders were dressed to the nines and consulted each other on which watch to wear. There was something quite endearing in their interaction. While Belamich was quick to strap on the BR-X5 Black Steel, Rosillo was torn between the Ice Blue Steel and BR-05 Blue Gold. He ended up wearing both, one on each wrist.
The world of horology has truly blossomed over the decades, and despite technological advancements giving us the ability to tell time quickly through our many devices, people still want watches. There is an emotion involved, according to Rosillo, a multi-layered perspective. “You have many aspects. It’s your relation to time and your personal symbol or talisman, and also what it says about me when I wear a [particular] watch, or how you want to communicate yourself to others.”
There is also a charm in the construction of a timepiece. “There’s the beauty of the mechanism. It turns itself without a battery and that is magic. And there is the beauty also of the object, the case and all that. When you own a nice watch you don’t think of the end of the watch. You will think ‘I can give it to my son’. There’s a notion of patrimony and heritage,” says Belamich.
There are many lessons the pair has learnt over the years in the industry that inform how they hope to move forward. “We learn every day. One rule is your strategy must be global; if you don’t have a global strategy, then you’re not a luxury brand; the implementation and comprehension and going one step further is local. So, think global, act local,” says Rosillo.
Bell & Ross will continue to develop and grow its brand. “We want to become a more powerful brand every year. What is a powerful brand? One that is wanted by the retailers but, of course, wanted by all the watch aficionados,” says Belamich.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Bell & Ross’ inception and it continues to embody four key principles — legibility, functionality, reliability and precision — as it crafts iconic precision tools for urban explorers as well as extreme professionals, including astronauts, pilots, bomb disposal experts and divers. Bell & Ross manages to stand out in a sea of watch brands because of its edgy and modern designs. It is all about how far you want to reach and, to quote Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, Rosillo says Bell & Ross will go “to infinity and beyond”.
This article first appeared on Dec 19, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.