Why did an instrument that was never meant to be worn on the wrist become a successful wristwatch? Because the idea was brilliant, it came at the right time, and it was very well executed. The original BR 01 that debuted in 2005 measured a whopping 46 × 46mm and was quite hefty too. But it was also like nothing else, and it satisfied the need for a bigger and bolder timepiece. It also worked because of the immediate association with the coolness of being in the cockpit as a pilot. The new 41mm BR 03 is a toned-down, refined version of the previous 42mm BR 03 generation, and that watch, of course, owes everything to the granddaddy, the BR01. Is a square watch still hip, and does a 1mm decrease make a world of difference? We got a steel and a ceramic BR 03 to find out.

The Bell & Ross story starts with friends Bruno Belamich (“Bell”) and Carlos A. Rosillo (“Ross”). In 1994, they launched the Space 1, the first Bell & Ross watch manufactured by Sinn. The French brand’s breakthrough came 11 years later, though, with the launch of the square BR 01. By then, Chanel had become a minority shareholder and helped realize a “B&R” manufacturing facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The BR 01 is a cockpit instrument for the wrist. In my eyes, the BR 01 is not a pilot’s watch. Instead, it’s practically the spitting image of an instrument already inside an airplane. You also can’t say that the instrument evolved like the pocket watch did because once someone strapped on a wristwatch, the watch pocket stayed empty. Anyway, the BR 03 is a sized-down version of the BR 01, and that’s where our attention should be right now.

Bell & Ross BR 03

Trying on the resized Bell & Ross BR 03 in both steel and black ceramic

Wearing a round 46mm watch is a challenge for most of us. Wearing a square 46mm watch is a step above a challenge. And apart from the physical difficulties, the visual impact of a 46 × 46mm square sitting on top of your wrist cannot be underestimated. In other words, the BR 01 was and still is just too much for both wearers and onlookers. And that’s why B&R created the BR 03. The original version came in a 42 × 42mm format. The latest version shaves off 1mm, making it the best “cockpit instrument turned watch” so far.

Bell & Ross BR 03 Military Ceramic over-shoulder shot

As I said, in my eyes, a timing device taken from an instrument panel inside an airplane’s cockpit isn’t suddenly a pilot’s watch when you put it on your wrist and sit down in the pilot’s chair. Still, B&R’s goal was “to turn a cockpit instrument into the best aviation watch.” To be fair, the brand did indeed create a very clear, legible, and strong-looking dial that can compete with established pilot’s watches.

Bell & Ross BR 03 Military Ceramic

The new 41 × 41 BR 03 comes in nine different versions. My eye fell on two opposite-looking models. My first pick is the €3,700 BR 03 Black Steel (BR03A-BL-ST/SRB), the most basic version in a steel case on a black rubber strap. The second one is a bit more adventurous/fashionable. It’s the BR 03 Military Ceramic (BR03A-MIL-CE/SRB), the €4,500 stealthy camo version in a black ceramic case.

Bell & Ross BR 03 Black Steel

What a difference 1mm makes

You will have to look twice to see the differences between the old and the new BR 03. Optically, some things changed, but others stayed the same. The starting point is still the 100m-water-resistant square case with a round dial. And the flat crystal is still kept in place by a bezel with four screws. The steel versions of the new 41mm BR 03 measure 9.65mm thick, and the ceramic ones are slightly “chunkier” at 10.6mm thick — the older generation 42mm watches differ in height by mere tenths of a millimeter. Speaking of tenths of a millimeter, the lugs of the latest BR 03 measure 4mm wide rather than 4.5. Yes, millimeters matter in the world of watches, especially in the world of square ones.

What also matters is finishing. The case not only shows more rounded corners but also wider bevels. And in the case of the Black Steel, that livens up the watch because the bevels are polished.

Fitting a square to an organically shaped wrist means it needs a bit of curvature. The 41mm versions show a new profile with slightly more curvature to follow the shape of the wrist. Still, since every wrist is shaped differently, in the case of a square watch, be it a TAG Heuer Monaco, a Nomos Tetra, a Rado True Square, or something else, try it on and keep it on for a bit before buying.

Bell & Ross BR 03 Black Steel on wrist

Evolution of a square

To be very honest with you, the previous 42mm version of the BR 03 never charmed me. That was mainly because it felt too big and didn’t fit the shape of my 18cm wrist. The new one looks better because of the refinements made to the finishing of the case, and the new shape and size do indeed work better for my wrist. The rubber straps have also been redesigned for a slimmer profile and a bit more of a taper toward the buckle. Strapped on tightly, both the steel and ceramic versions of the watch nestled snugly into my wrist. I didn’t really feel that it was there, which is a great compliment for a square watch.

Bell & Ross BR 03 Black Steel  close-up

The ultra-legible dial is one of the reasons you don’t immediately/always see a square watch. The black and white dial of the Black Steel is instrumental and as legible as you’d ever desire from a pilot’s watch — mission accomplished, Belamich & Rosillo. The matte black makes every white detail pop up. Yes, the Arabic numerals, the minute hand paired with a new, slightly leaner hour hand, and the indexes and minute track are very important for the watch’s look. But so is the brand’s logo. In my opinion, the brand’s logo is distinct and original, and it adds to the appeal of the watch. A much less noticeable element is the date between 4 and 5 o’clock. It’s a small, round window around a white date on a black background — discrete, stylish, and practical if you’re really determined to find out what the date is.

Bell & Ross BR 03

Shiny or matte?

I was quite curious to see which of the two contrasting watches I would prefer. The BR 03 in black and military green was my initial preference. The watch might have instrumental ancestry, it also looks like a watch that you’d want to use to accentuate and/or complement what you’re wearing. It also means it is not “daily beater” material, but I guess no square watch is. But what I’m about to write could very well be a world first: this ceramic Bell & Ross BR 03 is too understated and too discrete. Well, it is for me. The more basic Black Steel version works better on the wrist because it is more present. And also because it’s easier to wear with the stuff you have in your closet.

Final thoughts on the Bell & Ross BR 03 Black Steel and Military Ceramic

One thing missing from this review is the movement inside these watches. Bell & Ross calls it caliber 302, but it’s actually an updated automatic Sellita SW300 with 54 hours of power reserve instead of 38. So, now that we have all the info on these watches and I’ve given them good wrist time, what’s the verdict?

Well, if I had to choose between the steel and the ceramic, my choice would be the first one. The BR 03 Black Steel is more versatile, and it combines instrumental qualities with just the right amount of design quirkiness. The Military Ceramic didn’t do it for me. It was just a bit too matte and difficult to match. Also, in the dark, the Super-LumiNova didn’t have enough power to make the already stealthy dial easy to read.

Square watches are polarizing creations from many perspectives. Putting a square watch on your wrist might be like putting a square peg in a round hole — most of the time, it just feels wrong. A square watch doesn’t have to feel right all the time, but it does have to feel perfect when you put it on. The new 41 × 41mm BR 03 has the qualities to perform that task better than ever. It’s sleeker, slimmer, more rounded, and a tad more refined.

BR 03

When the BR 01 came out, it was definitely hip to be square. The shape has become less shocking over time, partially because the smaller BR 03 came on the scene. But a square in a round world will always stand out enough to never be “square.” Now let me hear your (square) thoughts and (hip) ideas in the comments.

For more information on all the versions of the new BR 03, please take a look at the official Bell & Ross website.