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Review: Bell & Ross BR 05

You don’t need twenty-twenty vision to spot that the Bell & Ross BR 05 looks a little bit—well, a lot a bit—like Audemars Piguet’s pivotal Royal Oak. It’s as obvious as the sky being blue, the grass being green and the waiting list at Rolex being long. Question is—does it matter?

If you’re going to make a statement, it helps if it’s heard. A shout and not a whisper, so to speak. That’s what Audemars Piguet did with the Royal Oak in 1972, made a big, old racket. Where watches were small, the Royal Oak was big. Where watches were subtle, the Royal Oak was brash. Where watches were ordinary, the Royal Oak was anything but.

It was the Countach to the 308 GTB, Led Zeppelin to the Bay City Rollers, a punch in the face to a pat on the head. You didn’t so much see an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak as you had your eyes assaulted by one—and everyone had to have one.

That “everyone” included not just customers, but other watchmakers as well. The list of legally questionable imitations stems not just into the dozens, but also into the upper echelons of watchmaking royalty. It was as though Audemars Piguet had unlocked the secret to everlasting life, and there wasn’t a watchmaker in Switzerland that didn’t want a piece of that action.

The formula, really, was startlingly simple, which really did pave the way for its imitation. Amongst those copying Audemars Piguet’s homework, including Rolex, IWC, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, there were very few that deviated far from that original and highly successful format. We’re talking strong, angular edges, integrated bracelets, exposed construction—everything the industry had shied away from for the better part of a century.

Bell & Ross was founded by Carlos Rosillo and Bruno Belamich in 1992

Bell & Ross was founded by Carlos Rosillo and Bruno Belamich in 1992

It wasn’t about being mechanically interesting, not even for the watchmakers most technically minded. The beating movement was old news, as interesting as a brown paper bag on a wet Tuesday afternoon, nestled in the back somewhere doing its job quietly and without fanfare. Many of these mimicries, and the Royal Oak too, didn’t even have the one thing that could differentiate its mechanical powerhouse from the technological quartz movements that all but replaced them: a second hand.

They were, in a word, superficial. At least, that’s all they needed to be. Many of them were also—and still are—very expensive. That was kind of the point. If you saw one, you knew immediately what it was—but could you have one? Not at ten times the cost of a Rolex Submariner. Mind you, that was back when the Submariner was actually pretty cheap.

It’s been just shy of half a century since all that happened, and since then the look has gone in and out of fashion more times than skinny jeans. But now it’s back in, and in a very big way—and that means so are the impersonations. This time, it’s the turn of Bell & Ross.

I suppose it’s a bit like the waterfall of high fashion to high street. Johnny Couture does blue stripes and red dots, and then so does the tatty shop on the corner. Eventually. It’s been half a century of eventually for Bell & Ross, and now its time has come.

The Bell & Ross BR05 was first introduced in 2019

The Bell & Ross BR05 was first introduced in 2019

The collaboration of Bruno Belamich and Carlos Rosillo, compared to Audemars Piguet, may be just a wee nipper at some twenty-odd years old—not even as old as the Royal Oak itself—but it’s been around long enough to know what’s what. It was actually through German aviation watchmakers Sinn that Bell & Ross got its foot into the watchmaking door, spurring on the aeronautical theme that would become the brand’s speciality.

So, naturally, it would make perfect sense to copy a nautically themed glamour watch from the 1970s … not. I can’t imagine there’s really a whole lot to it: Bell & Ross, like the rest of us, knows that the Royal Oak is an incredibly desirable watch—and aesthetic—and there are sales to be made. Is that a bad thing? Well, perhaps, in any other circumstance, but with the watch designed to be looked at that spurred a cornucopia of watches designed to be looked at, it’s actually rather fitting.

Say what you will about the similarity, if Patek Philippe can do it, you can hardly hold it against Bell & Ross. The reasoning is as identical as the looks—and by that I mean they are incredibly close indeed. You still get the Bell & Ross square case, mimicking the instruments found in abundance in an aircraft cockpit, still with the four screws, one in each corner. You’ll note the instrument-style dial, also a Bell & Ross favourite.

The Bell & Ross BR05 costs £3,990 on a bracelet and £3,600 on a rubber strap

The Bell & Ross BR05 costs £3,990 on a bracelet and £3,600 on a rubber strap

But it’s the way those features blend with the obvious nods to the Royal Oak that actually makes this a bit more than just a lazy copy. The dial is blue like the 1972 original, complete with skinny raised markers and rounded hands. Those four big case screws, like those in the Royal Oak, are arranged with aesthetic consideration. The slots would never be that neat on a BR 01. There’s even an ampersand logo found on the neat folding bracelet that mimics that of the Royal Oak.

I’m not going to say this watch is actually creative genius, a new and important line in the sand for this 70s aesthetic, but I think a sense of respect can be detected in the BR 05. It’s not executed brazenly and without feeling, it honours the original with an appreciation that says, “thank you for making it so, several decades on, we can all still be producing mechanical watches.”

You may be eyeing this watch with contempt, but if you are, I urge you to reconsider. You don’t have to buy one, but I do ask that you acknowledge the spirit of its creation with the same feeling as you would the Nautilus, Ingenieuer SL and 222. It’s like watchmaking’s version of Spiderman, the Royal Oak, an entity of untold power whose design can be used to bring a boost of success to an otherwise ailing brand—and everybody gets one. Well, except Patek Philippe. They got two.

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