The debut of a new movement is always special, a chronograph movement doubly so.
What is the appropriate way to herald the arrival on the scene of a new chronograph movement? It seems for much of the industry refl exes point toward glitz. Loud announcements, lavish parties for the invited press and, most of all, a road trip to an exotic destination to provide a provocative backdrop for the wine, champagne and canapés. And all of this rolls out for seemingly any new movement. Blancpain’s constitution more often leads it in the direction of modesty and quiet understatement. Shouting to the rafters to announce every new movement is simply not its custom; if it were there would a lot of shouting as Blancpain has introduced 33 new calibers over the past eight years.
That said, consider the special place occupied by a new chronograph movement. So formidable are the challenges to chronograph development that the overwhelming majority of mechanical chronographs on the market are sold by brands that buy the movements from somebody else. Th is includes two brands that present themselves as belonging to the very pinnacle of prestige watchmaking; those two have been able to produce a variety of different calibers but no chronographs of their own. With this perspective, perhaps it might have been in order to indulge in a bit of shouting when at Basel 2014 Blancpain, instead, quietly and without fanfare, debuted the Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback with its entirely new caliber F385.
The Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback slots in adjacent to its cousin the Bathyscaphe Automatique within the Fifty Fathoms Collection. Both Bathyscaphes maintain the tradition of this hallowed name from Blancpain’s history as smaller versions of the Fifty Fathoms that fully respect all of the diving features that the Fifty Fathoms pioneered. And as the original Bathyscaphes that debuted in 1956 and evolved in parallel with the Fift y Fathoms, the new Bathyscaphe models are similarly evolving with the new chronograph complication mirroring the presence of the Fifty Fathoms chronograph model.
These historical links aside, the true headline with this debut is the new caliber F385 movement. Although it is entirely new from the ground up, Blancpain was able to draw from its vast reservoir of knowledge and experience with its different variants of its famous F185 movement. Over its thirty year history, the F185 has firmly established itself as a reference point for prestige chronographs. So respected throughout the watch industry is its design, that one Vallée de Joux brand slavishly copied the shapes of core parts, so blatantly that when placed over drawings of the F185 the parts are identical, and another brand, this one in Geneva, publicly admitted that it was “inspired” by the design when it created one of its chronographs.
However, before recounting the savoir-faire that carried over to the F385, let’s turn to important aspects which are entirely new. The first is the frequency. Th e F385 beats at 5 HZ or 36,000 vibrations per hour. Th at is an extremely provident frequency for a chronograph as it naturally divides each second into 1/10 of a second intervals. Th ere is a second advantage, greater precision. When a movement’s frequency is increased, running precision can be improved. Although watch owners focus upon accuracy in terms of “seconds per day”, watchmakers first look to the amplitude of the watch. Amplitude is the measure of the number of degrees that the balance wheel rotates as it oscillates back and forth, which is often termed “swing”. Normal ranges in a horizontal position hover around a swing of 300 degrees. When the amplitude can be kept close to constant, the rate precision can be improved. How does high frequency contribute to that? If there is a perturbation to the normal amplitude of the watch, that deviation in amplitude will dissipate more quickly at a higher running frequency than a lower one. Thus, precision is improved.
Along with the new high frequency, comes an entirely new balance wheel design. Th e balance of the F385 is fashioned in black colored Glucydur with fine rate regulation done by means of four gold regulation screws. Screwed regulation is extremely resistant to changes by reason of shocks to the movement, since a shock is unlikely to change the positions of the screws. Also in keeping with Blancpain’s new movements, the balance wheel spiral is fashioned in silicium. Th is carries with it multiple advantages. First it is a-magnetic. Throughout the industry, the norm is to use spirals which are composed of metal which can be magnetized if it is subjected to a strong magnetic field. Once magnetized, the flexing properties of the fine coils are changed with some parts attracting each other and others repelling. Of course, this changes the timekeeping of the watch. Silicium is not subject to this type of residual magnetization if it encounters a strong magnetic field. There is another key advantage; the natural properties of silicium greatly improve the isochronism performance of the watch. Isochronism is a way of expressing how the amplitude, there’s that watchmakers word again, changes as the mainspring barrel unwinds. Generally speaking, the power of the mainspring is greater when the barrel is fully wound than it is when the barrel is nearly unwound. A silicium spiral improves isochronism compared to standard materials as the amplitude changes less as the power from the barrel decreases. Said another way, the swing remains more constant. To highlight the presence of the new balance, the F385 is built with a full balance bridge, which means that the bridge supporting the balance is anchored at both ends.
There is another new design woven into the F385, the arm (watchmakers call it “bascule”) for the flyback function. A flyback function is particularly useful for the timing of successive events. With a standard chronograph to stop one timing event and start another requires three pushes: one to stop the first event, the second to return to zero, and finally, the third, to restart timing for the second event. With a flyback only one push is needed; simply push the return to zero button on the chronograph and the first event timing ends, the chronograph is returned to zero and it restarts. Blancpain has included this functionality for many years on a large number of its chronograph models. What is new in the F385 is the construction of the flyback arm in the movement. Rather than being constructed out of a solid piece of steel, the arm has been formed with a long “slot”. This slot operates as a shock absorber so that when the return to zero button is pushed, that force is applied to one side of the slot, but the delivery to the movement components is on the other. The shock absorption ensures a silky smooth return to zero and restart.
The F385 includes a new design for the date ring. Arrayed around its circumference are three jeweled bearings which support it. To ensure that there will be no binding of the ring as it turns for a date change, one of the bearings has been placed so that it does not quite touch the ring. This small amount of play guarantees that it will not freeze in position.
There are some design flourishes as well. Purely for visual pleasure through the clear case back, the bridge holding the movement’s seconds wheel (watchmakers would call this the “fourth wheel”), has been sculpted to place the wheel in full view. In keeping with the Fifty Fathoms sporting spirit, the decoration of the bridges has been done with a subtle snail/sun pattern. (The F385 also has debuted in the Villeret collection; the Villeret version’s decoration is different as its bridges have a côtes de Genève pattern.) Finally the solid gold winding rotor has been given a NAC finish to endow it with a dark business-like color and given a sandblasted mat finish. (The Villeret version’s winding rotor has a guilloche decoration.)
As much as the F385 was developed as “white sheet of paper” entirely new movement, Blancpain certainly did not turn its back on its deep experience from the predecessor F185. Th e principles underlying three of the central elements of the F185 were the source of the ideas for analogous components in the F385: the vertical clutch, the column wheel, and the return to zero hammer. The vertical clutch is viewed as the heart of the chronograph. It is the element responsible for its starting and stopping. To start the chronograph, the vertical clutch connects the chronograph mechanism, including the chronograph seconds hand, to the regular running train of the watch. Stopping is exactly the opposite; the vertical clutch disengages the chronograph train from the running train. As simple as this description sounds, building a reliable vertical clutch mechanism is fiendishly difficult. Just ask the brand that copied the shapes of Blancpain’s components. They were able to reverse engineer the shapes, but not the tolerances or spring tensions. As a result a large number of watches built with the copied parts did not work properly. The advantages of a vertical clutch design are legion. First, unlike all systems that depend upon sudden engagement of gears to start the running of the chronograph (most often called “horizontal clutches”), a vertical clutch guarantees smooth starting every single time with no jumping of the seconds hand. When gears are called upon suddenly to mate to start the running, it often is the case that there will be a jumping of the hand. With a vertical clutch two plates come together to start a timing event. Th at contact, by contrast and without exception, occurs smoothly. Second, unlike geared engagement systems, the chronograph can be left running constantly if the owner desires. Geared engagement systems require use of a tension spring in order to avoid flutter as the chronograph seconds hand marches around the dial. The presence of that tension spring added to the running of the watch with the chronograph engaged reduces the amplitude and, thus, changes the timekeeping. Blancpain’s vertical clutch
The F385 with the chronograph running. The column wheel (in pink) is rotated to a position which withdraws the two fingers (in gray green) allowing the clutch disk (in green) and the chronograph wheel (in light blue) to mate which connects the chronograph mechanism to the running train of the watch.
The F385 with the chronograph stopped. The flyback arm (in purple) is at the far left. It is constructed as a shock absorber; pushing the return to zero button acts on the outside of the arm, while the inside activates the return to zero hammer (in pale blue), which in turn pushes the three heart shaped cams (in dark blue) for the chronograph seconds hand (in the center), minute counter (at left) and hour counter (at right). The two fingers (in gray green) have lifted the plate of the vertical clutch (in green) separating the clutch plate from the chronograph wheel (in light blue) which disconnects the chronograph mechanism from the running train.
concept does not require this type of tension spring and, therefore, there is very little difference in amplitude between chronograph running and chronograph stopped. Of course the F385 is equipped with a column wheel, which always is the mark of prestige chronograph. If the vertical clutch is the “heart” of the chronograph, the column wheel is its “brain”. The column wheel consists of small pillars arrayed around the top of a disk. Fingers pressed against either a pillar or a gap between pillars control the vertical clutch and the return to zero hammer (which also functions as a brake). When the start/stop button is pushed, that action causes the column wheel to rotate which passes that command to the chronograph components as fingers are moved from positions either touching a pillar or falling into a gap. In short, the column wheel operates as a command center. The reason that column wheels are prized in haut de gamme chronographs is that they endow the watch with a silky smooth feel as starts, stops and returns to zero are ordered with button pushes. Alternative constructions, of course less expensive, utilizing what are called “navettes” can never be as smooth in operation. The design of the bridges of the F385 places the column wheel in full view. A third core concept adopted by the F385 is the return to zero system. Essentially all chronographs utilize what is called a “heart shaped” cam to return hands to the zero position. When force, customarily applied by what is termed a “hammer”, is applied to the outside surface of the “heart”, it always responds by rotating to a single position, which, of course, corresponds to zero. This makes it ideal for a return to zero system. As it did in the F185, Blancpain uses a single component to serve as the hammer for both the chronograph seconds hand and both of the counter hands (minute and hour). Because it is a single component, it is certain that both hands will simultaneously snap back to zero.
Certainly the new movement is the grand headline for the Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback, but there was innovation as well for the case. For the first time Blancpain is off ering the option of a full ceramic case. With its diamond like deep back color, the ceramic case endows the Bathyscaphe with dramatic purposefulness. The advantages of the ceramic case option extend well beyond aesthetics. Blancpain’s ceramic offers extraordinary scratch resistance. Not all ceramic formulations are equal. Blancpain’s is cutting edge based on zirconium oxide and boasts a hardness of 1,800 vicars. This compares to stainless steel which weighs in at approximately 400. To give an idea of the extreme hardness of this ceramic formulation, the polishing of the case must be done with diamond as other materials are not sufficiently hard to be up to the task. Blancpain’s aesthetic designers have another way of expressing it. Th ey point out that when apparent scratches are seen on the surface of the ceramic, it is all but certain that it is not the surface of the ceramic that has been marred, but that what is being seen is rubbed off residue of the material that came in contact with the ceramic!
There are other prized properties of the ceramic case. Beyond its hardness, the ceramic case is biocompatible, meaning that it is non allergenic.
Blancpain uses two different ceramic processes for the Bathyscaphe: one for the pushers/crown and a different process for the case/bezel/back. For the pushers and crown, an injection process is used with the material injected into a mold. The production process for the ceramic case/bezel/back is far more complex. It begins with the material in the form of a powder which is injected and pressed into shape, which we shall see in a moment is far from the final size. The formed component is then heated to more than 800 degrees centigrade to drive off the organic binders that are found between individual grains of ceramic. Even though the shape may be correct, its size is not. This is because there are empty spaces within the ceramic which formerly were occupied by the organic binders, driven off during the heating. The next stage in the process is the elimination of these empty spaces. This is done by subjecting the component to enormous pressure. Not only does the size shrink appreciably but its density rises, its porosity is eliminated, and it becomes extremely hard. Finally it is time for polishing, which owing to the extraordinary hardness of the ceramic, must be done with diamond tools. The case sides and the outside of the bezel are given a satin-brushed finish. The bezel insert itself, with its Liquidmetal® indexes is smooth polished.
There is one case feature which carries over from the Fifty Fathoms Chronographe Flyback, sealed chronograph pushers. Almost all “diving” chronographs are equipped with a locking mechanism for the chronograph pushers. These screw-down locks do not serve to seal the pushers, as such; instead, their purpose is to insure that the owner does not actuate the chronograph while under water. Thus, although billed as “diving chronographs”, that function is reserved for times when the watch is out of the water. For Blancpain, that imposes a nonsensical restriction on use. It has equipped both the Fifty Fathoms chronograph model and the new Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback with sealed pushers that are water resistant to 30 bar and, thus, may be used underwater. The result is a timepiece that fully lives up to its description as a “diving chronograph”.
There are two case materials available for the standard edition Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback. The new black ceramic with a case diameter of 43.6 mm and satin brushed stainless steel in a marginally smaller case, 43 mm in diameter. Both models, like the Bathyscaphe Automatique, have ceramic bezels featuring Liquidmetal® indexes. Sail-canvas straps and NATO straps are available for both models and the stainless steel version offers an option of a stainless steel bracelet.
In addition to the two standard editions, Blancpain has created a special limited series Ocean Commitment Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback. This, limited to 250 examples, Ocean Commitment model is distinguished by its special gray ceramic case, dark blue dial, dark blue ceramic bezel, and engraved Ocean Commitment winding rotor. To underscore Blancpain’s broad environmental ocean preservation and protection initiatives, Blancpain will be making an additional donation to ocean organizations that it supports for each one of the Ocean Commitment timepieces in this special series.
Blancpain’s dedication to the cause of preservation and protection of the world’s oceans.