First of all: the general image of the Swiss watch brand Blancpain could not be more different. The layman would probably never link Blancpain to sports watches, whereas for most connoisseurs, the ‘Fifty Fathoms’ is the epitome of the modern diving watch. At this point, some might frown doubtfully. Yet, it was all caused by coincidence, when the French Navy searched for tool watches for their operations in the middle of the last century. And suddenly Blancpain became increasingly popular for military operations, and sometime later, they even made pilots’ watches. The Swiss watch specialist is now launching two limited re-editions of these icons and further demonstrating their savoir faire in this segment. But how did the hype around Blancpain tool watches come about?
Fifty Fathoms or 91.45 Meters
In the 1950s, a certain Captain Robert Maloubier and his colleague Lieutenant Claude Riffaud established the frogman unit ‘Nageurs de Combat’. Their priority was to provide this elite unite with the most advanced equipment – a tough and reliable watch had to be part of it. They reached out to Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who was the CEO of Blancpain at that time and a dedicated diver himself. So, he had a fundamental grasp and the major advantage for delivering a watch with a unidirectional bezel that could only be adjusted by pushing it down. The ‘Fifty Fathoms’ (fifty fathoms waterproof, equal to 91.45 meters) was born.
However, the history of waterproof watches is much older. Alcide Droz produced the first waterproof pocket watches in 1884. In 1927, Rolex managed to protect the first wristwatch from water by hermetically sealing the case. But Blancpain has made a major contribution to modern diving watches and was probably the first one to produce this technique on a rotating bezel. In the following years, Blancpain also supplied watches to the US Navy – but only one model was actually produced for civilian use: it was the Fifty Fathoms Barakuda that was designed for the Bundesmarine (German Navy) in the 1960s, which is celebrating a glorious revival this year.
Fifty Fathoms Barakuda
Blancpain produced numerous versions of the ‘Fifty Fathoms’ in the period between 1953 and 1976. The ‘Barakuda’, however, had a very distinctive style with its two-tone rectangular hour markers and the white-painted fluorescent hands. The name of the watch comes from the German company ‘Barakuda’, which was specialized in the production and distribution of technical diving equipment. They were also the ones who were responsible for distributing the Fifty Fathoms Barakuda to the Bundesmarine.
On the new execution of the Fifty Fathoms Barakuda, most original features have been carefully adapted – at least on the dial side of the watch. The two-tone, rectangular hour markers, the white-painted fluorescent hands and the striking date at 3 o’clock. To reproduce the vintage luminous material from the original watch without using the dangerous material radium, a special Super-LumiNova called ‘Old Radium’ has been applied. Other than its original, the modern Fifty Fathoms Barakuda reveals a beautifully finished movement through an open sapphire case back: with a Geneva stripe on the main plate and a cut-out oscillating wheel in blackened gold. The twin barrel calibre 1151 offers an immense power reserve of around 100 hours.
Diehard ‘Fifty Fathoms’ fans will notice this model just by the nature of the bezel. In the 1950s, the peculiar shine effect was evoked by coating it with Epoxydharz. Since 2003, Blancpain has used a scratch-resistant domed sapphire insert – the same year in which the ‘Fifty Fathoms’ celebrated its comeback. The new Fifty Fathoms Barakuda is worn on a tropical style rubber strap and is limited to 500 pieces.
Blancpain on its way into the cockpits
Due to the military success of the ‘Fifty Fathoms’ tool watches, the French Department of Defence requested chronographs for their pilots. The requirements: a black dial, luminous markers and hands, a ratcheted countdown rotating bezel, flyback function (to be able to count quickly and easily on a mission) and a small seconds counter. Blancpain again fulfilled these requirements and the ‘Air Command’ was born – soon after, the American US Air Force pilots also wore the high-performance chronographs from Le Brassus.
A re-edition has now been dedicated to this extremely rare ‘Air Command’ from the 1950s. Only very few pieces were produced back in the day and tend to show up very rarely at auctions. At least another 500 vintage pilot watch fans can become part of the history – that is the number of ‘Air Command’ watches that Blancpain reproduced this year. Whether they will also meet the requirements of vintage watch collectors will be seen very soon. At least it fulfils most design codes that the military was so keen on for their very first model. The numerals are slightly bigger in this new execution and there is generally more space given to the dial.
A tachymeter scale running around the chapter ring still indicates speeds based on a 1000-metre distance, if needed. Fairly impressive and not vintage at all is the new calibre F388B with a high frequency of 5Hz. This enables each second to be divided into tenth-of-a-second intervals. A vertical clutch provides the chronograph’s second hand with a smooth start, as well as a smooth stop and start function. From a profile view of the watch, you can best explore the slightly domed sapphire glass.
A subtle difference from the original model is revealed at 9 o’clock with a 12-hour counter instead of a small second counter. If you prefer to have running seconds on your chronograph, you can just keep the second hands for the stop function running thanks to a column-wheel mechanism. The new Air Command Flyback Chronograph’s ‘engine’ is powered by a propeller. However, it’s totally carbon neutral without any fuel, but with pure manpower as an emblematic replacement for the common oscillating weight. The design will surely lead to controversial discussions.
Modern tool watches – from timepieces to witnesses of time
With the increasing underwater military missions in the 1950s, the waterproof watch suddenly had a sense of purpose. When the first waterproof wristwatch was launched in 1927, many criticized it for being just fashionable or a marketing gimmick. After all, it was not really necessary to wear a watch while swimming. Due to digitalization, we are at that same point again. Pilots and frogmen prefer to rely on their highly modern instruments. Blancpain doesn’t produce tool watches for the military any longer, but for watch aficionados who appreciate these timepieces that have turned into witnesses of time and decisively shaped the history of watches.