Most pedigreed watchmakers have a tool watch or two that burnished their reputations decades—sometimes even centuries—ago with models that have endured to the present day on the basis of their technical and all-round aesthetic appeal.
History books suggest that Captain Robert Maloubier, a French spy who was part of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s British Special Operations Executive, got in touch with Blancpain while he was figuring out how to hook up his underwater team with proper diving gear. Maloubier reached out to Blancpain, and they created the ‘Fifty Fathoms’ model, a sleek, modern diving watch.
The timepiece caught the eye of French naval officer Jacques Cousteau who himself was also an explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author, and researcher.
In due course, Cousteau's company La Spirotechnique became an official distributor of Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms model. The watches sold by Cousteau's company bore the name ‘Aqua-Lung’ on the dial.
Then between 1953 and 1970, more than 20 different variations of the Fifty Fathoms watches were made. A point of interest: Rolex's Submariner, which is also acknowledged as a serious and well established divers watch, was first launched a full year later in 1954 after having been introduced at the Basel Watch Fair.
Fifty Fathoms as a watch is what Daytona Cosmograph is for Rolex with its culture of timing racing laps, and the Speedmaster Chronograph for Omega which went to the moon. The Fifty Fathoms that was launched in 1953 and was the first modern divers watch, with a capability of going as deep as 100 metres or fifty fathoms, which was ostensibly how it got its name.
Of course, like most early divers, the Fifty Fathoms was ‘Milspec,’ or short for military specification, and first created for frogmen, navy seals, and underwater commandos.That's the same tack used by Italian watch company Panerai back in the day as well.
Blancpain's limited-edition Tribute to Fifty Fathoms No Rad timepiece, is stacked with period references, and like many re-issues, is a modern reinterpretation of a classic diving watch.
The watch, both vintage and present re-issue, has a “No Radiations” symbol stamped at 6 o’clock, which is a design cue that has become the watch’s differentiator given that there have been several interpretations of the Fifty Fathoms since it was created. The striking figure may seem unrequired today, but according to the history books, half a century ago, people were wary of radiation poisoning, both because of World War II, and the mid-century radium scare. The stamp was Blancpain’s way of letting enthusiasts know the watch was safe to wear.
"For a brand like Blancpain to take off as it should in India, it would need to be amplified and positioned as the pioneer in its particular niche of experience even if that means extended and intense marketing around a particular model," says Yasho Saboo, founder of Ethos Watch Boutiques, the largest retail chain of fine watches in the country.
Beyond divers, Blancpain's pedigree in watchmaking has always been regarded highly.
"Blancpain makes more movements than they do watches and in some cases have even made movements for other high-end watchmakers, so that craftsmanship and understanding has historically been a strength for them," argues Viraal Rajan, director of Time Avenue, a luxury watch dealer in Mumbai.
At a performance level, the watch’s 300-metre water-resistant case hosts a Blancpain Calibre 1151 self-winding movement. It features a silicon balance spring and a four-day power reserve, and the unusual rotor features a “cartouche-shaped aperture,” that is possibly designed to make the oscillating weight lighter, and allow for more protection in case of collision. Limited to 500 pieces and priced at around ₹10 lakh, the Fifty Fathoms 'No Rad' is what one could call a future auctioneer's favourite because it's a timepiece with a story.
However, some collectors may see the introduction of a transparent crystal back and an automatic movement as opposed to the original manual-wind movement as a departure from the original Fifty Fathoms No Rad. That being said, millennials today have changing preferences and that's also why most new reissues are automatic, says Ashdin Billimoria, owner of online watch shop Time Boulevard. "As a brand Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms is both its flagship and hero product rolled into one and that means one has to be extra careful with this in every regard," he points out.
In the meantime, aficionados may be hard-pressed to get their no radiation model anytime soon. All 500 limited editions have already been sold out online. That amongst others is one check mark on the list of what it takes to truly achieve cult classic status.