Bell & Ross and the art of patina
Shoe polishing, the love of patina and a tight relationship with Chanel has made Bell & Ross a global household name among watch lovers. Will the young French watch brand grow into an auction darling as well? Like my father, I love shoes and the way they age. And when I was a kid my father would pay me a five franc silver coin every time I polished his shoes. I think this is why I love patina”, Carlos Rosillo tells me while visiting the Bell & Ross headquarters in Paris and going through a large book on patina. Certainly not your everyday read – unless you are Carlos Rosillo and Bruno Belamich.
Bell & Ross was founded by the two French childhood friends, Bruno Belamich from Bourgogne and Carlos Rosillo from Paris (Belamich is the Bell and Rosillo is the Ross in the brand name), who decided to enter on a very ambitious design project while Belamich was doing his design studies and Rosillo his MBA. Despite the very strong doubts of the watch project expressed by the jury president during the presentation, the two friends started their watch company in 1992 with the help of Helmut Sinn, the founder of German watch brand SINN. Concentrating on military and aviation-inspired designs and only working with steel and titanium of which some were offered with a black PVD coating, the two young Frenchmen were so successful with their collection that they soon needed investors to grow after only a few years in the business.
However, as they were not on the lookout for money per se, but instead looking for an investor that could give them access to better Swiss production facilities and movements, a venture capitalist suggested they should meet with the Chanel owners, the powerful Wertheimer family. It turned out that Alain and Gerard Wertheimer knew Bell & Ross very well, as the Chanel New York headquarters were next door to a Bell & Ross retailer. So when they met for the first time in 2001 the Wertheimer brothers proudly showed off their wrists, both wearing classic Bell & Ross watches. “This was pure luck”, Rosillo says of the meeting. “But with Chanel as our godmother we immediately got access to not only dedicated production facilities, but also to the best ceramic watch cases produced in Switzerland.”
The birth of an icon
However, it wasn’t until 2005 that Bell & Ross really captured all eyes. That year Carlos Rosillo told Bruno Belamich: “Stop trying to make the most beautiful watch and start thinking about what Bell & Ross really is.” Belamich came up with a square watch inspired by the instrument panel of a cockpit and, probably without realising, created a modern icon, the illustrious BR-01. As Belamich puts it himself: “The challenge is not to make a beautiful watch. The challenge is to offer a unique watch. And the BR-01 is just that.” The BR-01 has lifted Bell & Ross to new heights and now, ten years after the new ‘‘baby’’ was born, Bell & Ross offers a plethora of different BR-01 designs, many of which are complicated watches with tourbillons, torque indicators, skeleton movements etc. And some are even made of bronze.
The love of patina
Carlos Rosillo’s lifelong fascination with patina is very obvious when looking at the Bell & Ross offered for this year’s Only Watch auction, which was held in Geneva on November 7th. The unique steampunk-like BR01 Skull Bronze Tourbillon for the biannual charity auction of unique timepieces is of course a new watch, but the 46mm bronze case used for this spectacular timepiece has already been aged, and hence will look not only unique in its own skin, but also appeal to lovers of patina, not least Carlos Rosillo himself. “I sincerely hope this watch will get a high hammer price. Not Patek Philippe level of course. But I really have very high expectations to this watch”, he tells me. And with a final result of CHF 100,000 those expectations were met.
Solid auction results
With a final result of CHF 100,000 those expectations were met, not only because of the look of the watch, but also because of the complications like the regulator, tourbillon, and 5-day power reserve indicator. And because of the fact that Bell & Ross has already experienced solid interest in its watches, even though the French company only has a little more than two decades of watch making under its belt. When Bell & Ross offered three limited watches at an aviation-themed auction at French auction house Artcurial in 2012, the results exceeded the prices that all three watches were originally offered for in 2007 and 2009 by 2-350 percent ; one of the watches was made with a carbon middle case, proving that working with exotic materials is nothing new for the French watch brand.