bell and ross brv394June 25, 2021
Several years ago when I first began to really indulge my interest in watches, Bell & Ross was one of the first brands outside the household names that I became aware of. I can distinctly remember walking into a Tourneau and seeing the bell and ross brv394 display prominently featured to my right immediately as I entered. Under the glass I saw a bunch of square watches that looked like some combination of a children’s toy, an aircraft instrument, and avant-garde design objects. I was so new to watches at the time that I even remember having an intrinsic understanding, from the watches and marketing materials alone, that Bell & Ross was surely some manner of historic watch brand that must be an insider’s secret.
Hey, I was new. I definitely hadn’t discovered Worn & Wound or any other watch related websites by this point, and was probably taking my cues mostly from StyleForum and advertisements in glossy magazines. Bell & Ross, of course, is not a historical watch brand. They were founded in 1992 by Bruno Belamich and Carlos A. Rosillo, and eventually gained traction with their BR series of square cased watches with circular dials, made to look like gauges on the instrument clusters you’d find in an airplane. Bell & Ross sought out opportunities to bolster their reputation as an aviator’s brand, and became the official supplier of watches to the French space program and the French Air Force.
Bell & Ross is the product of a somewhat simpler time in watch enthusiasm, right before the blogs hit, and Instagram became essential. They predate a lot of snobbery that is now associated with the luxury watch world, and I’ve been around just long enough to look back on peak Bell & Ross with some nostalgia. This has always been a design forward brand with an emphasis on storytelling, and jabs at some perceived lack of authenticity are misdirected, in my opinion. Bell & Ross never set out to fake anything, but they’ve always cultivated a very specific identity.
I like authenticity, but I also read fiction, and I don’t demand that every watch have an origin story that’s centuries old. I do, however, insist that watches be well thought out, made with integrity, wearable, and aesthetically pleasing, so that’s how I came to the Bell & Ross BR V3-94 Black Steel, an imposing chronograph that’s definitely not square – but also kind of is. Let’s get into it.
The Black Steel is part of the Bell & Ross “Vintage” collection, which forgoes the instrument style square cases for traditional shapes that register as “normal” watches. These aren’t the kinds of watches that necessarily jump right out at you when you walk into Tourneau for the first time, but they are perhaps the type of watches that possess a certain refined elegance that will stand the test of time, and could never be considered a fad.
While other watches in the Vintage collection have proportions that you could reasonably associate with actual vintage watches, the Black Steel, unfortunately, does not. The BR V1 (a simple time and date range) and the BR V2 (a midsize platform hosting a range of complications) come in with cases measuring 38.5mm and 41mm respectively, which are modern enough sizes but take a vintage inspired case and dial design well enough. At 43mm, the bell and ross brv394 is decidedly oversized, and the case looks blown up from every angle.
The shape is interesting, and wearing it over the last week or so, it gradually dawned on me that it shares a certain boxiness with modern Rolex “Super Case” sports watches, with wide, squared off lugs that give the watch an almost cushion case-like impact. I’m not someone who derides the 114060 Submariner – I’ve owned that watch and it wears much more comfortably than its somewhat severe appearance would have you believe. But the Black Steel is a full three millimeters larger in diameter. That makes a real difference in how it feels on the wrist, and in its visual impression.
The Black Steel measures about 13mm tall and 49mm lug to lug. It’s long and flat, and Bell & Ross has done a nice job making a big case feel svelte with a few clever tricks. First, the endlinks of the bracelet do not extend beyond the tips of the lugs, meaning the Black Steel wears a true 49mm lug to lug. In fact, these end links are integrated into the case (B&R sells a leather strap that mounts directly to it, Pelagos style). Secondly, the caseback is nestled closely into the midcase and doesn’t protrude from the bottom, so the watch wears close to the wrist. While the Black Steel is big, it’s not bulky in the way a dive watch of this size would be if it were rated to some extreme level of water resistance. The Black Steel gets by with only going 100 meters deep.
Finishing is nice but not extraordinary. The case sides are polished and the tops of the lugs have been given a brushed satin finish. This further links the watch to Rolex in my mind, even though this is a fairly standard application of finishing techniques for a watch like this. The bezel has a 60 minute counter and rotates crisply in both directions, 120 clicks for a full trip around the dial. Again, nothing extraordinary here, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s functional and felt reliable in my testing, but it’s not a notably outstanding bezel action.
The matte black dial of the Black Steel is what I would call a modern take on a traditional pilot’s watch style. We have little pieces of key pilot’s watch elements here and there, but this watch is not a slave to the historical record. Legibility is prized here, which is certainly true to the purpose and calling of any good aviator’s watch, but Bell & Ross have gone about it in their own way.
This is a three register chronograph with running seconds at 3:00, a 30 minute totalizer at 9:00, and an hours register that counts to 12 at 6:00. This is a comfortable and familiar chronograph format. So comfortable, in fact, it’s not even meaningfully interrupted by a small, circular, 4:30 date window. I’m well aware that many actively despise this date window positioning, but it’s a bit of a Bell & Ross trademark at this point, and it’s also about as inconspicuous as you could possibly imagine, so no points deducted from the New England judge.
Hour markers are thin lumed batons, which are cut off by subdials at the cardinal positions. In between, small non-lumed dashes mark the minutes, and a large 12 sits at the top of the dial, the largest numeral on the Black Steel and the natural point of orientation for quick timekeeping at a glance. While a traditional pilot’s watch would have either much larger hour markers or Arabic numerals all around, the high contrast between the markers and black dial make telling the time easy enough in low light situations, or from a difficult angle. The hands are large and easy to distinguish from one another, with the hour hand in particular reminding me of the current handset IWC has chosen for their Mark series, as well as important pilot’s watches from other brands.
My favorite detail on the dial is the subtle radial pattern on each of the subdials. You need a loupe to see it properly, but even from a distance it’s obvious that the subdials have a different finish than the main dial, setting them apart nicely in terms of their texture and the way they reflect light. The subdials are very slightly recessed, giving the dial a hint of depth. The tachymeter scale on the sharply angled but very thin rehaut accomplishes much the same thing.
I’m genuinely curious what people think of the Bell & Ross wordmark at 12:00. Personally, I like the typeface and think it “works” in the context of a modern reinterpretation of a pilot’s watch. It’s clean and distinctive, and to me is completely inoffensive. I approach it in this way because I often hear watch enthusiasts gripe about logos and branding on dials, but I can’t recall hearing complaints specifically about Bell & Ross. Every Christopher Ward watch that is released invariably gets a ton of “Yeah, but the logo…” comments on social media, and to my eye there isn’t an immense difference between how the two brand names are signed on their dials. That said, I do wonder how this watch would present had Bell & Ross decided to go with a sterile dial, or even in the other direction, with a more prominent ampersand.
The Black Steel is powered by the BR-CAL.301, an automatic caliber with 42 hours of power reserve. This is a rebadged ETA 2894-2, which is used frequently throughout the Bell & Ross product line, and is also featured in watches from Tissot, Rado, Chopard, and others. It’s a workhorse movement that gets around, and it certainly didn’t give me any problems in my relatively brief time with it. The caseback is open, so if you choose to, you can take in the movement’s mostly industrial decoration of machine applied striping to the custom rotor and perlage throughout the plates.
My review sample showed up on a bracelet that I found surprisingly comfortable. This is a watch that retails for nearly $5,000, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised, but bracelets are tough to get right, and the massive slab of metal that is the Black Steel’s case is surely a challenge to balance properly. This bracelet uses H-links that are quite narrow and drape rather well, and I found it to be comfortable and more than capable of supporting the watch head.
Let’s talk about wearability, and what that even means in the context of the Black Steel. My wrist is 7.5 inches and this watch felt comfortable on my wrist, thanks largely to the case being thin. So, it’s definitely wearable, and I’ve even worn watches that are smaller in diameter that are less comfortable than the Black Steel. Such are the vagaries of watch sizing when you get anywhere over 40mm – there are just so many variables that contribute to the feeling on the wrist, dimensions alone are somewhat useless. Still, since most people do not have a 7.5 inch wrist, for them I’m betting this watch won’t pass the most basic fit test, and it’ll feel heavy and out of proportion.
This is where a reviewer would normally say something like, “If you have the wrist to pull it off, the Black Steel is worth considering.” But I don’t think it’s all about wrist size – I think that some watches, this one included, just don’t look great because of their size, regardless of how big your wrist is.
On my wrist, the Black Steel’s lug to lug span takes the entire length of the top of my wrist. So, it “fits” according to the type of rudimentary guide someone new to watches might read on StyleForum ahead of their first visit to Tourneau. But when I’m wearing it, and I check the time, the overwhelming feeling in my head is that this thing simply doesn’t need to be this large. Who decided that a watch can and should take up so much wrist real estate, anyway? Was it someone from Panerai? I’d like to submit that not only does a watch not need to take up so much space, but a watch that doesn’t looks objectively better and more balanced. Small watches are coming back, and this is the reason.
Now, of course, some people might prefer the large watch look. That’s fine – I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. I also regularly wear watches that measure only a millimeter smaller than this one (but wear very differently). All that matters is that the watch looks right to you when you check the time. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that pilot’s watches in particular are historically oversized. But you’re probably not strapping this to the outside of a bomber jacket.
Furthermore, this watch is really close to having much more manageable and elegant proportions. Losing half a millimeter from the end of each lug, and narrowing those lug tips to come to a finer point, would have produced a case shape that’s more classic in appearance and would have worn significantly better. Indeed, Bell & Ross has essentially done this with their 41mm BR V2 watches, so if this is a watch you’ve been thinking about, I’d encourage you to try on a watch from that slightly smaller product line to determine if it’s more suitable to your wrist.
The bell and ross brv394 Black Steel is a good looking watch in photographs and on a desk, but the wearing experience was not a home run for me. That said, I appreciate what Bell & Ross is doing with the BR V- watches. I find them to be generally pretty good looking, and there’s quite a bit of variety throughout the growing line up. I don’t think the brand would have survived as long as it has without pivoting slightly away from the square cases and diversifying a bit. They’ve always had an eye toward interesting designs, and I like how they’re applying their house look to watches in a completely different genre.
Another piece that we’ve just glanced over is price and the apparent value of this watch. The Black Steel has a list price of $4,600, and I don’t need to tell you that there’s a world of watches at this price point that you could be cross-shopping. I don’t think there’s anything about this particular Bell & Ross that would swing me towards it and away from a comparable watch from IWC, or Sinn, or a Speedmaster (on the secondhand market). It’s a basic, black dialed chronograph, which is honestly one of my favorite things, but if I’m spending this kind of money, I’d have to insist on something a little bit more special, either with an interesting history, or a less common movement, or some kind of notable aesthetic flourish. The Black Steel, even at 43mm, somehow feels restrained to me