Revolution sits down with the Co-founder and creative brain behind Bell & Ross to discuss the changing face of the brand.
Bell & Ross has always been an uncompromising avant-garde brand, but lately vintage seems to be becoming increasingly important.
Each year we have to introduce novelties… this is a big, big part of our business. Everybody wants novelties – journalists, customers, retailers. After 10 years working on the vintage line, we thought it was a good time to redesign it, to evolve and fine tune. So, for the third generation of the collection we changed the size of the watches, making them 1mm smaller. It’s not much, but it’s important because, after many years of supersized ones, there’s a demand for “normal” watches.
That millimetre makes a big difference.
I agree, it doesn’t fit small. So that’s why we have two sizes in this new collection: 41mm and 38.5mm. For most of the market it’s a small watch, but 30-or-so years ago, 38mm would have been a big watch for a man. We have also changed the lugs and made them more rounded and introduced a new stainless-steel bracelet with small links, which is very comfortable. The inspiration comes from the 1960s and 1970s.
We have introduced different versions – a basic black dial, our best-selling model with blue dial with gold indices and a new one with this specific brown or gold dial directly inspired by the 1950s and a story about the belly tankers. It is a tale of hot rods and those guys that lived on the West Coast of America, who liked fast cars and had the idea to take fuel tanks from old planes and make cars with them. Maybe one or two years ago I saw a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement that featured a beautiful man and woman kissing on a salt flat, and beside them was a belly tanker.
Is that when you had the idea for the new look and specifically the BR V2-94 Bellytanker?
When I saw that image, I said: “OK, this could be really cool.” It’s not only a mechanical concept, it is also a dream concept.
When I think about Bell & Ross, first of all I think about the BR 01s, but next I think about the stories that you develop around your watches – the BR 126 Flyback “Blackbird”, the BR 01-94 B-Rocket and so on. How important is this storytelling to you?
It is becoming more and more so. We need to build an image and sell a message through communication, and communication is always easier when there is a story. The best watches are those that tell the story themselves, like the BR S Diamond Eagle, with stars set into a blue dial. You see the watch and you understand.
And this storytelling goes right back to watches like the BR 01-92 Compass and the BR 01-92 Radar.
Yeah. Those watches were very good… you saw the watch and you understood immediately. With others like the Bellytanker, you have to tell the story and help people to travel in this universe. For example, why the vintage brown dial? Some people will just like the look of the watch but when you add the story to the product, together it is stronger. And that is the feedback that we are getting from our retailers.
Let’s face it, the product we are selling is not really necessary in this age. You don’t need a watch now and we could all live without a mechanical watch at this price. So why do we buy watches? For the emotions they evoke. And an emotion comes from the design, the product, the finish, the quality, but also from the stories.
And do you think that’s more important for the new generation of watch buyers?
I don’t know, but I think it’s basically psychological. When you buy a watch, you are attracted by sensation, emotion, smells, impressions. So, as a designer, this is my base. I find new ideas in dreams, so when I imagine a guy driving his belly tanker, I imagine what watch he wears. It’s stronger for the concept.
So, as a designer, you need to put yourself into that story?
Yeah. Where do all those ideas come from? Sometimes I talk to marketing and sales and they say: “We need a new woman’s model – a pink version of the BR S or a complication or a watch under €3,000.” You say: “OK, I will do it.” But, as a designer, you also have to propose a new concept, new ideas, to explore new territories, to innovate. That is the aim, we need to be different, we need to innovate to have our own place in this very competitive market.
What was the starting point for the new vintage watches? Was it someone asking for a smaller size?
The specification was to create a new version of the existing steel model with a chronograph movement and a three-hand movement. Using all the colours and all the finishes available, I looked at what I could propose and I thought: “OK, I have a brown dial in mind and that reminds me of the story of the belly tankers.” They fit perfectly together because of this mix of brown and black which is so reminiscent of the 1950s. I knew this could be the watch that the belly tanker guys wore.
As the vintage watches become more well-known, is it harder to come up with innovative designs?
Most of the people who know Bell & Ross know the square model – I’m sure that there are many people that don’t know the vintage line of Bell & Ross at all. Of course, on the vintage model, it’s more difficult to differentiate the watch as it’s very classic – for a designer it’s a “no-design” watch, basic and timeless – so I think we will continue to innovate through our novelties.
When do you start working on a collection?
We start working on the new collections just after Basel because I think it’s important to wait for feedback before working on something new. During Basel you have all the feedback on your designs – are they bad, good, what people don’t like, what they do like, and so on. You also see the market trends and what other brands are doing. You talk with people and, like a sponge, you soak up all of these things. After Basel, you’re exhausted so you take maybe one month to clear your mind and then you start designing. Some more complex watches, like the X1, take two or three years to develop, others are quicker.
And this is why the watches that were made for Renault Sport F1 were adaptations of existing models?
Yes, exactly. And maybe down the line we will develop a specific watch for Renault, although at the moment we are working to mature this collaboration. When Renault came back into F1, it was predicted that it would take five or more years to get to the top and our plan is to go with them. For us this is a big opportunity – we never thought it would be possible for Bell & Ross to go into F1 because of the enormous investment involved, but with Renault it has become possible.
How did the partnership come together?
When they decided to come back to F1, they needed help to design the livery, the uniform of the driver, the logo and so on. They called on an artistic director who is also the editor of Intersection magazine in France and he proposed Bell & Ross as a partner.
What was his relationship to Bell & Ross? Did he wear one?
I don’t know, but he’s a trendy fashion guy and he’s in the motoring universe, so that’s why Renault went to him – to help position the brand and the image of the team. When they approached us, we said: “Are you sure? F1 is very expensive.” They said: “Yeah, yeah, yeah we’ll find a deal don’t worry.” The deal took nearly a year to become concrete but the idea was to associate Renault with a trendy luxury brand to help give it an avant-garde image.
In the first year, we took the X1 and re-created it in the Renault colours. In the second year, we developed specific dials and finishes, and next year we will evolve the design of the case and the finish of the watch. We already know that our partnership is a success and has opened the door to a universe other than aviation.
A decade ago, Bell & Ross was the new kid on the block, edgy and niche. Today it’s a brand that everyone is talking about. What has changed over the past couple of years?
I think it’s the addition of details, of small things. However, I’m sure of one thing, it’s a team effort – as a designer if I walk alone, I will do nothing. I could design the most beautiful and innovative watches in the world, but if they are not communicated, if there is not a cohesive brand, if there are no retailers, then we can’t sell any watches. We build step by step – in France we are more mature but in the UK, for example, big chain retailers are important and things can be difficult if you are not carried by them. For us, opening our boutique in Burlington Arcade has helped us a lot in the UK.
Having a permanent home for the brand in London is a definite advantage.
Yes, you can continue to tell the story through interior design and architecture and you can increase the strength of the brand identity. It has been step-by-step for us and then, one day, you wake up and you see everything you have done coming together. It takes time, of course, to build this.
You have never deviated from your path and never been hugely influenced by what other companies are doing in terms of marketing. Has this helped you to become stronger as a brand?
There’s no secret. There’s no rules. As a designer, I know what I have to do, I have to produce good designs – ones that are innovative and will sell. Some brands have massive investment and move very fast, but the risk is also huge. We wanted to grow slowly with our partner Chanel as it is a long-term partnership with a long-term vision. And I think to build a luxury brand with our needs takes a long time.
What makes a Bell & Ross watch special?
It’s the details. Let’s take the Bellytanker as an example. The finish of the dial and this colour – I don’t know any other watches with this combination of colours – the metal bracelet, the size, the glass box sapphire. In the very prestigious old Swiss brands, I worry that not enough passionate people are given the power to innovate, but in a small company like ours, everyone is involved, they all like watches and that’s important when you make and sell timepieces.
As your following grows, are you noticing that you have Bell & Ross collectors?
We met a guy a few weeks ago who has 82 Bell & Ross watches. Crazy! We asked him why, and he said: “I like square watches.” It’s exciting, we have different kinds of customers, from the old guy who needs a very legible watch, to the younger buyers who like Bell & Ross for its spirit and feel a connection to our inspiration – aviation and cars.
Of all the watches you’ve designed, which is your favourite?
The original one, the square one with the chronograph movement. It’s the watch that was directly inspired by the cockpit and it’s the pinnacle of functional design. I like this watch, because it is timeless. I am sure that in 10 years’ time I will still like it.