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Blancpain x Swatch: crossed destinies under the sign of the sea

It’s the story of two collections that somehow left a mark in the world of watchmaking. In 1953, Blancpain introduced the Fifty Fathoms watch to the market, marking a significant turning point by opening the doors to the world of underwater diving to a wider audience of enthusiasts from the sixth continent. (All our posts about Blancpain, here)

first fifty fathoms 1953

Blancpain x Swatch

In 2023, exactly 70 years later, comes the Blancpain x Swatch. More than just a simple tribute, the Swiss brand, also part of the same group, wanted to pay homage to the legendary diver. Both collections share a vision, an approach, a philosophy with deep roots. Immersing oneself in their history allows one to experience it firsthand, even when the spotlight dims after a year of celebrations to commemorate this significant milestone.

first fifty fathoms 1953

Confirmation comes from the launch, at the beginning of 2024, of the new Bioceramic Scuba Fifty Fathoms, the sixth chapter, or rather the sixth ocean, of a collection created to honor the first true underwater watch. However, in this case, the ocean in question is called Oceanus Procellarum. It is actually a lunar sea located on the western edge of the near side of the moon.

Omega x Swatch

The same moon that, perhaps coincidentally, inspired another highly successful collection like the MoonSwatch, once again created by Swatch to pay homage to Omega’s Speedmaster Moonwatch, the watch that accompanied man into space for the first time. Recently, precisely 11 MoonSwatch Moonshine Gold watches fetched 534,670 Swiss francs, a sum that will be entirely donated to Orbis International, a historic partner of the brand, during Sotheby’s online auction. The sea and space. Earth and the moon. For Blancpain, as well as for Omega, inspiration knows no bounds. Then there’s the added value of Swatch’s role, which deserves credit for providing a new perspective on these two icons of time. The history of the Fifty Fathoms confirms this.

Ocean of Storm

Shakespeare, Blancpain and time

Jean-Jacques Fiecther, Blancpain’s CEO from 1950 to 1980, combined his passion for literature with his love for diving. He is credited with conceiving the first modern underwater watch. It was Fiecther who coined the term Fifty Fathoms. He was inspired by a precise passage from Act One, Scene Two of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” where Ariel, the spirit of the air, sings: “Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made…”.

j.j. fiechter, blancpain ceo (1950-1980) during one of his first dives in the south of france

Fiecther’s attention focused on the word “fathom” (a nautical term for a unit of measurement equivalent to 1.98 meters and used in the past to indicate depth). In his mind, it sounded like a fitting name for a diver’s watch. However, to be credible as such, five fathoms were not enough, so they became 50, which is 91 meters. But the Fifty Fathoms gained prominence primarily for its technical qualities, embodying a very precise vision: to be above all a reliable tool. In a sense, Fiecther himself understood this at his own expense.

Fiechter on a diving trip in the south of france

During a dive in Villefranche-sur-Mer, the CEO of Blancpain almost ran the risk of running out of oxygen and managed to surface from a depth of 50 meters by relying on the last breath he had in his body. “Passion makes us lose track of time,” reflected Fiecther. Indeed, at that time, the only professional diving watches were issued to the armed forces, and there was nothing available on the market. Among the major dangers for those venturing underwater with tanks, besides relying on reliable equipment, was especially the lack of instruments capable of calculating times in an environment, the underwater world, where it was easy to lose track of it. This was the winning intuition that laid the groundwork for the birth of a legend: the Fifty Fathoms.

President John F. Kennedy speaking with U.S. Navy Seal divers wearing the Fifty Fathoms

Less is more for the king of divers

What should a dive watch be like? What needs did it have to meet? Fiecther had no doubts: few but essential features. First and foremost, waterproofing, needless to say. Then, clear and immediate legibility of the information displayed on the dial, crucial for keeping track of time. Additionally, a rotating bezel with a locking mechanism. This feature allowed divers to accurately and securely track the time spent underwater, reducing the risk of overexposure. Then, of course, there was the issue related to the automatic mechanical movement, but in this regard, Blancpain’s over 200 years of history and, above all, reputation in the world of watchmaking played in its favor at the time. Last but not least, effective protection against magnetism. These were, in summary, the ingredients of a winning recipe. So far, the story of the Fifty Fathoms. 

Blancpain, the Fifty Fathoms and the French Navy

And yet, there is much more. Another story that intertwines with the one told so far is brought to attention. The protagonists are Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, tasked with creating the French combat diver unit. Needless to say, among the essential equipment of the combat divers, the watch played a central role. Unfortunately, the tests on the watches available on the market in Paris by the two officers were disastrous: the timepieces were too small, difficult to read underwater, and, above all, not waterproof. After meeting Jean-Jacques Fiechter in Switzerland, the French officers departed with some Fifty Fathoms watches to test.

Fifty Fathoms

The watch successfully passed all the tests, and the French Navy decided to adopt the Fifty Fathoms as its dive watch. What made the difference were precisely its waterproofing, sturdy crown with double seal, automatic movement, dark dial contrasting with luminescent indications, rotating bezel with locking mechanism, and protection against magnetism. Translated, Fiecther’s intuitions proved decisive in transforming this timepiece into an indispensable tool for the underwater missions of the combat divers. Illustrative in this regard is the letter that Lieutenant Claude Riffaud wrote to the French distributor of Blancpain: “I hereby confirm the receipt of the watch ‘BLANCPAIN’ No. 166 Marine Nationale. I am pleased to inform you that I am very satisfied with this type of watch, which we have used for underwater exercises over the past year.

Blancpain fiftyfathoms 8

The waterproofing, which we have tested up to 100 meters, is perfect, the operation is excellent, and the brightness meets the necessary requirements. During a dive, one of these watches was lost at a depth of 53 meters. We recovered it 24 hours later, in perfect condition and working properly. I consider the external rotating crown very important, which proves to be very useful during dives. Since some officers have expressed the desire to purchase this model of watch for personal use, I would be grateful if you could inform me of the official price.” Over the years, the Fifty Fathoms became the watch of choice for numerous special forces units and military navies. Starting with that of the United States, which made a specific request to include a humidity indicator that activates in the presence of water infiltration into the watch. This device, known as the “water-tightness indicator” or “humidity indicator,” was a key element in ensuring the safety of divers, alerting them in case of possible water ingress into the watch. Thus, a version of the Fifty Fathoms was born that made headlines under the name “MIL-SPEC,” which the maison also proposed in a civilian version. Today, due to its limited and confined production, this reference has become a true cult object for collectors. But the story continues…   End of Part One 

Matteo Zaccagnino

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