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Two of the Most Legendary Dive Watches: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms vs. Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe
Founded in 1735 in Villeret, Switzerland, Blancpain is the oldest luxury watchmaker in the world, full stop. The 287-year-old manufacture, now headquartered in Le Brassus in the Swiss Vallée de Joux, has an uninterrupted history of producing horological complications but its most iconic timepiece in this modern era began its life as a tool watch for military divers in the (relatively) recent year of 1953. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, however, is not just any tool watch; it’s almost universally regarded as the first modern divers’ watch, establishing the template for all the others, and today it’s the foundation for a vast and versatile collection within the Blancpain portfolio — despite the fact that the watch almost didn’t make it out of the 1970s.
The quest to make a watch water-resistant enough for diving was already well underway when Jean-Jacques Fiechter, then-CEO of Blancpain, began working on the watch that would become the Fifty Fathoms. Rolex had developed the water-resistant Oyster case in 1926, which paved the way for watches such as Panerai’s Radiomir in 1936, which combined a waterproof case with a luminous dial for the underwater missions of the Italian navy divers who wore it; and Omega’s Seamaster in 1948, a gent’s watch that incorporated a double O-ring gasket for increased water-resistance, an innovation derived from military submarines. With the post-World War II advent of diving as a popular hobby rather than a military pursuit, however, a new type of watch was needed. The invention of the Aqualung, by legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and his colleague Emile Gagnan, in 1943, enabled divers, civilian as well as military, to stay underwater longer, but it also necessitated a means by which a diver could keep track of his remaining oxygen supply.
Fiechter, who headed Blancpain from 1950 to 1980, was an avid diving enthusiast who had long harbored the notion of developing a watch that would be ideal for his hobby. The inspiration to pursue the idea in earnest came from Captain Robert Maloubier, a French naval officer charged by France’s Ministry of Defense in 1952 to assemble a team of elite combat divers (nageurs de combat) and to equip them with the most reliable and mission-ready timepieces possible. Maloubier took the design specs for such a watch, to which he and several other Naval officers had contributed ideas, to Fiechter at Blancpain. It was not an easy sell in those days, in a market dominated mostly by dress watches and in which sports watches and tool watches had yet to emerge as a force; the first company Maloubier approached about producing the watch, France’s Lip Watch Company, had passed on it. But Fiechter leapt at the challenge, and the timepiece that emerged just one year later from the collaboration proved to be both historic and influential.
The watch’s 42mm steel case — exceptionally large for the time — was water-resistant to 91.45 meters, or 50 fathoms, the maximum depth recommended for scuba divers. Its dial was black and its numerals were luminescent for greater legibility underwater. It was the first purpose-built divers’ watch with a self-winding movement, the first with an antimagnetic case, and the first to employ the patented, double-sealed crown that Fiechter had developed. Most notably, the Fifty Fathoms was the first watch to include the now-ubiquitous, lockable bezel with dive-time scale that rotated in only one direction. This practical and potentially life-saving innovation prevented a diver from accidentally jarring the bezel in the wrong direction for an inaccurate reading of how much time he’d spent underwater and thus miscalculating how much oxygen he had left in the tank. The unidirectional diving bezel would be adopted by numerous watch manufacturers going forward, including Rolex, which released its famous Submariner just one year after the Fifty Fathoms, in 1954.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was adopted not only by the French navy divers who’d had a hand in its creation but by other military units across the world as well, including special forces teams from Spain, Germany, Norway, Israel, and even the U.S.A.’s Navy SEALs. In 1956, the watch entered the annals of pop culture history when Jacques Cousteau wore it in his award-winning undersea documentary, Le Monde du Silence, or “The Silent World.” The Fifty Fathoms found an avid following in the civilian world thanks to the growing popularity of scuba diving (largely attributed to Cousteau and to the 1960s TV series “Sea Hunt,’ in which star Lloyd Bridges also wore a Fifty Fathoms), and was as likely to be sold in dive equipment shops as in traditional jewelers. More than 20 different variations of the watch emerged on the market from its launch through the 1970s, including the version with “No-Rad” dial that lives on today in a limited edition, and the model that would inspire the modern-day Bathyscaphe sub-family, both of which we’ll explore below.
By the early 1980s, however, Blancpain had ceased production of the Fifty Fathoms (outside of a handful of military clients), as the ascendancy of lower-priced quartz and digital watches had relegated Blancpain and other traditional Swiss watchmaking firms into irrelevance at best and liquidation at worst. Watch industry turn-around artist Jean-Claude Biver teamed with watch industry veteran Jacques Piguet to acquire Blancpain in 1982, and turned the focus back on the company’s longstanding tradition of high watchmaking and away from producing “utilitarian” timepieces like the Fifty Fathoms. As the new millennium approached, it appeared the world’s first modern dive watch would never emerge from its watery grave.
RE-EMERGENCE & RENAISSANCE
In 1997, Piguet and Biver sold Blancpain to the consortium of companies now known as the Swatch Group, and the Fifty Fathoms briefly reappeared under the new ownership, one model (below) in the so-called Blancpain Trilogy, which comprised a GMT watch and a revival of a pilot’s chronograph called the Air Command as well as an updated Fifty Fathoms that boasted a more contemporary water resistance of 300 meters — substantially more than the eponymous 50 fathoms. The Trilogy, while perhaps ahead of its time (the Air Command would eventually also rejoin Blancpain’s lineup in 2019), did not make many waves and the watches exited the market in short order.
The Fifty Fathoms made its next splash (pun intended) in 2003, appropriately the model’s 50th anniversary year. The limited-edition piece (below) combined the vintage-look dial of the 1953 original with the 300-meter water resistance of the 1997 reboot and added a new element, a scratch-resistant, curved sapphire insert for the dive-scale bezel, an innovation that spoke to the advances in watchmaking materials and technology that were already being made within the Swatch Group and its brands. The 150 pieces of the anniversary edition quickly sold out, making it clear to Blancpain CEO Marc Hayek, who had spearheaded the revival, that the hunger for more Fifty Fathoms was out there in a watch market that was beginning to embrace the idea of a mechanical tool watch as a luxury.
Blancpain responded to the demand in 2008 with the launch of three Fifty Fathoms timepieces that constituted the foundation of what is today an entire collection. All of them had large 45mm cases (again, as was the demand at the time) and two had high complications that had never before appeared in a Fifty Fathoms watch. Closest in look and spirit to the original midcentury model was the three-handed Fifty Fathoms Automatique, still the flagship of the collection, the first Fifty Fathoms watch equipped with an in-house movement, the automatic Caliber 1315. The Fifty Fathoms Chronographe Flyback was notable for its clever design that enabled its built-in stopwatch function to be operated underwater without water penetrating the case, and the Fifty Fathoms Tourbillon, undoubtedly the iteration furthest from the military mission watch that Maloubier envisioned in the 1950s, featured a 234-piece flying tourbillon caliber and the first-ever sapphire exhibition caseback to appear on a Fifty Fathoms. The diversity of this “second trilogy” heralded the wide range of sizes, complications, case materials, straps, and other elements that we find throughout the Fifty Fathoms range today.
With the Fifty Fathoms established as a collection in its own right by 2013, the original model’s 60th anniversary, it was in that year that the next phase of its expansion would begin. The Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe — named for the undersea vehicle invented by Auguste Piccard, which was first launched in the same year the Fifty Fathoms debuted — took its design inspiration from models of the later 1950s, hosting the same distinctive handset, 4:30 date window, simple geometric hour markers, and luminous dot on the bezel for orientation, a detail requested by the original models’ military clients. At 43mm in diameter, and eventually also in an even smaller 38mm, the Bathyscaphe spoke both to the growing enthusiasm of watch connoisseurs for vintage styles, particularly vintage military looks, as well as the trend back toward smaller case diameters. Marking the Bathyscaphe as a 21st-century timepiece was its unidirectional bezel’s use of Liquidmetal, an amorphous metal alloy that bonds with the ceramic insert to enhance its scratch resistance; and its use of the modern Caliber 1315 (below), among whose technical attributes is an uncommonly long 120-hour power reserve.
Debuting in just two steel versions in 2013, one a 43mm men’s model with a charcoal gray dial, the other a 38mm ladies’ model with a white dial and white ceramic bezel, the Bathyscaphe has become, if anything, an even more versatile and varied range than the “classic” Fifty Fathoms series, with numerous small and large complications and an array of materials put to use in the cases, dials and bezels.
Still the model most directly descended from the first Fifty Fathoms of 1953, the core Automatique watches maintain the robust 45mm case dimensions established by the 2008 version and continue to house the Blancpain Caliber 1315, which is fitted with a magnetic-resistant silicon balance spring and holds a power reserve of five days, or 120 hours. In addition to the hours, minutes and central seconds, the movement also powers a date display, which appears discreetly at 4:30 on the dial. The rotating bezels are made of sapphire, in various colors to match each individual model’s dial. Case materials range from stainless steel to black PVD-coated steel to rose gold to (as of 2019) lightweight, corrosion-resistant titanium. The Automatique is usually mounted on either a strap made of sailcloth canvas or a metal bracelet.
Price: $15,700 - $35,800, Case Size: 45mm, Case Thickness: 15.5mm, Lug width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1315
If the relatively subtlety of the 4:30 date window on the Automatique is a little too quiet for you, you might opt for the Grande Date model, whose 45mm case is made of titanium and offered on three bracelet types: a sailcloth strap, a NATO fabric strap, and a titanium link bracelet. In addition to the hours, minutes and central seconds display, the watch’s dial features a large date display in a dual window at 6 o’clock. The movement offers the same five-day power reserve as the Automatique and a 4Hz balance frequency.
Price: $17,500 - $20,100, Case Size: 45mm, Case Thickness: 16.25mm, Lug width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 69188
One of the foundational trilogy of the Fifty Fathoms collection in 2008, the Chronographe Flyback contains the Blancpain manufacture Caliber F185, whose flyback chronograph functionality is driven by a classical column wheel and which stores a 40-hour power reserve. The variants available are two in steel cases, one with a black dial with matching black sapphire bezel, the other with a sunburst blue dial and blue sapphire bezel; and one in rose gold with a black dial and black sapphire bezel.
Price: $17,800 - $36,900, Case Size: 45 mm, Case Thickness: 15.5mm, Lug width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber F185
In 2009, Blancpain introduced the next generation of its history-making divers’ watch, a 48mm titanium titan that could withstand water pressures down to 1,000 meters — a bone-crushing depth that no one in 1953 could have conceived a watch would ever endure. In addition to the ratcheted rotating bezel, the case of the limited-edition 500 Fathoms (and its sibling, the 500 Fathoms GMT) has a helium-release valve that makes it ideal for compression diving. Its dial sports oversized luminous numerals and a red-tipped seconds hand for optimum legibility in the depths.
Price: $24,700, Case Size: 48mm, Case Thickness: 16.9mm, Lug width: 24mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 1,000 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1315
Blancpain’s other “extreme” dive watch, launched two years after the 500 Fathoms in 2011, is the X Fathoms, whose titanium case measures an even more hulking 55.6mm in diameter and 24mm thick and houses a sophisticated mechanical depth gauge that can measure depths down to 90 meters. Among its other technical innovations for serious divers are a mechanical memory that records the maximum depth reached by the wearer and a retrograde counter for decompression stops. The X Fathoms remains a very niche item within the Fifty Fathoms collection, albeit one whose technical accomplishments remain unmatched.
Price: $40,700, Case Size: 55.6mm, Case Thickness: 24mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 9918B
The pinnacle of high horology within the Fifty Fathoms collection, the Tourbillon 8 Jours takes the iconic dive watch far from its utilitarian origins to embody Blancpain’s historical savoir faire in mechanical complications. Its self-winding movement is equipped with a one-minute flying tourbillon, visible through an aperture in the dial (made of blue ceramic in the model shown here) and amasses an astonishing eight-day (“8 jours” en francais) power reserve. The watch comes in rose gold, white gold, and titanium cases; earlier versions have a power reserve indicator on the dial at 6 o’clock; the more recent versions released in 2021 eschew this display for a cleaner look.
Price: $116,600 - $139,200, Case Size: 45mm, Case Thickness: 14.8mm, Lug Width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 25C
A specific Fifty Fathoms model produced for the German Navy in 1960 (the so-called “BUND No-Rad”) provided the template for the popular No-Rad Limited Edition in 2021. The watch’s dial, like that of its predecessor, is notable for the colorful disk above 6 o’clock with red segments on a yellow background — a visual shorthand to assure the watch’s wearer that it was free of the potentially dangerous, radioactive luminous paint that had been used on earlier military watches. This period-appropriate detail, a clever call-out to the nuclear-averse Cold War era, joins other historical elements, including the white border on the date window and geometric hour markers. The No-Rad comes in at a relatively modest 40.3mm in diameter, an atypical size for a contemporary Fifty Fathoms model but one more in keeping with its vintage appeal.
Price: $14,100, Case Size: 40.3mm, Case Thickness: 13.45mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1151
As detailed above, the original three-handed Bathyscaphe forms the backbone of the vintage-inspired sub-family, with more than a dozen variations of color, strap, and case material. The Bathyscaphe models generally use ceramic, with Liquidmetal dive scales, rather than sapphire for their bezel inserts, and an assortment of dots and rectangles, rather than triangles and Arabic numerals, for their hour markers. Standouts in the collection include the model with a case made of the Swatch Group’s proprietary Sedna gold alloy and a blue sunburst dial; and the blue-dialed model with a case made of plasma gray ceramic, a high-tech material that made its debut on the 2014 Ocean Commitment Limited Edition, which was quickly sold out.
Price: $10,500 - $25,200, Case Size: 43.6mm, Case Thickness: 13mm, Lug Width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1315
The first 38mm Bathyscaphe, which debuted right alongside the 43mm model in the anniversary year of 2013, was clearly targeted at ladies with its all-white colorway, but subsequent models, like the 2017 model with a steel case and ocean-inspired “Abyss Blue” dial (above), are decidedly more unisex to reflect changing tastes among watch consumers. The automatic movement inside the smaller Bathyscaphe, is not Caliber 1315 but Caliber 1150, which offers a still-impressive 100-hour power reserve in its twin barrels.
Price: $9,500 - $11,900, Case Size: 38mm, Case Thickness: 10.8mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1150
The self-winding movement inside the Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback editions is one of Blancpain’s most impressive in-house calibers, boasting a high-frequency balance (36,600 vph, or 5 Hz), a four-day power reserve, and an integrated column-wheel chronograph with flyback function. The three recessed subdial counters and 4:30 date window are woven elegantly into the design of the vintage-look dials without making it look cluttered. Case materials are chiefly steel or ceramic, paired with a colorful range of dials and bezels and mounted on NATO, sailcloth, or metal bracelets.
Price: $14,800 - $20,100, Case Size: 43.6mm, Case Thickness: 15.25mm, Lug Width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber F385
The “quantième complet” or “complete calendar” is a specialty of Blancpain, usually found in more traditionally elegant models like those in the maison’s Villeret collection. Its sportier execution here, however, works very well, with a “meteor gray” dial sporting Blancpain’s distinctive calendar arrangement, with the day and month appearing in windows, the date indicated by a central pointer hand on a numbered scale, and the moon-phase with the hallmark grinning moon in a large aperture at 6 o’clock. In case you were wondering, this highly complicated piece is still a Fifty Fathoms, with its self-winding movement protected inside a 300-meter water resistant steel case.
Price: $14,800 - $17,400, Case Size: 43mm, Case Thickness: 13.3mm, Lug Width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 664.P.4
The first annual calendar within the Fifty Fathoms collection debuted in 2018 and, like the Complete Calendar model showcased above, features a layout emblematic of Blancpain in its Villeret models: day, date, and month stacked top to bottom in windows on the left side of the meteor gray dial, an unconventional but oddly intuitive arrangement of calendar elements. The movement is automatic Caliber 6054.P.4, based on the Caliber 1150 that powers the 38mm three-hand Bathyscaphe, with modifications for the annual calendar functions.
Price: $26,100 - $28,800, Case Size: 43mm, Case Thickness: 13.1mm, Lug Width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 6054.P.4
The Day-Date version of the Bathyscaphe takes its inspiration from a 1970s model intended as an everyday watch for businessmen. Its bold rectangular hour markers are paired with Arabic numerals and broken up only by the day and date windows at 3 o'clock. The sandy beige dial of this limited edition is a tribute to the desert sands of Death Valley, California, where underwater photographer Ernest H. Brooks II made a famous dive into the underwater chasm known as Devil’s Hole in 1962. Its 43-mm stainless steel case features a unidirectional bezel whose dive-scale insert is made of brown ceramic.
Price: $12,700, Case Size: 43mm, Case Thickness: 14.2mm, Lug Width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1135.DD
The first 43.6mm Bathyscaphe edition without a date display, the Mokarran edition, limited to 50 pieces, features a black ceramic case and a sunburst tropical green dial with matching green ceramic divers' bezel. The self-winding manufacture Caliber 1318 beating inside, behind an exhibition caseback, features a rotor engraved with the image of a hammerhead shark — a reminder that proceeds from the sale of this edition support the Mokarran Protection Society in its mission to preserve endangered sharks in French Polynesia — one of many environmental initiatives supported by Blancpain's Ocean Commitment project.
Price: $12,700, Case Size: 43.6mm, Case Thickness: 13.8mm, Lug Width: 23mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1318
In 2023, the 70th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms, Blancpain took its groundbreaking divers’ watch to the next level of “extreme” water resistance. The Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa, unveiled in February, emerged from a years-long collaboration between current Blancpain CEO Marc A. Hayek (like his 1950s predecessor, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, an avid scuba diving enthusiast) and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta, founder of the Gombessa project, an underwater research organization known for long-duration deep-sea diving expeditions. Accordingly, the Tech Gombessa edition is the first divers’ watch capable of measuring dives and (saturation dive exits) up to three hours in duration. Its bezel’s innovative three-hour scale (as opposed to the traditional 60-minute scale) is linked to a special hand that completes one full rotation around the dial in that same interval. This world-first, patented system is incorporated into the new Blancpain Caliber 13P8, a self-winding movement that offers a 120-hour power reserve and a high degree of antimagnetic protection. The 47mm case is made from Grade 23 titanium — the purest type of titanium available — and water-resistant to 300 meters, with a screwed crown and helium release valve, and cleverly designed central lugs that integrate into a sturdy black rubber strap. The light-absorbing “absolute black” dial, with luminous coated hands and markers in different bright-glowing colors, is protected under a spherical sapphire crystal that eliminates visual distortion; the movement’s anthracite-colored rotor is stamped with a Gombessa Expeditions logo. With the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa, Blancpain further strengthens its historical position among the watch industry’s foremost pioneers in dive-watch innovation — seven decades after essentially establishing the dive-watch category as we know it today.
Price: $28,000, Case Size: 47mm, Case Thickness: 14.81mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 13P8
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