One day, Rosillo, Belamich and I started discussing what it would be like if these watches had been around in the 50s during the height of the Bellytanker scene and we managed to find one still intact today, perhaps worn on the wrist of Bill Burke turned race car driver which he then passed down from one generation to the next, the watch worn in his various adventures as a California hot rod legend. What would that watch look like we wondered? We loved the idea that the dial of this watch had been affected by UV light of the Southern California sun and the intense heat of the driver’s position inside his race cars, so that it had changed from black to a rich intense tropical brown, not unlike that of the medio tempo leaves in the cigars favoured by the three of us, resulting in a masterpiece of patina. So, what would this watch – which would essentially be the prequel to the prequel – look like?
Rosillo, Belamich and I began to discuss the current fascination with patina. Maybe it’s because we fear ourselves being hooked up to Matrix-like human battery towers in the near future. But in an age where technology has taken over every dimension of our lives, and our relationships and experiences exist as much in the artificially simulated realm as they do in the corporeal, it seems like there’s never been a time we’re more enchanted with the past. And it is in particular patina that has us more charmed than ever.
GROWING OLD GRACEFULLY
A few decades ago, the first thing a car collector would do with his 356 Speedster was a frame off restoration, rebuilding the engine and particle blasting the chassis before repainting them to glossy perfection. Same thing with our watches, movements would be torn down and rebuilt, cases magna-fluxed and respectfully polished, lug chamfers magically re-engineered, dials cleaned until they gleamed.
But over the past decade that’s all changed and there is nothing that we love more than a “barn find,” a car with seats cracked and bodywork evincing a swirling ombre sfumato of naturally occurring age spots. And in the world of vintage watch collecting there is nothing more coveted than the “tropical” dial. These are dials that began their life as black, but then as a result of strong UV exposure combined with bring put away in a dark place afterwards, the upper level of the dial’s lacquer changed any where from dark chocolate as frequently seen on Mark 2 thin case Sea-Dweller or 145.022-69 Speedmaster to even lighter amber colours found on a host of different models from various brands.
The man most responsible for the popularisation of tropical dials is non-other than auction house panjandrum Aurel Bacs, who first headed up Christie’s watch department before decamping to Phillips where he’s since set the vintage watch ablaze with discoveries such as Paul Newman’s personal Paul Newman Daytona, which he sold for a record setting $17.8 million last year.
“What is beautiful about watches with tropical dials is that each and every one is unique, and I think that this is what collectors find charming about them,” Bacs says. “But the result of the world’s focus on these type of dials is the now massive premium associated with them.” This raises the issue of how to place a watch with an accessible price point with the same emotional and visual effect of a tropical watch in the hands of a younger collector, or on the wrist of someone that doesn’t wish to part with a king’s ransom for one.
We began toying around with the design to create the ultimate aged Bell & Ross Bellytanker Chronograph. But first we had to discuss the moral issue related to creating patina. We knew for example that in last year’s Concorso d’Eleganza at Villa d’Este a Bentley Blower formerly owned by George Daniels and raced by Tim Birkin was looked at unfavourably because the new owner had decided to re-patina the car himself in a shocking act of sacrilege. But this we decided was a very different exercise.
Rosillo said: “Let’s design the watches precisely as we would imagine them looking after close to 70 years. Let’s select all the exact colour tones and create what we love the most but being totally open about the fact that this is an evocative design exercise.”
The other thing that to me stood us in good stead was that a watch with a tropical dial is essentially a one-of-a-kind collector’s item with a dial that is unstable and still ageing and not something I would wear on a daily basis and not while engaging in sports, traveling extensively or on a motorcycle. I said: “Let’s create our ultimate tropical inspired watches but that people can wear in any situation, on a boat, even water skiing without worrying about their timepiece.”
The point is if you happen to own a stunning tropical dial watch you now have the option to keep it in your safe and wear it for special occasions while you can wear either of these Bellytankers in any situation without an iota of compromise. In addition, I guarantee you that you’ll also have one of the most handsome timepieces in the room on your wrist.
In the end, we landed on two different versions. The first watch is named El Mirage for the dry lake that Burke raced on frequently. The El Mirage features a steel case and one absolute beauty of a rich deep tobacco-brown dial and bezel. Says Rosillo, “The idea behind this watch is what if we took a black-dial BRV chronograph and imagined how it would age over close to 70 years, after daily exposure to the California sun.” Says Belamich, “What we loved about the final result was the contrasting colours – almost caramel for the centre of the dial, contrasted by the black for the subdials and seconds track and the milk chocolate for the bezel.” To complement the El Mirage, we fitted it with a military style strap in a matching hue replete with a vintage correct pin buckle.
The Dusty speaks of my penchant for vintage yellow-gold watches. Amusingly enough the flashpoint of inspiration came from the bright yellow livery of Burke’s legendary Bellytanker racer crafted from the tank from a P-51 Mustang in which he reached a speed of 131.96mph on his first attempt. “Let’s do a yellow-gold version with tropical subdials and seconds track,” I said.” In the interest of keeping the price accessible, Belamich and Rosillo counter-proposed using a special stabilised bronze still capable of exuding a rich intense yellow hue.
Rosillo explained: “We wanted our collaboration with Revolution and The Rake to be the first time we introduced an all-new material, a type of stabilised bronze.” This is not the first use of this bronze, also used by Tudor for the Black Bay bronze, but the first time Bell & Ross has introduced the material to their collection.
Belamich said: “Vintage yellow gold from the 50s has a very specific look to it. We thought we could come close to this hue using stabilised bronze, which we’ve go to great lengths to ensure will patina only to a limited extent and in so doing will only enhance the whole idea of a vintage watch. This was combined with a champagne dial and tropical brown subdials, minute track and bezel to result in what I think it is simply magical.”