When Bruno Belamich and Carlos-Antonio Rosillo set out to establish a brand that would specialise in functional watches for professional use in 1992, they looked to the thrilling world of military aviation for inspiration. More than three decades later, their passion remains fervent, as reflected in the reliable timekeeping instruments from Bell & Ross that zero in on legibility, functionality and precision. Their legion of fans is also proof that their ardour for this niche has struck a chord.
Back in the day, when competition was fierce, the duo needed to stand out from the crowd and decided to develop a design that would strengthen the brand identity. “Bruno had the great idea to take a piece of the plane’s cockpit and put it on the wrist,” says managing director Fabien de Nonancourt during a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur.
Held by four screws, the BR 01 debuted Bell & Ross’ circle-within-a-square look in 2005. It was a game changer for the brand and the watch became its new emblem. “Immediately, it was very successful,” de Nonancourt continues. “But the BR 01 was 46mm, which was huge! So, the following year, they decided to make it a little bit smaller at 42mm and that’s how the BR 03 came to be.”
The BR 03 has remained an iconic product in the watch industry since, but the change in consumer preferences and smaller watches becoming de rigueur prompted Bell & Ross to reduce its size even further. “We have had some clients say the BR 03 is fantastic, but it’s still really too big for them,” he shares. As one of the main draws of the circle-within-a-square look is its pronounced presence, “we said, okay, let’s try to find the best compromise between being smaller and keeping the sharp identity of the brand, which is essentially a big watch on the wrist”. The BR 03’s latest evolution presents the watch in a modified 41mm case.
Now, before we entertain the grumble, hear us out. A single millimetre may sound minuscule, but the new proportions are immediately perceivable. De Nonancourt elaborates: “It’s not just a question of resizing because we have made other adjustments to the product as well. The corners are more rounded, so it looks softer to the eyes; the lugs are smaller; the hands are slightly different; and we have redesigned the strap as well. The new watches are also coming with the latest version of our movement. It is a Sellita movement [BR-CAL.302 calibre] that has a 54-hour power reserve instead of 42. So, it’s not just a resizing; it’s more of an upgrade.”
He compares the subtle metamorphosis to that of the Porsche 911. “Even icons need to change over time. You cannot stick to the same design.”
There are eight BR 03 timepieces with the new look, six of which are existing models. “We are adding two new products to the collection that didn’t exist before: the military khaki dial and copper dial,” de Nonancourt says. The latter has a more retro vibe, bedecked with traditional blued hands and numerals that are engraved onto the dial before being filled with black Super-LumiNova.
The change, however, applies to the automatic movements only. “The idea is to keep the chronograph and GMT at a bigger size. Before this, we called it the BR 03-92 because we were using the
ETA 2892 movement, but now we don’t. So, we’re calling it the BR 03 A for automatic because it’s simpler. This is also what we’re doing for BR 05. It will be A for automatic, C for chronograph and G for GMT.” Straightforward enough.
De Nonancourt hints that there are a few more tricks up Bell & Ross’ sleeve. “You will see, later in the year, there will be a new watch based on this 41mm design inspired by one of the flight instruments in the cockpit. It is probably my favourite model of the year.”
His pick turns out to be the BR 03 Gyrocompass, a 999-piece limited edition that completes the Flight Instruments collection launched in 2010. The timepiece pays homage to the complex mechanical design of the aeronautical gyrocompass, a navigational instrument used by pilots to locate their precise position. An outline of a fighter plane foregrounds the dial against the four cardinal points. It acts as the hour hand — the tip of the plane’s nose aligns with the indices, which are externalised onto the flange for increased readability. A white pointer tracks the minutes and a slim central seconds hand permanently animates the dial with a large counterweight.
But that is not all. Representing the realm of motorsports is the new BR 03-94 Blacktrack chronograph while the BR 03-92 Diver Tara, created in partnership with Tara Ocean Foundation, is an agent of the sea. Together, the watches form a divine sky-land-sea trinity. The Gyrocompass is the only one sporting the new dimensions, though.
The watchmaking landscape is dynamic and ever changing, and the same can be said about consumer tastes and demand. But when it comes to preserving brand identity while keeping buyers happy, de Nonancourt is confident that Bell & Ross is on the right track. “We want to always keep the spirit of the watch. And even though we are very focused and consistent, we can surprise people by [introducing] new designs. So, it’s not a constraint. I think it allows you to be even more innovative.
“What I love about the brand is that it has a clear strategy. It’s so nice to be working with the two co-founders of the company directly because they have the brand in their blood. They know what to do. They are very consistent all the time. And it makes my life easier, you know?” he quips.
After an extremely busy 2023 churning out timepieces, we are looking forward to seeing what Bell & Ross has in store for its final year-end push. Watch this space. Literally.
This article first appeared on Oct 23, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.