The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
In the oversaturated arena of luxury dive watches, there is one name which will always spring to mind first. But while the Rolex Submariner might well be the most famous model of its type (it may well be the most famous watch of any type) it was not, contrary to what some believe, the origin of the dive watch species.
That honor belongs to a piece created by a once small, independent brand nestled in Switzerland’s Jura mountains—a lesser known atelier which is, nonetheless, officially the oldest watchmaker still in existence.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms beat the Sub to market only by a matter of months in 1953, but it laid down the blueprint for everything which followed. Designed in just two hours by a pair of French Navy divers, the model has formed the bedrock of Blancpain’s output ever since. Over the last 70-years or so the Fifty Fathoms range has grown and mutated, going from a single, extremely robust, strictly functional piece of vital safety equipment into one of the most varied and highly complicated tool watch collections offered by any manufacturer.
Below, we chart the history of possibly the most important sports watch of all time, and take a look at the current selection.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms: History
By the start of the 1950s, Scuba diving was entering its golden age. Military frogman kit which had been invented in haste during the Second World War was beginning to filter through to the general public, and in particular Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s revolutionary open circuit regulator, dubbed the Aqua-Lung.
But as the popularity of the sport exploded, the shortcomings of the existing equipment was being laid bare. Most notable by its absence was some form of reliable timing device. No watch of the era was designed to withstand the unique stresses placed on it by diving to great depth for any sort of extended period.
Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who had recently become the first CEO of Blancpain in 200-years not to be a direct member of the Blancpain family, was himself a passionate diver. He knew better than most the inherent dangers of the activity, having been forced to make a perilous rapid ascent to the surface on one of his excursions having lost track of time and run out of air. He had been toying with the idea of building a suitable dive watch, with the obvious resources he had to hand.
However, by sheer coincidence, the French Ministry of Defence were simultaneously in the process of setting up a brand new fighting unit, a covert underwater sabotage team known as the Nageuers de Combat, or Combat Swimmers.
It was headed up by Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier, a special forces frogman who had carried out numerous covert missions during WWII, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Claude Jean Riffaud. Along with being charged with the task of handpicking members of the fledgling squad, they were also responsible for choosing the equipment.
The Fifty Fathoms Takes Shape
Since diving was still very much in its infancy, most of the existing gear was unsuitable for the rigors promised by a life in the military, and so the two men had been forced to take matters into their own hands. They had already submitted designs for new style masks, as well as fins which allowed their divers to move quickly and, crucially, silently underwater.
Yet they were still in need of a way to accurately coordinate their maneuvers, and quickly discovered that nothing on the market fit the bill. So, with typical soldierly pragmatism, they sat down with a pencil, ruler and sheet of paper, made a list of everything they needed and styled a watch of their own.
Their requirements included a high contrast black dial with large, lume-filled hands and indexes for ease of reading in murky conditions, an automatic movement so the crown (the weakest spot in dive watches even today) would have to be used only rarely, a highly waterproof case and a rotating bezel with minute markings to measure elapsed time.
With the hard part done, it was then simply a matter of finding a watchmaker to build it for them. Unfortunately, that turned out to be easier said than done. The pair put their design out to tender amongst dozens of brands, and every one of them came back with a resounding no. It wasn’t until they knocked on Blancpain’s door and encountered Jean-Jacques Fiechter—and his love for diving—that their plans started to take shape.
It was Fiechter who came up with the idea of making the watch’s bezel unidirectional, as in only able to turn counterclockwise, as a defense against overestimating remaining air supply. He also developed both the multi-piece, screw down case back for optimum water resistance, as well as a new double O-ring arrangement for the winding crown. That last was necessitated by Rolex holding the patent for a screw-in crown, part of their Oyster system. But as an unintentional, albeit no doubt satisfying reprisal, Blancpain held the copyright for the unidirectional bezel right up until 1983. So every Rolex dive watch made before then has the less effective bidirectional surround.
An Immediate Triumph
Once constructed, the new watch was sent out for comprehensive testing in the field. Found successful on all fronts, the Fifty Fathoms became standard-issue throughout the entire French Navy.
As with all its equipment, the country’s MOD bought the watch through just one dealer; Spirotechnique, based on Paris’s left bank.
And for an example of another lucky fluke, this was also the retailer which sold Jacques Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung. The underwater pioneer was so enamored of the Fifty Fathoms that he wore one during filming of his Oscar and Palme d’Or-winning documentary, Le Monde de Silence, or, The Silent World.
The upshot of that invaluable piece of advertising was a ready civilian audience for the watch as well.
The Fifty Fathoms Today
The current Fifty Fathoms catalog is split into several very general collections, for a total of 84 watches.
Ranging in size from 38mm up to a whopping 55.65mm, and embracing everything from simple time-and-date pieces through to models with GMTs, built-in depth gauges, annual calendars or tourbillons (yep, on a dive watch!), there really is something for everyone.
However, they all share a number of similarities, such as having at least 300m of water resistance, a unidirectional bezel and every model is powered by an in-house movement.
Below we have selected some of the real standouts.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe
The Bathyscaphe series was introduced in 2013 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms’ debut.
While the first pieces to be launched were clearly inspired by the original’s military bearing; simple 43mm three-handers in all brushed steel with thin bezels and large crowns, the range has since been expanded until it is now the most well-stocked and varied in the collection.
More recently, a 38mm version of that same watch has been released, and outfitted in a variety of brightly colored NATO straps as a clear attempt to make it a unisex wear.
However, you can also take your pick from models incorporating a flyback chronograph, a moonphase or an annual calendar.
Along with 316L steel, Blancpain has also issued a handful of Bathyscaphes with complete ceramic cases, as well as in 18k red gold.
Dial choices are fairly limited, taking in meteor grey, white, green or blue, but each has a beautiful sunburst finish and an admirable sparsity of text to avoid distracting the eye.
The bezels, with their full 60-minute gradations as befits a proper dive watch, are all made from scratch resistant ceramic too, and use LiquidMetal (a zirconium-based alloy) for the markings. These come in dial-matching shades of black, white, blue or green.
Every example has a homegrown engine, with power reserves ranging from 50-hours on the chronograph’s Caliber F385, up to an impressive 100-hours on both the movements driving the time-and-date pieces; the Caliber 1150 in the 38mm and the Caliber 1315 in the 43mm.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique
Dripping with vintage vibes, the Automatique series of the Fifty Fathoms are a modern reinterpretation of that game-changing originator from 1953.
The majority of the range measure a noticeably large 45mm and can be had in either steel, red gold or lightweight titanium.
Bezels on each model are made from curved sapphire crystal, possibly the most conspicuous retro handover from the first reference. The numeral font and handset are both fairly close approximations as well, up to and including the diamond at the zero marker.
Released before the Bathyscaphe collection, the Automatique was unveiled when the fad for oversize watches was still in full swing. Lately however, Blancpain has introduced a number of 40mm limited edition versions too, now that that craze is well and truly behind us. Of those special examples, there have been two absolute standouts.
The first is the Tribute To Fifty Fathoms No Rad Limited Edition. Restricted to 500 pieces, these are an almost direct recreation of one of the earliest models of the FF, stemming from the ‘60s. At the time, Blancpain was still using highly radioactive Promethium 147 for the luminescence on the military-bound examples of the watch. The newly formed Navy SEALS took delivery of many, but even back then, the danger of the material was well known. As a result, the brand applied the universal symbol for radiation above the six o’clock index and engraved the case back with the legend, ‘DANGER. IF FOUND RETURN TO NEAREST MILITARY FACILITY’.
Those sold to the general public had the Promethium stripped out and the same symbol printed, except with a red cross through it. The Tribute To Fifty Fathoms No Rad is a faithful reimagining of those civilian watches.
The other special edition is the Barakuda. This is possibly the most sought-after variant of the legendary name. The originals were made for the Bundesmarine, as the German Navy was known at the time, and featured distinctive two-tone hour markers, with each one given a small red stripe at the base. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds a whole bag of character to the otherwise monochrome face.
Eventually the Barakuda was also sold to the public, but it is estimated only around 150 of them were made. That makes the modern version, limited to 500 pieces, seem quite plentiful by comparison.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 500 Fathoms
There are two variants of the lightweight yet gargantuan 500 Fathoms; a time-and-date model and a GMT.
Each measures 48mm and both are constructed from titanium.
In many ways these are scaled up Automatique models, with the familiar case shape and domed sapphire bezel. Even the movement, on the three-hander at least, is the same; the Caliber 1315.
There are differences however, and they are significant. The 500 Fathoms’, as you will have probably guessed (by both the name and the imposing presence), are dive watches dialed up to 11. Water resistance is increased to 1,000m, or 3,300ft, putting it in Rolex Sea-Dweller territory. In addition, like that model, the 500 Fathoms has been fitted with a helium escape valve at the 10 o’clock, for all those saturation divers keen to take a watch costing $28,000 at a minimum with them while they work in underwater habitats for weeks on end.
Other little details separate the 500 Fathoms from the rest of Blancpain’s output as well. The handset, for instance, has been simplified, swapping the Obelisque style of the Automatique for a more no-nonsense straight baton. And the dials have been given an interesting two-level effect, which is even more pronounced on the GMT. Numerals on both models are simply enormous, and swamped in lume.
In all, this is Blancpain at its boldest. These huge, commanding watches represent just the latest incarnation of the piece which kicked off the entire dive watch genre, and are a fitting statement for a brand with an unrivalled heritage.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.