In the great book of the sea, there is one story that, more than others, commands attention. Writing it, in this case, is Blancpain, which is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms. A name that says a lot about the link with the sixth continent. Yes, because it indicates the depth to which the water-resistance of what can be defined to all intents and purposes as the first diver’s watch of the modern era was guaranteed. (Here all our posts about Blancpain)
This came about thanks to an intuition of Jean-Jacques Fiechter. The then CEO of Blancpain and a pioneer in a discipline that was still in its infancy, understood the imperative need to be able to track times while diving. At the time, no reliable instruments existed, hence the need to develop a watch equipped with all those indispensable requirements for safe diving.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, a success story
The rest is a story studded with many stages. The latest, in order of time, is the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa timepiece whose development involved Marc A. Hayek. A great fan of diving, the President and CEO of Blancpain has launched himself, together with diver, photographer and marine biologist Laurent Ballesta, into the conception of a new mechanical instrument that meets the needs of all extreme divers.
Starting with members of the Gombessa Expeditions, whose research work includes deep dives of long duration. This timepiece, which also celebrates 10 years of collaboration between Blancpain and Gombessa, is distinguished by a whole series of innovations. The most important of these is the unidirectional rotating bezel which features a graduation on a 3-hour scale. This is connected to a special hand, which makes one complete revolution in 180 minutes, whose material and colour, a green-emitting white luminescent coating, is matched to those of the hour markers.
Fifty Fathmos Tech Gombessa
This device, jointly invented by Marc A. Hayek and Laurent Ballesta, represents a world first for which a patent has been filed. Animating this function, as well as those of the hours and minutes, is the 13P8 automatic movement. Today, the arrival of the Fifty Fathmos Tech Gombessa enriches the story linking the Maison to the sea with an exciting new chapter. An association that has lasted 70 years and which today, as then, represents a precious source of inspiration, as Marc A. Hayek tells us. Hayek in this interview with Sea Time.
Was the Fifty Fathoms a turning point for the Maison?
The Fifty Fathoms was essential to the development of underwater activities and proved to be an instrument that ensured Blancpain played a leading role in the history of diving watches. What aspect of it do you find most enthralling? The Fifty Fathoms wasn’t designed as a watch but as a diving instrument. Back in the 1950s, there were no underwater computers and the Fifty Fathoms wasn’t sold through Blancpain’s traditional retail channels, just through companies specialising in renting diving equipment. I hugely admire the vision and farsightedness of Jean-Jacques Fiecther (who headed the manufacture from the 1950s to the 1980s, ed.’s note).
All of his intuitions and choices were essential and met the needs of specialist corps in the leading navies across the world. There is a story about the US Navy launching a test programme in 1959 that went on for several years and covered a wide range of dive watches. In the end, the only one that met all its requirements was the Fifty Fathoms. Also the NIHS-9211 (ISO 6425) for diver’s watches introduced in 1996 set a similar set of standards to what we had achieved 40 years previously with the Fifty Fathoms.
Seventy years on from its launch, what makes the Fifty Fathoms a benchmark in the diver’s watch world?
It is the archetype of the diver’s watch. The solutions it uses were and still are a benchmark for the entire watch industry. The Fifty Fathoms opened an entirely new direction for horology.
Clearly, Blancpain’s bond with the sea goes well beyond its watches: why did the company decide to embark on the Blancpain Ocean Commitment?
Relaunching the Fifty Fathoms collection without doing anything for the oceans was just unthinkable for me. In part because the watch itself helped open the way for marine exploration, it allowed so many people to discover the wonders of the undersea world. It broadened the spectrum of people that could dive. That is why the BOC is actually just continuing a philosophy that hasn’t changed in seven decades.
Blancpain has partnered the World Ocean Summit since 2012 also. So are the oceans a priority for the company?
Yes, protecting the oceans is a priority for us. We have taken a lot from our planet and now it is time to give something back. We need to be more responsible and aware of what we are doing and the impact of our actions on the environment, particularly for the sake of our children and that of future generations. The culture, tradition and wealth of knowledge we have built over so many years, which our work is helping to preserve and pass on, are central to the haute horlogerie sector. If we want to stick to our principles and values, we have to embrace sustainability issues. I am convinced that awareness alone is no longer enough. We need to act and everyone has to do their bit.
What is your personal relationship to the sea?
For as long as I can remember, I have spent every spring and summer on the Mediterranean coast. I was a fan of Jacques-Yves Cousteau as a child, and loved snorkelling and free diving so much that I started scuba diving lessons before I turned 12. I love the sea in all its forms but what happens beneath its surface is what attracts me most powerfully. That’s why for the last 20 years and more I have spent 90 per cent of my holidays diving. Once I am underwater, I feel perfectly at one with nature, and a sense of peace and well-being that I find hard to put into words. As far as I am concerned an hour’s diving isworth a week of holidays.