What It’s Like to Wear the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique 42mm

One of the world’s first modern dive watches is now available in a smaller size in titanium or red gold

May 15, 2024 6:07 am
Fifty Fathoms Automatique 42mm
Fifty Fathoms Automatique 42mm

Collectors are no doubt familiar with the story by now, which has taken on the form of horological lore. But for the uninitiated: Following his service in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier found himself — along with Lieutenant Claude Riffaud — charged with spinning up the nageurs de combat, the French naval combat diver unit. Chief among their needs was a water-resistant timepiece that could be used to compute bottom time, decompression stops and more.

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Approaching various watch companies with their custom design, they were repeatedly rebuffed. That is, until Jean-Jacques Fietcher, then-CEO of Swiss watch company Blancpain (and an avid scuba diver) accepted the challenge of producing the watch. Such was how the Fifty Fathoms, named for its depth rating, was born. 

The early Fifty Fathoms featured a black dial with luminous indices and hands; a rotating timing bezel; steel construction; automatic winding; and a highly water-resistant, anti-magnetic case with a doubly sealed, push-pull crown. It was, in various guises, adopted by navies around the world, including those of France, Germany and the United States. By the time Fietcher stepped down as CEO in 1980, in the midst of the “Quartz Crisis,” the Fifty Fathoms had paused its evolutionary growth — a new model wouldn’t be released until 1999, under the direction of watch industry veteran Jean-Claude Biver. 

When Mark A. Hayek ascended to the Blancpain C-suite, he oversaw the debut, in 2003, of three new limited-edition models in celebration of the collection’s 50th anniversary — four years later, the Fifty Fathoms was reintroduced as a full collection, where it’s been ticking along ever since. Last year, in time for the line’s 70th anniversary, Blancpain released three more special editions, dubbed Act I, Act II and Act III. The first of these, Act I, was a steel version of the famed dive watch in 42.3mm, while the second featured a special, three-hour diving complication; Act III, meanwhile, was a beautiful bronze gold take on the original mil-spec Fifty Fathoms measuring 41.3mm. 

The 42.3mm Act I steel watch was immediately intriguing to collectors for its combination of a highly wearable case and classic material, while the Act III’s 41.3mm size matched up with that of the original watch from the ‘50s. As many more modern Blancpain FF watches measure 43mm+, a possible return to a smaller size in a non-limited format was a compelling proposition, indeed. 

Well, in March of 2024, prayers were heard and (largely) answered: Produced not in steel but in Grade 23 titanium and red gold, the 42mm — 42.3mm, to be exact — Fifty Fathoms Automatique model is available with either a blue or black dial on your choice of sail canvas, Tropic-type rubber, or NATO straps in dial-matching colors. (The titanium version, meanwhile, is also available on a matching bracelet.) Powered by the Blancpain Manufacture Calibre 1315 with a red gold winding rotor, it boasts five days of power reserve via a series of three barrels and is visible via a sapphire caseback. A sapphire glass dive timing bezel recalls vintage F.F. models, while a 4:30 date window provides a touch of modern convenience. 

At 42.3mm wide and 14.3mm tall, this is not a small watch — but it’s a far cry from the imposing, 45mm models of the early 2000s, and when paired to a two-piece strap such as Blancpain’s new Tropic rubber, sail canvas or titanium bracelet, it wears surprisingly comfortably. With water resistance equivalent to 300m; a modern, unidirectional dive bezel; and 120 hours of power reserve, it can certainly be used as a serious tool — and this despite its good looks and luxurious materials. 

Blancpain’s passion for ocean conservation — as captured via its Ocean Commitment program — is unsurprising given its history of aquatically inclined CEOs. (In addition to Mr. Fietcher, current President and CEO Mark A. Hayek is an avid diver and passionate conservationist.) Among its many partners, Blancpain has a special relationship with Oceana, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans and marine life by influencing policy decisions at the governmental level. Maintaining a relatively small staff, its significant number of volunteers — among them scientists, divers and more — spread out across the globe to enact meaningful change both above and beneath the waves.

Part of an ongoing partnership that kicked off in 2020, Blancpain has helped Oceana raise funds for expeditions that use eDNA analysis and 3D photomosaic modeling to monitor marine ecosystem health, especially in areas that have been affected by overfishing or other practices that prove hazardous to the local environment. In southern California this month, Oceana team members and volunteers dove with Blancpain watches in an area in which set gillnet fishing has caused detriment to the local ecosystem. The team — which consisted of scientists, safety divers, photographers, boat crewmen and others — repeatedly dove in the cold waters surrounding the Channel Islands to run their experiments and do their important work.

Designed to serve as a vital timing instrument for the military — and later, for recreational scuba divers — the Fifty Fathoms is, of course, no longer an essential piece of kit in the strictest sense of the term. Nearly every diver, from amateur to professional, is equipped with a dive computer — which, in addition to calculating depth, decompression stops, etc., takes care of basic timing functionality and has thus largely done away with the need for a mechanical watch. However, there are those who swear by one as a backup tool, and those who wear one simply for the love of analog instruments. Indeed, the reasons for buying and using one are myriad, and largely immaterial. 

What’s clear is that the enthusiasm and love for the analog dive watch is very much alive. Whether worn 40 feet below the Pacific Ocean while measuring the local sea bass population or to a meeting in an office tower high above Fifth Avenue, a watch like the Fifty Fathoms — especially in its current, 42mm iteration — clearly strikes a chord with amateurs and dedicated collectors alike. Now, at $16,600 for the titanium versions on NATO straps, these are clearly luxury products, eclipsing in price even the Rolex Submariner on its matching steel bracelet. But for someone who wants to own a 21st-century incarnation of one of the world’s first truly modern dive watches, the Fifty Fathoms Automatique 42mm is a no-brainer. (And if you dig the aesthetic but not the price, there’s always the Scuba Fifty Fathoms for $400.)

Fifty Fathoms Automatique 42mm
Fifty Fathoms Automatique 42mm

Diameter: 42.3mm

Movement: Blancpain Manufacture Calibre 1315 automatic

Water Resistance: 300m

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