Fruit of the passion of a watch and diving lover, Fifty Fathoms defined the qualities inherent in a mechanical dive watch. Today, more than 60 years later, Blancpain continues to honor this icon from the depths, much desired by collectors and proportionally very difficult to get.
Created in 1953, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was a successful phenomenon, quickly reaching the status of an icon and setting the standards that, even today, define the qualities of mechanical diving watches.
As with all successes, this model was born out of passion. Confessed lover of diving, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, CEO of Blancpain between 1950 and 1980, did not hesitate when the French Navy contacted him with the aim of building a safe, robust and reliable dive watch. And so Fifty Fathoms was born. But let’s dive a little deeper into the history of this mythical model.
Although today the popularity of diving watches extends far beyond the depths of the sea, the roots of these time pieces were born from military applications. Following World War II, and at the initiative of Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, the French army created Combat Divers. It was an elite group whose mission, often at night, was to collect underwater information and sabotage acts, such as attacks on ports or the destruction of ships.
In addition to the usual diving tanks, regulators, masks, fins and suits, Maloubier and Riffaud realized the importance of other robust and reliable diving instruments, such as a compass, a depth gauge and a diving watch. The latter, above all, proved to be crucial for many of the tasks that divers were faced with, from the timing of the dive to timing for navigation purposes.
After testing the watches available on the market, the French came to the conclusion that none met the requirements and Maloubier himself drafted the detailed specifications for the ideal time piece, then looking for whoever produced it. With the watch industry of the time more focused on aviation watches, it was Fiechter who opened the doors of Blancpain and welcomed the request for the development of a model for the Combat Divers School, led by Maloubier and Riffaud.
The birth of a myth
To the specifications required by Maloubier – which included a black dial, large, robust numerals, luminescent indices in the shape of triangles, circles or squares, a rotating outer bezel that repeated the indices of the dial – Fiechter, an experienced diver, added others. This was the case with the unidirectional rotating bezel, the screwed case bottom to ensure tightness, the double “O-ring” crown protection system, protection against magnetic fields and automatic winding in order to minimize the number of uses of the screwed crown .
As a final touch, Blancpain added a humidity indicator. It was a small circle on the dial, blue if the air inside the case was dry and that would change to pink if the water had penetrated the watch.
Baptized Fifty Fathoms in honor of the British measure of 50 fathoms (about 91 meters), which at the time was considered the maximum depth that a diver could reach, the Blancpain dive watch quickly proved its reliability, becoming a phenomenon of success among the military elites, to whom he supplied watches, whose dial showed the inscription “MILSPEC 1”.
One of the military forces that adopted the Fifty Fathoms was the American Navy. During the late 1950s, the Navy Experimental Diving Unit was looking for a dive watch to equip the SEAL unit. Of the three watches tested (Rolex Submariner, Enicar Ultrasonic and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms), Fifty Fathoms was chosen.
Most of these watches that equipped the American SEALs, however, ended up being destroyed, because they included radioactive material, such as radio, in the luminescent parts of the dial and bezel, an element that, in the early 1960s, was declared harmful to health. To reassure professional divers, as well as experienced amateurs who bought Fifty Fathoms watches, Blancpain decided to differentiate between the Fifty Fathoms that contained and those that did not have this material.
To this end, the solution found was to replace the humidity indicator, at 6 am, with the internationally recognized symbol of radioactivity, with a cross over it and the caption “WITHOUT RADIATION”. These models first appeared in 1965 and continue to be collectable until today, since this symbol was not universally adopted in all Fifty Fathoms models.
From military to civilian wrists
But not only military elites have surrendered to Fifty Fathoms. On the wrist of Jacques Cousteau, this icon from the depths was a movie star in the documentary “Silent World”, winner of an Academy Award, in 1956. That same year the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe was born, a model more adapted to civil and daily use, as it is smaller than the original Fifty Fathoms – male watches at the time boasted diameters between 32 mm and 34 mm, while Fifty Fathoms measured 40 and more millimeters – while integrating many of the features of its predecessor, keeping a perfectly functional dive watch.
Over the years, Blancpain has offered several style variants of Fifty Fathoms. Some had cushion-like cases, others linear rather than triangular markers. However, they all shared the same DNA consistent with the general specifications given by Maloubier and Fiechter in 1953. Like many other watches, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms remained asleep during the quartz crisis in the seventies, having been resurrected in an limited edition, in 1997, in a 50th anniversary commemorative model, in 2003, and, more recently, in 2007, establishing itself as a collection within the offer of Swiss manufacture and providing diving models with complications, such as the chronograph and even the tourbillon.
In 2013, it was Bathyscaphe’s turn to join the collection. The reintroduction of this model offered the same solution provided by the originals in 1956, in that they have a smaller diameter (43 mm) than the regular Fifty Fathoms (45 mm), a more suitable aesthetic for everyday use and even models of 38 mm designed specifically for women. Bathyscaphe now walks alongside the Fifty Fathoms, as it did in the 1950s, with both lines offering larger case sizes, to better adapt to modern trends.
In recent years, the Fifty Fathoms collection has grown and Blancpain has also started a series of collaborations with marine scientists and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta. The brand also founded the Blancpain Ocean Commitment, which supported the World Oceans Summit, in addition to other events, having so far co-financed 18 important scientific expeditions.
The highly desired Limited Editions
In addition, as with all classic collections, the Fifty Fathoms line received several limited edition pieces, which celebrate the heritage of this iconic model and which quickly sold out, being quite difficult to obtain.
This was the case with Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC, a watch launched in 2017 and which was a reinterpretation of a model from the 1950s, which at the time had an indicator of humidity. This indicator appeared on the dial of the Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC 1, a watch introduced in 1957-58.
The Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC of 2017 presents all the technical characteristics of a diving watch, established by the original model of 1953. Namely: Super-LumiNova indices, the distinctive humidity indicator and unidirectional rotating bezel (protected by anti-scratches sapphire glass, an innovation introduced by Blancpain in 2003). This Fifty Fathoms is powered by the automatic manufacture caliber 1151, with four days of power reserve, thanks to two attached barrels. Framed by a 40 mm steel case, the movement and the gold rotor with NAC coating are visible through the sapphire glass caseback. Limited to 500 pieces, this watch offers three possibilities of bracelet: NATO, nautical fabric or steel.
Another limited edition that quickly sold out was the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date 70s, a model inspired by the Bathyscaphe launched in the seventies. These were watches that had a silver ring on the dial, with rectangular indices and Arabic numerals, arranged radially every five minutes, and windows for the day of the week and date, at 3 am.
Presented in 2018, the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date 70s, captures the appearance of the models of the seventies and, like them, exhibits a gradient gray tone, darker on the outer perimeter and with lighter tones near the center. While the aesthetics of this time piece alludes to history, its interior takes advantage of Blancpain’s latest technical advances. Sturdy up to 300 meters, the 43 mm case is equipped with an unidirectional bezel with a ceramic and Liquidmetal insert. Powered by the automatic caliber 1315DD, with 120 hours of power reserve, the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date 70s is limited to 500 pieces.
The 2019 Fifty Fathoms Barakuda is another recent example of these limited editions within the collection. Inspired by a 1968 reference and named after a distributor of German military equipment, this 40.3 mm model with an extra-flat profile with a tropical rubber strap sold out, unsurprisingly, quickly, underlining the popularity of the Fifty Fathoms today and the appreciation the global history of this collection.
Today, the Fifty Fathoms line continues to grow, without ever losing sight of the original design characteristics of 1953, while introducing technological and material improvements. In 2021, Blancpain praised the history of this master of the depths, with the launch of a new limited edition, the Tribute to Fifty Fathoms No Rad, a tribute to the famous watch that showed on the dial the fact that it did not use any radioactive components in luminescent elements.
And because the limited editions of this Blancpain collection are highly desired objects among fans, it is best to book quickly as soon as they are announced if you want to guarantee a copy in your collection.