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Explore the History of Dive Watches with Blancpain Semrushtools

A one-sentence summary will get us started here. In 1953, Swiss watchmaker Blancpain launched the world’s first dive watch; the world of watches would never be the same again. Arguably the most popular type of traditional mechanical wristwatch, the dive watch is a firm favourite amongst collectors and casual buyers alike. Virtually all the major players have one, with the notable exception of haute horlogerie stalwarts Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Even Audemars Piguet bowed to collector pressure and introduced the Offshore Diver some years back, though that watch is hardly a deeply important part of the assortment. Bucking this trend decisively is Blancpain, which was much more famous for its haute horlogerie pieces for most of its history, as you can see by looking at its collections, but we will get to that in a bit.

The original Fifty Fathoms

While this is obviously not great for general information, these sorts of watches are the most plentiful in the world, since they also include the toughest tickers. Dive watches might have been the first purpose-built watches for a particular sporting activity, making the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms the first tool watch for sports. Navigation, aviation and driving watches all arrived before the dive watch, but all of these have been eclipsed by the timekeeper of the deep. Even the arrival of cheap quartz watches could not make the sports watch come up for air, so to speak. As for the smartwatch, most models and makes have only recently gotten water-resistance right, thanks to all the detector functions.

Now, if you are a long-time reader of World of Watches, you will probably be sighing to yourself, and wondering just why we are so obsessed with dive watches. Part of the answer lies in the story of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and that leads us directly into our usual history lesson. As far as other key models go though, we will be addressing those more fully later in this story, and later in the year. The historical section also covers the salient characteristics of the Fifty Fathoms as they stand today, and includes a sidebar on Blancpain’s conservation work.

Deep Dive

Jean-Jacques Fiechter

In many ways, Blancpain is a bit of a surprising superstar in diving. Founded in 1735 in Villeret, Switzerland, the manufacture had been largely focused on complications and beautifully finished watches for most of its storied past. This was reinforced by another part of the DNA of the contemporary Blancpain brand, that of Louis Élisée Piguet, that remains famed to this day for its complicated movements. This stands in direct contrast with watchmakers who got off the blocks in the 20th century, for example, where a certain degree of utilitarianism was to be expected.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe

Happily, Jean-Jacques had another passion besides diving: making watches. He soon set about finding a solution to the problem that almost killed him because he realised that a precise, reliable and tough watch was the key. With the resources of a manufacture at his disposal, Jean-Jacques could develop exactly the sort of watch that was needed. This story is precisely what makes the Fifty Fathoms so special and unique in the development of the dive watch.

With the right inspiration, Jean-Jacques reflected on his accident and realised two things: a diver needed to keep track of time during a dive, and also needed to account for time to decompress before surfacing. In other words, it was not enough to know how much air you had left, you also needed to know how much time you could spend, in total, relying on your SCUBA gear. Jean-Jacques began designing a watch that would do all that was required; he needed a ticker that would keep you ticking, to put it another way. From the start, he knew it would have to be a simple and tough timepiece, because chronographs were not water-resistant at all at this time (for those of you who wonder why this solution did not occur to Jean-Jacques or the esteemed watchmakers at Blancpain).

Creating a simple timepiece from scratch is no easy feat, particularly when that timepiece also had to be a lifesaving instrument for divers. Jean-Jacques had to invent what we take for granted today, codified within the strictures of ISO 6425. Take, for example, the issue of water-resistance, which was pretty much resolved by the 1950s…except it was not. There were weak points in any watch, which are the same today, where water might penetrate the case: the crown and the caseback. For the crown, Jean-Jacques came up with the double-sealed system. The crown could be perfectly safe, if it was not pulled out. If one forgets to push or screw the crown back in after adjusting the watch, then jumps off a boat into the water, then that is one watch that just drowned.

Beyond this, Jean-Jacques knew that the wristwatches of his time were simply too small for use underwater, where legibility is key. He worked on larger case sizes with his aunt Fiechter’s neighbour, who happened to be a casemaker; Jean-Jacques shared the same home as his aunt, who lived upstairs while he lived on the first floor.

On the same theme of legibility, Jean-Jacques decided on a colour scheme of white against black, and luminous hands, for visibility in the dark, which was actually not new at that time. Similarly, for the movement, Jean-Jacques knew it had to be automatic, to reduce the risk of wear and tear on the crown. The final bit came down to resisting magnetism, but this needs to wait, because while Jean-Jacques was firming up his vision, the second foundational part of the dive watch story was taking shape.

Here we race ahead a bit, because the next elements lead us to the present and possibly future of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch. One year after the launch of the watch, in 1954, famed diver and marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau selected the Fifty Fathoms model for his dive team, whose filmed dives became the basis of the Academy Award-winning film, “The Silent World” in 1957. Thus, the professional, recreational and conservationist characteristics of the Fifty Fathoms came together in just a few years. In terms of the world’s armed forces, the Fifty Fathoms quickly became the go-to option for the Israelis, West Germans, Danish, Norwegians, Swedish, Pakistanis and, most famously, the Americans, with the Navy SEALs.

Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa

If the conservation angle is somewhat hidden in Act 1, it takes centre stage here, given that the name of the watch is the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa, which is the 70th Anniversary Limited Edition Act 2. You may recall that Gombessa here is derived from Gombessa Expeditions, the initiative headed by marine biologist, photographer and diver Laurent Ballesta, and supported by Blancpain as a founding partner. The name is not there just to signify an important cause — the Tech Gombessa was jointly developed by Blancpain and Ballesta. The Tech part of the name is also pivotal, because it refers to the count-up bezel with three-hour display, which is totally new in a dive watch (or indeed any watch).

Unlike the Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms, the Tech Gombessa is not mind-bogglingly complicated. It is rather simple by way of comparison, but that is not the point. The original Fifty Fathoms was a watch designed to meet the needs of divers, and the Tech Gombessa follows the same narrative, except here, the heroes are Blancpain CEO Marc Hayek, himself an accomplished diver, and Ballesta. Ballesta wanted a watch that could serve him on closed-circuit rebreather diving excursions, and that is precisely what he got.



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