The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is the daddy of modern dive watchesD.C. Hannay
Welcome to The Icons, a series where we take a horological deep dive into the most legendary watches of all time. We’ll delve into the story behind the watch, its evolution over the years, famous (and infamous) wearers, the classic references, and the contemporary versions you should be checking out.
Introduction: The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Dive watches are among the most common and popular timepieces today, ranging from utilitarian entry-level models to high-end luxury versions in precious metals, but that wasn’t always the case. The trailblazing dive watches of the past truly were purpose-built tools, and their functionality could sometimes mean the difference between life and death. Today’s subject of The Icons, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, deserves a deeper dive indeed.
Hard as it might be to believe, Blancpain is the oldest surviving watchmaker in the world, with roots that go back over 280 years. Jehan-Jacques Blancpain first registered his name as a watchmaker in Villaret, Switzerland, in 1735. The business would stay a family affair for nearly 200 years. Since then, Blancpain has had a complicated ownership history, including the sale of the name to Jacques Piguet and Jean-Claude Biver in the 1980s, which eventually led to SSIH (later the Swatch Group) purchasing Blancpain in 1992. Biver served as CEO until 2002, when Marc Hayek, grandson of Swatch boss Nicolas Hayek, took over.
The Fifty Fathoms’ story is just as intriguing. Although developed around the same time as Rolex’s Submariner, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was the first-to-market modern dive watch, introduced in 1953. The original Fifty Fathoms addressed the practical requests of French Navy combat swimmers, with its water resistance, large 41mm case, rotating timing bezel, and luminous radium handset and markers, set against a black dial for easy legibility. These are features we take for granted now, but back then, they were nothing short of revolutionary, and nearly every dive watch since has a little Blancpain DNA. And the Fifty Fathoms name? It stems from an antiquated British unit of measure, approximately 91 and a half metres, which was at the outer limit of dive capability at the time.
Rise To Fame
As the Fifty Fathoms’ reputation grew, so did its customer base. In addition to the French Navy frogmen who wore it, the watch became standard issue for US Navy Seals in the late ‘50s, and later, other militaries worldwide. The watches were distributed by not only Blancpain, but French watch brand LIP (with their own double-signed dials), Spirotechnique (under the Aqua Lung brand), and the Tornek-Rayville name for US Navy issue. The Tornek-Rayville nomenclature was largely a semantic conceit to comply with regulations that a certain quota of military contracts be awarded to US-based companies.
Some other interesting variations include the so-called ‘No Rad’ (No Radiations) dial version from the ‘60s, which utilised the much less radioactive tritium lume in place of radium. These dials are highly distinctive, and feature a crossed-out yellow and red radiation symbol.
Another dial oddity is the MIL-SPEC 1 version with its water ingress indicator, which showed a colour change from half white/half orange to all orange, letting the user know that their watch’s case was compromised, and therefore not to be trusted for critical timing.
It’s safe to say that without the Fifty Fathoms, the dive watch as we know it today may not exist. And though now decidedly upmarket, the Blancpain name still commands respect, and a multitude of Fifty Fathoms models are available, all with real-world dive capability. I’ll highlight a few modern variants below. Lowly tool watches no more, the newer editions continue to celebrate their ocean-going roots. Still, high horology remains the priority at Blancpain, and their emphasis on stunning casework and in-house calibers of tremendous quality is the driving force behind the brand. After all, one of their most famous slogans is “Blancpain has never made a quartz watch, and never will”.
Pioneering undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s ship, the Calypso, served as a test bed for all manner of diving equipment, including wristwatches, and he and his crew wore the early Fifty Fathoms models (along with Rolex Submariners and others) on their expeditions. Later, Cousteau’s Aqua Lung company distributed the Fifty Fathoms, double-signed with Aqua Lung on the dial.
Legendary Hollywood star Lloyd Bridges (father of Jeff) was an amateur diver, having starred on TV’s Sea Hunt, and wore an early Fifty Fathoms.
Actor Brad Pitt, now a Breitling ambassador, has previously counted a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tourbillon as part of his collection.
A decidedly utilitarian diver’s watch, the Fifty Fathoms has since evolved into a full-fledged line for Blancpain, with a broad range of variants since. Some of my favourites follow.
This modern interpretation of the classic Fifty Fathoms look is probably one of the truest to the legendary vintages, but it now features 300 metres of water resistance and a sapphire bezel.
Another historical callback, the “No Rad” dial version employs tasteful use of fauxtina on the dial and fully marked bezel.
Part of the sleeker, less tool-like Bathyscaphe series, this looker of a flyback chronograph has a 43.6mm ceramic case and an impossibly gorgeous sunray-green dial with matching bezel. I can’t even.
From the svelte and sinuous to the positively beastly, we come to the titanic Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms, clocking in at an eye-popping 55.6mm in diameter by 24mm thick. This bruiser also handily includes a decompression valve, depth indication on two scales, maximum depth memory with a secured reset pusher, and a retrograde five-minute counter. Cool tech, to be sure, but you’d better have wrists like John Cena to pull this one off.
Finally, if you’re looking for the last word in rugged refinement, you could do worse than the ultra-luxe FF Tourbillon 8 Jours, which packs a real horological punch in a 45mm red gold case. It won’t come cheap, however: Retail on this one is $133,400 USD.