Blancpain was founded in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain setting up his first workshop on the upper floor of his house at Villeret, in the present-day Bernese Jura. At that time, little did he know, that today his brand would become the world's oldest watch brand. In 1926, the Manufacture entered into a partnership with John Harwood and started marketing the first automatic wristwatch. The year 1932 saw the end of the family's management of the firm, which had lasted for over two centuries. On the death of Frédéric-Emile Blancpain, his only daughter, Berthe-Nellie, did not wish to go into watchmaking. The following year, the two members of the staff who had been closest to Frédéric-Emile, Betty Fiechter and André Léal, bought the business. As there was no longer any member of the Blancpain family in control of the firm, the two associates were obliged by law as it stood at the time to change the company name. Henceforth, the firm would be called "Rayville S.A., succ. de Blancpain", "Rayville" being a phonetic anagram of Villeret. Today, the Swatch Group owns the brand and has successfully perpetuated its watchmaking principles and horological innovation. Although Blancpain offers a wide variety of watches across several collections, they are better known for their iconic diving watch, the Fifty Fathoms. Below you will see the first model of the 'Fifty Fathoms' ever created.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is one of the earliest automatic diving watches launched in 1953 and conceived by Jean-Jacques Fiechter —Blancpain's CEO from 1950 thru 1980— along with two heroes of the Free French Forces, Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud. Jean-Jacques Fiechter an avid diver felt the need to launch a watch that would bring two of his biggest passions together, the sea and watchmaking. Approached by the French military, he made his dream come true launching the first automatic diving watch with a generous 42 mm stainless steel case, a case size never heard of during that era. The watch specifically designed for the French 'Ecole des naugers de combat' —Combat Diving School— was named 'Fifty Fathoms' after the British measurement of 50 Fathoms —approximately 91.45 meters—, which was at the time the greatest depth that a diver would be able to descent to by using an oxygen mixture in their diving tanks. Several iterations of the Fifty Fathoms were created between 1953 and 1965 including watches fitted with smaller cases measuring 41 mm or 35 mm, and a wide variety of different dials for the French Military and the U.S. Navy. Other navies that followed the French and the U.S. navy in choosing the 'Fifty Fathoms' as their diving watch were the Israeli, the Spaniard and the German.
Some of the key characteristics of the first Fifty Fathoms watches included an anti-magnetic and highly water resistant case, a screw-on case back, a double "O-ring" system crown, an automatic movement, a unidirectional rotating bezel and one very interesting element added on the dial of the LIP models right above the 6 o'clock marker, a humidity indicator in the form of a small blue circle that would turn pink if humidity had entered the case.
But Blancpain didn't have it easy when it came to selling watches to the U.S. Navy as there was a 'Buy American Act' in place where American producers would be given a 25% price advantage over foreign competitors and the jewels in the watches had to be sourced from a supplier in Missouri. Fortunately for Blancpain, a gentleman named Allen Tornek who became a close friend to Jean-Jacques Fiecther —CEO of Blancpain at the time— helped the company go around the system and sold the watches to the U.S. Navy as "Blancpain Tornek" or "Rayville Tornek". About 1,000 Tornek-Rayville Fifty Fathoms were produced and most were destroyed by the Navy at the end of the commission, so the surviving examples are very collectible today and it is estimated that around twenty to thirty of these watches are still around. Images of the Tornek-Rayvill from Christie's.com.
Another interesting fact just like the one about Tornek, is that the French Navy chose to purchase the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches not directly from Blancpain but through a specialized diving equipment company named Spirotechnique. At that time, Spirotechnique had a very strong relationship with oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, for whom they would sell some of his inventions and thanks to this connection, Cousteau learned about the Fifty Fathoms watch and selected to use it in the historic dives part of the film "Silent World". Worn by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the Fifty Fathoms became the standard reference among diving watches during that time. Since we have already discussed the rest of the history of the Fifty Fathoms in our in-depth review of the 'Tribute to Fifty Fathoms No Radiations' Limited Edition here, let's move on and go into our in-depth review of the X-Fathoms that we like to call 'The king of all diving watches'.
The Blancpain X-Fathoms ref. 5018-1230-64A released last year at the largest aquarium in the world located in Dubai during an amazing unveiling event, features a titanium satin-brushed case measuring close to 56 mm —55.65 mm— in diameter, a thickness of 24 mm and is fitted with a black rubber strap with pin buckle. This watch not only looks and feels like a diving watch, but is perhaps one of the most complex mechanical diving watches ever created.
The X-Fathoms features a black matte dial that seems a little busy but where each element on it has a clear purpose and functionality. In order to maintain the Fifty Fathoms look and its iconic design, the watch is fitted with the now traditional unidirectional sapphire crystal rotating bezel with luminescent material and the unmistakeable Fifty Fathoms Arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock on its dial. The bezel is very thick and its serrated edges facilitate a good grip even with gloves.
The matte black dial features a mechanical depth indication with two different scales, where the one located on the outer part is blue and goes all the way to 15 meters with an exceptional +/- 30 cm precision and the one on the center of the dial is yellow and goes all the way to 90 meters with a maximum depth memory. The reading of the depth scales is indicated by two hands with arrow tips in blue and yellow respectively. Regardless of having depth scales that go only up to 90 meters, the Blancpain X-Fathoms is waterproof rated to a depth of 300 meters or 1000 ft. Additionally, the dial features a retrograde 5-minute counter for decompression stops at 10 o'clock.
This complex mechanical diving watch features a decompression valve at 10 o'clock for saturation diving as well as other features not present in more conventional mechanical diving watches such as an amorphous metal membrane on the case near the winding crown and a maximum depth memory with secured reset pusher on the case band at 8 o'clock. Research and testing conducted by Blancpain show that the elastic properties and the resistance to permanent deformation of amorphous metal make this material ideal for the depth gauge membrane.
The winding crown featuring the Blancpain logo is very robust and easy to grip even for those divers wearing gloves. The case back is solid and it features a skeletonized 'No Radiations' logo lined with the same amorphous metal membrane that is on the case band by the crown. The beating heart inside the X-Fathoms is the revolutionary Blancpain automatic calibre 9918B —based off of the calibre 1315— with a diameter of 36 mm, composed of 411 parts, 48 jewels, 3 barrels, silicon balance-spring and which provides the traditional 5-day power reserve —just as all other Fifty Fathoms calibres— when fully wound.
The X-Fathoms is also fitted with a very revolutionary rubber strap —with pin buckle— comprised of 14 articulated parts to ensure a perfect fit on the wrist and allow water to seep in under the watch in order to come in contact with the membrane under all circumstances. The rubber on the strap is very supple and the craftsmanship of the strap is just exceptional. The traditional Blancpain engraving typically found on the left side of the case band is present on the 6 o'clock side right in between the lugs.
On the wrist, be prepared to wear a real diving watch and a timepiece that not everyone can wear due to its massive construction and oversized case. Regardless, at the end of the day it is very probable that you will be wearing this watch over your wet suit, were it will look just perfect and in its element. Honestly, this is one of the coolest watches out there and if you are into diving watches, it really doesn't get any better. Just imagine yourself getting ready for that night dive in the Maldives and strapping this amazing timepiece on your wrist.
Sticker Price $40,700 USD. For more info on Blancpain click here.