We’re Going To Need a Bigger Watch: A Sharktastic Guide to Blancpain’s Diving Watches
2018 marks the 65th Anniversary of the legendary Fifty Fathoms — the world’s first modern diving watch. To celebrate, the company brought a collection of historic timepieces to their New York boutique and their booth at WatchTime NY.
Origin of Blancpain’s aquatic adventures
Since the birth of the Fifty Fathoms, Blancpain has devoted substantial resources to creating a community of divers, environmentalists, scientists and photographers committed to the preservation of the world’s oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. Since 2008, the company has been publishing the Edition Fifty Fathoms, a collection of underwater photography as part of its Blancpain Ocean Commitment project.
One of the best images from this project is “Blue in Profile — Anacapa Passage, California, 1981” by Ernest H. Brooks II. It’s a photograph of a blue shark in profile, graceful but also somewhat chilling. The rise of the shark as a pop cultural phenomenon (what other fish has a whole week dedicated to is) also matches the prominence of the dive watch in horological history. Which got us thinking: we’ve rated watches on — how deep they can go, how bright they glow, and even about how great they look even if you never go into the water. But one measure we’ve never rated them by how well we think a timepiece would fare in a shark encounter.
MIL-SPEC Fifty Fathoms Vs. Oceanic Whitetip Shark
In 1953, Swiss watch manufacturer and CEO of Blancpain Jean-Jacques Fiechter along with French combat diver Captain Robert Maloubier developed the Fifty Fathoms — the world’s first modern diving watch.
This marine marvel was built to military specifications, featuring a watertight and pressure-resistant case but also the first unidirectional dive bezel. that defined the modern, safe dive watch, making it one of the most recognizable of the vintage diving watches. Fifty Fathoms is a reference to a British measuring unit, which corresponds to a depth of 91.45 meters. In the 1950s, this was considered as the maximum depth that divers could safely survive.
The 1950s was the golden age of scuba mania. Jacques Cousteau perfected the Aqualung, waterproof film cameras filmed his adventures and TV shows popularized the whole idea of undersea adventure. It even made an appearance in the famed French oceanographer’s 1956 Oscar-winning documentary, The Silent World.
Cousteau was also a pioneered of shark research. In 1970, he wrote The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea with his son Philippe. In this book, Cousteau described the Oceanic Whitetip Shark as "the most dangerous of all sharks".
We think that a vintage Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC would be able to take on the Whitetip any day.
Man Vs. Tornek-Rayville Fifty Fathoms
Originally, Blancpain manufactured the Fifty Fathoms for the French, German and American military use. In fact, when the U.S. Navy was looking for a company to supply dive watches, Blancpain had to beat out Rolex, Enicar, and Bulova examples to meet their stringent guidelines. The now iconic water-tightness indicator became a requirement of the American Navy and was incorporated in all these models.
Even then, the Fifty Fathoms had to be imported through an American distributor (Allen V. Tornek) because of the Post-War, “Buy American Act.”
Off duty military men helped popularize the dive watch on land as well just as TV shows like Sea Hunt starring Lloyd Bridges as George Nelson, a former Navy Frogman, helped make sharks something to be feared for folks who didn’t live on the beach. In one classic episode called “The Shark Cage,” Nelson’s life is imperiled not by a killer fish, but a jealous cameraman.
Who will protect us from ourselves? A trusty timepiece like the Tornek-Rayvill Fifty Fathoms.
Mako Shark Vs. The Bathyscaphe
In the swinging sixties, sharks were seen as lean mean and sexy. General Motors even created a concept car called the Mako Shark which was designed by Larry Shinoda — the man best known for his work with the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang.
While it never went into production, this sharp, streamlined automobile embodied all the badass things about sharks. Likewise, the Mako, while not as deadly as a great white per se, is the fastest and sleekest.
The horological equivalent would be the Blancpain Bathyscaphe, an offering created for the civilian market by introducing the Bathyscaphe. Smaller and simpler than the mil-spec Fifty Fathoms, it helped popularize the dive watch as an everyday wearer.
Who wins: It’s a tie! Nobody gets hurt. Everybody looks good.
Great White Vs. Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date 70
The 1970s. This is the decade when sharks became notorious and watches got really funky. And innovative. It was in this era that Blancpain released the first dive watch with a case rated to 1000m.
While villains like the Great White in Jaws made us afraid to go back into the water, adding additional complications such as a day date display to the Fifty Fathoms made dive watches even more attractive to buyers.
This year, Blancpain introduced in the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date 70s. A very practical watch that combines a vintage feel with a modern-day movement and a very high finish. If a surfer was wearing this stylish watch, no Great White would ever mistake a surfer for a seal.
Megaladon Vs. Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Complete Calendar Moonphase
Diving is in Blancpain’s DNA on the executive side as well. CEO Marc A. Hayek is also a diver and underwater photographer. When he took over Blancpain in 2003, he tasked his team with reimagining the Fifty Fathoms as a timepiece that was both was luxurious and a useful diving tool. The Bathyscaphe was also updated in 2013, with further features such as a flyback chronograph, triple calendars and moon phases.
Luxury jewelers Bucherer, like Blancpain, has a rich history of expertise and elegance. The retailer has collaborated with high-end brands like IWC and Tudor on boutique-only small batch releases and most recently its take on the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe. The beautiful brushed case and dial pay homage to both the color of the ocean and Bucherer’s signature blue.
It’s probably the most impressive dive watch Blancpain has ever produced. And the prehistoric Megaladon is the most impressive shark to have ever existed. Because it’s extinct, we have to give the Bucherer Edition the edge in this battle. But if we ever came face-to-face with this monster, we would reluctantly hand over the watch and carefully swim away.
(Photography by Liam O’Donnell)