Blancpain continues the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms with the new Tech Gombessa, with a simple, but interesting innovation designed specifically to meet the modern diver’s technical requirements. We were given a preview ahead of today’s announcement, and this is our hands on review with live photographs.
New and reviewed: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa
The new Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa Ref. 5019-12B30-64A retails for SGD 40,000 inclusive of GST. The watch is not a limited edition, but a limited production. Marc Hayek told us he is forecasting about 100 pieces a year.
2023 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms, one of the watches specifically designed for the needs of the divers, and Blancpain proposes a Three Act celebration. Act One was launched in January, and was a Limited Edition of 210 pieces, with 70 available in each of three regions: Americas, EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa), and Asia Pacific. Today’s novelty – the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is Act Two. And an Act Three is scheduled for September 2023.
The Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa
Right from the get go, the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa not only piqued our interest, but managed to sustain it. This is not a watch with features dreamt up by watchmakers and technical wizards sitting in their ateliers in Switzerland. But this is a product driven by real world experiences and real world needs of the rebreather diver.
Rebreather diving is the a class of underwater breathing apparatus which recirculates the gas exhaled by the diver by removing carbon dioxide and replenishing oxygen. The system removes the carbon dioxide and adds gas to replace the oxygen which has been used. The diver only needs to carry a fraction of the gas needed for a an open-circuit system. Enabling a smaller breathing apparatus, or for the diver to remain submerged for longer. As the system re-uses and does not discharge the exhaled gases with each breath taken to the surroundings, the diver does not disturb the environment by exhaling bubbles. More details are available on the Wikipedia Rebreather article.
The case, dial and hands
The Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa was a project undertaken by Blancpain to meet the extreme diving needs of photographer and underwater biologist Laurent Ballesta. He proposed the technical requirements for this new watch some 5 years ago. The initial needs of Laurent to undertake the multi-year Tamataroa mission, dedicated to stydy the behaviour of the great hammerhead shark, Sphyrna mokarran, in French Polynesia. The new watch is designed to measure the duration of dives which are up to three hours long, and also for use in saturation systems.
Thus, the watch is designed to be very robust. The case is 47mm in diameter, and made of Grad 23 titanium. According to Blancpain, this metal is also known as grade 5 ELI (extra low interstitials) is the purest form of titanium available, noted for exceptional strength and anti-allergenic properties while remaining very light. The design of the case is has one central lug attached from inside the case middle and integrated to the strap. The straps look like they just emerge from teh middle of the case. This arrangement makes the 47mm case wear much smaller, perhaps more like a 44mm case would suggest. The watch wraps around the wrist comfortably, aided by the ultra light feel of the ensemble.
Also of interest on the design of bezel is the markings up to three hours. The need of a three hour count down timing system is a real one, and from what we understand from Laurent, is the recommended timing for a dive of this nature. Though he goes on to say that he has done dives which are much longer than 180 minutes, and recently even completed a dive nearly 6 hours long. The bezel is made with an inlay of black ceramic with a spherical crystal over to optimise legibility. It carries markings at 5 minute intervals up to 3 hours. When used with the special hand which makes one revolution every 3 hours, the watch can be set to countdown from up to 180 minutes.
The dial itself is made in a new finish known as absolute black, whose structure captures almost 97% of light incident on it. We understand the material is similar to the one from Vantablack used by Moser and by Panerai for their LAB ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech. The technology is based on carbon nanotubes, which absorbs almost all the light incident on it, making it very black. This has the effect to enhance contrast on the dial.
The dial layout is typical of a diver watch. Very clean, clear with huge markers for the hours as well as huge hands for the hours and minutes. In good light, the block appliqué hour markers appear orange, and the bezel markers are white. These elements are all treated with luminescent coating. The Blancpain literature says that the indices will glow blue, with the bezel markers and the special 3 hour hand in green. But in our photographs of the sample we handled, the colour of both lumes are green, as can be seen below. We are not sure why this is the case.
The case is rated to 300m and is equipped with an automatic helium escape valve at 10 o’clock, and is a requirement for the evacuation of helium during decompression after the watch and diver is in a hyperbaric chamger for saturation diving. The crown is screw down as well. The case middle is bevelled, rather than rounded bassine shape that characterise other Fifty Fathoms models. The notches on the case back are reworked for better robustness. And the entire case, though feels very lightweight, gives the impression of a very strong and rugged character. Even the buckle is very large and designed to reinforce the hold of the watch on the wrist and to facilitate fastening the extension over the diving suit.
The Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa comes in a special Pelican like presentation box that is water-resistant and shock-resistant as well as reusable and configurable. The case has a place for the watch, the strap extension, a travel pouch, a magnifying glass, as well as a set of dividers and cutting tools which can be used to customise the case for future use.
As we understand it, the watch had undergone extensive testing from 2019 and 2021. Four of the prototypes were worn as part of a 50 day trial at 120m depth during the Gombessa V and VI missions. These expeditions combined diving with the rebreather diving system and included the divers living an entire month in a 5 sqm hyperbaric chamber from which they emerged daily to explore the depths.
The movement: Blancpain Caliber 13P8
The movement chosen is the Caliber 13P8, which is an in-house designed and manufatured movement by Manufacture Blancpain. The oscillating weight is stamped with the Gombessa Expeditions logo, and feature an innovative shape with three openings through which the movement can be admired.
The movement features a separate mechanism driven by the hour wheel to propel the special hand to make one revolution every 180 minutes. When used with the bezel to tare the countdown timer. This device is an invention held jointly by Marc Hayek and Laurent Ballesta as a world first, and a patent is pending.
Movement finishing is very good, and in line with the level set by Manufacure Blancpain, and previously as F. Piguet.
The diver marketplace is a huge one. Dive watches not only cater to real divers, but also to desk divers. In a recent discussion with Laurent Ballesta, he told us that even though he wears a dive computer, his Blancpain accompanies him for every dive, and serves as a fail save backup system as well because the dive computer timing and the actual dive time may not always be fully synchronised. But nonetheless, diver watches are very popular. In this comparison, we only single out the two or three which qualify for being usable and actually employed in use by extreme divers. At SGD 40k, it is also undeniably expensive.
Of course, everyone wants to know how it will compare to the Rolex. And for this, we compare the recently released Sea Dweller Challanger. This is a 50mm behemoth which is tested to 11,000m. Also made of Titanium (which Rolex dubs as RLX), the watch is huge. The design is unchanged from the other Rolex diving watches, and with the exception of the size and case material, is not different from a Submariner or Sea Dweller. The Rolex Ref. 126067 is priced at a slightly less expensive SGD 36,300.
Another might be the Omega Seamaster Ultra Deep. Also housed in a forged titanium case, priced at only SGD 18k. The Omega is rated to 6,000m. And we find the design to be rather handsome with a smaller and a more wearable 45mm.
Of course there are others, like the EZM Hydro and the H2O Kalmar 2 Oceanictime, but these are lesser industry names.
There is no denying that the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is a highly technical dive watch. And instead of playing the depth rating game set by Rolex and Omega, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms Tech is more intelligently designed. This is a more genuine watch, born out of the necessities of extreme diving, and is way more sensible than the competition.
This is a large and very robust watch. As mentioned, it is not a watch designed by watchmakers dreaming it up in their ateliers in the Swiss mountains. But one born out of the realities and necessities of extreme diving. As a result, the form follows function. It is large. It is robust. It is incredibly strong and reliable. It is highly legible, in both good and poor lighting. And it incorporates the features of the 3 hour timer as well as the helium escape valve for saturation diving.
The 47m case size wears smaller than the dimensions suggest. Thanks to the shape of the lugs and curved straps which screq to the back of the lugs with an internal titanium reinforcement to ensure the shape remains unchanged, and is a strong and robust enough not to ever allow the watch to break free from the wrist.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa was photographed in the Blancpain boutique in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore following the global press conference hosted by Marc Hayek in Switzerland and Laurent Ballesta in the Rangiroa Atoll in French Polynesia. Photographed with the Sony A7R MkV with the FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS Lens. Profoto strobes.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa specifications
∙ 3-hour dive-time hand ∙ seconds ∙ absolute black dial ∙ luminescent orange block-shaped appliques with blue emission ∙ spherical crystal sapphire ∙ unidirectional 3-hour scale bezel with black ceramic inlay tilted towards the dial with white luminescent markers with green emission ∙ helium valve ∙ central lugs attached from the inside of the case middle ∙ integrated black rubber strap with extension ∙ self-winding
Water resistance 300m
Power reserve: 120 hours