Love And Attention: Blancpain Revisits Staples Of Its History In Their 2019 Novelties
For 2019, Blancpain offers a collection of remastered greatest hits that bring classic military and dress watches into haute horology territory.
What’s old is new again, and this year, Blancpain is revisiting classic models from the brand’s Fifty Fathoms and Villeret collections, building upon the tool watch mechanics but with added design features with real boardroom appeal.
No matter what you’re suiting up for, the blue sea, the blue sky, or in a blue suit, Blancpain’s latest novelties offer thoughtful touches to these reborn classics.
A Historic Lineup
The watches in this year’s collection of novelties include history-making models as well as models with mysterious histories.
Let’s start with the Fifty Fathoms Automatique - the first modern dive watch. Released in 1953, one year before the Rolex Submariner, this watch began as a collaboration between Blancpain and commanders of the French Combat Diving School. The commanders were looking for a watch to meet their wishlists: automatic, anti-magnetic, supremely water-resistant, and easy to read. The watch debuted with many of the functional features that are now commonplace in today's dive watches, like a unidirectional rotating bezel (used to calculate remaining oxygen levels during dives), automatic movements, and a screw-down caseback.
Similarly, Blancpain is releasing a tribute to the Fifty Fathoms watch used by the Nageuers de combat, or French combat swimmers. These elite soldiers carried out sea-born assaults, the laying and diffusing of mines, and even underwater espionage, all while wearing Blancpain’s flagship dive watch.
As the Fifty Fathom’s reputation for readability and reliability spread, more militaries wanted to get their hands on it. The German Navy, known as the Bundesmarine until 1995, acquired a special model of the Fifty Fathoms from the German aquatic supplier, Barakuda. This version, now known as the “Barakuda,” features two-tone hour markers with a pop of red and plenty of 60s funk. The watch was eventually released for civilian sale with approximately 150 models believed to be produced.
Finally, the Air Command, arguably the most anticipated release from Blancpain this year, has a bit of mystery to its history. Unconfirmed reports state that Blancpain produced twelve prototypes for the famed distributor, Allen V. Tornek, who supplied them to the United States Air Force. And with so few watches in circulation and the lingering mystery behind the origin story, the Air Command has achieved grail status among collectors.
A Quick Take on Tribute Watches
No doubt, some will bemoan the use of the vintage-looking “old radium Super LumiNova” on the Barakuda and Air Command, some will bemoan the cosmetic touches that move them further away from tool watch territory, and some will even decry bemoan the re-release of classic watches entirely.
Remaking a classic is hard, and the watch community can be an especially tough crowd given the heightened level of education and passion in our niche world. When a brand does decide to revisit a famed piece from its archive, one can only hope that they won’t be lazy or irreverent about it.
The movements have been brought up to contemporary excellence. The cases are sturdier and better finished than ever. And there are small design touches throughout each of these watches that illustrate the level of attention given to each. Even the vintage-looking tribute details like the old-radium Super LumiNova feel organic and well-executed.
While it’s hard to recreate the magic of an original, these tributes stand on the shoulders of their predecessors to deliver heritage watches worthy of their names. These strategies work for companies like Chevrolet when releasing new Corvettes or with Porsche releasing new 911s, and it seems to be working for Blancpain here too.
The most significant update to these classic watches are the in-house movements that were painstakingly-produced and deliver big numbers in the engineering department. Made alongside the very best Swatch Group movements, these upgraded mechanicals increase the tool watch functionality of the pieces, making them more serious machines than ever before.
The Fifty Fathoms Automatique, including the special Nageuers de combat edition, carry the 1315 movement, which offers an astounding 120hr power reserve (5 days) via its three barrels coupled in series. It also has a silicon balance spring for better anti-magnetism than the original model.
Similarly, the Barakuda also carries a silicon balance spring by way of the Caliber 1151 movement. Finished with a côtes de Genève motif, the 1151 offers a 100hr power reserve and is a remarkable 3.25mm thick.
The Air Command sports the Caliber F338B. Made of a whopping 297 components, this high-frequency, automatic movement operates at 5Hz and can time the chronograph down to one-tenth of a second.
With all the work put into upgraded movements, it helps to see them in action, right? Consequently, each watch covered here comes with an exhibition caseback to show off the steel, red gold, and rubies as they work their magic. The only exception is the Fifty Fathoms Nageuers de Combat, which has the official seal of the elite military unit.
In addition to the life-preserving utility of the Fifty Fathoms Automatique's rotating bezel, the Air Command bezel aided pilots in calculating fuel reserves during flight. Now, each of the military watches includes a domed bezel with a scratch-resistant sapphire insert, a feature that Blancpain introduced in 2003 and has been using increasingly in their heritage watches.
The Villeret Ultra-Plate and Villeret GMT Date are enclosed in the signature double-step bezel, adding an unnecessary but much-appreciated design touch.
In keeping with the tool watch spirit, all six of these novelties are offered in stainless steel. For those looking for a little extra, the Fifty Fathoms Automatique and two Villeret watches are also available in 18kt red gold.
Blancpain also bolstered the water-resistance to 30 BAR (300m) on the Fifty Fathoms Automatique, the Nageuers de Combat, and the Barakuda.
Sometimes it’s the small touches that make all the difference, the ones you only notice when you get really close to a watch. Take a look at the Villeret’s subtle paper texture on the white dial. Check out the red arrow hand on the GMT Date and the slightly sunken time zone ring. These Roman numerals are not your standard shape but rather a bone-like silhouette. In my opinion, dress watches can often feel underdone, and these small details add just enough visual interest without overwhelming the overall simplicity.
The same attention to detail extends to the military watches. The 18kt red gold propellor oscillating weight on the Air Command is a functional and all too perfect addition. The hour indicators on the Barakuda, yes, in “old radium,” offer just a bit of fading around the edges.
The ceramic dial of the Fifty Fathoms Automatique is not only more durable, but it also allows for greater chromatic depth, and appealing Arabic numerals thinly outlined in red gold.
How about the black 7 on the Nageuers de Combat dial, harkening back to the maximum depth in meters one can dive on pure oxygen? If you look closely, even the numbers in the date window are tipped with the same serifs.
This line of Blancpain novelties, wading deep into the revered waters of classic timepieces, certainly brings a heightened level of attention to each aspect of the watches. And one can only hope that all the time spent reviving these pieces of yore was lead by, not just financial motives, but admiration. So I’ll close with a line from the 2017 dramedy, Lady Bird, that’s stuck with me, “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)