The Bell & Ross BR01
The appeal of square watches has waxed and waned over the years.
Obviously, there is nothing to say a watch has to be any particular shape at all, save for it being wearable and comfortable on the wrist.
But there’s no doubt that square timepieces used to be more popular in the earliest days of the wristwatch. In fact, it could be argued that the first one ever made was a square model; the Cartier Santos from 1904.
During World War II however, their sharp corners could cause them to snag on a soldier’s tunic sleeve, and so military units commissioned far more round cased pieces for their troops, and that carried over into civilian life from then on.
But there have still been some truly iconic square models. The Heuer Monaco is one which immediately springs to mind, immortalized, of course, by Steve McQueen in Le Mans. Then there’s the sophistication of the JLC Reverso collection, which includes both square and rectangular examples. Even the likes of the Patek Nautilus and AP Royal Oak can claim to be quadrangular, albeit in a softened form.
In more recent times, though, the Bell & Ross BR01 stands out as perhaps the most recognizable square watch of the modern age.
The Bell & Ross BR01 History
The brand of Bell & Ross started out in 1992 as a university project among two lifelong friends; Bruno Belamich and Carlos A. Rosillo.
The French duo started out collaborating with the Swiss firm, Sinn (for whom Belamich had worked as an industrial designer), makers of not only some fine tool watches but also, crucially as it turned out, aircraft cockpit instruments.
The first models to arrive from the group were little more than reissues of classic Sinn models, targeted at a military audience. By the end of their first few years in business however, they were already supplying the French and NATO air forces as well as France’s bomb disposal squad.
Their early success attracted some lucrative partners, and by the end of 2002 luxury titans, Chanel had invested heavily in B&R, allowing them to open up their own independent manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.
Three years later, the BR01 was unveiled.
A Flight Instrument for the Wrist
It’s not hard to spot where Bell & Ross might have drawn their inspiration from with the BR01.
A watch clearly aimed at aviators—military, commercial or amateur—the round dial inside a square case is perfectly reminiscent of the dashboard gauges on any number of airplanes—and specifically the altimeter.
Furthermore, adhering to the ‘function shaping form’ doctrine which has always been at the heart of everything the brand has attempted, the dial remains one of the most legible in the industry, even now, nearly 20-years later. The numerals at the 3, 6, 9 and 12 are simply colossal, as are the hands, which are sort of a modified Plongeur style, and all are caked in lume.
Bell & Ross launched two versions simultaneously, in either a steel or black case. Both were ultra-contrasty, with either black against white detailing or vice versa. So not only is the BR01 among the most instantly recognizable watches ever made, it is also one of the most readable.
However, it was a controversial effort when it was unveiled in 2005. As well as being a bold, in-your-face design, it was also 46mm wide. The trend for oversize timepieces was in full flow at the time, but even so, with square models wearing even larger than their measurements on paper would suggest, it was a lot of watch in anyone’s estimation.
But, as is often the way with great disruptions to the status quo, it was the BR01 which motivated more brands to increase the size of their own offerings.
The Bell & Ross BR Series
The BR01 was the precursor for myriad different variants of the same ‘circle within a square’ design ethos from Bell & Ross.
For starters, the BR01 itself was released in a range of metals, including titanium and two-tone steel and rose gold. The collection also grew to include a number of chronograph models, the BR01-94 series.
And then there are The Skulls. Starting in 2009, B&R took the human skull as the center point for a number of startling and unorthodox creations, and even incorporated tourbillons on several. The current catalog has two of these pieces, the Laughing Skull Light Diamond and the Laughing Skull Full Diamond. As the names suggest, the former has been set with 104 diamonds on its bezel, while the latter uses 394 of the precious stones, on the bezel and the case, totaling some 2.891ct. In addition, the large applique metal skull in place of the dial has been given a hinged jawbone, which moves up and down, as if laughing, when the user winds the caliber.
Moving with the times, the brand recognized that 46mm watches required a far larger wrist to carry off than the average, and so they came up with two scaled down versions.
The BR03 was unveiled with a 42mm case, and has become especially admired. Now the most well populated collection in the range, the BR03 is available as time-only, chronograph and GMT, and with a wide variety of different finishes and dials. The BR03-92 offshoot contains 9 divers models, all water resistant to 300m.
The BR-S went further still on the downsizing, reduced to just 39mm and aimed at a more unisex clientele.
Most recently, in 2019, Bell and Ross unleashed the BR05. A reimagining of the 01, it takes many of the design cues of that original, and marries them to the accepted tropes of the luxury sports watch, as invented and made famous by the Nautilus and Royal Oak. As a result, the BR05 could be mistaken for either of those two heavyweights at first glance, with their exposed screws and integrated bracelets. Issued in 40mm, 41mm and 42mm sizes, the series again takes in chronos and GMTs alongside the regular time tellers, and even includes full yellow gold and skeletonized models.
The Bell & Ross BR01 was a landmark in horology history, but it is one which seems to be getting gradually phased out. There are currently just three different pieces in the lineup, two of which are the special edition Laughing Skull examples, limited to just 500 units each.
But the legacy of the timepiece has grown (by making it smaller, ironically enough) and it has evolved into new forms to keep it current.
It may have been superseded by its reduced scale stable mates, but it will always be the one that set Bell & Ross on the way to watchmaking’s top table.