Bell & Ross may be a watchmaker, but the long-standing interest of its founders — designer Bruno Belamich and businessman Carlos Rosillo — in mechanics and engineering always meant that the company’s design studio would be working on more than masterpieces for the wrist.
For example, in 2014, Bell & Ross commissioned Shaw Harley-Davidson to design a concept bike with a sleek and powerful look that evoked the style of the 1960s — the B Rocket was truly the stuff fantasies were made of. Two years later, it launched the AeroGT — a supercar that combined motoring and aviation to the greatest possible degree. The Bellytanker — a high-speed race car manufactured directly from emergency drop tanks fitted in the belly of fighter planes — followed last year.
This year, the French-headquartered watchmaker returns to its roots in aeronautics with the BR-Bird. This ultramodern single-seat, propeller-engine aircraft is built entirely of high-tech material (graphite, fiberglass, titanium and aluminium alloy) and powered by a V12 Rolls-Royce Falcon developed on a Merlin base.
While its cockpit is placed as far back as possible, its short but broad wings, placed very far forward, hark back to the Comet DH.88, Hughes H-1 and the Bugatti-DeMonge 100P of the 1930s, as well as the famed P51 Mustang of the 1940s. Its Y-shaped empennage ensures manoeuvrability while making it immediately recognisable. With its meticulously designed shape and powerful aesthetic, the BR-Bird belongs to the world of speed, forging a bond between aviation history and future technology.
“The Racing Bird is an idea that Bruno came up with, and is one that he took from the Reno Air Races,” shares Bell & Ross Asia general manager Tong Chee Wei. “This event is about speed, manoeuvrability and specifically, speed at low altitudes, which is very difficult to achieve. He wanted to create a plane capable of competing in the Reno Air Races and it’s called the BR-Bird.”
The B-Rocket, AeroGT and Bellytanker have been sources of inspiration for exceptional limited edition watches, and this rule applies to the BR-Bird as well. Unveiled at the recently concluded Baselworld watch and jewellery fair, the 38.5mm three-hand BR V1-92 and the 41mm BR V2-94 chronograph share their aesthetic codes with the racing aircraft designed by the Bell & Ross studio, particularly in terms of the colour choices. Before its official launch in Switzerland, Tong takes me through the design of the new plane, as well as the watches it has inspired. “Each element of the watch is taken directly from the design of the plane, so the connection is really very strong,” he explains. “It’s very clean, very fresh and yet very connected to the world of aviation.”
The dial is white like the fuselage of the plane. The numerals, bezel, chronograph counter and straps get their blue colour from the plane’s empennage and decorative elements. The orange of the central second hand, details on the dial and lining of the leather strap are taken from flight instruments in the cockpit while the grey timer is reminiscent of the chequered flag used in speed competitions. On the dial, numerals in the same typography as on-board counters and the date window that shows three numerals are direct references to flight instrumentation. The final touch is the silhouette of the aircraft on the steel case back of the watches, at the base of the second hand (on the three-hand version) and the seconds timer (on the chronograph version).
At 38.5mm and 41mm, the case sizes of the new watches are a little smaller than the average mechanical watch. “Everyone used to want to be seen in a big watch. Twenty years ago, Officine Panerai and its oversized cases that pushed 50mm were all the rage. It was masculine, it implied that the wearer knew about watches and those watches were noticeable. The trends definitely leaned towards larger watches for a long time — Patek Philippe unveiled a jumbo version of the Nautilus to cater for this trend.
“But today, it does seem like watches are returning to a more normal size. Men dress better, are more often in jackets — and small watches that fit under their shirtsleeve suit their needs better than an oversized piece now. It’s a total change, because we’ve gone from wanting to show off our watches to preferring smaller cases,” he says.
A growing taste for mechanical watches among women could also be driving the smaller case trend — not many women can comfortably wear watches with cases larger than 39mm.
So, are smaller watches the new cool, then? Haute horlogerie is not an industry usually driven by flash-in-the-pan trends, but popular opinions do often have a bearing on standout inclinations in any one year. Last year, we already witnessed several major brands downsizing their star timepieces. As manufactures tap decades of heritage and history, there is a good chance we will keep seeing smaller watches taking the world by storm.
At 38.5mm and 41mm, Bell & Ross’ new BR Racing Bird timepieces are a great way to start.
This article first appeared on Apr 2, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.