It’s time to cross the French border for the first time, visiting a brand that recently has launched a watch that by some has been called their CODE 11.59, a watch that has split the audience into two, almost polarizing groups. Well, I’m not going to enter the hornet’s nest this time, as the Bell & Ross I’m going to take a closer look at is the good looking BR 03-94 Blue Steel, one of their iconic squares.
My first encounter with Bell & Ross was many years ago, a time when I had left behind the fascination of the “killer” looks of STORM Watches, Katy Perry had kissed a girl and TAG Heuer was watch heaven. Visiting my hometown’s finest billiard saloons, as I walked across the room, I caught a glimpse of a wristwatch, decorating the arm of one of the owners. Being interested in uncommon and unique design, I had to ask what kind of watch it was. As I wasn’t familiar with Bell & Ross at that time, I didn’t get overly excited when he told what it was. What caught my interest was when he mentioned he had bought it on a road trip through Europe and that it costed more than my neighbors old Toyota Starlet. The Swiss made, French square left a big impression, but as I looked at my Casio Telememo to compare, I knew that this sweet Bell & Ross was way out of my league… Now, twelve years later, I’m again fascinated by one of their square shaped tools.
Bell & Ross was founded in 1992 by Bruno Belamich and Carlos Rosillo, two longtime friends sharing the vision of making robust and functional timepieces suited for professional use. Being the designer and the Bell of Bell & Ross, Belamich entered the horological scene, working for the legendary German brand Sinn. The first Bell & Ross watches, like the Space 1, the first automatic chronometer worn in space, and several military-inspired chronographs were rebranded Sinn watches, named Bell & Ross by Sinn. Later, they began designing their own watches, still made by Sinn, and some of their early iconic pieces, like the Demineur, a watch made for and used by, bomb disposal units of the French Security Services and the Hydromax, a watch based on Sinn’s research in oil-filled watches, capable of reaching depths of 11000 meters were presented to an excited audience.
From 1998 to 2000, Chanel Horlogerie entered the game and became the main shareholder of Bell & Ross, which two years later ended the collaboration with Sinn and moved to La Chaux-de-Fonds, Chanel’s production facilities in Switzerland. Focusing on future releases, Carlos Rosillo, the head of B&R operations, and Bruno Belamich teamed up with a team of designers and aeronautical control panel specialists to create the watch that in 2005 changed everything. With the BR 01 Instrument, Bell & Ross had made an icon, a design that has been cherished across the world for over a decade. Inspired by dashboard instruments from old aircrafts, the BR 01 is all about legibility, functionality, precision and reliability, the four B&R principles. Since 2005, their Instrument collection has expanded into a vast variety of squares. From the classic dressy ones to aviators, divers and all the way up to the experimental series, Bell & Ross have created eye catchers and showstopper for both purists and flamboyant. Personally, I’m into the more subtle versions and the BR 03-94 Blue Steel is in my opinion one of their finest.
Taking a closer look at it, the satin-polished case measures 42mm across, approximately 51,5mm from lug to lug and just above 12,5mm in height. Being a square shaped watch, the case feels larger than your average 42mm watch. The classic B&R calfskin strap, tapering from 33mm to 24mm, adds a lot to the large appearance, but can easily be swapped to a traditional 24mm strap by using the included tools.
I love oddities and watches a bit outside the box and to describe the feeling the case gives me, I must say it reminds me of the old Volvo’s, like the anti-aerodynamic Volvo 240 which has become sort of a cult car today. I’ll have to admit I needed some time to get used to the design, but when it passed my mental borders of acceptance, my appreciation of the bulky looks was total.
Focusing at the circle in the square, under the coated sapphire crystal, the gorgeous, deep blue sunburst dial shines like a star. I love how the light floats around as you move the watch, how the applied indexes and numerals sparkles at the right angles. The BR-CAL.301.automatic movement is a modified ETA 2894-2 with subdials at 3 and 9, a 37-jewel engine with a power reserve of approximately 42 hours. The movement can be hand wound and has hacking seconds for better accuracy when setting the time.
A 30-minute timer is placed at 9, the small seconds are placed at 3 and in the middle of it all you’ll find the central chronograph seconds. The date window is at 4:30 and even if it’s just a bit tiny, the white numbers on a black background is quite easy to read. On the flange you’ll find a tachymeter scale, which in these days is more of an adornment than a feature being used as its meant to.
As with most Bell & Ross watches, the legibility is great, but in the dark, the only luminous parts are the hour and minute hands. I don’t think you’ll have any problem reading the time, but I would love to see some more glowing parts, at least a dot or two at 12. The traditional, non-screw-down crown is placed at three, flashing the famous ampersand logo. Most of my own watches are fitted with screw-downs, but I do appreciate the traditional ones a lot, especially when taking pictures of watches, having to set the time to ten past ten all the time.
The large, rectangular pushers work perfectly, being firm and perfectly shaped to match the case. When resetting, the second hand aligns almost perfectly, leaving half a millimeter of frustration in a perfectionist’s unforgiving mind.
Turning the watch around, the functionality aspect is clearly showing. A totally flat square with four screws, one in each corner, just as in front, and information about the watch in the middle. Absolutely no fuzz, just plain and simple functionality.
Model, type, brand and information about materials, movement, water resistance, which is set to 100 meters, and where it’s made. Nothing more, nothing less. Being totally flat, one of the first things I needed to check was how it was on the wrist. I was a bit surprised by the very comfortable fit and I can’t see any problem wearing this watch for days and weeks.
The black inner box is made of synthetic leather and consists of several layers and compartments, housing everything from the watch to the manual, an extra strap made of synthetic fabric, tools for changing the strap and the warranty card. It’s a very nice wrapping and it’s kept safe with padding and an outer box made of solid cardboard.
So, to end my first close encounter with a classic from Bell & Ross in twelve years, I must say I’m excited. Every part of the watch is of high quality, from case to buckle. It often takes some time to get used to having a square on the wrist, but I can assure you that you’ll get used to it. Usually, in this part of the review, there’s a section where I mention some concerns, but this time I can’t come up with much of importance other than if you are considering one of these, remember that a 42mm square feels bigger than your regular watch with the same measurements.