The little-known name of Bell & Ross may only be a teenager against the brand giants of the watch world, but it is already ranked highly among watch aficionados for its products’ design and craftsmanship and is worn by the discreet for stealth wealth understatement. It also boasts its own benchmark innovations, including timepiece ‘complications’; those totems of haute horlogerie. What is more unexpected is that its founder and CEO is only just over 40.
Carlo Rosillo (of the ‘Ross’ in the brand name) studied business at a French university and within four years of graduating had joined up with design manager Bruno Belamich (of the ‘Bell’) to launch the company.
“It was just a passion,” says Rosillo. “And you can’t really resist that. And although it was risky, now I’m very glad that I did it.” Indeed, Bell & Ross has established an enviable position in the watch world. Young, it has so far been able to follow its philosophy without wavering, giving its collections a coherent, signature style and unadorned good looks. Unadorned because that is the essence of these watches. They are pared down and functional, classic rather than fashionable and have exceptionally clear, large dials.
Their beefy dimensions are something other brands have embraced recently more as a trend, which, in turn, has already given Bell & Ross’ BR01 something of a cult status.
More than that, their watches’ legibility has given Bell & Ross, Rosillo says half jokingly, a particular popularity among the 60 to 80-yearold market.
“Fashion watches are in and out in six months,” says Rosillo. “Like Jeeps in the car world, technical watches last in terms of looks as well as make. For us, it’s all about not having superfluous detail. There’s nothing on these watches that is useless. You might say there’s not much colour to them, for instance. But until we find that colour has a real function, there won’t be.” This Bauhausian form-follows-function aesthetic stems from the company’s origins.
In 1992 it began by collaborating with the Sinn company to design and make instrument panels and clocks for the aeronautic and space industries, its products finding a warm reception from professionals who dependedon clear time-keeping - astronauts, pilots and divers. (In fact, the BR01, a big, square watch based on an aircraft instrument panel, is something of a nod to the company’s heritage). Two years later, Bell & Ross decided there was room to turn this into a watch business. It began by launching its Space 1, a re-edition of the first automatic chronograph worn in space in 1983 by the German astronaut Reinhart Furrer on SpaceLab.
Indeed, such was its growing reputation among adventurous types that two years later Bell & Ross was asked by the French Security Service to create the Type Demineur for its bomb disposal teams.
With its non- and anti-magnetic case (a magnetic one might, inconveniently, cause a bomb to explode), this not only gave Bell & Ross some expertise in making exceptionally good value watches (government agencies being keen not to spend too much on their personnel - Bell & Ross watches retail from E1,000 to E20,000) - but was the company’s first watch innovation.
“We even like to think that, while heritage is held in high esteem by much of the watch industry for some reason, a lack of heritage is actually an advantage for us,” adds Rosillo.
“Heritage can be a burden, especially if you have a back catalogue with a few crap designs. It can create an approach you feel compelled to follow. We’ve been free to startwith a clean product and a clean operation. This gives room for innovation.” There has been plenty of that out of Bell & Ross’ hi-tech manufacturing plant in La Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland.
Aside from watches beautiful for their simplicity, such as the Vintage 123 - part of the company’s best-selling collection - there is the first watch with a jumping hour and power reserve (the Vintage JH), designed in collaboration with master watchmaker Vincent Calabrese, and a telescopic crown system, by which the screw-down crown descends entirely into the thickness of the watchcase. The brand has also created a diver’s watch (the Diver TE) with a capsule that shows the amount of moisture absorbed by the intensity of its colour; and the Hydro Challenger and Max models ingeniously have cases filled with a special oil-based liquid that not only makes these divers’ watches completely water-resistant, but prevents refraction, allowing them to be read accurately at any angle underwater.
And that, by the way, is a long way underwater - unintentionally, the Hydromax now has the world record for a deep-sea watch, at 11,100m. While recent years have seen the launch of military watches, as well as the BR01 in various versions (including an unexpectedly bling, diamond-covered version), further innovations are promised. The latest hot ticket? The BR02 carbon-finished diving watch, another icon in the making, from a company that seems to take delight in bucking expectations.
“The launch of Bell & Ross was difficult for much of the industry to understand I think,” Rosillo says.
“What were we about? Where had we come from? But we captured the interest of people who love watches, and that has always been motivating. I mean, does the tradition of a watch brand really depend on how long you’ve been around, or how quickly you consolidate your philosophy? “I don’t know the answer,” he adds.
“But I do know that we’re often thought of as being much older than we are. And then you look at a lot of other companies that have been around for decades and you wonder where they’re going. In troubled times you have to keep your direction, whether it seems to suit those times or not.” n