Checking Out Blancpain's New Watch Won't Kill You

Johnny Davis
·3-min read
Photo credit: Blancpain
Photo credit: Blancpain

From Esquire

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is one of those watches that gets vintage collectors hot under the collar. Never mind the actual watches – empty Fifty Fathoms boxes have been known to clear £1,000 at auction.

Regarded as one of, if not the, original dive watch – although just like the Royal Family, recollections may vary – there have been dozens of different Fifty Fathoms versions since it first appeared in 1953, the same year as a little-known watch by Rolex called the Submariner debuted.

Now, there are sought-after Fifty Fathoms, and there are sought-after Fifty Fathoms. Sitting somewhere at the top of the pile is the Fifty Fathoms “No Radiations” dial, featuring the international radiation symbol – or trefoil – developed at the University of California, Berkley in the Forties. The sign that has since become a red-and-yellow icon of pop culture, adopted by everyone from Kraftwerk to The Simpsons’s Radioactive Man. In 2016 a Fifty Fathoms “No Radiations” sold at Philips for £25,000.

Photo credit: Blancpain
Photo credit: Blancpain

Blancpain's most famous line has its origins with the French military, who, after World War II, were on the hunt for a timepiece suitable for its combat divers. The Fifty Fathoms met the required specs: “a watch with a black dial, large, bold numerals and clear markings, as well as an outer rotating bezel” with the ability “to align this bezel with the large minute hand” so divers could gauge the amount of oxygen time remaining, plus markers that could “clearly glow in the dark”.

Though the Fifty Fathoms remains the prototypical dive watch today, in 1953 it was highly unusual – a then-whopping 42mm timepiece capable of reaching the maximum depth (50 fathoms, or a little over 90 meters) typical of the oxygen tanks of the day.

The navies of France, Germany and the United States chose the Fifty Fathoms for their divers and famous frogman Jacques Cousteau appeared in a documentary with the watch strapped to his wrist – sealing its cultural capital for good.

Meanwhile, German military divers adopted a version of the Fifty Fathoms, the RPG 1 model, known as “Bund No Rad”, a name that referred to the "Bundeswehr" (armed forces) with its distinguishing feature being the trefoil, plus the legend "no radiations" logo, complete with bungled English.

Radium had been used in watches for its luminescence since the early Sixties, until its glow-in-the-dark usefulness was superseded by the realisation that it was also highly toxic. (It was radium exposure that eventually killed Marie Curie.)

Photo credit: Blancpain
Photo credit: Blancpain

To reassure professional divers, as well as experienced amateurs who purchased their watches from specialist equipment providers, Blancpain decided to indicate that its timepieces were radium-free – and hence harmless – by using the red and yellow logo. The same logo subsequently appeared on the Fifty Fathoms RPGA 1 model, a calendar-based variant of the "BUND No Rad", for which it would remain the main criterion.

A reissue appeared in 2010, but now the Tribute to Fifty Fathoms No Rad is back in a limited run of 500. The 40mm automatic watch is waterproof to 30m and wears its retro-cool red and yellow badge of safety with pride – questionable grammar intact.

£11,800; blancpain.com

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