(Opening picture: Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier © Blancpain)
70 Years Of Fifty Fathoms
Pioneers of civilian aviation in the 1950s and 60s envisaged future air passengers would be businessmen and never foresaw the rise of the package holiday tourists that fill the aeroplanes today. There are parallels in the watch industry with many timepieces originally designed as navigational aids for sailors and aviators before finding favour with the civilian population, attracted to their functions and aesthetics. So too with Blancpain’s military-grade Fifty Fathoms dive watch launched in 1953, and designed with just an inkling of its potential for recreational diving, a sport very much in its infancy. Today it has become not just a dive watch favourite amongst aficionados but the go-to timepiece for famous underwater marine scientists and environmentalists.
As told in a new two-part documentary about this iconic Blancpain watch, it was a near-fatal accident, running out of air underwater on a 50-metre dive, that starts Jean-Jacques Fiechter’s story back in the early 1950s. It prompted him into looking at how to design a watch that could safely monitor time spent underwater before the air supply is exhausted. At the same time, in France, Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier of the French combat diving corps was looking at the same issue.
Fiechter, whose mother Betty had bought watchmaker Blancpain from the family of her employer Frédéric-Emile Blancpain when he died in 1932, set to work devising a robust, reliable dive instrument that could be read underwater. To handle water-resistance he invented a special O-ring seal between the watchcase and back, and devised a double-sealed crown. He added a rotating bezel with minute-markings and locking system for timing the dive – both were patented. He also added a soft inner iron case to protect the movement from the magnets that are used in the dive environment.
Meanwhile, Captain Maloubier in France was scouting watchmakers for a suitable dive watch for his new elite diving corps. Fiechter came to their attention and it was a meeting of minds, Fiechter’s concepts and Maloubier’s military specifications. The watch performed perfectly in Maloubier’s military tests and was adopted not just by the French military, but subsequently by the American Navy Seals and the military forces of Israeli, Spanish, and many more countries.
Fiecheter’s watch, now named the Fifty Fathoms after a quote in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, also came to the notice of famous underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The Fifty Fathoms were worn by all his divers during his documentary making and have since been worn by other distinguished marine scientists like Laurent Ballesta, Dr Enric Sala and many famous conservationist and documentary makers who are highlighting the damage being done to the ocean ecosystem.
Many declinations of the Fifty Fathoms appeared during Fiechter’s three decades at Blancpain including a moisture-indicator and various complications. The original designs were large, 40mm and upwards, for legibility under water. Men’s watches of that era were typically 32 and 34mm, so Fiechter introduced in 1956 a cousin to the Fifty, the Bathyscaphe. Although a dress watch size, it proved a perfect fit for women divers until the 25 and 26mm sizes were introduced – retaining all the functions necessary for diving despite their reduced size.
Blancpain was sold to Jacques Piquet in 1982 and 10 years later sold to the Swatch Group. In 2002 another passionate diver, Marc Hayek, became CEO and initiated the modern era of the Fifty Fathoms. He introduced a 50th anniversary watch in 2003 to relaunch the collection and in 2011 the X Fathoms, the first dive watch with an integrated mechanical depth gauge that can record depths to 90 metres as well as shallow depth for decompression. Two years later a new version of the Bathyscaphe was introduced to re-energise the legend and in the same year came the Blancpain commitment to the cause of ocean preservation. It is a commitment that goes to the heart of the brand, raising public awareness and funding scientific expeditions. A fitting legacy for Fiechter’s pioneering invention.
Fifty Fathoms narrated by Emmy Award winner Peter Coyote.