Even as purveyors of arguably one of the world’s first truly purpose-built dive watches, there’s no denying it’s been a long time since Swiss Blancpain has even been remotely close to the tool watch realm it once pioneered. That being said, it’s still neat to see the brand revisit those days with a marked degree of panache in the recently announced Tribute to Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec – a watch that might cost $14,000, but it’s still every bit the capable tool once relied upon by combat divers in the late fifties.
Price notwithstanding, there’s a lot to love about this new limited-edition entry to the Fifty Fathoms line – which is likely why the watch is enjoying dive watch lover “sleeper hit” status post-Baselworld. Largely released without major fanfare, part of the Blancpain Tribute to Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec watch appeal are its conservative dimensions and faithful adherence to the design codes of the original Mil-Spec. But a key dimension of its appeal is likely Blancpain’s inclusion of a critical feature of the original: a working replica of the “watertightness” moisture indicator at 6:00.
Back in the early days “when sex was safe and diving was dangerous,” dive watches weren’t the rugged, reliable tools we’re familiar with today. Though paramount to a diver’s safety, the earliest examples were still susceptible to damage by shock, plagued by poor visibility in low light, and built with cases ill-equipped to handle great ocean depths. Unsatisfied with issued watches that couldn’t (quite literally) perform under pressure, French combat swimmer corps commanders Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud sought out the grandfather of the Fifty Fathoms, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who was already hard at work on a design that would address these very symptoms.
But the watch that became standard-issue to the UDT teams commanded by Maloubier and Riffaud wasn’t Fiechter’s original Fifty Fathoms design, but one that contained an added safeguard: a quirky watertightness indicator that would alert the wearer if their watch was compromised. Now, it’s worth clarifying that such an indicator is a little bit like a smoke detector – it only points out the obvious, and does little to prevent the fire. But back in 1957 when the design was pioneered and soon adopted on all dive watches issued to combat swimmers, a diver only needed to know if his watch could be trusted or not.