It’s impossible to talk about the modern scuba diving watch and its evolution without talking about Blancpain. As one of the earliest creators of the purpose-built tool watch, they are responsible for multiple innovations in the field, including using an o-ring to seal the case back, and a pioneering crown seal system. Their name belongs right up there with the likes of Rolex and Omega and Panerai when discussing the inception of the dive watch as we know and love it today. And to see if Blancpain can still hold its own in the world of dive watches, we go diving with the all-mighty Blancpain Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms.
Blancpain was founded in 1735 when Jehan-Jacques Blancpain registered himself as a watchmaker in the village records in Villaret, a small Swiss village in the picturesque Jura Mountains. The company would remain in the Blancpain family for the next seven generations, becoming the largest watch manufacturer in Villaret. Upon the death of Frederic-Emile Blancpain in 1932, as he had no heirs interested in the watch business, the company was left to his long-time assistant, Betty Fiechter, making her the first female CEO of a leading watchmaking company. Fiechter would co-manage the company with her nephew Jean-Jacques Fiechter for the next 20 years. Mr Fiechter was an avid participant in the emerging sport of scuba diving, and this is where the Blancpain scuba connection began.
Above: vintage advertising – Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier – Blancpain Co-CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter
After one harrowing experience of losing track of time and nearly running out of air on a dive, Fiechter knew that he needed a watch that would work underwater. There were no commercially available scuba diving watches at the time so Fiechter and Blancpain set to work, coming up with a design basically from scratch. This work would lead to the Fifty Fathoms, one of the most iconic and successful diving watches of all time. Eventually adopted by military diving units around the world, the Fifty Fathoms was an essential piece of diving kit.
As times and trends tend to change, Blancpain would eventually stop producing dive watches. With the sale of the company to Jacques Piguet in the early 1980s, Blancpain would shift its focus to dress and complication watches for the next 20 years. During this time, the Fifty Fathoms name lay dormant, until finally seeing the light again in 1999 as part of a trilogy of watches released by Blancpain, inspired by land, sea and air. Naturally, the sea reference had to be called Fifty Fathoms.
While that watch was a Fifty Fathoms in name, it wasn’t until 2003, after Blancpain had been sold back to SMH (the Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries, which would later become the Swatch Group) and Mark Hayek was brought on board to steer the ship, that we would see the true resurgence of the Fifty Fathoms DNA, with the 50th-anniversary limited edition. This watch brought back the original’s clear bezel, this time in sapphire, and a domed crystal to truly embody the spirit of that first Fifty Fathoms watch from 50 years earlier. And just like that, the Fifty Fathoms was reborn.
Numerous iterations would follow. The modern Fifty Fathoms line includes 3-hand and chronograph models, inspired by the toolish nature of the early Blancpain dive watches, as well as moon-phase models, and even a tourbillon, a nod to Blancpain’s later foray into complicated watches.
By 2011, Hayek and Blancpain decided it was time for something new; time for Blancpain to again make a forward-thinking and revolutionary step. They wanted to create a tool that would be as useful to the modern diver as the Fifty Fathoms was when it was released almost 60 years prior. Blancpain asked themselves what a diver requires and tried to create a mechanical device that would meet as many of those needs as possible. The result is the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms, an absolute beast of a mechanical, state-of-the-art, diving instrument. We are going to take this unique watch underwater where it belongs, but first, let’s dig into the specs.
I sometimes hem and haw over whether to call a watch “large” or “big” as that type of classification is usually relative to the size of the person, but that’s not the case with the X Fathoms. This is a gigantic watch. At 56mm in diameter and a whopping 24mm thick, we are getting close to literal hockey puck proportions. Being entirely composed of titanium has kept the weight of this monster down to reasonable levels. Still heavy, but manageable. It looks and feels more like some kind of gauge you would find at a plumbing supply shop than a wristwatch, but there is a method to this madness, I assure you.
This watch is a beauty to behold. The titanium is perfectly brushed all around, giving it a high-tech, all-business look. The matte black dial is covered in a colourful array of data indicators in blue and orange, and we will go into what all those do shortly. The 120-click sapphire bezel has a crisp, flawless action and visually keeps the Fifty Fathoms spirit alive and well. The integrated rubber strap is also highly engineered. Its variable-geometry structure is composed of 14 articulated parts, designed to ensure a seamless fit with the case while allowing water to seep in under the watch in order to come in contact with the membrane. Its shape resembles that of a cuttlefish and the incisions evoking the gills of manta rays highlight the underwater vocation of this watch.
Under the hood, Blancpain has created a movement that is truly remarkable in its ambitious functionality and groundbreaking tech. A few diving-centric features have been added to this mechanical marvel. Inside you will find not one, but two different mechanical depth gauges. Using a new material called “liquid metal” in a pressure-sensitive membrane made this possible. One gauge counts single metres up to 15 (the blue scale), and then a second one counts larger increments up to 90 metres deep (the orange scale). As part of the depth-gauge package, there is another hand that notes your maximum depth, and keeps it in memory until reset with a dedicated button.
This button is covered with a protective titanium button guard to make sure you don’t accidentally reset it. Another diving feature not found in any other mechanical watch is the inclusion of a 5-minute countdown timer, meant to help you keep track of decompression or safety stops. The timer is started and reset with a single, dedicated button. Things are rounded out with a whopping 5 day power reserve. How Blancpain was able to fit all of this tech into a movement a mere 9mm thick is a mystery to me, but boy am I glad they did and this thing exists.
Under the Waves
We talk frequently about how diving with mechanical watches in the modern era of dive computers is a largely esoteric, and, honestly, pointless pursuit. All the data you need when diving can be tracked more easily using a dedicated dive computer. Blancpain set out to change all of that. Strapping this monster over a wetsuit using the integrated, dual-pronged rubber strap, feels no different than strapping on a big dive computer, and that is by design. If I had done a little bit of math beforehand, I could have theoretically used only the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms on these dives, and been just fine. Probably not advisable from a pure safety standpoint, but the point is, it’s possible, and that makes this watch something pretty special.
I will admit to feeling a pang of fear before jumping off a boat with a $40,000 watch strapped to my wrist, but after submerging and getting situated that quickly passed and it was like another piece of dive gear. Underwater everything works perfectly. The watch is big enough that you always know it is there and big enough that you can quickly parse any data you need from its many hands and scales. The colours chosen for the different scales were all clearly visible at depth, as were the large indices on the timing bezel. It’s hard to wear a Fifty Fathoms underwater and not daydream that you are doing something groundbreaking and important, even if you’re just kicking around looking at fish and turtles. The mystique and allure of Blancpain and its iconic diving watch remain strong with this one.
I did not forswear my dive computer for my underwater jaunts with the X Fathoms but tried to do as much as I could using only the data it provided. I kept an eye on its depth gauges when descending, and both were spot-on accurate when compared to their digital counterpart. When it was time to ascend, I followed the gauges back up to five metres depth and clicked the chronograph countdown button to start the five-minute safety stop timer. Doing all of these things mechanically is something I had never experienced before, and it was nothing short of delightful.
Let’s talk about that price tag for a moment. Yes, that is quite a large sum of money for an unnecessary dive watch. But if you think of it in automotive terms, with the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms being more akin to a concept car than a production model, it makes a little more sense. This watch is a proof of concept and hopefully, some of this tech will trickle down to more affordable models and you will see a whole subsect of steampunk scuba divers, exploring the ocean with nothing but springs and gears to guide their way. One can dream. And while most folks won’t be trading in their dive computers for X Fathoms anytime soon, the fact that you COULD, well, that is something pretty special. Available from Blancpain for USD 40,700 or EUR 41,410.
For more information, please visit Blancpain.com.