A retrospective 20 years after its rebirth
FIRE BENEATH THE SEA
Surely no dive watch in history has had a more experienced diving team behind its design.
A question seldom asked: who designed your watch? The answer for the Fifty Fathoms sets itself apart from the field. Dating from its original conception in the early 1950s by Jean-Jacques Fiechter, Blancpain’s then Co-CEO, through today with Blancpain led by Marc A. Hayek, the design of the Fifty has been the product of passionate divers who have had a deep comprehension of the demands of the underwater world, the functions required, and the reason for those functions. It is not too cynical to say that for the remainder of the watch industry, the designs have come not from divers, but from observing the pioneering work of Blancpain. Not only does the new Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa represent a continuation of this unmatched 70-year history of the Fifty Fathoms, in some ways it goes even further. Its design and, indeed, the resulting patent represent the collaborative work of Marc A. Hayek and renowned diver, scientist, underwater photographer, and environmentalist Laurent Ballesta. It can be confidently said that perhaps no dive watch in history has had a more experienced diving team behind its design.
The original Fifty Fathoms and its progeny were conceived when scuba dives generally lasted under an hour. This was a duration dictated by conventional diving equipment. Using standard diving gear, the air mixture supplied by the tanks would be exhaled by the diver in the form of bubbles in the water even though it still contained a substantial amount of useable oxygen. From a practical point of view, with this wastage, tanks that would allow for a longer period underwater would be too large, heavy, and unwieldy. The development of modern rebreathing equipment changed everything. Instead of exhaling bubbles containing residual oxygen, a diver exhales into a closed circuit that recycles the air, purges carbon dioxide, and, from a small cylinder, adds the exact amount of oxygen that the diver’s body has consumed. As a result, the rate of consumption from the tanks is greatly reduced. A full explanation of diving with rebreathers can be found on pp. 34-45 of this Issue. With rebreathing equipment, dives lasting three hours become practical. That said, rebreathing dives are extremely technical and, for the most part, are reserved for professionals, with recreational divers continuing to use the more conventional systems.
The Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa was conceived expressly as an instrument aimed at rebreathing long-duration technical dives. Hence the name “Tech”; “Gombessa” refers to the scientifically and environmentally remarkable diving expeditions led by Laurent Ballesta with the support of Blancpain. Marc A. Hayek and Laurent Ballesta worked together to define the watch and its functions. The Fifty Fathoms Automatique and all the others in today’s collection, just like their Fifty Fathoms ancestors, feature a rotating bezel for dive timing. The system created in the 1950s by Blancpain’s then Co-CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter is both brilliant and devilishly effective. The diver simply rotates the bezel to place its index opposite the minute hand at the start of the dive, and thereafter can read at a glance the time underwater using the minute hand and the indexes on the bezel. A perfect system for dives lasting less than one hour. Hayek and Ballesta applied the same principle to the Tech. However, instead of using the minute hand of the watch, the index of the bezel is placed opposite a supplemental white-tipped hand, termed the “dive time hand”,that rotates continuously at a rate of one turn every three hours. The dive time is read using this three-hour dive time hand in relation to the white markings, graduated for a three-hour period, on the concave unidirectional ceramic bezel. The slightly concave shape of the bezel is asubtle ergonomic innovation to enhance its use while wearing diving gloves. The diver can easily turn the bezel either by grasping the knobby exterior of the bezel or by pressing his glove on the slightly depressed inner surface. With this system, underwater times of up to three hours can be easily measured.
The white color chosen for the three-hour dive time hand, bezel markings and the sweep seconds hand, all of paramount importance to a diver, was chosen to elevate their prominence while underwater. Furthering that aim, in dim light these markings glow with a greenish hue conceived to stand out in an aquatic environment. To avoid confusion, the hands for the regular time display of hours and minutes, together with their indexes, are colored orange, turning blue in darkness, which sets them apart from the white-colored dive elements.
Do divers working with modern rebreathing systems strap on electronic dive computers that can do the same thing? Of course they do and indeed the dive computer is essential for performing other vital functions, such as controlling the breathing mixture. However, the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is far more readable for its timing function than the electronic dive computer, and serves as a vital timing backup in the event of that computer’s failure. It, thus, fully justifies its place on the diver’s equipment list.
In all respects, the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa responds to its technical mission without compromise. Its 47-mm case is fashioned in Grade 23 titanium, the most exclusive of the titanium formulations. Its depth rating is 300 meters and, as befits that extreme rating, it is fitted with a helium relief valve that incorporates a special security feature. Whereas standard relief valves must be screwed down to ensure water resistance, the Tech valve is “secure”, meaning that if the diver forgets to screw down the valve, the watch will nonetheless retain its 300 m water resistance.
The dial inaugurates two firsts for Blancpain. Its black color is profoundly dark, termed Absolute Black. Set against it are luminous orange numerals and indexes, which have a three-dimensional bombé shape.
The Tech boasts an elaboration of Blancpain’s in-house caliber 1315, named the 13P8 automatic winding movement. Equipped with three mainspring barrels, it achieves a 5-day power reserve. In common with all Blancpain movements, the balance is free sprung with inertial regulation and is fitted with a non-magnetic silicon balance spring.
To complete the ensemble, the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa has been fitted with an integrated rubber strap that can be elongated with a supplied extender. The extra length facilitates wearing the watch on the outside of a diving suit. To enhance its fit on the wrist, the strap flows directly into the case body formed without conventional lugs.
How often has the design and function of a diving watch been subjected to a test program conducted by some of the world’s most celebrated and renowned divers? In this case, Laurent Ballesta and members of his team wore prototypes of the Tech for an extended dive period of 28 days at a depth of 120 meters to validate its ergonomics, useability, and performance. Ballesta wrote of this groundbreaking dive in Issue No. 21 of Lettres du Brassus in the compelling tale entitled “Planet Mediterranean”.
The final touch is a newly developed extra lightweight watertight Peli case, useful for the diver’s kit.
The Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is singularly purposeful in its mission to serve professional and experienced divers. There is no doubt that every owner will feel a bond with the dedicated divers who conceived it.
The evolution of technical diving from open systems to rebreathers.