In June 2012, Carlos Rosillo, co-founder and CEO of the Bell & Ross watch company, met in Los Angeles with a Bell & Ross collector. The collector had heard about the company’s unusual piece of horological art called BR 12 O’ Clock and wanted to see it. It’s a display case containing 12 square-cased Bell & Ross watches with special revolving disk dials. The company describes the item as a “constantly evolving animated piece of art, only indicating the exact time for a fleeting moment.”

As it happened, the collector did not purchase the avant-garde BR 12 O’Clock, which sells for $89,000. But he did buy six Bell & Ross tourbillon wristwatches: two BR Minuteur Tourbillon pieces – the titanium version for himself ($170,000) and the rose-gold version for his brother ($200,000) – and four BR-01 Tourbillon pieces ($140,000 each). All told, in a matter of hours, he spent, with tax, about $1 million enhancing his Bell & Ross watch collection.

Those who only know Bell & Ross for its famous square-shaped BR-01 Instrument aviation watches priced between $3,000 and $6,000 may be surprised to learn that it also produces tourbillons with six-figure price tags that are prized by some collectors. Or other unusual collector items like the BR 12 O’Clock or the limited-edition BR-01 Flight Box ($32,900) containing six of its most exotic BR-01 flight-instrument-inspired watches.

“Among our customers we have some people who appreciate the design of Bell & Ross but who don’t want to wear a $5,000 watch,” says Rosillo. “They like Bell & Ross because it is different but they want something more exclusive, more technical and complex.” In short, a more distinctive and expensive luxury sports watch.

Other than its few high complications, however, the company has had little to offer these aficionados. “We have done well in our core segment up to $5,000,” Rosillo says, “and in the segment over $100,000 with the tourbillons. But in between $5,000 and $100,000, there is a very big gap. We need to fill this gap.”

Filling the gap is a top priority for Bell & Ross as it enters its third decade. (Rosillo and Bruno Belamich, the firm’s creative director, founded Bell & Ross in 1994. They used the first syllables of their last names to create their American-sounding brand.)

The first step is the new BR-X1, an unusual skeleton chronograph watch launched last November. Priced at $19,500, and limited to 250 pieces, it is the first model in a new line of Bell & Ross luxury sports watches that will be priced above $10,000.

For Rosillo and Belamich, the move into the luxury sports watch category is a big deal. They describe the launch as “a whole new chapter” in the development of the company. The BR-X1, they say, marks both an “evolution” and a “revolution” for the brand. To find out what they did and why they did it, WatchTime met the duo at Bell & Ross headquarters in Paris.   

One key to what they did is the watch’s name. It comes from the Bell X-1, the American rocket plane piloted by Chuck Yeager, which in 1947 became the first manned aircraft to break the sound barrier. With the BR-X1, Rosillo says, Bell & Ross has broken the horological sound barrier, so to speak. “What is the sound barrier for watches?” he asks. “The technical sound barrier is a manufacture movement. The commercial sound barrier is to sell watches costing more than $10,000.”

Other watch firms have broken those barriers, of course, but for Bell & Ross they are new frontiers. “For us, these are big challenges,” Rosillo says.

To meet them, Rosillo and Belamich decided to make a watch that was essentially an extreme version of their most popular watch, the BR-01 Instrument. The BR-X1 has the same instantly recognizable shape as the BR-01 Instrument, the watch that put Bell & Ross on the watch map when it appeared in 2005. Designed by Belamich, it consists of a round dial in a square case, a look inspired by the instruments on airplane dashboards that fascinate Belamich and which he began collecting as a young man.

With the BR-01, Belamich created a cockpit clock for the wrist that celebrated the values of utility, simplicity, legibility and precision valued by pilots. Those attributes now define the Bell & Ross design aesthetic.

The BR-01 Instrument was a smash hit and gave Bell & Ross its corporate identity, its signature look and its leader model. Today, in its many variations, it accounts for more than half of Bell & Ross sales. (How much more Rosillo doesn’t say. Privately held, the firm does not disclose sales or production figures.)

Belamich calls the BR-X1 “a body-built BR-01.” Think of the BR-01 Instrument watch on steroids. It has a chronograph movement made exclusively for Bell & Ross and a pumped-up case that is both ultra-light and ultra-durable because it is constructed with high-tech materials and equipped with unusual features like protective bumpers and a toggle-pusher-operated chronograph. “The goal,” Rosillo says, “was to make the ultimate utility watch, equivalent to an SUV, but in a watch – as tough as a 4x4 but as light as a drone.”

Step one was finding an exclusive movement. Bell & Ross does not make its own movements and has no ambitions to become a manufacture brand. For its complicated pieces, it taps the deep pool of accomplished third-party movement producers in Switzerland. When it developed its tourbillon watches, for example, it relied on the then prominent, now defunct BNB for the movements. (They are now made by MHC, Manufacture Hautes Complications.)

For the BR-X1 Rosillo and Belamich wanted a chronograph movement because a chrono is the complication most valued and most often used by pilots. “The best complication for a sports watch, for an aviation watch, is a chronograph,” says Belamich. “We wanted to have the best chronograph movement that we could.”

But they needed a movement that they could customize because Belamich had a number of innovations that he wanted installed in the movement to make it uniquely theirs.

That led them to Dubois Dépraz, the famous producer of mechanical complications located in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux. DD is best known for its chronograph modules. Bell & Ross selected Dubois Dépraz’s automatic chronograph Caliber DD2169. Together, they set about customizing it.

Says Belamich, “We worked with Dubois Dépraz to have a skeleton construction with our own plates and our own finish so we could offer a more original movement, more unique, more Bell & Ross.”

A skeleton movement in a chronograph is unusual. But that was just the start of it. Bell & Ross wanted a special construction for the upper bridge; Belamich had designed one in the shape of an X to reinforce the X-1 theme. They wanted all the bridges treated with a black PVD (physical vapor deposition) finish of their choice to give an haute horlogerie touch to the movement. Belamich wanted two counters, not three, to make the chronograph easier to read. He wanted the chronograph 30-minute counter at 9 o’clock to be larger than the running seconds counter at 3 o’clock.

In addition, he designed a unique chrono minute counter featuring an aluminum disk shaped like the blades of an airplane engine turbine. A red pointer on one of the four rotating turbine “blades” indicates the passing minutes. In keeping with the aviation theme, he designed the indicator on the small-seconds subdial at 3 o’clock to resemble the radar display on an airplane dashboard.

All these alterations to the original Dubois Dépraz caliber resulted in a unique movement that DD makes only for Bell & Ross. Dubois Dépraz gave it its own caliber reference: DD2162. Belamich calls it “a Bell & Ross by Dubois Dépraz movement.” In addition, it has a tachymeter with a scale on the flange of the chrono seconds ring around the edge of the dial. The dial is made of a gray-tinted mineral glass affording a view of the skeleton movement.

The entire date ring is visible in the movement; the correct date appears in a window at 6 o’clock. The titanium caseback has a small round window with a tinted sapphire crystal that gives a view of the balance.

Protecting this movement is a Hummer of a case that is robust thanks to special features like Belamich-designed “bumpers” but also quite light because it is made out of grade 5 titanium. The case is large. At 45 mm, the diameter is just 1 mm smaller than the original BR-01 Instrument watch.

The bumpers are an unusual wrinkle. They are made of black ceramic and provide a ring of protection around the case and the bezel, shielding them from impacts. They are most prominent on the case, covering the four corners and extending along the sides. A narrower ceramic band surrounds the entire bezel.

For the BR-X1, Belamich designed a more ergonomic way to operate the chronograph. Instead of traditional pushers, the watch has toggle (or rocker) push buttons that activate the chronograph functions. They are made of black ceramic with red rubber inserts, which improve the grip.

“We use this specific toggle pusher because we designed the watch to be used with gloves,” Belamich says. “As a pilot would use it, or a bicycle rider or any active man. It’s an ergonomic approach to the sports watch. For the chronograph function, it’s more comfortable and easier to use.”

Belamich’s toggle push system uses both sides of the case. A rubber button-grip insert is built into the case on the 9 o’clock side to improve the grip.

“At 9 o’clock you have the rubber grip and on the other side you have the rubber pushers,” explains Rosillo. “The two fingers only touch rubber, which is a nice soft material. This is why it’s so easy to manipulate the pushers to operate the chrono.” (The red of the rubber inserts indicates a connection to the chronograph function; the 30-minute chrono indicator is red, as is the tip of the central chrono seconds hand.)

To explain the significance of the BR-X1, Rosillo and Belamich engage in some word play. It represents both an evolution of (they call it a “BR-evolution”) and a revolution for (“B-Revolution”) the Instrument collection. Over the past decade, the BR-01 Instrument, and its slightly smaller sister, the BR-03, have earned their place in the top rank of contemporary pilots’ watches.

Along the way, Bell & Ross has introduced more sophisticated features, functions and materials. One recent example is the BR-03 Ceramic Instrument watch, a collection with high-tech ceramic cases that are lightweight and virtually scratch-proof.

Rosillo calls it “a little fine-tuning going from PVD to ceramic.” (Bell & Ross has ready access to ceramic watch cases and materials through the G&F Châtelain factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, which makes Chanel’s ceramic watches. Châtelain is owned by Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, who are the majority shareholders of Chanel and minority shareholders in Bell & Ross.) Another example is the BR-01 and BR-03 Rocket watches designed for motorcyclists, introduced last year in limited editions of 500 pieces each, priced at $7,200 and $5,800, respectively.

The BR-X1 marks the strongest expression of the trend toward high-tech materials, complex movements and sophisticated design. But it also marks a revolution, Rosillo says, because “there is a creative revolution and you jump into another category,” i.e., the luxury sports watch category.

Belamich uses an SUV analogy. “You see it in the Land Rover Grand collection between the Defender and the Range Sport. In the Range Sport you have all the new technology, all the innovation in a luxury SUV.” The relationship of the BR-X1 to the BR-01 is similar, he says.

The jump into the luxury sports watch category pits Bell & Ross against formidable competition, its owners realize. “The referents for luxury sports watches today,” Belamich says, “are Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore, the Hublot Big Bang and Richard Mille with the RM family.” Nevertheless, they – and the clients who tell them “You need to have watches in this price range” – are convinced that they fill a niche in the luxury field. “It’s a high-tech approach to luxury,” Rosillo says. The emphasis is on what he calls “technicity,” i.e., the advanced technical aspects of a watch that appeal to a certain kind of aficionado.

Take the BR-X1’s titanium case. “Titanium grade 5 costs a lot but it doesn’t look luxurious,” Rosillo says. “It’s not gold. Only people who care about technique in a watch appreciate titanium.” Ditto for other features like the skeleton chrono movement, high-tech materials and construction, and costly improvements like the toggle-pusher for the chronograph and case bumpers.

Not everyone will applaud Bell & Ross’s luxury leap, of course. “What we have learned is that when you make a step which is different, sometimes it is not understood,” Rosillo says. He and Belamich have made a career out of risky moves. They laugh when they review the list of perceived blunders that paid off.

Their very first watch collection in 1995 consisted of nothing but black-dial watches at a time when black was dead.

“We were one of only three exhibitors with black dials at Baselworld that year,” Rosillo says. Then there was the stupidity of launching a collection of exclusively square-cased watches in 2005, defying the conventional wisdom that only round watches sell well. And with a diameter of 46 mm, no less.

Belamich recalls, “Many retailers told us, ‘You are a clock! I can’t sell that, it’s too big!’” His conclusion:  “I believe that as a small brand we have to be different, original.”