Feature: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Old vs New
Anyone who knows anything about watches has heard of the Rolex Submariner. It’s the Porsche 911 of the watch bubble, the Apple iPhone. There are cheaper watches, there are more expensive watches—it’s the sweet spot for someone looking for a balance of quality, heritage, functionality and price. It wasn’t the first, however. That accolade goes to Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms—and now they’ve tried to make it better.
As well as being the oldest watchmaker still in production today—284 years and counting—Blancpain can boast the accolade of manufacturing the first ever dive watch. Think about what that means for a second, because the dive watch is probably the most contested sub-category of watchmaking, the most desirable combination of delicate engineering and rugged tactility.
The journey this watch took from concept to completion was as fragile as the balance spring that powered it: in 1952, Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud of the French Navy had been tasked with assembling an elite unit of highly skilled combat swimmers, the advancement of underwater breathing apparatus making the role a possibility.
Water-resistant watches already existed and had done for 25 years by that point—but these were just sealed cases and luminescent dials—these elite forces would need something more specialised. So Maloubier and Riffaud created a wish list of features they wanted their watch to have.
This hypothetical watch would be incredibly hard-wearing, fitted with a black dial, large, bold numerals and clear markings, as well as an outer rotating bezel—all of which would glow in the dark. It also needed to be water resistant—properly water resistant. Ninety-one metres, or fifty fathoms, was the target.
Maloubier and Riffaud took their idea to a watchmaker to have it produced—and were promptly turned away. They tried again with another company, only to face the same response. No one wanted to make it. Remember, this was a time when watches were supposed to be small and delicate, slender and unobtrusive, and what these two men were asking for was exactly the opposite. They wanted a monster, and no one was willing to tarnish the name of their company to make it.
Almost no one, that is, because there was a watchmaker that had recently suffered a bit of turmoil that needed something fresh to boost its fortunes. After the last family owner, Berthe-Nellie Blancpain, inherited the company and promptly sold it, Swiss law dictated that the organisation had to change its name. The new owners decided that, being based in Villeret, they would swap the syllables around and go with ‘Rayville’. Not particularly inspiring.
The company formerly known as Blancpain took the gig, building a 42mm chunk of steel to French Special Forces standards—and I bet the new owners were glad they did, because that watch became the benchmark for every dive watch that followed, setting standards that are still in use today.
As this reissue demonstrates, the original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was not without its own aesthetic charm, peppered with curves to give the otherwise slab-like dimensions some grace and elegance. It’s given the Fifty Fathoms an unmistakable appearance, and here with the addition of the 1958 American Navy Seals mil-spec–inspired moisture indicator on the dial, there’s no mistaking it for the watch that followed almost immediately after and stole the limelight—I am of course talking about Rolex’s Submariner.
And steal the limelight the Submariner did; it has since become apparent to Blancpain that resting on the laurels of being first just isn’t enough—and so the company has given us this, the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe. It’s a complete reimagining of that original classic, and at first sight, it’s a dramatic change. Gone are the fluid curves and soft, rounded edges; instead we’re given a stark simplicity that seems to share almost nothing with its forebear.
Once the initial shock has passed, however, the similarities can be given a chance to emerge. That big, spacious dial, those fat, luminous hands, the simple bold, notched bezel and the bulbous crown are all still here; they’ve just been given a comprehensive makeover.
It’s worth noting at this point that the Bathyscaphe is not a replacement for the Fifty Fathoms—that would be like Omega ditching the classic Moonwatch—rather, a modern interpretation for someone looking for something a bit more crisp.
And crisp the Bathyscaphe is, defined edges framing brushed finishes everywhere you care to look. Even the dial is brushed in a sunburst pattern, contrasting against the simplified, oblong hands. It’s basically like a low-poly Fifty Fathoms.
There are more features on offer to complement the new suit, with power reserve upped to 120 hours in the skinny calibre 1315, the balance free-sprung and fitted with gold regulation screws, the whole thing finished to a level deserving of its sub-£9,000 asking price. Naturally for any modern dive watch capable of reaching 300 metres, the bezel is in scratch-resistant ceramic, here with the markings filled with Liquidmetal to really make them glisten.
It’s a different look for Blancpain’s posterchild for sure, and easily achieves the level of quality expected of a brand with this much history—whether it’s enough to challenge the Rolex Submariner is another matter entirely.
Winning the battle and not the war is a phrase that feels entirely appropriate in reference to the Fifty Fathoms’ success—but the war might not be over yet. Although we’re not likely to see a Fifty Fathoms gracing the wrists of millions of people across the world, the Bathyscaphe offers another way to appreciate the true originator of the modern dive watch—and that’s got to be worth something.
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