The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is “a pure diving instrument” for the modern age The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is “a pure diving instrument” for the modern age

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is “a pure diving instrument” for the modern age

Luke Benedictus
  • The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa presents a world-first three-hour timing bezel
  • The “absolute black” dial captures almost 97% of the light to make the lume pop and enhance underwater legibility
  • The release continues the 70th birthday celebrations of the Fifty Fathoms

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech

Laurent Ballesta is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Jacques Costeau. The 48-year-old Frenchman is a marine biologist and pioneering deep diver who’s gained international fame as an award-winning underwater photographer. Having once spent 28 straight days underwater, Ballesta has a deep understanding of life beneath the waves. Which is why, five years ago, Blancpain approached their long-term brand partner in order to pose a very specific question. They asked me if a new complication could really be useful for modern dives,” Ballesta recalls.

Initially, Ballesta concedes, he was sceptical about the relevance of the humble diving watch to contemporary underwater exploration. These days most boats require any serious diver to be kitted out with their own personal dive computer that can provide them with a depth gauge, bottom timer and air tables, amongst other technical features.

“At first, I thought a traditional watch for modern dives – they don’t really work together any more,” Ballesta says. “Finally, I realised what makes the difference between a traditional dive and a modern dive today. It’s not the depths, it’s not the silence, it’s the duration.”

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech

This change in priorities stems from the growing popularity in the diving world of the mixed-gas rebreather. Originally used by Navy combat swimmers, these devices recycle exhaled gases, thereby allowing divers to explore at depths and for lengths of time that could not be achieved with scuba tanks alone.

“The rebreather offers the possibility to stay underwater much longer than open circuit, because you recycle all the gas you exhale,” Ballesta explains. “Suddenly there is no limit to your dive. The only limit is your physiology.”

Blancpain, of course, introduced the first modern diver’s watch in the form of the Fifty Fathoms in 1953. It’s therefore fitting that they took up this challenge of making a dive watch that can deliver on these updated requirements for time measurement. A standard dive watch bezel, after all, only measures up to 60 minutes. But the rebreather has made such limits redundant.

“The diving industry, much like the watch industry, didn’t stop evolving,” explains Marc Hayek, the Blancpain CEO who was personally responsible for reviving the Fifty Fathoms in 2002. “Today, it’s a new world of diving where the duration of a dive is way more important.”

To celebrate the 70 anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms, Blancpain therefore set out to create a watch that in Hayek’s words “really answers the needs of today’s demanding tech diver”. The result of this deep-sea quest is the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa

Unlike the bezels on conventional diver’s watches, the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa has a three-hour scale. It’s linked to a special hand that completes one full turn every three hours and whose white luminescent coating glows green in the dark to match the bezel markers. Powered by Blancpain’s 13P8 self-winding movement, this three-hour timing scale invented jointly by Hayek and Ballesta is a world-first for the watch industry.

Admittedly, all this comes after a year that’s witnessed huge advancements in the dive-watch world. First, there was the release of the Omega Ultra Deep that’s water-resistant to 6000m, while at the end of last year came the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Challenge that’s water-resistant to a mind-boggling 11,000 metres. Yet while these horological achievements are impressive, their real-world application is extremely limited. The world record for the deepest ever scuba dive currently stands at 332m.

This is where the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is different.  Yes, Blancpain’s latest piece is only water-resistant to a comparatively modest 300m. But rather than involve some technical flex for the sake of horological one-upmanship, it incorporates a function that’s genuinely useful for an elite diver.

“It’s a complication that I use every time now as my backup,” Ballesta says of the increased time-measurement scale. “Of course, I have a computer on the rebreather. But if the computer fails, my watch is my backup because of the new bezel and hands.”

Indeed, every aspect of this watch has been designed with the diver’s experience in mind. The bezel inlay is made of black ceramic  instead of the traditional sapphire and has been designed with a stronger curve and tilt towards the dial, capped with a spherical crystal  to eliminate any visual distortion.

The issue of legibility also dictated the composition of the dial. To ensure the best possible readability in the dark, the dial is finished in Blancpain’s take on Vantablack. Dubbed “absolute black”, this coating is able to capture almost 97% of the light. That treatment ensures maximum contrast for the hour-markers that are formed by luminescent block-shaped appliques in orange with blue emission – colour codes picked up on the hours and minutes hands to differentiate between time-related information and diving times.

“Our concentration was really to make this piece as readable and clear as possible,” explains Hayek, a keen diver himself who personally tried several prototypes of the watch. “We wanted to make a pure diving instrument. And there was no sacrifice on that, not even a date window to prevent any disturbance on that perfect readability.”

Not surprisingly given this emphasis on diving utility, the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is a sea montster of a watch with a 47mm diameter. That visual bulk is offset on the wrist by the watch being fashioned out of  Grade 23 Titanium. “It’s the best quality purest titanium,” says Hayek. “We didn’t choose it for the colour, but it’s very good for anti-allergic reactions, which is why it’s the titanium used for protheses.”

The watch also offers surprising ergonomic comfort for its size. In a first for the brand, the central lugs are attached from the inside of the case middle with the black rubber strap screwed into the back of the lugs.  The upshot is that it’s much more wearable that its case dimensions would suggest.

All the other dive-watch features you’d expect are also present and correct. There’s a screw-down crown and helium-release valve, while the rubber strap comes with an internal titanium reinforcement to preserve its shape and is teamed with an extension for wearing the watch over a diving suit.

Another nice detail comes on the back, where the open-caseback reveals the oscillating weight of the movement that’s stamped with the logo of Gombessa Expeditions that Ballesta has led (and Blancpain has underwritten) since 2013.

The verdict

When it comes to the Fifty Fathoms, I must confess I always grumble about one thing. While I love the story and design of the watch, it bugs me that Blancpain only release their limited-edition pieces in 40mm, making them extremely difficult to get hold of, while their regular issue pieces tend to sized bigger than I’m really comfortable with.

Then again, I’m ultimately a landlubber journalist who’s only been diving twice in my life. And I have to accept that I’m therefore not the real target market of the Fifty Fathoms. What I admire about the Tech Gombessa is that it’s totally focused on its goal to deliver the ultimate diving tool with its three-hour timing scale and magnificent readability.

In addition, while it may be a forward-thinking dive watch for the modern age, the Tech Gombessa maintains sufficient brand DNA that  it’s still instantly recognisable as a Fifty Fathoms. It’s this ability to look to the future of diving while celebrating Blancpain’s illustrious past that makes the Tech Gombessa a fitting 70th anniversary tribute to the most iconic dive watch of them all.

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa pricing and availability:

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is not limited edition and is available from Blancpain retailers now Price: A$38,900 / US$28,000

Brand Blancpain
Model Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa
Case Dimensions 47mm (D) x 14.81mm (T)
Case Material Satin-brushed titanium
Water Resistance 300m (screw-down crown)
Dial Black
Crystal(s) Sapphire crystal and exhibition caseback
Bracelet/Strap Black rubber strap
Movement Blancpain 13P8
Power Reserve 120 hours
Functions Hours, minutes, seconds, 3-hour dive timer
Availability Now
Price A$38,900 / US$28,000