SWATCH Group holding back its new watches all the way until May for the peripatetic sojourn around Switzerland known as Time to Move made for entertaining speculation leading up the three days of unremitting salvos of 2019 horological firepower combined with endurance athlete-like levels of travel. And one brand in particular, Blancpain, truly impressed. OK full disclosure, I’ve always been a big Blancpain fan, in particular related to the Fifty Fathoms which dates back to 1953, endowing it with status as the world’s first purpose-built diving watch. While the Rolex Submariner which would be introduced a year later in 1954 was created to respond to the needs of recreational divers, the mighty Fifty Fathoms was from conception created to fill the needs of the French military divers, Les Nageurs Combat. As such the Fifty Fathoms whose every detail was chosen by military legend Bob Maloubier the founder of the Combat Divers, bristled with purpose-built authority expressed by elements such as a uni-directional bezel, which was also much larger and easier to manipulate than the Sub’s relatively thin bi-directional bezel. To me the mythical Tornek Rayville Fifty Fathoms issued to US Navy divers (they had to be rebadged under the name of the brand’s US importer Allen Tornek because of important restrictions on government equipment) are the most hallowed, storied and desirable vintage military dive watches in existence.

TR-900 with compass issued to to Sergeant Major Jacques of the USMC
TR-900 with compass issued to to Sergeant Major Jacques of the USMC

And since 2002 Marc Hayek the brand’s CEO has done a spectacular job at tapping into this marvelous timepiece’s legacy while injected it with new world materials such as a sapphire crystal bezel with luminous minute indexes, a first in high watchmaking, and even a ceramic case that perfectly mimics the look and feel of steel at a fraction of the weight and far greater surface hardness. In my watch box the Fifty Fathoms MilSpec re-issue dating to 2017 is one of my most prized timepieces endowed with “You’d have to pry it off my cold dead wrist status,” such is my unreserved affection for it. So now that you know where my head and heart are at regarding B to the P you’ll understand that my expectations for the brand were somewhat lofty. Well I can honestly say, as high as I had set the ceiling on what they could achieve with the Fifty Fathoms, this year Marc Hayek and his team basically smashed right threw it, blew the roof right off the house and kept blazing a rocket-like trajectory into the stratosphere with what I feel is one of the coolest, best executed and damnably handsome vintage tribute military watches of all time, the Blancpain Air Command. It is just that epic.

Blancpain Air Command

Blancpain Air Command
Blancpain Air Command

OK to call the Air Command a “military” watch brings with it some amount of controversy. That’s because while the Fifty Fathoms has an unabashed and inextricable link with the world’s elite naval diving units, the Air Command’s link to the US Air Force is somewhat shrouded in mystery. Though to me that just adds to the mystique of this rare beast. The story goes that around 12 Air Command watches were produce in the ’50s by Blancpain at the behest of Allen Tornek, these were apparently placed with USAF pilots. It is conceivable after the success with the Fifty Fathoms in the Navy, Tornek thought that he could create a similar hit with the handsome, functional flyback Type XX/Bundeswehr-styled pilot’s chronograph. However for whatever reason the Valjoux 222 powered (check out the signature pusher spacing on the vintage model) Air Command never gained traction.

Blancpain Air Command, circa 1960s (Image: Phillips Watches)
Blancpain Air Command, circa 1960s (Image: Phillips Watches)

According the Phillips which auctioned an Air Command for US$143k in their May 2019 Hong Kong sale, “The Air Command was never commercialized or serialized.” It is also posited by the hallowed auction house that when Blancpain was hit by the Quartz Crisis, it may have sold cases and components needed to manufacture a few additional Air Command watches. The point is no one knows for sure the actual number of Air Command watches in existence however Marc Hayek who has done some extensive research on the subject explains, “It’s very, very rare and the belief is we are talking about tens of watches.”

Marc you can imagine is well-placed to know and sitting on his wrist as he speaks to me, Nick Foulkes and Ken Kessler, is the most perfect condition example of the Air Command in existence. What is incredible is later when I post side-by-side images of the vintage watch beside the new 500-piece re-issue, viewers and even I will be perplexed as to which watch is which. Hayek laughs when I tell him this and states, “The idea was to come up with a watch that was incredibly faithful in appearance but was actually an example of the brand and the SWATCH Group’s most advanced technology.”

OK just to get this out of the way so we can get to the good stuff, the way you tell the old and new watch apart is like this. The old one has the wide uneven pusher spacing that is the hallmark of the Valjoux 222, and it has thin crown, a domed plexiglass crystal, smaller Arabic markers and wider spacing between the tachymeter and the edge of the dial. The new watch has a thicker crown, the word Flyback on the dial though both movements perform this function, even pusher spacing and amusingly even darker markers on the dial, hands and bezel which is what threw people the first time. And the color of these markers meant to evoke aged vintage radium works so perfectly that at least half the people looking at images on Instagram misidentified this as the vintage watch. While there are some pundits with misgivings about the use of vintage colored lume, honestly since the only function of a mechanical watch is to give you pleasure, much like the people who eschew special sauce on their burgers I say this is no place for puritanism. Want to evoke old world cool or slather your Double-Double Animal Style I says hellz to the yeah. Go for it, lets suck the marrow out of life and maximize our enjoyment of everything in it. Including watches. Especially watches.

Blancpain Air Command

Ok back to the Air Command, writing this has now made me hungry, the new watch is just awesome looking. The case is zero point five mm larger than the original watch’s 42 mm diameter and Hayek and Blancpain have taken pains to recreate the lovely bezels on the thin elegant faceted lugs. The dial layout of the new watch is forthright, powerful, more proportional and easier to read than the original with a tachymeter that feels less cluttered. The continuous seconds hand – something that I’ve always considered unnecessary on a chronograph – has been ditched and in its place at 9 o clock is a useful chrono hour counter. One nice detail pointed out by Nick Foulkes during our lunch in a chalet situated just next to Blancpain’s manufacture in Le Brassus replete with grazing cows, is the 3 minute markers on the chrono minute dial at 3 o’clock used to calculate cost of phone calls in the ’50s.

On the subject of badass technical innovation lets start with the bezel of the new Air Command that features a ceramic insert and luminous markers. But it’s the movement of the watch that is the true technical powerhouse here. The F388B is an integrated automatic vertical clutch column wheel operated chronograph movement (Frederic Piguet which is now Blancpain’s in-house movement manufacture pioneered this style of movement all the way back in 1987 with the 1185) The movement beats at 5 Hertz or 36,0000 vibrations, good for dividing time to 1/10th of a second. There have been some critics that have gotten their panties in a bunch over the rose gold propeller shaped rotor on the back of the watch even pointing out that in the ’50s the jet engine had largely taken over as the primary means of propulsion in aviation but these are people that will never understand the wonder of melting cheese onto a steaming heap of salted French fries then slathering said golden concupiscent unctuousness with special sauce. Because watches as I explained are about maximizing your pleasure in life and the Air Command maximizes it to the highest realm possible.

50 Fathoms Barakuda

50 Fathoms Barakuda
50 Fathoms Barakuda

“The great thing about the Fifty Fathoms,” says Marc Hayek, “Is that the more research we do the more different and interesting iterations we discover, so vast was the impact of the watch in both the civil and military diving worlds.” A case in point is in the 1960s the German Bundesmarine ordered a series of Fifty Fathoms watches from a German dive supplier named Barakuda (Barracuda in English) There were a number of Barakuda military watches purchased by the Polish Navy as well. The Barakuda was characterized by large rectangular luminous markers. Each marker was further divided into two tones with cream luminous material inboard and smaller red sections toward the perimeter of the dial, presumably to aid in visibility. The watch featured sword shaped hands and a very unique bakelite bezel with a full 60 minute scale (not unlike the scale found on a 5514 MilSub) painted with luminous material. Currently vintage Barakuda watches are trading in the 40-50 thousand dollar range, such is its cult status.

A military-issue Blancpain Baracuda from the 1970s, sold by Phillips Watches at their Geneva Watch Auction: Seven in 2018 (Image: PhillipsWatches.com)
A military-issue Blancpain Baracuda from the 1970s, sold by Phillips Watches at their Geneva Watch Auction: Seven in 2018 (Image: PhillipsWatches.com)
50 Fathoms Barakuda
50 Fathoms Barakuda

For 2019 Hayek and Blancpain turned to this very special model to create a 500-piece limited edition. Says Hayek, “It’s the iconography of the dial that has this very strong late ’60s early ’70s iconography that we found so appealing.” But as with the Air Command while the Barakuda may be vintage-themed, it is also a showcase for the brand and SWATCH Group’s technical innovation. Case in point number one is the use of a domed sapphire crystal bezel that allows the Barakuda to have full luminous dive markers on this uni-directional rotating element. The date occupies prominent stage at 3 o’clock and all markers are cream colored SuperLuminova to evoke aged tritium. The crown on the new watch is characterized by wider spaced fluting and I actually prefer this to the thinner fluted crown on the original. The size of the stainless steel case is 40 mm which is in alignment with the original and also the same size as the case on my beloved 50 Fathoms MilSpec re-edition. The movement for the watch is the reliable Caliber 1151 which features automatic winding and a 100 hour power reserve, thanks to its twin barrel design. Finally this appealing re-edition comes on a tropical rubber strap similar to that found on the original watch.