Why Blancpain is the brand that won 2023

Why Blancpain is the brand that won 2023

Jamie Weiss

2023 has been somewhat of a mixed year for watchmaking. I don’t think there was any obvious knockout release or brand that defined the year, unlike 2022, which was filled with heavy hitters. I was tempted to offer up Baume & Mercier as my vote for the brand that won 2023, as I think they really capitalised on the 50th anniversary of the Riviera to build some much-needed brand capital – with the instant sell-out of the Riviera Perpetual Calendar a real volte-face for the otherwise overlooked brand. I agree with some of my colleagues that Bovet was unexpectedly ascendent in 2023, too (I still think they’re just watches for Russian oligarchs but I have to admit they’re doing some cool stuff).

But no, I’ve finally landed on another watch brand starting with B, and one that might be a bit more of an obvious choice: Blancpain, which celebrated the 70th anniversary of their most iconic model, the Fifty Fathoms, in headline-stealing style this year. But there’s nuance to my argument beyond just pointing to their partnership with Swatch, so bear with me.

Exhibit A: Swatch x Blancpain Bioceramic Scuba Fifty Fathoms

Blancpain X Swatch underwater

Let’s get things right out of the way. The Swatch x Blancpain Bioceramic Scuba Fifty Fathoms might not have had the same impact as the Swatch x Omega Bioceramic MoonSwatch of 2022, but it’s still arguably the most important thing to happen to Blancpain since Jean-Claude Biver brought the brand back from the dead in 1981. It’s easy to forget that when comparing the success of the ‘Thrifty Fathoms’ against the MoonSwatch, which was always going to be a hard act to follow.

thrifty fathoms vs moonswatch
Image courtesy of Atelier de Griff

I’d argue the two different Swatch collaborations had two different purposes. While there’s no doubt the MoonSwatch has been responsible for introducing many hitherto outsiders to the Omega brand, Omega has long been a household name, uttered in the same breath as Rolex or Casio. It’s the watch James Bond wears. It’s the timekeeper of the Olympics. That’s actually why the MoonSwatch has been so successful: people know what an Omega is, so the prospect of being able to get a ‘Speedy’ for only a few hundred bucks is a tantalising concept. It’s like Nike collaborating with Dior or Aldi selling Liberty fabrics.

I would argue that the MoonSwatch’s real value has been in introducing new audiences to the concept of watch collecting more broadly. The Swatch Group brilliantly hijacked ‘hype culture’ and pulled off one of the most significant moments in watchmaking history. I would go as far as to say that the MoonSwatch has helped change an entire generation’s conception of watchmaking and will no doubt have influenced the next generation of collectors too (who, now that they’ve tasted a MoonSwatch, will likely pine after the real thing).

swatch x blancpain first look 1
You best believe as soon as the news dropped about this collab, I ran down to the Swatch boutique on Collins Street to take this photo.

But plenty of people have philosophised about the MoonSwatch. I’m talking about Blancpain here. In a reversal of the idiom, the MoonSwatch ran so the Thrifty Fathoms could walk: Blancpain has never had the same sort of pop culture cut-through that Omega has – but now in 2023, people all around the world know the Blancpain name, thanks to this Swatch collaboration… Which, sure, wouldn’t have nearly been as successful without the primer that was the MoonSwatch, but was incredibly successful in its own right nonetheless.

swatch x blancpain lines
The line for the Swatch x Blancpain Bioceramic Scuba Fifty Fathoms in Paris on release day. Image courtesy of Bloomberg

Again, I think we’ll see a similar effect with Blancpain as Omega: collectors who’ve tasted the Swatch version of the Fifty Fathoms will one day aspire to own the real McCoy. At the very least, you’ve got a lot more people Googling Blancpain and learning about the Fifty Fathom’s rich history. In any case, it would be churlish to consider the Swatch x Blancpain collaboration as anything other than a success, even if it didn’t reach the same lofty heights as the MoonSwatch. Most brands would kill for the same sort of PR and brand awareness that Blancpain built in 2023.

Exhibit B: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 2: Tech Gombessa

5019 12B30 64A PROFIL VALVE RVB

It’s easy to forget that other than the Thrifty Fathoms, Blancpain released some other impressive takes on their legendary dive watch that are both artistically and technically rather impressive – namely, the verbosely-named Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 2: Tech Gombessa and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 3.

The former represents the first truly earnest attempt a luxury watchmaker has made at creating a mechanical dive watch that genuinely meets the needs of a modern tech diver. Divers these days dive for much longer than they did 70 years ago thanks to the development of mixed-gas rebreathers and saturation diving, so to reflect that, the Tech Gombessa features a 3-hour bezel and dedicated hand that completes one full turn every 3 hours, a world first and one developed in collaboration with Laurent Ballesta, “the closest thing we have to a modern-day Jacques Costeau” as our editor-at-large Luke put it.

5019 12B30 64A DOS RVB

Add in a Vantablack-like dial for extra legibility, a technical Grade 23 titanium case and a uniquely ergonomic integrated rubber strap, and you’ve got one beast of a dive watch. Honestly, I can’t think of a better tribute to the legacy of the Fifty Fathoms on its 70th birthday than the Tech Gombessa: the OG Fifty Fathoms was a serious tool watch designed for serious divers, and the Tech Gombessa captures that spirit perfectly (even if mechanical dive watches are still mostly an anachronism – at least this one is the least anachronistic).

Exhibit C: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 3

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 3

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 3 is a fitting tribute for other reasons. A faithful reimagining of the original Fifty Fathoms design as penned by Jean-Jacques Fiechter, Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, its slabby form contrasts with its luxurious case material, Blancpain’s 9K bronze gold. An ingenious alloy that patinates far slower than typical bronze alloys while remaining lighter than solid gold, it lends the Act 3 a distinctly luxurious yet nautical look – and one that also happens to resemble the German silver-cased ‘MIL-SPEC’ models Blancpain supplied to the US Navy in the 1950s.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 3 movement

The Act 3 is a pastiche, not a straight homage – in a good way, mind. It’s got a period-correct moisture indicator at 6 o’clock (another MIL-SPEC feature) but modern features like sapphire crystals, a ceramic bezel and an artfully-finished 100-hour power reserve-boasting contemporary movement. It’s the opposite of what the brand’s done with Swatch: it’s elevated the humble Fifty Fathoms, celebrating its innovative genesis while demonstrating many of the things that make modern Blancpain such a compelling watchmaker.

Summary Judgement

blancpain cannes

Blancpain is the oldest registered watch brand in the world, and for many years it’s felt like quite an obscure and indeed old-fashioned brand. 2023 has changed that. The Swatch x Blancpain collab was unequivocally a paradigm shift for the brand, yet Blancpain didn’t just rest on their Bioceramic laurels: watches like the Tech Gombessa and Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 3 were also potent reminders of how innovative, historically significant and interesting a watchmaker they are. I’m just interested to see what’s next for the Le Sentier brand. Perhaps it’s now time for their criminally underrated high complications to shine? We’ll have to see what 2024 has in store.