Human civilisation has a mixed relationship with the visual motif that is the skull. While the most common symbolic use of the skull is as a representation of death, mortality and the unachievable nature of immortality, Vikings of the first millennium to the paratroopers of the Second World War, including the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries have used representations of the skull as a prominent warlike symbol.
Suffice it to say, Death’s heads are found throughout art history as well.To those without finely tuned aesthetic judgment, Stephen Gregory’s jewel-decorated human skulls look like they’ve inspired Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God, but Gregory tells Guardian UK, “My skulls and his are very different objects.” What Damien has done to skulls, casting it in platinum and encrusting it with diamonds, Bell & Ross has done to watchmaking with the potency of humanity’s most recognisable emblem.
Stephen Gregory’s creation
Skull imagery is popular across many cultures. Lucas Van Leyden’s St Jerome muses over a skull in his study in 1521, referencing Albrecht Durer’s St Jerome of 1514. Even before Hirst, Pablo did a classic Picasso on his 1946 Black Jug and Skull. In the watch world, Bell & Ross broke the mould in 2019 with the launch of its BR 01 SKULL, which dared to shake up traditional watchmaking codes. Recalling warrior archetypes from the Vikings of the first millennium to the paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st American Airborne Division of the Second World War, Bell & Ross a maker of military aviation inspired instruments, elected to pay tribute to these outstandingly martial men who have born the skull sparking a wider trend across the watchmaking industry.
Naturally, Bell & Ross has developed other variants of its famed Skull. While the skull is a literal personification of death (and in the case of the paratroopers, “Death from above”), the skull has other poetic and philosophical implications. It symbolises the fragility and brevity of life, particularly in works of art. Venetian painters of the 16th century elaborated moral allegories for their patrons, and memento mori was a common theme: translated “remember you must die” is a constant reminder of one’s own mortality despite the immense scientific advances made during the age of the Enlightenment, recalling the gruesome depictions in ancient paintings or in curiosity cabinets owned by humanists during that Age.
Día de los Muertos or the Mexican Day of the Dead is associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, held in November, mocking death by wearing the famous calaveras, artistic representations of skulls, typically rendered in bright colours in opposition to the usual association of black or charcoal funereal hues. This irony is similarly expressed by the BR 01 Cyber Skull in revealing a mischievous smile when its mouth is opened. It has a timelessness displayed in its faceted relief, conveying an ancient symbol in an ultra-contemporary style.
Reminiscent of José Guadalupe Posada’s satirical work with the laughing skull, the Bell & Ross BR 01 Cyber Skull revisits its famed motif with a design far from the vintage style that is usually associated with the Skull. When last we saw a skull watch, they were either matched with primal tattoos or carved in the style of the Jolly Roger, this time, the BR 01 Cyber Skull establishes itself in contemporary modernity. A watch with several faces (and facets), angular like an F117 Stealth Bomber which projects this watch artpiece firmly in the 20th century and the future.
The Bell & Ross BR 01 Cyber Skull is where watchmaking, design, symbolism and bold creativity meet. With its cut sides and sharp edges, the angular silhouette of the BR 01 Cyber Skull ably conveys Bell & Ross heritage for military aviation inspired timepieces. Modelled like the fuselage on an F117 fighter plane, the facets are meant to deflect radar waves rendering the stealth bomber invisible. While this concept is applicable to military jets and sophisticated military ships, in order to conceal their visual identity as much as possible, this technique renders the Cyber Skull watch highly noticeable instead.
Additionally, Bell & Ross has chosen to adorn its Cyber Skull with black matte ceramic. This anti-reflective colour is also used on some military vehicles. Its glazed superstructure is reminiscent of the canopy on a jet. More than just a colour, the new black matte used on the watch gets its depth from a ceramic used to match its design. Its lines, structured like those of a fighter plane, pass under the radar and establish a new design language which bellows in loud contrast to the over-done trends for luxury sports watches and classic watchmaking shapes that favour curves and roundness.
The architecture of the new BR 01 Cyber Skull establishes the brand’s creativity whilst respecting its military and aviation roots. Each element of the watch, the case middle, bezel, crown, skull, crossbones, is structured within the many faces that sculpt the surfaces, creating remarkable depth; metaphorically escaping the radar but attracting attention.
The BR 01 Cyber Skull is Whatever You Perceive it to be
In the same way an artist creates a subjective experience through works that are interpreted in their own way by each person that views them, the new BR 01 Cyber Skull reveals itself fully through the experience of those who wear it. Quite simply, it is akin to Hirst and Gregory’s own creations, treading similar yet divergent paths. Hirst puts eyes in his – so the skulls look back; you interact with them. Damien’s possess the ultraluxe flair of diamonds that one doesn’t quite get one’s eyes to really focus on its countenance.
The new Bell & Ross BR 01 Cyber Skull too reveals a fascinating approach to perceived reality: depending on how you look and which facet you start from – the objet d’art appears either futuristic origami thanks to its angular style evocative of an ancestral art of folding, or a pensive if puzzled face (given the raised “eyebrows”), or an awkward Iron Man (the mouth agape), or a genteel Jolly Roger, given the gentleness and subtlety of the crossbones which serve as bridges for the calibre.
A work of traditional watchmaking and yet possessing a visage of modernity, there is no doubt that the faceting of lines is a nod to the digital arts. When a digital image is still, you can see the pixels that it is made up of, a result of the grained, textured surface of the skull and crossbones which dominate your attention so completely.
As an innovative work of its time, the BR 01 Cyber Skull raises questions by capturing people’s eyes with a work of sublime animation: Trapped between two pieces of sapphire crystal, the screwed-down skull and crossbones possesses a jaw which seems to levitate, an automaton powered by the concealed BR-CAL 206 hand-wound movement, ingeniously disguised under the faceted decoration. To make it invisible to the eye, the main plate closely follows the shape of the skull, while the bridges extend up to the four corners of the case, hidden by the tibias. An architecture like this makes the skull appear to float weightlessly inside the case. An impression which is enhanced by the total transparency of the dial, highlighted solely by 12 baton-shaped indices. Only when the watch is turned over is the key to the mystery revealed through the sapphire crystal case-back. This phenomenon is further amplified by the middle of the faceted case with no lugs, also made from black matte ceramic.
The jaws continue to “snigger” when the spring is wound, one of two signs of “life”, the other being the balance spring obviously beating within the brain of the skull – as if to say, the consciousness of man resides in the head rather than the beating organ which keeps our life force flowing at the center of our chests.
The luxury sports watch aesthetics come courtesy of its natural purity of design: lugs carefully integrated into the mid case with the housing for the rubber strap cut out of the volume of the case, measuring 45 mm x 46.5 mm. Its luxurious swagger is further enhanced by the choice of ceramic in creating this post-modern Skull watch. A high-tech material that is solid yet lightweight, the ceramic acquires its legendary hardness, density and resistance in the appearance of black matte, a colour that cannot be achieved with traditional watchmaking materials. The facets of the new Bell & Ross BR 01 Cyber Skull are consequently achieved using diamond powder to cut the angular surfaces in the same way jewellers cut a precious stone – no mean feat.
Avant-garde and sculpted, the Bell & Ross BR 01 Cyber Skull reinvents the popular skull watch it pioneered. In this latest opus, Parisian aesthetic sensibilities and Swiss watchmaking prowess move art and watch lovers alike; an ultra-modern watch which invites one to ask the question: is there new life in a (watch) world that has constantly re-tread old ground? The new Cyber Skull appears to say a resounding, “Yes!”
BR 01 Cyber Skull Price & Specs
Movement Manual winding calibre BR-CAL.208, developed with Concepto, with 50 hours power reserve
Case 46mm matte black ceramic with 50 metres water resistance
Price EUR 9,900