The end of December saw the completion of a project that required me to be office based for the preceding 15 months; not only office based, but in a pretty formal environment in the heart of the City. Over that period, and for reasons that are self-explanatory, my collection slowly but surely moved in a far more dressy direction than it had ever been before and I realised a week or two ago that a little “horological husbandry” was going to be required. In fact, I had more watches than I wanted, and as a consequence I’ve reduced the number from twelve to nine; I’ll probably move one or two others on during the next month or two as well.
Anyway, I very recently traded my lovely Christian Van Der Klaauw, as it was unlikely to be worn very much in my more casual surroundings at home (and yes, I’m more than happy with the Grand Seiko that came the other way, as I can dress that up or down very easily). I also realised that my remaining divers were both vintage – a Sub and a Tuna – and that I had nothing modern in that style whatsoever. It’s not that I needed anything modern, obviously, but it seemed a bit daft as I’d really enjoyed the rather short ownership of a ceramic Sea Dweller. This feeling of needing some change was exacerbated by the fact that my GO Perpetual Calendar and JLC Master Calendar were so similar in terms of style and functions. Hmmm… what to do?
Well, I knew that my GO wasn’t going anywhere – I’ve had that for the best part of two years now, and although I don’t wear it that often I do still get a real buzz every time I put it on. With that in mind, I started to resign myself to the notion that I may have to let the Master Calendar go; not an easy decision because it’s such a beautiful watch, but needs must (and it’s not as if they’re scarce, or never available with a discount). At the same time, I’d just completed a trade with another TZ-UK member and – as we were already talking – thought I might as well broach the subject of another trade, one that might just work out very well for both of us. That’s just what I did, and consequently I’m drafting this post with a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms on my wrist as I type.
It’s two years in March since my friend Tim and I enjoyed a really wonderful trip to the Blancpain manufacture in Switzerland. Aside from the fact that the company was so incredibly hospitable (they paid for the entire party’s flights, hotel accommodation and restaurants) it was quite an experience. The factory visit itself was like stepping back in time, precisely as I’d been hoping it would be. We were also in the heart of the Swiss watchmaking industry (the Vallée de Joux is, along with Neuchâtel, the birthplace of Swiss horology and it is still the home of the most famous Swiss watch manufactures such as Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Blancpain themselves)… it almost smelt of watchmaking history and craftsmanship. That aside, we also found ourselves hiking about two miles up a mountain one night in absolute darkness, with snowshoes on our feet and lamps strapped to our heads, to enjoy a delicious fondue dinner when we reached our destination. I’ll always remember the sight of Tim, sitting in the snow as his legs decided that they couldn’t go any further, muttering “Just give me a minute…”. All in all, a trip I’ll never forget, and there are some photos which get reasonably close to capturing what Blancpain is all about that you can peruse here.
Since that trip, I’d been looking at various Blancpain models, and ironically missed snapping up a Leman Complete Calendar Moonphase at a stupidly cheap price only this week. I missed it by a nanosecond, but had I bought it the JLC would probably have gone as a result and I doubt I’d be writing this post. I wasn’t yearning after a Fifty Fathoms, but knew what wonderful watches they are from some earlier reading and having tried one or two in the past. I remember well admiring the stainless steel automatic version from a GTG a few years ago, and more recently fell in love with Tim’s own in rose gold, which hit TZ-UK’s sales corner not that long ago. In other words, I was predisposed towards them in any event, particularly as a consequence of what is a real heritage that gives the FF a genuinely iconic status in the world of horology.
To trace it back to it’s roots one has to travel back all the way to the early 1950’s – even before Rolex released the first iteration of the Submariner at 1954’s Basel Watch Fair. In 1952, the French “Nageuers de Combat” (combat swimmers) was formed by the French government as an elite team of tactical soldiers – effectively, they were France’s early equivalent of the Navy Seals. Led by Captain Bob Maloubier, the mission of this elite group of frogmen was undersea intelligence gathering and acts of sabotage, such as attacks in sea ports or destruction of ships, all accomplished by teams of divers often working at night.
Beyond their diving tanks, scuba regulators, masks, flippers and suits, Maloubier understood the importance of robust and reliable diving instruments, of which there were three: a compass, a depth metre and a diving watch. The watch was central to many of the key tasks confronting the divers. Of course the timing of the dive was an essential (it would not to do to over-stay the supply of oxygen). A second, and perhaps somewhat less obvious need was timing for navigation purposes. After running tests of the watches then available on the market, Maloubier concluded that none were up to the task. Thus, he decided to undertake the conception and design of a timing instrument that would target the needs of military combat diving.
Maloubier drew up detailed specifications for his diving watch and farmed them out for bidding. Unfortunately, the reception from industry was decidedly cool, with one of the commercial directors of the firm LIP even commenting that such a timepiece “would have no future”. Eventually, Maloubier convinced the relatively small manufacture of Blancpain to produce his watch, and it found it’s way to the French Navy via Spirotechnique, which, at the time, was the official supplier of all wears to the French armed forces. Maloubier describes his first meeting with Blancpain: “Finally a small watch company, Blancpain, agreed to develop our project which envisioned a watch with a black dial, bold large numerals and clear markings: triangles, circles, squares; a rotatable exterior bezel which repeated the markings of the dial. We wanted at the start of a dive to be able to set the bezel opposite the large minute hand in order to mark the time. We wanted each of the markings to shine like a star for a shepherd.”
Blancpain fulfilled these needs and provided the first model of this very specific divers watch in 1953, the Blancpain “Fifty Fathoms”. Even at that time, it carried all the typical features of the more familiar models; a black dial with contrasting, self-luminous numbers and indexes, a notched bezel (unidirectional only for safety reasons) also in black with luminous numbers and indexes. In an era of small and dress watches, the round case of the first edition measured 42mm, with long and relatively massive lugs. The watch was designed to be waterproof up to a depth of 50 fathoms, which of course led to it’s name; this British measure corresponds to a depth of 91.45 meters, which was, at that time, considered as the maximum depth that divers could safely reach with a one-time use oxygen mixture. This high water-resistance (by 1953 standards) was achieved by using a screwed caseback and a newly developed crown with a double O-ring gasket. A screwed crown was not permitted because of an existing patent. As the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms relied on an automatic and antimagnetic movement, the need of pulling out the crown was considerably reduced, with no need to wind the watch every day in any event.
Here is is…
And here’s one being worn by Maloubier himself…
From the early 50s through the 70s, more than 20 different models of the Fifty Fathoms were produced, including one that was on the wrist of Jacques Cousteau in the 1956 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning “The Silent World”. Beyond the French diving units the Fifty Fathoms was also adopted by the Israeli, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and most famously, American fighting forces. When the Americans were looking for a dive watch, there was a resolute “Buy American” policy for all units – so no watch with “Blancpain” on the dial would ever pass muster. So, an American company named Tornek-Rayville took the 50 Fathoms and rebranded it – they may or may not have replaced the Swiss jewels with American jewels for good measure. About 1000 Tornek-Rayville Fifty Fathoms were produced, and most were destroyed by the Navy at the end of the commission, so they are indeed very hard to find.
What a genuinely fantastic heritage. For a while it looked like it was in jeopardy, as Blancpain ceased production for three years in the early eighties. However, a man named Jean-Claude Biver purchased the brand which is now part of the Swatch Group, sharing it’s premises with sister company Frédéric Piguet. In 1997, Blancpain reintroduced the Fifty Fathoms and there have now been some fifty variations to date, many of which were never intended for consumer use. So, then, to the watch that I’m wearing; at 45mm it’s no wallflower, but with quite short, curved lugs (they’re almost stubby when viewed side-on) it’s very wearable for it’s size. In fact, the effect is not unlike that of the Tuna, which on paper seems massive but actually fits all but the smallest of wrists). The most striking feature, though, is the sapphire bezel, with it’s gentle curves and fully lumed numerals and markers. It looks luxurious, but it’s actually quite hardy and seemingly pretty difficult to mark.
The dial is stepped, and has a deep black gloss that befits the bezel and, again, oozes quality. The manufacture and model text is small and subtle, the eye being drawn instead to the bold mix of Arabic numerals and pointed indices on the dial. The side of the case bears the Blancpain name, and all of this is set off to perfection by the wonderfully pliable and comfortable sailcloth strap. All in all, it’s a wonderfully comfortable watch that looks like the ultimate diver… which, perhaps, it is.
Inside the wonderful case is the in-house 1315 Calibre. It has a bidirectional rotor that provides energy to 3 barrels and thus gives the watch 5 days of power reserve. It also features a free sprung balance wheel, less sensitive to vibrations and shocks. The Calibre 1315 comes with large rubies, inserted directly in the bridges and plates, as well as a classical finishing with bevelled angles on the bridges, perlage of the plates and circular stripes. In the tradition of the historic “Fifty Fathoms”, the Calibre 1315 is surrounded with antimagnetic protection. The spec in summary is as follows:
Self-winding automatic movement
120 hours power reserve
3 mainspring barrels
Glucydur free sprung balance with gold regulation screws
In addition, the movement features a date mechanism that has a fail-safe design, and which not allows setting at any time but also enables it to be both advanced and/or retarded.
All in all, then, a truly wonderful watch that, in terms of my initial perception, far exceeds my already high expectations. All I can add to the very long preamble is the customary set of photos, and an apology if I’ve bored you unduly!