eveloped by Jean-Jacques Fiechter and launched in 1953, the Fifty Fathoms was quickly taken up by professional divers and military for the simple reason that it met a very real need.” It was the first modern diver’s watch and Marc A. Hayek, Blancpain’s President and CEO, set out to reconnect with this legacy: that of a practical instrument for professional use, and now an icon celebrating its 70th anniversary. He did so in collaboration with a longstanding partner of the brand: the photographer, marine biologist and professional diver Laurent Ballesta. Divers today can stay much longer underwater and at greater depths, which is an advantage when making observations of marine life that contribute to scientific and environmental knowledge.
- Jean-Jacques Fiechter, managing director of Blancpain from 1950 until 1980, and the man behind the Fifty Fathoms.
- The original Fifty Fathoms from 1953.
A world first
One piece of apparatus, the rebreather, has transformed diving by providing an alternative to the standard gas cylinder. “Rebreather technology works in a closed circuit, recycling gas into oxygen,” Laurent Ballesta explains. A diver on a rebreather can, in theory, stay underwater for up to three hours. In this 70th anniversary year, it was natural that the first modern diver’s watch should adapt to a technology that is increasingly used in technical diving. Mission accomplished with the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa: “Act 2” of this celebratory year.
Unlike the bezel on a conventional diver’s watch, the bezel on the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is inscribed with a 3-hour scale. It is linked to a hand that completes full rotation in three hours and whose material and colour – a white luminescent coating that glows green – match those of the markers. Jointly invented by Marc A. Hayek and Laurent Ballesta, a patent has been filed for this world-first function.
- FIFTY FATHOMS TECH GOMBESSA The bezel of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is inscribed with a 3-hour scale that is linked to a hand that completes one full rotation in 3 hours. Jointly invented by Marc A. Hayek and Laurent Ballesta for measuring long and technical dives, this function is a world first. Four prototypes were tested for almost 50 days at a depth of 120 metres during the Gombessa V and Gombessa VI expeditions in the Mediterranean, in 2019 and 2021.
The designers of the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa opted for a bezel inlay in black ceramic rather than the more usual sapphire. This inlay has a strong curve and slopes towards the dial, whose legibility is optimised by a spherical crystal that eliminates any visual distortion.
“The 3-hour scale shows that this watch was created with the same mindset as the 1953 original, which is to meet the needs of professional divers,” notes Marc A. Hayek. “We worked a lot on legibility, with an absolute black dial that absorbs close to 97% of light. The strap and lug design have also been updated. The strap is now integrated into central lugs which are attached from the inside of the case middle.”
- Water-resistant to 300 metres and a full five years in development, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is equipped with the 13P8 self-winding calibre.
Laurent Ballesta spent a long time testing this diver’s watch − 47mm in diameter, water-resistant to 300 metres and equipped with the 13P8 self-winding movement − which was a full five years in development. “For me, the addition of an indication corresponding to extended dive times is crucial,” he says. The Tech Gombessa marks the launch of the Fifty Fathoms Tech line which, going forward, will contain all the Blancpain watches designed for technical diving. “I first met Laurent Ballesta in 2012. It’s incredible how much we’ve achieved in a decade,” comments Marc A. Hayek. “This new complication is something of a milestone in our collaboration, although we’ll definitely keep on thinking up new ideas!”
One anniversary leads to another
When Marc A. Hayek arrived at Blancpain 20 years ago, one of his first projects was to revitalise the Fifty Fathoms. The first modern Fifty Fathoms was introduced for the model’s 50th anniversary in 2003 as three series of 50 watches. This new rendition brought the Fifty Fathoms into the twenty-first century, picking up on the visual codes of the 1953 original, such as the black dial and extra-large numerals and markings, while introducing more contemporary attributes.
- Different versions of the Fifty Fathoms (including the famous “No Rad”), pictured in 1971 in Europa Star. © Europa Star Archives
Twenty years on, the Fifty Fathoms’ 70th anniversary celebrations got under way with a fresh iteration of this iconic diver’s watch that was also a nod to the 2003 model. This first act was again released as three series, this time of 70 watches. Each series is dedicated to a corner of the globe – EMEA, Asia-Pacific, Americas – and features a numeral from I to III on the sunburst black dial.
Luminescent hands and block-type hour markers give this anniversary watch a vintage feel. The polished steel case, which sports the famed unidirectional bezel with a domed sapphire inlay, has an exclusive 42mm diameter − making it the first contemporary Fifty Fathoms in this size. Models in the regular collection measure 45mm while the usual limited-edition Fifty Fathoms come in a 40mm case.
- FIFTY FATHOMS 70TH ANNIVERSARY ACT 1 The first act in the Fifty Fathoms’ anniversary year was the launch, in January, of three special series of 70 watches in a 42mm diameter, each dedicated to a region of the world – EMEA, Asia-Pacific, Americas – and inscribed with a numeral from I to III on the dial.
The oscillating weight for this anniversary edition is in platinum and inscribed with the “Fifty Fathoms 70th” logo. As an additional shoutout to the original Fifty Fathoms, an opening has been made in it (a smart solution developed in the 1950s to make rotors more flexible and therefore more shock-resistant). Blancpain has fitted this model with a black NATO YTT+ strap made from 100% recycled and recyclable thread taken from ghost fishing nets. This eco-friendly initiative will gradually be extended to all Blancpain NATO straps. Sustainability, innovation and the pleasure of a mechanical watch form the leitmotifs of what promises to be an exciting year-long celebration for the brand behind the first modern diver’s watch!