The diving watch first began with only one objective in mind: diving. Today, the realm of sport watches bleeds across the disciplines and even into the sartorial world. In fact, there are far fewer instances in the modern era where dive watches are reserved for the sole purpose of, well, diving. It is a companion to everything from the humble jeans and t-shirt combination, to gym gear and even a suit. What it is, is a conversation piece; more of a social cue, than a piece of essential equipment. Yet, the ways in which we choose to sport them in 2019, bear no consequence on the still prolific development of the dive watch. Research continues to deepen, records continue to be broken, and dive watches continue to sprout left, right and center.
Primarily used for survival, the origin of the dive watch can be traced back to 1950, when Blancpain was under the leadership of CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who was himself an avid diver, as is current CEO Marc A. Hayek. Fiechter had full control over the Fifty Fathoms, including the naming process. A measure of 50 fathoms, equivalent to 300 feet, was quite the accomplishment at the time and was the maximum depth a diver could reach without any unwanted side effects on both diver and watch. To battle the effects on the latter, Blancpain developed a special double O-ring seal in the crown for the first example of the Fifty Fathoms, as well as a double caseback system, and both would go on to become patents for the marque.
An automatic movement allowed for minimal disturbance to the crown itself on a daily basis. Water resistance aside, maintaining optimal readability underwater is an entirely separate task for designers to consider; in the end, a jet-black dial with hands and markers featuring powerful luminescence was used to solve this hurdle. For increased safety, a lockable bezel with clear markings allowed the diver to keep track of dive time, along with oxygen reserve.
So revolutionary were these features, that the Fifty Fathoms was the only watch in 1953 to meet the requirements of specialised divers. It would go on to become the basis of countless designs, remaining virtually identical to the NIHS 92-11 (ISO 6425) standards introduced for all diver’s watches over 40 decades later in 1996. In fact, if you were to look at the first Fifty Fathoms, it is clear little has changed by way of design and intention; it remains to this day, one of Blancpain’s most undeniable models.
It should then come as no surprise that such an iconic, functional design would eventually make its way to the military; with various marine corps incorporating the Fifty Fathoms into their standard issue gear. The French were amongst the first to sport these pieces on their underwater missions, followed by others, such as the US Navy SEALs and UDT towards the end of 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, and then the German Bundesmarine after 1965, through a company named Barakuda, which was known for producing and marketing highly specialized diving equipment. However, these watches were not restricted to the military; Barakuda brought a civilian version to the German public; widely recognized by its two-tone hour markers featuring a rectangular shape, white fluorescent hands and date display at 3 o’clock. It proved a great hit within the German market and divers alike, with some pieces in the series paired with a tropical-type rubber strap for a unique aesthetic, comfort and increased durability.
It is this particular iteration that Blancpain chose to pay tribute to this year. The new Fifty Fathoms Barakuda embraces the original design codes from the 1960s. Its black dial is peppered with contrasting red and white hour markers layered under “old radium” type Superluminova that gives the originally white markers an off-white appearance. White lacquered pencil-shaped hands sweep the dial, while a date window finds itself perched at the 3 o’clock position, just like the original.
A steel case will accommodate dives of up to 300 metres, and is sized at 40mm, dimensions typically reserved for limited-edition pieces. Inside beats the self-winding Calibre 1151, which despite powering a sporty watch, boasts the interior details ready to rival any sophisticated piece. As seen in some antique watches, the twin barrels are wound through a cut-out rotor and the Barakuda boasts a unique inner geometry.
The pièce de resistance for the Barakuda is, of course, the tropical rubber strap that sets it apart in the first place. As an ever-faithful nod to the past, it finds itself equally relevant in 2019 and marries together its history with the future in the confident manner Blancpain excels in. Equally attractive to history lovers as it will be to experienced divers, there will be 500 examples produced.
Circling back to the original collaboration with the French Navy, Blancpain has also unveiled a 300-piece limited edition of Fifty Fathoms featuring the symbol of French commando frogmen. The “Nageurs de combat” 2019 edition does not stray too far from its predecessor and guarantees the high levels of reliability and strength required underwater. The 45mm satin-brushed steel case is water resistant to 300 meters and features a locking system that correctly aligns all inscriptions on the caseback. Flip the “Nageurs de combat” over and you will see a Combat Diver Qualification badge featuring a central anchor and a winged seahorse on either side of the screw-down caseback.
Dial-side is kept exceedingly free from clutter, a nod to the original, and a number “7” draws the eye in, just above 6 o’clock. Recreational divers use an open-circuit compressed air cylinders with exhaled air. However, professional diving is quite a different matter, presenting various challenges. As oxygen becomes toxic when its partial pressure reaches 1.7 bar, the maximum depth that commando frogmen can reach safely when using pure oxygen is seven meters, a number that has thus become a symbolic figure in this milieu. Hands are painted in white to match the 1950s original and along with hour markers, are adorned in highly visible luminescence, popping against the sleek black dial. A triangular marker at 12 o’clock and date window between 4 and 5 o’clock can be observed, while the unidirectional rotating bezel is kept safe by a curved sapphire insert, protecting it from accidental blows and scrapes.
A New Era
For a final reinterpretation of the 1953 Fifty Fathoms this year, Blancpain brings a touch of sophistication and refinement to this classic sporty model. Seen for the very first time, the Fifty Fathoms Automatique turns to blue ceramic to represent the dial. Cleverly paired with a satin-brushed red gold case, we bear witness to the birth of a new icon. This is not the first time Blancpain has experimented with the benefits of ceramic; its strength is six times greater than steel, allowing for great durability. Its ability to produce a striking sense of depth is exactly why it was chosen for the dial; a sunburst dial center is a stark contrast to a matte chapter ring.
The original design codes make the piece immediately identifiable as part of the Fifty Fathoms family. Its numerals, hands and hour markers are coated in luminescent material, and the slightly curved sapphire crystal and ratcheted unidirectional rotating bezel are all familiar. When added to a 45mm case water resistant to 300 metres, the Fifty Fathoms Automatique offers all the readability requirements to divers; professional and recreational alike. The self-winding Calibre 1315 offers up to five days of power reserve, with the dense red gold oscillating weight offering high-efficiency winding.
When paired with a blue calf leather strap, this Fifty Fathoms Automatique will find itself as comfortable at the office as underwater, but it is in the latter that its mechanical strengths and decades of research will shine, its glistening blue ceramic sparkling in the ocean.