In our series of articles made with our friends of Watchtime, we love to revisit icons and to go deep into the history of certain watches. We’ve already showed you how Panerai became a real manufacture, how watchmaking came to Glashütte and recount the history of the Rolex Submariner. Today, we’re revisiting another diving icon, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.
They are the superheroes of the seas: frogmen, tough guys who perform special missions in deep waters. But in order to achieve such operations, they need help from several tools. Over 50 years ago, Blancpain developed the “Fifty Fathoms” especially for combat swimmers. It is now an all-time classic with a considerable appeal.
Diving to great depths, moving silently through cold and salty waters and swimming furtively on coasts or to foreign vessels: these are the missions made by combat swimmers from many special forces around the world. Their responsibilities include nowadays, among others, the protection of ships and marine equipment as well as rescue and recovery operations. Previously, they were called Frogman or Sea fighters.
The French frogmen unit is one of the oldest and most famous in the world. This unit, created by the Ministry of Defence in 1952 and by Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude aspirant Riffaud, includes men who are particularly skillful, persistent, assertive and trained. And their equipment is in no way inferior: these divers need a hard wearing and of course a durable timepiece that will not fail, even in the deepest waters.
It was with such precise and intransigent requirements that Maloubier and Riffaud sought for a watch manufacture able to develop a corresponding timer. Many demands, no responses!
Finally, they get in contact with Blancpain, and finally, the two Frenchmen had the right answer with Jean-Jacques Fiechter. Not only he was the CEO of Blancpain (from 1950-1980) but also an avid diver that accepted the challenge. Captain Maloubier later recalled: “After all, we agreed with a small watch factory, Blancpain, to develop our project: a watch with a black dial, large, bold numerals and clear markings, as well as an outer rotating bezel. We wanted to be able to align this bezel with the large minute hand, in order to easily know our remaining oxygen time. And we wanted all those markers to clearly glow in the dark.”
Blancpain fulfilled these needs and provided the first model of a dive watch in 1953, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. Even at that time, it carried all the typical features of the actual “Fifty Fathoms” collection: 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 42 millimeters with long and massive lugs. The watch was designed to be waterproof up to a depth of 50 fathoms – what led the brand to call it the “Fifty Fathoms”. This British measure corresponds to a depth of 91.45 meters, which is, at that time, considered as the maximum depth that divers can safely reach with a one-time use oxygen mixture. This high water-resistance (to 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 – no need to wind the watch everyday.
The “Fifty Fathoms” proved to be reliable and robust, and several other naval forces equipped their divers with the Blancpain model, including the Israeli, Spanish, German and American special forces. Even Jacques Cousteau and director Louis Malle used the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms during the shooting of “Le Monde du Silence” (The World of Silence), the 1957 award-winning underwater movie.
Civilian divers also used the Blancpain as part of their equipment. The Fifty Fathoms was considered more as a tool than a proper timepiece and thus was sold in diving shops instead of classical jewelers or watch shops. One of these suppliers, “Aqualung”, was so important in the history of this watch that Blancpain decided to pay them a tribute with a special edition, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Aqualung.
Over the years, the design of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was changed, bringing several case shapes (such as a cushion-shaped edition) and dial designs, until the mid-1970s. During this era (precisely in 1975) the West German Bundeswehr Kampfschwimmers (German Navy Combat divers) asked Blancpain to create a special edition of the ‘Fifty Fathoms’, the Blancpain 3H Fifty Fathoms (3H refers to the inscription on the dial, that can be found on every Bund issued watches with tritium indexes and hands). Helped by a screwdown crown, screw caseback, heavy stainless steel case, and thick mineral glass crystal, the watch is water resistant to 200 meters. A strange difference with the other Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is the lack of numerals on the bezel (a useless feature for German military divers). This is rare bird and a very unique watch into the FF collection.
After a pause in the production, due to the quartz crisis, Blancpain introduced in 1999 a new edition of the Fifty Fathoms. It featured a metallic bezel with numerals in reliefs, one of the main differences with the historical edition. In 2007, Blancpain opted for a new design, closer to the vintage Fifty Fathoms, when introducing the new (and actual) collection. The classical edition is now water-resistant up to 300m and features a black rotating bezel with luminescent numeral. This bezel may present a design close to the original Fifty Fathoms but it is now made of a domed sapphire crystal.
As the first edition, the actual Blancpain Fifty Fathoms includes an automatic movement, the in-house 1315 Calibre. It may be featured in a robust sports watch, but it is nevertheless a refined movement with a very nice finish. 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.
In addition to the automatic edition, Blancpain added complications to the “Fifty Fathoms” collection: a flyback chronograph and a tourbillon. Even for these editions, the design is dictated by a tool watch needs: black dial with contrasting luminous numbers, oversized hands and a black rotating bezel for an optimal readability. The “Fifty Fathoms” are equipped with a robust and water-resistant canvas strap coated with rubber. The pushers of the flyback chronograph are equipped with a special system that allows to operate them even at 300 meters depth. The flyback function allows to instantly start a new measurement when you press the pusher at four o’clock.
In 2012, Blancpain introduced a un-compromised and extrem edition of the Fifty Fathoms, the X-Fathoms. It features a 55mm case made of titanium and water resistant up to 300m. Nothing different from the classical edition except that it features a extremely precise depth gauge (in fact 2 depth gauge) that measures depths up to 90 meters and a separate indication on the 0-15m scale with an exceptional +/- 30 cm precision and a retrograde 5-minute counter for decompression stops.
In 2013, Blancpain came at Baselworld with a brand new addition to the collection: the Bathyscaphe, a pure and vintage inspired edition of their dive watch, with a simple and highly legible dial / bezel combination. In 2014, it has been presented in a flyback chronograph version, including Blancpain’s new high-beat in-house movement, that we reviewed for you.
The Fifty Fathoms is certainly one of the most important dive watch ever made, alongside the Rolex Submariner, also presented in 1953. With the “Sub”, it had set the rules and specifications of all the modern dive watches: high legibility, rotating bezel with 60min scale and dark dial with large luminescent numerals. A real collectors piece that has to be part of your own collection of dive watches.
The original story, in German, was published on watchtime.net and used here with authorization.