Deep Dive

A look at what makes the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms an iconic dive watch

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, the brand's quintessential dive watch, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Back in 1953, it was the first watch to feature a true diving bezel.
The Fifty Fathoms dive watch is not only Blancpain’s most popular model, but it also made history in 1953 as the world’s first dive watch with a unidirectional rotating scaled ring to provide better security while diving. Together with the Rolex Submariner, introduced the same year, the Fifty Fathoms had defined the archetypical dive watch. And while the Submariner initially had a bidirectional rotating bezel that could not be locked in place, Blancpain had developed a bezel that could be turned only by pressing it down.
In 1953, the Fifty Fathoms was the first dive watch to have a unidirectional bezel to prevent unintentional adjustment

The Fifty Fathoms got another proof of concept thanks to the French military: Post-war French military divers needed a sturdy watch that would function reliably, both above and underwater. The head of Blancpain at that time, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, himself a dedicated diver, only needed to slightly adjust the timepiece according to French specifications. The original model already showed typical Blancpain features: A black dial with luminous numerals and markers, and a black bezel grooved for better grip, also with luminous numerals and markers.

Contrary to the tastes of that time, the first Fifty Fathoms model measured an impressive 42mm across. It was capable of withstanding depths of up to 50 fathoms (91.44 metres), hence the name. Blancpain achieved this high resistance to water pressure with a threaded caseback and a newly developed system with two O-ring gaskets for the crown. And to preserve the integrity of the crown seals, the Fifty Fathoms was given an automatic movement. Blancpain also provided antimagnetic protection and patented its locking dive bezel, prompting other manufacturers to come up with their own creative solutions. In the following years, other maritime armed forces, including those of the United States and Germany, equipped their divers with this Blancpain model. The watch even accompanied the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and director Louis Malle as they filmed their prize-winning undersea documentary Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World) in 1957.

Civilian divers soon also appreciated the Fifty Fathoms, and not just in the water. In 1956, Blancpain therefore, developed a smaller version with date, known as the Bathyscaphe, especially for this target group.

Today the Fifty Fathoms is Blancpain’s most successful collection. The diving track on the rotating bezel is now made of curved sapphire crystal that is printed on the underside. This gives the new, more robust bezel the look of the Bakelite track on the original model. Blancpain has also increased water resistance to 300 metres. The case of most models, at 45mm, remains large even by today’s standards.

A luxury dive watch: The Fifty Fathoms Bathyscape in rose gold

Going the distance
Blancpain developed its Caliber 1315 specially for the Fifty Fathoms as a robust, automatic sports watch movement. Three sequential barrels guarantee a power reserve of five days. The fine regulator with adjusting screws on the balance wheel is impervious to impacts. In the tradition of historical Fifty Fathoms models, Caliber 1315 has a soft-iron cage to protect the movement from magnetic fields.

Blancpain continually added various complications to the three-hand watch, which have remained a part of the current collection. A significant evolution to appear was the flyback chronograph in the Bathyscaphe collection, which can be operated underwater thanks to special gaskets protecting the pushers. More surprising is the combination of a tool watch with a flying tourbillon and 8-day power reserve. Other rare complications for a dive watch include a full calendar with moonphase indication, the flyback chronograph with full calendar, and the annual calendar introduced in 2018. There are also models with large dates, a weekday, and a second timezone.

Blancpain introduced the greatest sensation in 2011—the X Fathoms with a mechanical depth gauge. In this case, the complication is as complex as it is useful for the wearer, especially since it has a split-seconds to show the maximum depth, a hand with a track to indicate depth to 100 metres, and a third hand with a finer scale for depths of 15 metres or less. Divers can also time decompression and safety stops with a retrograde indication located between 10 and 11 o’clock. With a helium valve for saturation diving, water resistance to 300 metres, and a saltwater-resistant titanium case, the X Fathoms is well equipped for every conceivable underwater operation. The idea for the watch came from the current head of Blancpain, Marc A. Hayek, who is also an avid diver, just like Jean-Jacques Fiechter. 

The Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms has a depth gauge and chronograph function for decompression stops

At even greater depths, the 500 Fathoms is the right choice, with its water resistance to 1,000 metres. The 500 Fathoms GMT with a second timezone is helpful while travelling. Other smaller complications in the Fifty Fathoms collection include a large date and a weekday display. Blancpain also regularly revives special models from its past like the limited Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC from 2017, based on the military version MIL-SPEC I from 1957. At that time, water resistance was indicated on the dial by a white circle that turned red when it came in contact with moisture, a feature that was reintegrated by Blancpain. 

No radiation
Blancpain also offers a great variety of colours and materials. When the bracelet and strap varieties are included, the Blancpain website currently lists 84 different Fifty Fathoms models. In addition to traditional black, dials are also offered in grey, blue, and brown. Cases include steel, titanium, and gold as well as black, grey, and blue ceramic. Blancpain directs resources and supports various ocean preservation efforts in its Blancpain Ocean Commitment. The company regularly dedicates limited edition models to this organisation, most in the colour blue.

The classic Fifty Fathoms Automatique is also available with a titanium case and bracelet

The company reissued another favourite in 2021: The Tribute to Fifty Fathoms No Rad. Like its predecessor, it features a crossed-out standard radiation symbol to indicate that no radioactive radium was used as luminous material on the dial. The hands and dial differ slightly from the current models and the 40.3mm case size and vintage-look luminous material underscore the retro look. Blancpain offered 500 pieces of this limited edition.

The Tribute to Fifty Fathoms No Rad pays homage to a historical model

The smaller, 38mm versions of the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe represent another extension of the design. Like the 43mm models, they do not have the domed sapphire crystal bezel of the first Fifty Fathoms. Instead, the design can be traced back to the civilian model from 1956. The flat track on the bezel is now made of ceramic. Numerals and hands are also different from the standard Fifty Fathoms. Equipped with in-house Caliber 1150 with a 100-hour power reserve, this entry-level Blancpain dive watch is listed at Rs 7,85,000 (approx.). The Fifty Fathoms Automatique with a sapphire bezel and a 5-day movement (Caliber 1315) costs Rs 11,52,000 (approx.) with a steel case and fabric strap. There are also several versions and limited editions of the Bathyscaphe. The most unusual of these is the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date Desert Edition. This model was inspired by a Blancpain dive watch from the 1970s as well as by the experiences of an underwater photographer inside a water cavern system in the Nevada desert. The 43mm watch is limited to 500 pieces and priced at  Rs 10,08,000 (approx.).

Blancpain is also known for its F385 flyback chronograph movement. The Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Chronograph Flyback Green Dial is especially attractive with its green dial and ceramic bezel and 43.6mm black ceramic case. It is listed at `13,55,000 (approx.) on a NATO strap. 

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Chronograph Flyback in green with a ceramic case

The Fifty Fathoms is certainly not the least expensive dive watch on the market. But it has an exciting history, an attractive retro design, and powerful in-house movements, as well as a wide range of complications, materials, design variants, and last but not least, its coveted limited editions.

Images: Courtesy brands 

This story was first carried in WatchTime US, and then appeared in the Jan-March 2023 issue of WatchTime India. To subscribe to the print edition, click here.

Launched in 2012, WatchTime India is the result of a collaboration between America's most-read watch magazine, WatchTime and, India's leading media house, Malayala Manorama. With an aim to popularise and celebrate the evolving watch culture of the country, the publication is your one-stop destination for everything related to fine luxury watches. From the latest tests to reviews, to exclusive features on the history and horological heritage of some of the most spectacular watch brands of the world, the WatchTime India portal has a lot to offer. Stay tuned for an exciting journey, through the fascinating world of watches!

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