Though Bell & Ross is one of those brands that seem like they’ve been around forever, a quick check confirms that this maker of stylish aviation-inspired timepieces has only been in existence since 1992. Since that time, they’ve rarely put a foot wrong, winning fans with their form-follows-function lines of sports watches. In the early days, Bell & Ross was just a design house, penning watches that were built on contract by the German tool watch experts at Sinn. But things changed with the introduction of the BR01, with a 46-millimeter square case that looked ripped right out of a cockpit. Bell & Ross had its calling card.
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Yet as the years passed B&R seemed to stagnate. Had the BR01 and its slightly smaller clone, the BR03, been one-hit wonders? The marine series BR02, a tonneau-shaped internal bezel dive watch, proved that the company had more up its sleeve. Then came the so-called Vintage line, which managed to maintain some of Bell & Ross’s familiar design cues but appealed to an audience of buyers who preferred a more nostalgic look. The Vintage line consisted of the BR 123 (the “3” refers to three hands) and the BR 126 (6 hands; i.e., a tri-compax chronograph), both of which featured smaller cases whose shapes recalled the classic sports watches of the 1960s; their dials, meanwhile, kept the looping oversized digits for which Bell & Ross was well known. The BR 126 Sport ($4,500) is one of the most recent versions of the Vintage chronograph family.
The only difference between the Sport and the standard BR 126 is the addition of a thin numbered bezel, but it makes quite a difference, imparting the look of some of the great dive and aviation chronos of the ‘60s from OMEGA and Jaeger-LeCoultre. We were disappointed that this feature of the new watch is nonfunctional, however. A numbered bezel on a watch should rotate; a bi-directional friction bezel would have completed the vintage pilot watch feel perfectly. Bell & Ross has often stated that function drives its form first and foremost, but in this case the fixed bezel feels like an afterthought for the sake of appearance only.
Calibre: ETA 2894-2
Frequency: 28,800vph (4 Hz)
Power reserve: 47 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds. Date. Two-counter chronograph (with 60-second and 30-minute accumulators)
Material: Stainless steel
Case Back: Sapphire see-through
Water Resistance: 10 ATM (100 meters)
Black with luminescent numerals, index and hands
Black calfskin with foldover polished steel clasp
But the nonfunctional bezel may be the only external flaw on the BR 126 Sport. The rest of the watch is a study in how to do a retro sports chronograph right, exceeded in this regard perhaps only by Jaeger’s excellent Vintage Deep Sea Chronograph, a watch that clocks in at nearly three times the price of the B&R. The BR 126’s nicely proportioned 41mm case with straight angled lugs is finished in polished steel and nails the vibe it aims to achieve; the high domed crystal is sapphire but nicely mimics the acrylic of old — minus the scratches; chronograph pushers are the old mushroom-shaped pumps, mimicking those found on most of the great old sports chronos.
The dial of the BR 126 Sport is predictably clean and legible, with the big 12 and 6 numerals recalling other Bell & Ross timepieces, which themselves recall the altimeters from airplane gauge clusters. These rounded numbers continue through on the chronograph subdials. In keeping with the no-nonsense aesthetic, markers and the B&R logo are painted on instead of applied. While some may quibble over the addition of the words “Automatic Chronograph” on the bottom of the dial, we think it further reinforces the vintage vibe, since it hearkens back to a time when a self-winding chronograph was a novelty to be noted with pride. The watch, like others in the Bell & Ross Vintage line, is extremely handsome, straddling sport and dress as well as it does vintage and modern.
Early versions of the BR 126 used the ubiquitous ETA (Valjoux) 7750 but, seeking a slimmer alternative, a favorite movement of Bell & Ross, the ETA 2894-2, was called in. Indeed, the watch does sit lower on the wrist with this calibre, which is a modular one that hides the chronograph gearing on the dial side of the base 2892, ETA’s high-end motor. While this makes for a slimmer movement, it also hides the chronograph bits from view so all you see through the sapphire caseback is the winding rotor, basic going train, some bridges and the escapement, all of which are nicely finished. We found the chronograph action to be quite stiff, the start-stop pusher requiring considerable effort to activate. This is in keeping with other cam-actuated chronographs we’ve tried; if you want smooth, you’ve got to pony up for a column wheel chronograph.
The BR 126 Sport is offered on a three-link steel bracelet or black calfskin strap. We opted for the calfskin, which seems to fit with the watch’s retro vibe and has a foldover deployant that’s easy to size and use in daily wearing. At less than $5,000, it falls right in a very competitive space but is a confident contender for the attentions of watch lovers who may want to venture beyond the usual suspects. Bell & Ross has matured nicely beyond its early successes, and the hits keep coming; this young dog has obviously learned some old tricks. For a watch company that wasn’t even around in the 1960s, B&R does the era pretty damn well.