The history of Fifty Fathoms is strictly linked to Jean-Jacques Fiechter a passionate diver who was Blancpain’s CEO for three decades, 1950-1980 as well as to Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, founders of the French Navy’s combat swimmers corps and who were searching for a reliable watch for their underwater missions.
In the 1950s, as head of Blancpain, Jean-Jacques Fiechter tasked his watchmaking team with addressing the challenges of measuring time in the underwater environment.
To improve water resistance, they conceived a double sealed crown system to protect the watch from water penetration in the event that the crown were accidently to be pulled during a dive. The presence of the second interior seal worked to guarantee the timepiece’s water tightness. A patent was registered for this invention.
A second patent was awarded for the sealing system for the caseback. This had indeed been a recurring problem with other pre-existing systems because of the way in which the “O” ring, used to seal the caseback, might become twisted when the back was screwed into the case. In order to eliminate this risk, Fiechter invented a channel into which the “O” ring would be inserted and held in position by an additional metallic disk.
He then addressed another problem: a secured rotating bezel that could be used to measure the time of a dive. Fiechter perfected a blocking mechanism which would prevent accidental rotation of the bezel. For this he received another patent.
Later, Blancpain introduced a uni-directional rotating bezel, a world-first feature which also ensured safety during a dive.
In 1953, Blancpain was able to deliver to the French team composed by Bob Maloubier and Claude Riffaud a watch for testing that fully met their strict criteria. The watch became one of the essential pieces of equipment for the French combat swimmers corps. Later, the same occurred for naval forces around the world. It was a unique timepiece: the Fifty Fathoms.
Jean-Jacques Fiechter continued with his quest for absolute diver safety and soon incorporated an additional feature for his watches: a circular water-tightness indicator. If, by chance, liquid were to leak into the watch case, a disk at 6 o’clock would signal the problem by changing its color from white to red.
This water-tightness indicator was present on the dial of the Fifty Fathoms model called the MIL-SPEC 1, which was introduced in 1957-58.
The new =&1=& features the entire set of technical characteristics of a watch dedicated to diving, established by the original 1953 Fifty Fathoms and later followed by the entire watch industry.
Its black dial features indexes in Super-LuminNova and the distinctive water-tightness indicator. The unidirectional rotating bezel covered in scratch-resistant sapphire, a Blancpain innovation which first appeared in 2003 with the 50th Anniversary Fifty Fathoms, protects the luminescent indications underneath.
The new model is fitted with Blancpain’s in-house automatic winding caliber 1151, comprising 210 components including two series-coupled mainspring barrels and offering a four-day power reserve. Nestled into its stainless steel 40 mm case, the movement as well as its solid gold winding rotor with a NAC coating (a platinum alloy) and Blancpain logo, are visible through the clear sapphire case back. The balance-spring is in silicon, a material that offers many advantages. Firstly, its low density makes it lighter and thus more shock-resistant. In addition, it is highly resistant to magnetic fields. The resulting balance spring is ideally shaped, thereby ensuring improved isochronism performance of the movement, resulting in enhanced timekeeping precision.
This timepiece is water resistant to 30 bar, which is equivalent to 300 meters. It is limited to 500 examples and is offered with a NATO strap, sail cloth strap, or steel bracelet with a secure buckle.
The original Fifty Fathoms wristwatch was one of those watches that helped to define the original, mid-20th century idiom of the modern dive watch: stainless steel case, timing bezel, simplicity in design with every other consideration subordinated to practicality (which is what you generally should do when you make something someone’s life might depend on). It’s common nowadays to say that the mechanical diver’s watch is obsolete, and unlike many commonly held views this one is actually partly true; the primary wrist instrument for marine exploration is the digital dive computer. However, depending on which diver you ask, an analog dive watch is a great backup, with mechanical movements often preferred for their non-reliance on a battery.
Blancpain are definitely on Santa’s nice list this year, for their serious efforts in ocean preservation. And by bringing a variant of an instant, but limited classic, into general production they’ll no doubt work their way back from naughty to nice in their fans’ eyes too. Last year they, and we, spent a lot of time talking about, and looking at hi-res pictures of, the Ocean Commitment Bathyscaphe Flyback Chronograph. There was something about the combination of gunmetal grey ceramic case and blue sunburst dial that just had us hooked.
Though I’d be comfortable betting heavily that the majority of diver’s watches will never dive, the non-divers who buy them do so for a reason, or reasons – among these, that they want something that has all the technical properties of a real diver’s watch, including toughness, reliability, accuracy, and of course, a no-frills style that says, I’m such a man’s man I can’t be bothered with style. Therefore, whatever else a diver’s watch has or does, we expect it to conform to what, to dive watch enthusiasts, is Holy Writ: that series of specifications known as ISO 6425, and its commandments. There being many ways to skin a cat, however, manufacturers nowadays often start with the ISO and end up in an almost infinite number of different destinations. The Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Plasma Grey Ceramic is a Fifty Fathoms in name, but it’s a thoroughly modern dive watch in materials, design and execution. What I was curious about was whether, being a Fifty Fathoms in name, it was, if not in physical details, a Fifty Fathoms in spirit as well.
These days it’s not unique for a watch brand to have a corporate social responsibility program, usually tied in with a limited edition product. Few, however, do it with the level of integrity and (dare we say it) commitment as Blancpain’s work in marine conservation and research programs. Though the Ocean Commitment program itself is comparatively young, Blancpain has donated a total of roughly seven million Euro over the past seven years. But beyond this, the Bathyscaphe Flyback Chronograph Ocean Commitment II wears its marine allegiances on its sleeve, so to speak, thanks to a unique case.
The most arresting feature of this watch is the case. On last year’s version, we swore black and (appropriately enough) blue that the case was metal rather than brushed ceramic. This year, the hi-tech nature of the material has been made abundantly clear. For the first time, Blancpain has produced an entirely blue ceramic case, made possible thanks to the addition of pigment and a binding agent into the powdered ceramic during production – a technique that makes achieving an even tone throughout quite a challenge. As if that weren’t enough, entirely different processes were used for the other case elements – the case middle, back, bezel and chapter ring insert use a compacting method, and smaller pieces like the crowns and pushers are produced using an injection method. The resulting case isn’t just super-tough, it’s also super cool. In our photography, this blueness stands out, but in natural daylight and on the wrist it’s a little more subdued and un-Smurf-like, even against the contrasting gunmetal-grey bezel.
The first iteration of this watch dazzled us with its blue sunburst dial. This time around, the radiant sunburst is still present, but now it’s slate grey. It lacks the eye-catching pop of its predecessor, but I’m OK with that, as this is a watch where the case is the lead, and all the other elements are in supporting roles. That’s not to say the quality isn’t superb; the finish is rich and endlessly intriguing, and the details – the blocky bathyscaphe hands and the lollipop seconds at six – are all on point. I could have done without the date, but Blancpain has done a really good job of making it blend into the crowd.
Powering the whole thing is an in-house movement, a high-beat vertical column wheel chrono that goes by the name of F385. Finishing is nice, but the real standout is the white gold rotor, with attractive Ocean Commitment branding in blue.
Given that the BOC II is, for all its good looks, a legitimate dive watch rated to 300m, alligator and other leathers wouldn’t have looked the part – with the possible exception of stingray – and rubber would perhaps have been too flat. So the choice of a slightly padded blue sailcloth is perfect. Hardwearing and nautical, it also adds texture to the ensemble.
The ceramic dial is a gorgeous, deep blue that references the very depths of the ocean. The hour markers are LiquidmetalÂ, and the thick, illuminated hands ensure legibility in the deepest of dives, especially with the lume on the unidirectional rotating bezel. You will find a date window between 4 and 5 o’clock and the sapphire crystal case back allows a view of the movement. Blancpain first used a grey plasma ceramic case with the Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback Ocean Commitment in 2014, and here it is again in stunning form. The production of this case adds a metallic sheen to the color palette and produces an elegant yet utilitarian experience.
As any dive watch worth its salt should be, this Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe is meant to be taken underwater and is rated for 300m of water resistance. Behind the dial, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe is powered by Blancpain’s powerful in-house 1315 movement. The 1315 contains a three-series mainspring that offers a remarkable five-day power reserve (roughly 120 hours). This 35-jeweled automatic movement is renowned for its robustness and durability, and it is incredibly convenient to have an automatic that you can forget about and pick up a few days later without having to always use a winder. The silicon balance-spring allows a decrease in density and enhanced shock-absorption while affording increased magnetic resistance. For additional precision, the movement is also outfitted with a glucydur balance wheel with gold micrometric screws ensuring a smooth operation.
This Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe is a welcome addition to the Fifty Fathoms collection. Blancpain has managed to create a real beauty here, that is topped off with the exquisite grey plasma ceramic case. The dial is lovely on its own, but the metallic complexion of the case really pairs wonderfully with the blue accents. Price on the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe is $12,800. blancpain.com