By Roger Valberg
How do you know when a watch brand is successful? A simple answer is when everybody has an opinion about it! And that is where Bell & Ross find themselves today, at the centre of much discussion.
In an industry where there are easily 3000 individual brands across the globe, from behemoths with marketing budgets in the tens of millions to the single watchmaker working on a few pieces worth millions in a shed somewhere, being the topic of discussion is a prized commodity in itself.
But what makes Bell & Ross so special? “We push the limits,” said Carlos Rosillo, CEO of Bell & Ross. His surname makes for the ‘Ross’ where his partner and creative director Bruno Belamich is the ‘Bell’.
In other words, the brand has a very Anglo name but is French while the watches are made Switzerland! “At the beginning, it was just about passion. Passion for watches, passion to be something different in the market,” added Rosillo.
Those origins go back to 1992 when they sold their first watches, designed by Belamich and made by Sinn. Manufacturing has, since 2002, reverted to the brand and is located at La-Chauxdu-Fond. The technological grounding that Sinn provided in that first decade is evident even today. But more than that, a Bell & Ross timepiece is very much about its design ethos – vintage military.
“We wanted to put a cockpit or a piece of the cockpit on a wrist. That was the thought. We were inspired by the early aviators and all things military,” said Rosillo as his cigar smouldered in an ashtray and his cognac glistened with the soft lights of the St. Regis bar.
It was all quite evocative of what he was trying to say, almost a living memory of a French aviator during World War I. It was from the cockpits of those planes that Bell & Ross would give us the square case. It is by no means specific to Bell & Ross nor is it something at all new, but the square case, taken almost from a vintage fighter and fitted with a watch movement captured the imagination. When I ask about this, Rosillo agreed: “Yes, passion is very contagious! We have some very enthusiastic fans, a few from the Middle East I have met, they own almost every edition we have produced.
It is remarkable and here in Asia, we have so many similar fans. Everyone is very passionate about their Bell & Ross and we as the watchmaker are very passionate about the watches we make.”
But passion alone does not guarantee the sort of audience or range of customers that the brand has established. Rosillo, being the CEO is always actively looking for collaborations. And while military organisations like the famed GIGN and Aeronavale of France and their timepieces are part of Bell & Ross heritage now, the future is increasingly urban. For instance, in recent times, the brand has collaborated with A Bathing Ape.
The Japanese urban outfitters are wildly popular around the world and like their watchmaking counterparts, have an almost fanatical fanbase. According to Carlos, the design teams were in total synergy.
“They wanted a piece that would reflect their 25th anniversary and we were guided by their direction but also, we gave them our ideas of what materials could be better or look better. In the end, it was a beautiful piece (that was eventually made).” In Malaysia, the collection was sold out within a week!
Which with the benefit of hindsight is hardly surprising. But this kind of success does not exist in a vacuum. As the brand has grown, so too has the criticism that the whole thing is in fact, a damning indictment of the vagaries in watchmaking. The talk is that Bell & Ross do not produce watches that are a mind-boggling technical accomplishment.
There are also quite a number of collections which are quartz watches, to the shock and horror of the snobs in horology. As one critic put it, B&R are just posers! If all this sounds a bit like sour grapes, it is.
In an industry where, mechanical mechanisms are based on designs four hundred years old and no where close to replicating the timing accuracy of even cheap quartz watches, being called pretentious by your peers is not just ridiculous but also hypocritical. Selling watches in this millennium requires savvy as competition is stiff and, in many ways — similar.
It was that savvy of the market that led to the creation of the Diver BR 03-92. Typical of what you’d expect from Bell & Ross, the watch is balanced and well thought out.
In a victory to design, aesthetics and ergonomics, Belamich and the team managed to somehow make a round, functional bezel work on top of a square case! It proved to be a winner with both the snobs and watch fans alike.
The latest iteration is the Diver Blue and the Diver Bronze, both equally as handsome as their predecessor. Says Rosillo, “With the Diver, we proved that we are still instrument makers.” Indeed, the watch has the coveted ISO 6425 certification, so it’s not just another pretty face.
And that’s basically what makes Bell & Ross special, the right blend of design, daring and technological consistency. Their not trying to reinvent the wheel – they just want to make it look good and work perfectly while you use it.