Posted on June 11 2019
Compared to some of the other big names in the world of luxury watches Bell and Ross are a relatively young company. This Paris based business was only established in 1993.
Bruno Belamich was working as an intern for German watchmaker Helmut Sinn when he teamed up with banking executive and childhood friend Carlos Rosillo. The Frenchmen Belamich and Rosillo became Bell and Ross.
The first Bell and Ross branded watch, the Space 1, was a German made rebranded Sinn model. The dial of that first piece includes the wording ‘by Sinn’ on the dial as did the following releases.
The brand then progressed to designing their own watches whilst continuing to have the stock manufactured by Sinn. Among the best known watches of this period is the Type Demineur - a watch ordered for use by the French bomb disposal teams.
The relationship with Sinn continued until 2002 when, following investment from Chanel, the company gained access to a Swiss manufacturing facility.
By then the company had a clear vision and a team of specialists to deliver it. The idea was to bring together a group of experts - watch designers and aeronautical control panel specialists - to create watches where the design was informed by the function.
The watches were made for professional use with four core design principles.
Each model must be legible, reliable, functional and precise.
The natural outcome was the 2005 introduction of the instantly recognisable, oversized BR 01 Instrument.
This 46mm timepiece is at the centre of the brands offerings. It’s a simple, but iconic, piece that is clear in its design inspiration. It looks like it was cut out of an aeroplane cockpit. There’s a perfect blend of high quality swiss watchmaking - including a mechanical movement - married to a basic, functional military aesthetic. The watch was a hit in the watch buying world.
The company now has an Instrument line. A series of square watches inspired by dashboard instruments. The updated BR03 - a smaller version of the BR01 - is at the centre of that collection.
Here we highlight some of the affordable alternatives to this iconic Instrument range.
Steinhart Aviation Automatik
Founded by Gunter Steinhart this German company, like Bell and Ross, have been producing watches for a couple of decades now. Although not one of the larger established brands the company has built a solid reputation since it's launch in 2001.
Stylistically Steinhart have made their name producing, among others, designs inspired by Rolex, with a strong preference for the vintage look. A quick scan of their current range will show models reminiscent of the Submariner, Explorer II and Daytona.
However, Steinhart are far from a homage brand like Alpha, with their watches being powered by their own movements – using a Swiss ETA base.
The Aviation Automatik has some subtle differences to the Bell and Ross but maintains the aesthetic. It’s 44mm and the stainless steel case has a satin finish, with a 24mm strap that is screwed into place. The dial features two heights and is covered by a domed sapphire crystal. As mentioned, the movement is a Swiss ETA automatic.
Before Bell and Ross there was Canadian brand Trintec. Founded in 1984, they claim to have been the first watch manufacturer to incorporate cockpit designs into their watches.
Their original Altimeter Watch was first produced in 1990.
Since then the company has expanded from being primarily aviation focused and has developed numerous other products. This includes a large selection of precision nautical instruments - barometers, clocks, tide clocks and weather stations. However, watches are still at the centre of their business.
The Zulu Cockpit 03 has many of the design features of the BR-01, although it’s certainly far from a homage. The PVD coating adds to the general impression of a cockpit instrument and the silicone strap enhances that further. At 42mm it’s on the smaller end of the Bell and Ross style watches and it’s powered by a reliable Japanese made miyota movement. There’s a hardened mineral, rather than sapphire, crystal.
Now out of production the watch is a little trickier to find.
Known for its Swiss Army Penknife Wenger has been in business since the late 1800’s. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that the company began to produce watches.
The Aerograph Cockpit comes in a couple of variations with the 72423 the most eye catching. This is due to the dark brown dial and matching heavy duty leather strap. Both give a vintage feel on a watch whose design cues and sizing are distinctly modern.
It’s on the cheaper end of the watches featured here and unsurprisingly comes with a quartz movement. Other than that, the specs are as expected. 42mm Stainless steel case, 100M WR and mineral crystal.
Invicta Corduba 3966
As a watch producer Invicta often receive a lot of negativity in the watch collecting community. They’re easy to criticise if you don’t like their affordable and often over the top style. Cheap watches with a lot of gold colouring don’t usually impress watch aficionados. But let’s take a step back.
Although the company is American owned Invicta has its roots in Switzerland during the late 1880's. Its corporate headquarters are in Switzerland along with its customer service centre and its current president is a fifth generation watchmaker. Invicta also own a number of other brands including Glycine. There’s a lot of things that this company does right.
The Corduba 3966 is a stylish watch that comes in, like the orginal BR-01, at 46mm. A nice touch is the dial - it’s carbon fibre and works well with the black satin finished case. The case has an exhibition caseback that shows the coloured Miyota automatic movement.
The dial itself is simple and legible with large lumed numbers, indices and hands and a date tucked away at 3 o’clock.
There’s 200M WR if you’re the unlucky type of pilot who finds himself in water.
Hugo Junkers was a German aircraft engineer and designer whose company was influential between the two world wars. Placed under house arrest by the Nazi government he died in 1935 before the outbreak of war - where his planes would go on to successfully perform for the Luftwaffe.
All the Junkers range are inspired either by the companies aviation background or by Hugo Junker’s personal passion for the Bauhaus art movement.
The Horizon 6740-4 is the GMT version of this attractive aviator. With the large logos the dial is a little busier than some of the others, but the simple use of colours keeps everything authentic to the fight panel aesthetic.
Like the Wenger this watch is powered by a Swiss quartz movement.
NFW Autopilot 07308
Founded by watch industry veteran George Fox, NFW is a relatively young company. Their lines feature a number of bold designs for both men and women. Among these are the Block, a watch “inspired by the mass of metal in a car’s engine block” and the Regulator, taking its inspiration from Submarine portholes.
It seems in keeping with the company ethos to produce an aviation watch that takes its design cues from the planes instrument panel.
The Autopilot does just that and slightly modifies the case shape from the Bell and Ross, and depending on the model, adds colour with a range of dial options.
The 07308 is a chronograph and therefore adds sub-dials to the face and angular pushers to the case. Featuring a Citizen quartz movement, the overall feel is that of a functional pilots watch. The black ionic coating and inclusion of both rubber and leather straps lends a sense of durability. There’s more colourful options in the range but we prefer the simple black and white of the 07308.
Lum-Tec G1 Vintage
Family run brand Lum-Tec is based in Ohio, USA. Their parent company produces watches for a number of companies and promotes Lum-Tec as their own showcase brand. President Chris Wiegand is personally available to interact with customers and Lum-Tec’s vision is to listen to what their customers actually want.
The G1 Vintage doesn’t scream ‘Bell and Ross’. It whispers it.
There’s enough of a similarity to make the comparisons, but there’s much here that’s different too. The case is a little more rounded and there’s the cut out ‘skeletal’ sections that are unique on this list. The desert colouring lends the watch a military, rather than aviation, aesthetic.
But it is square, bold and definitely in keeping with the design principles laid out by Bell and Ross. It is legible, reliable, functional and precise.
As for sizing, it’s 45mm wide with a chunky 24mm strap and a 13mm thick case. The sapphire crystal has a double anti-reflective coating and screw down crown. It’s quartz powered and has 200M water resistance.
There’s been a number of great Bell and Ross style watches released over the last few years, but many of them are now discontinued. If you’re interested in digging a little deeper we’d recommend you also check out the Christopher Ward C11, Borealis Pilot Diver, Torgoen T26, and Revue Thommen Airspeed.