This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first-ever diving watch, the Fifty Fathoms. As a result, the name Blancpain is on more people’s lips. We’re using this as an opportunity to discover more about the famous model and the brand at large. Despite Blancpain’s claims as the oldest watch manufacturer, the brand receives little attention compared to other names in the industry. Not only can the watchmaker credit a number of groundbreaking innovations to its name, but it’s the only luxury brand that has never released a quartz timepiece. Read on to see why we find Blancpain so inspiring – perhaps you will too.
The history of Blancpain dates back as far as 1735. That is the year Jehan-Jacques Blancpain registered himself as a watchmaker in the village of Villeret, Switzerland. His descendants continued the family business, releasing an ultra-thin movement as early as 1815. Watches were in great demand at the time, and so mass production soon began. This transformed Blancpain into one of Villeret’s most important producers. In line with the times, the watchmaker’s first automatic wristwatch debuted in 1926. When Frédéric-Emile Blancpain passed away in 1932, and his daughter decided against taking the helm, the business was sold to two employees, including long-time assistant Betty Fiechter. While she had already been influential at the company for many years, the sale made it official: A woman (together with a man) was running the company. Fiechter managed the watch manufacturer until 1950, at which point she was succeeded by her nephew.
It was touted early on that Blancpain wouldn’t produce quartz models, and thus they were hard hit by the quartz crisis. In 1983, the Blancpain naming rights were sold to two industry legends: Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet. At the time, the pair paid just 22,000 francs. Production was subsequently moved to Le Brassus, Switzerland, and life was breathed back into the brand. Just ten years later, Blancpain was sold to what is today the Swatch Group. The price tag? A whooping 60 million francs. Of course, this magnitude of appreciation is extremely rare. Today, the company has established itself once more as a giant that makes waves and set standards in the industry.
Fifty nautical fathoms is equivalent to 91.44 m (300 ft), the depth rating of Blancpain’s first diving watch. This was truly groundbreaking at the time. The timepiece was initially developed for the French Navy, and was the world’s first functional diver – even predating the famous Rolex Submariner! The watch boasted a unidirectional rotating bezel, a feature that has remains standard on diving watches to this day.
While today’s models can survive at even greater depths (at least 300 m, 984 ft, 164 fathoms), the name Fifty Fathoms has stuck. Moreover, the current collection contains everything from simple three-hand watches to models you’d hardly wear underwater, e.g., a flyback chronograph or rose gold tourbillion. Some of these timepieces are much more collector’s item, much less diving watch, but are nevertheless a worthy tribute to the legendary model.
Even legends need to keep up with the times. For the watch’s 60th anniversary in 2013, Blancpain released the Bathyscaphe collection, named after the submarine of famed Swiss explorer Auguste Piccard. The line brings the model’s design into the modern era. Though the watch was initially only available in a 43-mm size, a 38-mm version followed in 2017. This smaller model is perfect for those with slimmer wrists and makes a great unisex model.
Villeret isn’t only the name of the village Blancpain was founded in, but also the name of the brand’s most extensive collection. This line, more than any other, captures what Blancpain stands for. From simple streamlined timepieces to elaborate works of art, you’ll find something to suit your tastes here; material choice, size, complication – you name it. The complications, in particular, are worth a closer look; they truly showcase the unique abilities of Blancpain.
There are also watches with a tourbillon in the Villeret collection. This complication compensates for the negative impact gravity has on a watch’s precision. Many pieces in the series feature flying tourbillons, a construction that allows the wearer a better view of the complication at work. In fact, Blancpain was the first watchmaker to use this type of tourbillon. The brand also turns to another complication intended to reduce the influence of gravity: the carrousel. While the tourbillon is linked to the barrel via a single power train, the carrousel features two. The driving force for the escapement and the rotating cage are designed to provide the most precise movement possible. Of course, looks also play a role; both complications are available in watches with partially openworked dials. Anyone who is looking for a unique complication will find it with the carrousel.
A completely different, but equally intriguing watch from the series is the Villeret Chinese Calendar. A perpetual calendar is a pretty complex feature in its own right, but the traditional Chinese calendar is even more elaborate. It’s a daunting challenge to attempt to display both the traditional Chinese and Gregorian calendars side-by-side on the same timepiece. For starters, the Chinese calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and its months and years have varying numbers of days. In contrast, the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar. While the latter features days lasting 24 hours, the Chinese system has 12 double hours, each represented by a different animal from the Chinese zodiac. It took the brand five years to align both time displays, but the results are flawless. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful or intricate timepiece than the Villeret Chinese Calendar.
As its name suggests, the watches in the Ladybird collection are designed with women in mind. They range from playful to extravagant, and most are set with diamonds. Think these are nothing but jewelry watches? Think again. The Ladybird series of watches are nothing shy of horological masterpieces. Not only do all the watches boast automatic movements – as is typical for Blancpain – but those labelled “Ultraplate” have the added benefit of being extra slim, with a maximum height of just 9 mm! This line of watches is the exception, not the rule, in the world of women’s timepieces. Whether you opt for a version with a moon phase display or three-hand model, you’ll wish that this level of aesthetic beauty and technical innovation was standard for women’s watches.
While the Fifty Fathoms was designed with the navy in mind, the Air Command was made for the skies. The first of these watches debuted in the 1950s, but very few were ever produced, making them rare collector’s items today. It took some by surprise to see a new Air Command line introduced at the end of 2021. In fact, the launch was so quiet that many a watch enthusiast is still oblivious to it! I personally think the Air Command has a lot to offer: It’s a flyback chronograph with a countdown bezel – akin to a pilot’s watch, but all its own at the same time.
There are also women’s versions of the Air Command available, i.e., a 36-mm flyback chronograph! I guess this isn’t really all that surprising when you consider that Blancpain was the first company to release a flyback chronograph specifically designed for women. Yes, the Air Command is a great men’s watch, but for me as a woman, it represents the ultimate in watch equality – same design, same functionality, just smaller. I think the most beautiful women’s watches are those that don’t have to compromise on looks or technology.
Métiers d’Art and Bespoke
In addition to all the series-produced collections, Blancpain also offers a very special bespoke service within the Métiers d’Art line. These offerings comprise extremely rare masterpieces alongside custom creations. At Blancpain, it’s not just possible to personalize watches from the existing collections; no, the brand will actually develop unique timepieces to meet individual customer’s specifications. These one-of-a-kind creations aren’t advertised, and it’s a rare treat to view one of them in the metal. A slightly more accessible novelty is to get your watch’s rotor engraved. This is done by hand using handmade tools – you won’t find a more stunning way to personalize a timepiece, nor one that exemplifies a higher level of craftsmanship.
While Blancpain is one of the biggest brands in the watch industry and can count several important milestones among its achievements, it feels like a real insider tip a lot of the time. This is likely due to the fact that there are few big name brand ambassadors. Instead, the watches are largely left to speak for themselves. But if you take the time to listen to what they’re saying, you may be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps this is the start of a longer story with Blancpain, because once you’ve had a taste of Blancpain, it’s hard to go back.