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 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’s 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.
If the watch was compromised (as many watches were prone to back then), he needed to rely on alternate means for timekeeping, or abort the dive to avoid decompression sickness (or worse). It’s also probably worth pointing out that such a safeguard is admittedly somewhat silly on an ultra-modern dive watch that’s already water-resistant to a crushing 300 meters (and costs $14k), but the charm of the Blancpain Tribute to Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec isn’t its utility, but its admirable commitment to the source material.
Speaking of source material, though the case size on the Blancpain Tribute to Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec has been increased from 37mm to 40mm, it’s still a merciful reduction from the last time we saw a Tribute to Fifty Fathoms, which managed to actually wear bigger than its sacrilegious 45mm case width. This 40mm case is really the sweet spot for Blancpain divers like the Mil-Spec, which finally strikes that fine balance between carrying the highly polished visual weight of being a modern “luxury diver” while still staying true to Fiechter’s original vision. If this is a harbinger of what’s to come for the next generation of Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms collection, consider us fans.
But back to the moisture indicator for a moment – an indicator one would pray one never sees change color, especially on a watch at this price range. On the original, the idea was that in the event of a moisture ingress, the contrasting white region of the half-circle on the dial would change to a dark pink color. And the less contrast you see between the two, the greater your service bill is going to be. Blancpain wasn’t entirely clear about what materials actually comprise the indicator, but it’s raised and subtly textured like the surrounding luminous plots. Functionality-wise, it’s not unlike a water contact indicating tape you might find from manufacturers like 3M.
Since the moisture indicator has no connection with the inner workings of the watch (unlike Sinn’s Ar-capsule technology which functions as an active dehumidifier for the movement), Blancpain’s Caliber 1150 is allowed to perform as-is. Given the smaller profile of the case, Blancpain was wise to select a slimmer movement, rather than use the 1315 found on other Fifty Fathoms editions like the Bathyscaphe. Thus, the power reserve drops from 120 hours to 96 – which is still a generous number, thanks to its twin-barrel design. The watch is finished with an exhibition caseback, granting a view of the platinum alloy-coated gold rotor – an extravagant detail for a watch with such humble beginnings, but a nice one to look at, nonetheless.
The Blancpain Tribute to Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec is available on one of three options: Blancpain’s now-familiar rubber-backed sailcloth, a stainless steel bracelet, or a black NATO strap – the latter of which seems to best disguise the price point and match the watch’s UDT trappings most efficiently between the three. The price on the bracelet is $14,100. blancpain.com