Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Bell & Ross BR 01.
With its large square case, screws in the corners and hyper legible dial, the BR 01 is like a flight instrument with a strap — and it's one of the most recognizable watches ever made. It made Bell & Ross a modern success story in a remarkably short time, and whether it's to your taste or not, you can probably understand why just by looking at it.
The BR 01 is big, square, and it's like nothing else on the market. Many companies have tried to make square or rectangular watches, but for every Tank, Reverso or Monaco there are scores watches that have faded into obscurity. Bell & Ross with its BR 01, however, sits comfortably among those giants of the industry. How did they do it?
Founded in 1992 by by Bruno Belamich and Carlos Rosillo, Bell & Ross was off to a strong start, putting a watch into space, getting them on the wrists of bomb disposal unit personnel and even setting a water resistance rating record — all within their first few years. To produce these rugged early watches Bell & Ross partnered with Sinn, a German brand still synonymous with tough tool watches.
The brand's big moment, however, came in 2005 when it announced the BR 01. Having ended its partnership with Sinn and received an investment from Chanel, Bell & Ross began producing its watch cases and other components in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, as it does to this day — though it remains headquartered in Paris, France. (Its movements are mostly sourced from Sellita)
The flight instrument concept fits well into the watch industry's obsession with sport watches based on flying, diving and driving themes. However, Bell & Ross adeptly combines a striking concept with simple design principles. The functional and legible nature of airplane gauges applies perfectly to watches — and the BR 01 is said to be based specifically on an altimeter.
The BR 01 was controversial at its debut, and it remains so today: Not only does it have a bold but simple design, but it measures a substantial 46mm wide. That's big even for conventionally round watches, but even more so when you consider that a square-shaped watch tends to wear larger — much larger — than its measurements would suggest. More than a macho fashion statement, however, oversized pilot watches are backed with true history: Some of the earliest military aviators are said to have strapped large, ultra-legible watches to their thighs when flying.
The BR 01 wears boldly even on tree-trunk-like wrists, so the BR 03 was conceived to accommodate more average wrists at 42mm wide — and this still wears large. It seems to merely shrink the BR 01's design, and then the BR S does so further,down to 39mm. The brand also has the BR X line that's even more aggressively styled and a canvas for experimental concepts and haute horlogerie. Though the BR 03 is surely the most approachable for most people, it's the BR 01 that started it all.
Bell & Ross is most associated with this look and have built wide-ranging collections around it, one of which includes dive watches that look just as natural with the square case as the pilot watches do. The square watches aren't successful merely for their original design, however: they're also built extremely well, with thoughtful and high-end-feeling details. That quality is true across the brand's products, whether square, round, pilot's, diver's or otherwise.
It's hard to believe that Bell & Ross's groundbreaking concept is only 15 years old as of 2020. Its recognition factor is comparable to core models from prestigious brands that are over a hundred year Bell & Ross's senior. Like most iconic watches, Bell & Ross's concept is simple, original and well executed — pilot don't need the BR 01 to be square, sure, but it doesn't hurt that it happens to be hip as hell.