Fifty Fathoms: 70 years of reign under the seas

In 1951, Claude Riffaud, then ensign of the Commando François, suggested to the staff of the National Navy to create an elite French unit, like the famous Italian combat swimmers of the Second World War

Fifty Fathoms: 70 years of reign under the seas

In 1951, Claude Riffaud, then ensign of the Commando François, suggested to the staff of the National Navy to create an elite French unit, like the famous Italian combat swimmers of the Second World War. A year passes before Captain Robert Maloubier, a former secret agent of the British Special Operations Executive, officially founds the tricolor body of Combat Swimmers. Their missions? Underwater intelligence, sabotage operations or clandestine port attacks. Among all the equipment necessary for their interventions, such as compasses or depth gauges, the military also use watches as measuring instruments. However, none of them are then specifically in line with the expectations of the frogmen led by Maloubier.

It was therefore after having tried themselves, without success, to come up with a reliable timepiece suited to their underwater missions, that Maloubier and Riffaud turned to Jean-Jacques Fiechter. Between 1950 and 1980, this seabed enthusiast, a great lover of diving, managed the Blancpain house. Together, the three men will develop the first modern diver's watch, characterized by a waterproof case and perfect readability. It is 1953 and Blancpain officially presents the "Fifty Fathoms". A name that literally means "fifty fathoms" in English - or 91 meters, the maximum depth reachable by a scuba diver - and taken from the song of Ariel in The Tempest, the work written by William Shakespeare around 1610. The watch is approved by the French special forces and is distinguished by three patents: a double-locked crown, a back screwed by a system of O-rings and a bezel fitted with a locking mechanism. This legend of the seas celebrates its seventieth anniversary in 2023. The opportunity for Blancpain to unveil new iterations cut for the abyss.

The commemoration of 70 years of the Fifty Fathoms began last January. A first act marked by the launch of a tribute piece limited to three series of 70 watches dedicated to the Europe, Asia-Pacific and America regions. A reference that echoes the 50 timepieces presented by Blancpain in 2003, the year in which Marc A. Hayek, having just arrived at the head of the Swatch Group brand and a seasoned diver, decided to revive the myth of the Fifty Fathoms, somewhat forgotten since the 1980s.

The new "Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary", water-resistant to 300 m, therefore features a polished 42 mm case. An exclusive size for modern Fifty Fathoms, usually offered in 45mm or 40mm versions. It is dressed in a black sunburst dial, which displays a familiar date window at 4:30. Everything is driven by the famous manufacture caliber 1315, whose reliability has been well established since its presentation in 2007. It uses a silicon hairspring and offers a five-day power reserve thanks to its ingenious three-step construction. barrels.

The second act finds its origins more than 15,000 km from France, in the atoll of Rangiroa, in French Polynesia. A place where one of the "Gombessa" missions (the South African name given to the coelacanth, the oldest fish in the world) is currently taking place, led by photographer, biologist and leader of underwater expeditions Laurent Ballesta, also a partner of Blancpain for ten years. This lover of the world below is currently studying the behavior of the great hammerhead shark alongside a committee of experienced divers such as Marc A. Hayek. Accustomed to extreme dives, Laurent Ballesta became interested in the measurement of time under water, an essential tool for the smooth running of his abyssal operations as well as his survival. To meet the specific needs of risky and long-term immersions, Laurent Ballesta and Marc A. Hayek embarked on the design of a new instrument imagined five years ago. An experimental watch tested for 50 days at a depth of 120 m as part of the Mediterranean missions Gombessa V and Gombessa VI, in 2019 and 2021, during which the teams dived to saturation using a closed-circuit rebreather for the first time.

Tested and approved, the new model called "Tech Gombessa" has just been presented by Blancpain. As desired by the divers, it features a graduation on a three-hour scale - a world first - linked to a special hand which completes a complete revolution of the dial in 180 minutes and whose material as well as tint (a white luminescent coating with green emission) are matched to those of its markers. This cutting-edge innovation forms the heart of the 13P8 automatic movement that powers the watch, with a power reserve of up to 120 hours. For the trim, the watchmaker has fitted its graduated bezel with a domed black ceramic insert instead of the traditional sapphire crystal. Readability requires, the dial displays an unprecedented finish with an absolute black that captures nearly 97% of the light. The 47mm case is adorned with grade 23 titanium, known for its strength and lightness. It is equipped with a helium valve, a system used to evacuate the excess internal pressure likely to compromise the integrity of the watch during the decompression phases in a hyperbaric chamber. This second opus dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms is delivered on an integrated black rubber strap, which an extension system allows you to adjust to the wrist when wearing a diving suit. A fittingly and doubly celebrated anniversary for this legend of the seas while waiting for a possible Act III in the future. Case to follow.