Bell & Ross founder and CEO Carlos Rosillo on why ‘balance’  is the key to design, business and life

SINGAPORE (Dec 17): One could be forgiven for mistaking Carlos Rosillo for a creative director. With his safari-style khaki jacket and matching pants, a newsboy cap and round black-rimmed spectacles as well as greying moustache and beard, Rosillo looks like an artist.

As one-half of the French brand of Swiss-made watches Bell & Ross, Rosillo is in fact the “suit” of the business, taking on the CEO role, while co-founder Bruno Belamich is the creative designer. The childhood friends established the brand in 1992. It is best known for its military-inspired watches and long-standing partnerships with elite units of the Armed Forces such as the French Air Force, which uses Bell & Ross watches because of its rigorous standards of precision.

“My partner Bell is alive. Bell and Ross are alive,” announces Rosillo, revealing a keen sense of humour that is both refreshing and charming. He is alluding to the fact that the eponymous founders of most Swiss horological heavy-weights were buried centuries ago.

The partnership dynamic between Rosillo and Belamich is an intriguing one, in which the strengths of each man are sometimes more pertinent to the other’s portfolio.

“My father was an artist. At the back of my mind, I have creativity,” says Rosillo, who holds an MBA. Belamich, meanwhile, is “very analytical for a designer”.

“The funny thing is that although Mr Bell is the creative one, I trust him in business decisions, because he has good common sense. And he trusts my artistic sensibility, so I will help him make artistic decisions,” explains Rosillo. “He explores so many options that sometimes I have to say, ‘Mr Bell, trust in yourself. Don’t explore.’ Because in the end, we still choose his first proposition. This is how he creates: by exploring all the options [and eventually returning] to his first intuition.”

Collaborations and millennials

This mutual trust and flexibility between the two men provides the foundation for a lasting partnership that clearly works. 

And it enables creativity to flourish, as Belamich and team are given free rein to create. This has given rise to several inspired collaborations, including the limited-edition timepiece with Japanese streetwear label A Bathing Ape, better known as BAPE. Just 125 watches — iterations of Bell & Ross’s iconic BR-03 square case — were produced for BAPE’s XXV Anniversary Collection. 

Were the camouflage-inspired pieces part of a strategic bid to lure the millennials? “It was as strategic as our collaboration with the military,” Rosillo says, referring to the brand’s strong association with military personnel, astronauts, armed police and special law enforcement officers, as well as submariners and even bomb disposal divers. All these people use Bell & Ross timekeeping instruments in their line of work.

“When it makes sense, you need to do it. If it doesn’t, don’t do it. We don’t do a collaboration to seduce millennials. We only establish a collaboration if it makes sense and excites us,” Rosillo clarifies. “Without BAPE, we wouldn’t have done a product like this. They have a sharp point of view and came with ideas that made sense. We are both cool brands with cool cultures: It’s about a military-inspired lifestyle. When everything makes sense, you don’t have to compromise on your DNA.”

That said, Rosillo is happy that the collaboration pushed Bell & Ross to the limits of its brand identity. “Bell & Ross is a prestigious brand, but we said, ‘Don’t be shy. Go with your direction, but to the limit.’ And I think the BAPE watches are fantastic. We actually wanted the whole strap to be in a camouflage pattern, but they were shy.”

It helps that the 53-year-old has two young sons aged 10 and 12 to help him maintain a youthful perspective. “The watch industry is run by a lot of people who are old, like me. That is why I’m safe — my kids make me [feel] young. If you are too old, you don’t understand the marketing needed to reach millennials. But if your kids are millennials, you get the idea of what millennials are and want,” he expounds. 

He is quick to state, though, that Bell & Ross is not a brand that blindly follows trends. “If I compromise because of a trend, there will be a distortion and somebody will always be cheated — whether it is the end-user, dealer or brand. If your aspiration doesn’t correspond with your reality, [you lose integrity]. Some brands go into streetwear and compromise for commercial reasons. Some people will get it, some people won’t. But if you achieve all that because it was the right decision, as it made sense, you just have to explain [your intention] with sincerity and authenticity. 

“Sometimes, you can be misunderstood. Some people may say [the motive is] greed and to earn more money. To sell 125 watches for the [BAPE] 25th anniversary, do we need to do that business-wise?” he asks rhetorically, addressing detractors serenely with a smile.

Boundaries and balance

In speaking with Rosillo, it is clear that “balance” has been a leitmotif for Bell & Ross right from the company’s founding.

The brand first arrived on the watchmaking scene with the perfect quad: The BR-03, with its square case and edgy styling, was quickly hailed as a design icon that appealed to anyone who wanted to stand out from the crowd.

Incidentally, American fashion designer Ralph Lauren has also been inducted into the Bell & Ross quad squad. Rosillo enthusiastically whips out his phone to show me a recent photo of Lauren wearing a BR-03 that appeared on the internet.

The four sides of the BR-03 case symbolise the brand’s equal emphasis on its four design principles: legibility, functionality, reliability and precision.

“It is about having a good balance between design, engineering, watchmaking and professional uses — a union of competence,” Rosillo explains. “Many watch brands will tell you they have the best design. Some will tell you they have the best engineers — probably German brands. The Swiss [will tell you they are the] best watchmakers. Some people will say, ‘We are the true pilot watch. Or true diver watch.’ We don’t say any of that. We say we have a good balance.”

With his sage presence and speech, this sense of balance that Rosillo expounds shows a man so aligned with his inner being that he has found inner peace. And true to form, he tells me of his morning meditation routines and daily yoga practice. From his home in the heart of Paris, he often cycles to the river Seine, and on the weekends, he escapes to his house in the countryside, located just over an hour outside the city.

“It’s very important to relax the mind and be in contact with nature,” he notes. “You don’t really get to experience the seasons in the cities. You can understand the seasons when you see the change in nature — of trees — every minute, hour, month, week and season. This is the key component to balance. My father was also a landscape engineer. I don’t know a lot about trees compared with him, but he transmitted to me the love of a beautiful landscape.”  

I mention that I love nature too, and his eyes sparkle all the more. He pulls out his iPad and shows me pictures of his country house — beautifully remote and enveloped in greenery. There are impressive aerial shots and I learn that Rosillo also nurtures an interest in drone photography.

Creativity and intuition

This closeness to nature is necessary fuel for what Rosillo calls his “second obsession”: intuition and rational thought, the first being balancing tradition with modernity.

“When you run a business, there is rational thought and the intuition, or emotional part. Philosophically, it is a quest,” he says. “How do you mix that? Through the quest for quality. And here in Singapore, the [demand] for quality is high. This is what they appreciate; they care about the tiniest detail. This is something I really like.”

This is one of the reasons Bell & Ross chose Singapore for its very first stand-alone boutique in the world in 2010. The store was recently renovated. “It’s a tiny spot, but I don’t care about not having the biggest size now. When I go to this boutique, I feel at home; I like it. I’m a sentimental person,” Rosillo says.

The brand also opened a boutique in Macau last year and a new store in Beijing is in the works. “Asia is important for us,” Rosillo points out. Bell & Ross’ business strategy in this part of the world is led by subsidiaries in four key markets: Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Europe is the best-performing market for the company at the moment but “the fastest growth is coming from this part of the world, especially North Asia”, says Rosillo.

He is excited about the future and the new collaborations that are being planned. “The options are infinite because we are inspired by many brands and we inspire many brands,” he says.

He cannot reveal much at this stage, but declares that the novelties coming up next year are going to change the brand’s future. “I’ll give you a clue: Urban jungle,” he says. “It will be a new shape, a new design, but with continuity. The brand DNA will be Bell & Ross, but shooting for modernity and urban style.”

In selecting collaboration partners, there must be “a union of energy and synergy” for Rosillo, and “this applies to everything in life: how you feel when you wake up, how you get energy, how you get balance. So, if a collaboration is in conflict, no”.

There is that thing about balance again. And it leads me to wonder how Rosillo balances the relationship with co-founder Belamich when creative differences arise. “I have more creative differences with my wife,” he quips, relating how he often has to yield to her preferences when it comes to the interior design of their home. “That is more complicated than with my business partner,” he says good-naturedly.

 It always makes for a beautiful partnership when business and creative agendas meet, and this is evident in Bell & Ross’ handsome range of products and the success the business has enjoyed since inception. “Business is the consequence of creative input and team spirit,” Rosillo observes. “Creative input is the gold mine, and with good people on the team, you can implement the strategy.”

He expresses this with the energy of a young entrepreneur even after 26 years in business. “The funny thing is, I feel like 25, though I am 53. When we brought this brand to Singapore 25 years ago, I had the spirit and energy. I [still have] the same state of mind. In fact, I’m more impassioned today, as we have a team, we have a brand.”  

Exploring our creativity keeps us young, I volunteer. “Creativity… and having young kids keeps me young,” he says, adding that he learns a lot from his children.

 An avid chess player, Rosillo has passed on his love for the game to his sons, who are competitive players. From the older son, who also participates in piano competitions and competes against international prodigies, Rosillo has learnt courage and perseverance. “And from the young one, I learn to be cool,” he says, pointing to a picture of the BR-01 Laughing Skull model — his younger son’s favourite Bell & Ross creation — among the marketing collaterals laid out on the table in front of us. 

Does he hope his children will take over the business one day? “They are young, but they are [cosmopolitan] and they know what competition is. They have courage and resources. We don’t know what is going to happen in business, but if they can and if they want, I wouldn’t mind,” he says. He concludes our conversation the way he ends every sentence: with a smile that always reaches his eyes.

This article appeared in Issue 861 (Dec 17) of The Edge Singapore.

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Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful