Review: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms “Nageurs de combat”

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We covered the Blancpain announcements in our Live from Time to Move series on Blancpain where we provided quick impressions. Here is our detailed review, with high resolution photographs.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms “Nageurs de combat” (Combat Swimmers)

Fifty Fathoms Combat Swimmers, with the French elite force, similar to the SEALs.

The history

It began when Jean-Jacques Fiechter took over as CEO of Blancpain in 1950. He was an accomplished diver, and immediately began to work on a reliable and robust timing instrument capable of accompanying him in his underwater adventures. This was a major challenge as in 1950, there were no watch industry precedents that might be used as a blueprint. He had only his own experience as a guide when he defined and developed the fundamental specifications for a dive watch : luminescent hands and hour-markers contrasting with a dark dial, a secured rotating bezel, a self-winding movement, perfect water-resistance, and an antimagnetic case. This became the blueprint for many dive watches for the industry.

Almost at the same time in 1952, the French Combat Swimmers unit was formed. Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud who headed the unit began their quest to find a watch suited for their aquatic missions. The two officers envisaged finding a watch that would become an indispensable piece of equipment for their divers. Working together, they assembled a list of specific criteria for an instrument that would meet their requirements. The first tests which they conducted with “water-resistant” French watches were inconclusive. These watches were far too small, the dials were hard to read, and the cases were far from waterproof. But they heard about Fiechter and his development work, and decided to contact him, and started to work together to refine the dive watch.

By 1953, Blancpain was able to deliver a watch for testing that fully met with the French criteria. The watch performed well in all of the tests and it became one of the essential pieces of equipment for the French Combat Swimmers corps. Later, the same occurred for naval forces around the world. This was the start of the Fifty Fathoms.

In tribute to its close collaboration with the founders of the French Combat Swimmers unit, Blancpain wanted to unveil a special edition of its Fifty Fathoms diver’s watch.

The case, dial and hands

The new watch is a faithful reproduction to the 1953 model in almost all details. However, Blancpain took the opportunity to make a few updates. This included the inclusion of a date window, and modern conveniences in the advanced Caliber 1315 automatic movement – featuring a silicon hairspring.

The case is in a satin brushed stainless steel finish and measures 45 mm-diameter and is rated to a depth of 300m.

The watch face discreetly displays a second emblem – the number 7. The reason for this is a bit cryptic but nonetheless a bit of interesting trivia. Pure oxygen is mainly used to speed up decompression stops at the end of shallow water dives. However, as oxygen becomes toxic to humans when its partial pressure reaches 1.7 bar, a pressure reached a depth of 7 meters, frogmen in shallow dives typically are able to use pure oxygen in their tanks. At depths deeper than 7m, oxygen toxicity may lead to death. Thus the number 7 is a special meaning and a symbolic reminder, is printed on the dial below the “Fifty Fathoms” script.

The 7 on the dial is very subtle, and is as black as the rest of the dial. However, it is printed such that the texture on the 7 is different from the dial. To show this in photographs, I had do up a very bright patch on the upper 2/3 of the dial.

As in the original model, the hands and hour markers are in thick luminous material to contrast with the matte black dial. The shapes of the hands and markers are geometric, and have a 1950s vibe. The hands are painted white, like the watches from that period. This vintage spirit is carried over in the traditional triangular mark at 12, a symbol which appeared on the first Fifty Fathoms models.

The black unidirectional rotating bezel highlights a luminescent time scale protected by a curved sapphire insert that is claimed by Blancpain to be extremely resistant to shocks and scratches.

The movement: Blancpain 1315

The case back is a show of support by the French Army on this commemorative issue. The Army authorized Blancpain to engrave the Combat Diver Qualification Badge – featuring a central anchor flanked by two winged seahorses representing the underwater world on the caseback of the new model.

As the caseback is closed, we could not examine the Blancpain Caliber 1315 within. But having studied the bare movement which was provided for perusal during our visit to the Blancpain Manufacture, we satisfied ourselves that this is a brilliantly designed and executed movement. This is a workhorse movement, introduced by Blancpain in 2007. Winding is via a large rotor, and boasts of a power reserve of 120 hours.

Our friend Peter Speake-Marin has deconstructed this movement on his Naked Watchmaker site.

Competitive Landscape

The landscape for diving watches with 300m depth rating is populous indeed. We find the usual suspects: the Rolex Submariner (S$10,030, though we understand from street reports that the Sub is near impossible to buy), the Omega Seamaster (limited to 7,007 pieces, S$6,950), the Seiko Prospex Diver Hi-Beat SLA025 (¥ 550,000, or about S$7,000) are popular examples. All of which are less expensive than the Blancpain. But none have the historical heritage with the French military, nor a movement with the refinement as the Fifty Fathoms, or a small limited edition of only 300 pieces.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, we find this to be an interesting watch with a legendary history, re-issued in a package which is faithful to the original, and yet modern and up to date. The aesthetics remain excellent, with the principles of a great dive watch as set out by Blancpain in the early 1950s being well respected.

At S$21,400, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms “Nageurs de combat” is not inexpensive. Indeed it stands out in the landscape, but the historical linkages and the build quality makes up for it. Together with the very small limitation of only 300 pieces, we have no doubt that Blancpain will (or indeed have already) sold out all.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms “Nageurs de combat” Specifications

Limited Edition 300 pieces

Case: Stainless Steel, Dimensions: 45.00 mm dimeter 15.70 mm height, Water resistance: 30 bar

Functions: Center Seconds · unidirectional sapphire bezel · black dial · stamped caseback · self-winding

Movement: Caliber 1315. Dimensions: 30.60 mm diamter 5.65 mm thickness Power Reserve: 120hours, 35 rubies, 227 components

Editor’s note: Amended limited edition number to 300 instead of 30, which was a typo.