The Beckertime Comparison Series: The Rolex Submariner Vs. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Rolex’s omnipresent Submariner, an abiding and legendary piece of horological history, is undoubtedly one of the most famous sports watches ever created.
Its simple, minimalist design remains the blueprint against which all others are judged, and it has been that way since the very beginning of the Scuba diving phenomenon.
Well, close to the beginning anyway.
If you read up enough about the venerable Sub, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the world’s first modern dive watch. Nonetheless, it was actually beaten to the punch, by mere months at the start of the 1950s, by another, less well known yet equally important name in watchmaking’s chronicle; the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.
This was the creation which, in a series of hastily scribbled sketches, set down all the requirements a true, effective dive watch must have—more than 60-years ago.
Today, the Submariner is still the number one choice for anyone looking for the ultimate luxury tool model. But the Fifty Fathoms makes an intriguing alternative, just about the only timepiece which can claim to have more heritage, however close the race was.
Below we take a look at these two fascinating watches.
A Little Backstory
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
There is always spirited debate when it comes to firsts in watchmaking. Who debuted what innovation and when is an evergreen topic on many forums and dedicated social media pages, and often the subject in question is from so long ago that the answer has been lost to the mists of time.
Who made the first dive watch is one such ageless dispute, and you will find people championing a wide range various models from bygone eras.
Some will even suggest Rolex’s original Oyster from 1927, due to its then-unprecedented water resistance. Others point to the Omega Marine from 1932 or the earliest models Panerai made for the Italian Navy a couple of years later.
Yet, while those all certainly had a deal more waterproofing than the standard watches of the day, there were a number of features not present on any of them which are now considered essential.
For those, we can thank two men—Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier, a French special forces frogman, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Claude Jean Riffaud.
In 1952, they were tasked with setting up the fledgling unit known as the Nageuers de Combat, or combat swimmers, by the French Ministry of Defense.
Covert underwater sabotage missions had proved extremely effective during WWII, and a division of highly trained commando divers was considered a postwar necessity.
As well as hand picking members of the new squadron, Maloubier and Riffaud were also expected to select their gear. But with diving very much still in its infancy, the available kit was limited and much of it had to be invented by the men themselves.
That, of course, included a timing device. With nothing suitable in existence that could cope with the demands of the military, the pair sat down with a piece of paper, a pen and a ruler and within two hours had laid down the requirements for a watch that would serve.
Among them was a high contrast black dial with white hands and indexes, an automatic movement so the crown would have to be used only rarely, a rotating bezel to track immersion times and, naturally, a robust waterproof case.
The list was an extensive one, and daunting to watchmakers of the era. Maloubier was turned down by scores of manufacturers when he put the design out to tender, and only hit on a success when he approached Jean-Jacques Fiechter, the CEO of a small, Swiss company called Blancpain.
Himself an avid diver, it was Fiechter who came up with the idea of making the bezel unidirectional, so it would only overestimate remaining air supplies if it was knocked, which became an important safety feature. He also gave the watch a screw down back for superior water resistance and developed a double O-ring system for the winding crown (with the patent for the screw-in crown held by Rolex with the Oyster case).
The resulting model was christened the Fifty Fathoms, after a British unit of length equal to six feet used to measure water depth. Fifty fathoms, or 300 feet, was considered the maximum a diver could reach at the time.
Thorough testing by the Nageuers de Combat followed, with the watch declared a success and going on to become government issue, not only to the French Navy, but to the German, Israeli and Spanish too.
Today, the Fifty Fathoms is available in a wide variety of styles, from faithful recreations of that original catalyst to some contemporary examples of haute horlogerie, complete with flyback chronographs, moonphases and annual calendars.
By contrast, the Submariner’s immeasurable contribution to the dive watch genre hasn’t changed in any significant way (outwardly at least) since the start of the 1960s.
Dreamt up by Rolex board member and passionate diver, René-Paul Jeanneret, the Sub, like the Blancpain, was also first built in 1953. But wouldn’t make its official debut until the 1954 Basel Fair.
When it did emerge however, it was a sensation. The ref. 6204 is generally agreed to be the original Sub reference and it entered the fray boasting a record—the first watch to be waterproof to 100m. (For the record, fifty fathoms works out to be 91.44m!)
The same year, two further versions arrived; the ref. 6205, which was basically identical save for including the Mercedes-style hands we now associate with the watch, as opposed to the ref. 6204’s pencil hands, and the ref. 6200, which had a thicker case and larger, 8mm crown. This was the first of the so-called Big Crown Subs, and was rated down to an unheard of 200m.
In all, the models shared many of the elements of the Fifty Fathoms. The jet black dial and prominent detailing, the Perpetual movement and the turnable surround. Interestingly though, because Blancpain held the copyright for the unidirectional bezel, Rolex had to use one which rotated in both directions, and would have to continue to do so right up until 1983.
Even so, the Sub had arrived and was an instant success. It would go through nearly a dozen versions in its maiden decade, making periodic upgrades here and there. Then in 1959, the ref. 5512 was released, the first reference to sport crown guards. From then on, the core architecture was set in stone and the only major disruption came in 1967 when the watch gained a date feature. It turned out to be a more controversial move than Rolex were perhaps expecting, with purists arguing that it ruined the symmetry of the dial as well as being skeptical about the usefulness of a date function on a dive watch in the first place.
The upshot was the range splitting in two, and there have been both date and non-date Submariners ever since.
But, underlining their transformation from ultimate underwater companion to status symbol, the date-equipped watches would go on to be crafted in precious metals—yellow or white gold as well as the brand’s own half-and-half Rolesor combination. The non-date models stayed resolutely in steel only.
More recently, new colorways have been added to the Sub’s modest collection. Blue dial and bezel examples have been a staple for a while and, more recently, green has become a very popular option. Starting with the 50th anniversary piece in 2003 (its emerald bezel seeing it nicknamed the Kermit by collectors) it made way in 2010 for the Hulk, a beefier, more eye-catching model which included a green dial as well.
Unlike the Fifty Fathoms though, but very in-keeping with the Rolex philosophy, the Submariner has stayed a Submariner—there are no extra complications, it is as it has always been, simply a time-and-sometimes-date stalwart and among the most important watches of all time.
Side by Side
Comparing modern iterations of these two isn’t that easy. As mentioned, the Fifty Fathoms lineup consists of nearly 80 variations, with pieces crafted from steel, titanium, ceramic and red or white gold. With the Sub, there are exactly eight models in the catalog, in steel, white or yellow gold, or yellow Rolesor.
On top of that, there are a range of impressive complications with Blancpain’s piece, something Rolex has never really gone in for.
To keep things on an equivalent basis, it seems only reasonable to compare like-for-like as much as possible, which leaves us with the Submariner ref. 116610LN (the black dial and bezel, date version in steel) and the Fifty Fathoms Automatique ref. 5015 1130 52S.
The way a watch appears on the wrist is, of course, very important. The good news here is that both of our models are seriously handsome.
However, while they have design cues in common, there are plenty of differences between the two that leave them with distinctive aesthetics.
Firstly, size. The Sub, like with every generation since the 1960s, remains at 40mm. There have been rumblings in recent times that that is simply too small for a serious sports watch, and Rolex went some way to placating the naysayers in 2008 when they rolled out their Supercase to the Submariner range. This, although still 40mm on paper, had lugs and crown guards almost twice the thickness of previous pieces, giving the model a more squat, muscular form.
The new shape isn’t universally loved (because you just can’t please everyone) but there’s no doubt it has plenty of extra wrist presence over older references.
With the Fifty Fathoms, it measures a significantly larger 45mm diameter, as well as gaining around 2.5mm in thickness over the Sub at 15.5mm, so it is going to get noticed anyway. But all those additional mills will likely leave it struggling to slip under many shirt sleeves, something which has been the Rolex’s party piece since Bond showed us how it’s done in Dr. No.
As for materials, both are steel models, except the Submariner is forged in the brand’s proprietary Oystersteel, part of the 904L family which is pretty much the sole preserve of Rolex at the moment. It offers far more resistance to corrosion than the 316L just about every other manufacture uses. It also has a unique luster when polished, which is noticeable on many of Rolex’s other watches but not here, as every surface is brushed, as they should be on a sports watch.
Not so with the Blancpain. The case and bracelet have been given a high shine, leaving it looking more a dress model than a tool. Overall, it has a somewhat higher-end, refined air compared to the Sub.
One thing both have in common is a rather special bezel. On the Sub, it is formed from Cerachrom, the company’s patented ceramic material. It is touted as being nigh-on unbreakable as well as scratch and fade proof. The numerals and hash marks up to the first 15 minutes are engraved into the surface and coated in a film of platinum via PVD, or physical vapor deposition.
The Fifty Fathoms has a striking domed sapphire bezel, something you won’t see on any other diver. It is a beautiful component, which somehow manages to look both modern and retro at the same time. It bears a resemblance in some lights to the Bakelite surrounds on some classic vintage watches from the 50s. Here, the numerals are produced in SuperLumiNova, and stand out from the surface.
Readability on each is excellent, with high contrast white on black indexes and handset. The Blancpain could be argued to have the better balance, tucking its date window away at the 4.30 position and not including a magnifying window. With the Sub, it is in its traditional spot at the three o’clock and covered with the Cyclops lens.
Both are also generous with the lume, making for clear reading in poor light. The Fifty Fathoms glows green whereas the Rolex’s Chromalight is blue, reportedly easier on the eye.
All told, this is a pair of genuinely good-looking watches, with personal taste likely to be the deciding factor.
Movement & Performance
If there is one thing the Submariner has earned by now, it is a new movement. Today, as it has been for more than 30-years, it is powered by the Cal. 3135.
Launched in 1988, the Cal. 3135 is something of a modern day legend, having served in more of Rolex’s watches than any other and setting the standard for reliability and accuracy in mass produced calibers.
Even so, the industry has moved on and the next generation Cal. 3235 is sitting in the wings, waiting to drive the Sub as it does the Sea-Dweller and Deepsea. Rumors were it would be happening this year, but Covid-19 has put the brakes on any announcements for the time being.
Inside the Fifty Fathoms is a far more up-to-date engine, the Caliber 1315 stemming from 2007. Like the Cal. 3135, it is a base movement, one onto which various other modules can be added to go into more complicated watches, instead of the relatively simple time-and-date life it has in the Automatique.
It too is often described as a workhorse, large and tough and therefore ideal for a sports model. But it has several advantages over the Rolex.
Firstly, there are three barrels, giving an impressive 120-hour power reserve against the Sub’s 48. It is also covered by a soft iron cage to protect the movement from magnetic fields—its balance spring is silicon for the same reason. And the winding rotor pivots on a ceramic ring so doesn’t require lubrication.
Inside the Cal. 3135, Rolex’s Parachrom Bleu hairspring is equally antimagnetic and there is no getting away from the fact that it is a superb piece of engineering. But it is more than overdue an upgrade, and it should be happening any day now.
Rolex has been trading on notions of exclusivity ever since the darkest days of the quartz crisis. Instead of simply making excellent watches, they switched tack and set themselves up as the ultimate in aspirational luxury.
Hand-in-hand with that went an increase in the use of precious metals, particularly in their Professional Collection and, a more recent development, a tendency to restrict supply of their most popular models, i.e. the steel sports watches, to increase demand.
However, even with the current difficulty in getting your hands on a ref. 116610LV Sub at an authorized dealer these days, you are far more likely to see one in the wild than you are the Fifty Fathoms.
In terms of overall popularity, it is something of a no-contest. The Submariner is just about the most well-known watch there is, of any description, from the most recognizable brand in history, and even those with no interest in horology at all could likely tell you its name.
By comparison, it is really only people with a passion for watchmaking who will have even heard of a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, let alone be able to identify one on the wrist.
All that, of course, will either appeal or not depending on how understated you like to be. But it is worth bearing in mind the one big problem the Sub has due to its popularity. It is, by far, the most counterfeited watch in the industry, with some experts estimating there are more fakes in circulation than the real thing. Many want one, and that is routinely taken advantage of by the unscrupulous and the increasingly sophisticated copies doing the rounds. If you are buying your Submariner on the preowned market, thorough research of the seller is imperative.
Technically, the price issue between these two is another easy win for the Rolex.
Retail for a ref. 116610LV is currently around $9,250. The Blancpain comes in at the best part of $18,000.
Except it isn’t as clear cut as that. As we covered, because of the difficulty in obtaining a Sub through an official dealer, buying on the secondary market has gotten much more expensive.
While it’s not as bad as with some other watches in the brand’s lineup, such as the GMT-Master II or Daytona, buying a new Submariner from other channels will require around $12,000 at a minimum.
In sharp contrast to that, you will likely be able to find the Blancpain way below retail as a preowned purchase, and probably only marginally dearer than the Sub.
It makes it all a far more even playing field than you might imagine, and means choosing between the two can be done on other factors rather than budget.
So we have two models with heaps of history, both highly capable and beautifully stylish.
One is so illustrious it is the first name that springs to everyone’s mind when talking about luxury dive watches, the other is the connoisseur’s choice; one that is going to get appreciative nods only from those in the know.
Regardless of which you go for though, you can be safe in the knowledge you are getting just about the best of their type currently being made.
Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.