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 & Ross 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 and Ross BR V3-94, 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 and 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 BR V3-94 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 Bell and Ross BR V3-94 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.