Compared to a lot of the established and well known watch brands Bell and Ross are still in their infancy having been established in 1992 in La Chaux du Fonds, Switzerland by designers Bruno Belamich and Carlos A. Rosillo. And yet they have already managed one of those ‘Eureka’ moments that any brand from any sector of the luxury market would give almost anything to have. I can only imagine the scenes within boardrooms of other high end watch manufacturer’s as the designers were left pondering “Why didn’t we think of that?”. I am, of course, referring to Bell and Ross’ flagship models the BR01 and BR03. The former being 46mm square and the latter 42mm square. The idea was brilliant for its simplistic nature: Pilots watches should be designed with legibility as their principle priority. So why not produce a watch that replicates the aeronautical instrumentation of a cockpit.
Once this idea was realised the Bell and Ross design team then had to incorporate the main aesthetic details to a wrist watch. In 2005 their plans for the ultimate pilot’s watch came to fruition and I’m not sure how they could have done a better job.
Further to this sensational brainwave Bell and Ross also considered how they could incorporate a cool design theme into their heralded design, stealth. This was realised to its full potential with the incredible black on black Phantom. A watch that has one simple design rule change (swap the white bits for black) and creates a timepiece with a totally different volition, which is simply to look amazing.
This concept has been copied many times over by other marques since and although it is widely known that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery please allow me to give a bit of my own personal praise here. However, before I start there is a caveat with this watch: Bell and Ross seem to have produced the very first ‘daytime watch’. I know this to be true because I have been fortunate enough to spend considerable wrist time with the BR03 Phantom and, whilst it looks absolutely superb and ultra cool in the day, it sadly makes no sense whatsoever during the evening.
Bell and Ross’ own self proclaimed design philosophy states that their watches follow four main principles: Legibility, functionalilty, reliability and water resistance. To produce the extraordinary Phantom they had to dismiss the very first of these modus operandi. Compare the standard black and white Auto model here with the all black Phantom to see what I mean:
The Phantom range incorporates the BR01 (46mm) -92 (Auto), BR01 (46mm) -94 (Chronograph), BR03 (42mm) -92 (Auto) and BR03 (42mm) -94 (Chronograph). All four have black carbon cases, black dials, black numerals, black hour markers and black date displays. Scientifically speaking black is not actually considered as a colour because it absorbs all light waveforms and, as such, emits no light. This leads to an incredibly stealthy, hard to see watch. In daylight legibility is facilitated by the 3d effect of the different elements of the time display: Mainly the hands against the hour markers. At night, or in dim artificial light, everything becomes black. Wearing the watch after the sun has gone down isn’t necessarily futile though. Tilting the watch to try and utilise any given light can allow the time to be read. This does seem to make all of Bell and Ross’ pretences about practicality ruinous. However, I do not think that the Phantom can be considered in the same light (pun intended) as the rest of the highly legible range.
Therefore, I would still heartily recommend the Phantom range to anyone looking for a very unique and contemporary looking watch, although it would probably be best suited to a watch collector. Someone who can take full advantage of the watch’s fantastic design principles during the day and dismiss the night time peculiarities by swapping over to another timepiece in the evening (The much more legible Black and White Auto model, for instance). Someone who does not buy a watch simply to tell the time but for how it makes them feel. In other words: Someone who is prepared to wear a watch that doesn’t necessarily make any sense on paper but does allow itself to become an object of desire that can be pondered over. All great works of art, in my humble opinion, require the viewer to take time to absorb the details. Not necessarily the minutiae but the artist’s connotations. They shouldn’t get it straight away. The same applies to the Phantom. Take your time to take the time.
Along with the Auto and Phantom models here there are a myriad of other unique and, sometimes, outrageous, designs incorporated into the BR01 and BR03 range. This is an example of just a few of them:
The love it or hate it Br01 Airbourne with the superb gunmetal case, limited to 999 worldwide. I love it and would definitely consider one of these if Bell and Ross made the decision to bring out a 42mm BR03 version.
The technically brilliant full carbon composite cased and carbon fibre dial BR01 Carbon, limited to 500 pieces worldwide. There is also an equally stunning chronograph version.
The totally indulgent BR01 Compass which is limited to 500 examples world wide.
The BR01 Gauche for left-handed people, although it also makes sense for right handed people who do not want the crown to dig into the back of their hand. Limited to just 50 pieces worldwide, which seems a bit discriminatory against leftys.
The outrageous BR01 Radar which has successfully implemented the design details of a RADAR display onto the dial of a watch.
And finally the even more outrageous BR01 Red Radar which takes the above concept one further and not only has a red sapphire glass but also hour, minute and seconds indicators that are reminiscent of a sweeping RADAR.
So, let’s compare these two half brothers to see why something so similar can actually be totally different and individualistic.
The obvious difference, as mentioned above, is the legibility as a result of black on white and black on black designs. The Auto truly is one of the most legible watches on the market. The Phantom truly isn’t. The image above highlights the division in legibility in any one given condition between the Auto and the Phantom.
One small issue that is an affliction of all BR01/3 models is the flat sapphire glass which can be degenerative to legibility as the glare renders the dial invisible.
Continuing the diversity of readability theme, the lume of the Auto model is simply breathtaking in its intensity and longevity. The lume on the Phantom does look nice but, like the rest of the watch, is not the most legible. I do feel that if Bell and Ross could have incorporated a stonking lume into the Phantom it would have allowed the contrast between hands and dial at night to permit 24/7 legibility.
The date window on each model is very subtle and is only a little larger than the screw heads on the dial. This isn’t a problem for the white on black Auto but the Phantom once again suffers from legibility in this instance. It is actually slightly more legible than the time display as a grey hue as been used for the date itself. It is definitely not a deal breaker.
Both the 46mm BR01 and 42mm BR03 models are very comfortable to wear, despite their oversized dimensions. There is very little weight to all the models, which helps. The flat caseback of this square watch allows it to sit flush with the wrist. Other people will be more aware that you are wearing a BR01 or 3 than the wearer themselves.
I love the design of the BR0# range. The round dial on a square case could become the square peg in a round hole if the design was not exact. As with a lot of great designs the little details make a big difference. The rounded corners of the case, the chamfered edges, the flat sapphire glass, the wide straps and, of course, those perfectly transposed hands and numbers all add up to the overall feel of a contemporary high end watch that is a perfect rendition of its vintage inspiration. The applied numbers on the Phantom is a clever detail that aids legibility by adding a third dimension and mini-shadows.
Two final features that are common amongst all of the BR0 bros are the grippy crown with its Bell and Ross & logo applied and the screw down LASER etched caseback. The crown is screw down on the BR01s and pull-out on the BR03’s. I’m not sure why this is. They are all automatics that have the same water resistance of 100m.
In conclusion: So which one would I have? The Phantom is definitely the more appealing to myself but then I am part of the watch collectors fraternity. If I were buying one single watch I might still be tempted by the Phantom. It is that cool that it would be worth putting up with the legibility issues. There are so many distinctive watches within the BR01/3 range that there should be something for everyone who likes the overall square cased outline. The carbon watches look superb and are more relevant to the original dials of the vintage aeronautical cockpits that were their inspiration.
If you are looking for something different from one of the high end manufacturer’s then it is always worth looking out for what Bell and Ross introduce to their range on an annual basis at Basel. They are one of those rare brands that should be applauded for constantly trying to push the envolope of design. They know their place within the horological heirarchy. They will not be bringing out their own minute repeating tourbillon movement soon. They openly admit to relying on third parties for their movements and they will continue to apply their own high quality assurance levels to these movements. Instead Bell and Ross will continue to explore the boundaries of design concepts that befit their very own ethos.
All words and pictures by Rick Atkins (unless otherwise stated). This article may not be reproduced in part or whole without the permission of the author.