Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique: Time to Move on From the Rolex Submariner?
by Raman Kalra
Raman Kalra is the founder of The Watch Muse blog and has kindly agreed to share some of his articles with us here on Quill & Pad.
Most people have heard of Rolex, whether they are into watches or not. Dive watches are one of the most popular categories of watches, and many think that the Rolex Submariner is the first modern dive watch, especially because it is so iconic. However, this is not the case, that crown belongs to the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, which became the blueprint for all modern divers’ watches.
Today, Blancpain still uses the name Fifty Fathoms for a collection that includes various models with different complications. Here I’m focusing on the Fifty Fathoms Automatique and looking at why it might be time to move on from the Rolex Submariner, because, despite the popularity of the dive watch category, the Fifty Fathoms does not command the same attention as other watches. Is there anything Blancpain could do to increase the appeal of the Fifty Fathoms?
Blancpain, founded in 1735, is one of the oldest watch brands in the world and has continuously produced horological devices and watches for nearly 300 years. Throughout the 1900s, watches were tools and, as the wristwatch became more prevalent, they needed to be designed with specific purposes in mind.
Watches were required by the military, pilots and explorers for example, and alongside this, there was an increasing demand for water-resistant pieces. Several brands were pushing the development in this area, namely Rolex, Panerai, and Omega. Rolex released the Oyster case in 1926 – the first waterproof and dust-proof watch case.
In 1936, Panerai followed with the Radiomir, combining water resistance and a luminous dial allowing the Italian Navy to use them on missions. Omega launched the Seamaster in 1948 and increased the depth rating beyond what had been achieved before. At the same time, recreational diving was increasing in popularity due to the invention of the Aqua-Lung in 1942-1943. This was the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (“SCUBA”), allowing people to easily remain underwater. This brought about an additional requirement from watches: timing how long a diver has been underwater in case decompression was necessary.
Despite the progress made on water-resistant watches, none of those mentioned so far were practical for diving and there was still no set formula for what a dive watch should be like.
Until Blancpain produced the Fifty Fathoms.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Jean-Jacques Fiechter was the CEO of Blancpain in 1950 and an avid amateur diver himself – this alone made him aware of the necessary features required by divers. It led him to pursue the creation of a watch that satisfied the needs of divers.
Around the same time, in 1952, the French Navy was assembling a team of elite combat divers that required a reliable timepiece. They had struggled to find a watch that satisfied their requirements and eventually reached out to Blancpain which provided the Fifty Fathoms for testing. It passed with flying colors and the Fifty Fathoms quickly became an essential piece of equipment for the Marine Nationale (French Navy).
The result is the basis of all dive watches as we know them today: good water resistance, legibility, luminescence, a non-magnetic case, and a unidirectional rotating bezel.
The first Fifty Fathoms was 41 mm in diameter (this was very large this was for 1953) and had water resistance to the maximum depth recommended to scuba divers – 50 fathoms (91.45m). To achieve this depth rating, Blancpain created and patented a double-sealed crown which minimized the crown being accidentally pulled out while underwater and potentially allowing water into the case.
The Fifty Fathoms was the first divers’ watch with an automatic movement that prevented unnecessary wear on the rubber seals and possible water damage from winding the crown too often (or having to wind underwater). It was the first with a non-magnetic case, and it featured a high contrast/high legibility black dial with large luminous indices.
It was the Fifty Fathoms’s bezel though that would set the dive watch landscape. Blancpain had created a unidirectional, rotating bezel allowing a diver to accurately know elapsed time underwater, with the security of rotating in one direction to prevent accidentally displaying a shorter time. This formula was used by many other brands in the years that followed, most notably, Rolex for the Submariner, which launched a year later in 1954.
The Fifty Fathoms saw continued success from its release through to the 1980s as more militaries adopted the watch, including Spain, Germany, and the USA. It even entered pop culture as it was featured in popular TV series. In this period, many variations were produced, including the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe, but the watch was always known to be a tool as intended.
Fast forward to today, bypassing the quartz crisis that led to the production of the Fifty Fathoms stopping, and the ownership changes that led to it being a part of the Swatch Group since 1997, the Fifty Fathoms is once again a staple in the Blancpain collection.
The Modern Fifty Fathoms Automatique 5015
Now we know the importance of its past, what can we expect from the modern Fifty Fathoms? First of all, Fifty Fathoms does not represent one watch but rather a whole range within the Blancpain collection. Here, we will focus on the Fifty Fathoms Automatique 5015 – this is the purest version that most closely resembles the original from 1953. The Automatique comes in a variety of case materials and dial options, but most of what I cover will apply to them all unless stated otherwise.
Starting with the design, here the 5015 stays relatively close to the model released back in 1953. It is clear to see that the same dive watch formula has been used here, although that is no surprise given this was the watch that created the whole category. Before looking closer, you will notice that, despite being a simple watch, it is quite complex to look at. There is a mixture of angular lines and curves, which helps to break up a large watch. You first notice the legible Arabic numerals on the dial and bezel.
The bezel numerals are somewhat oversized and, given the purpose of this watch – diving tool first, luxury watch second – it makes sense. Next, the indices are triangular and sharp compared to the relatively curved Roman numerals. This is counteracted by the equally angular hands, although instead of the hands having an opposing triangular tip to line up with the indices, they are curved, providing yet another unique shape to catch your eye. Finally, the text font further highlights this juxtaposition. It retains the original font, providing excessive curvature against everything else.
Looking closer, you find several further details adding to the brilliance of the Fifty Fathoms Automatique. First and foremost is the bezel. Unlike other watches, Blancpain uses a sapphire crystal over the bezel insert. This is notable for a few reasons. Sapphire crystal is virtually scratch-proof and very durable. It also provides a glossy, consistent look from the dial to the bezel, giving the watch a very rich aesthetic.
There is a deepness to the color of the bezel insert, and a sense of clarity, while being reminiscent of the Bakelite bezels of the past. Further, by covering a dial insert, it allows for the bezel to be fully lumed with no risk of the lume chipping – coming back to the idea of the Fifty Fathoms being a true tool watch.
Why don’t we see this method used by other brands? It’s an expensive technique, especially as Blancpain uses a cambered crystal. Other watches, most notably the Rolex Submariner, use ceramic bezels, which have their own properties, but rarely do you see what Blancpain produces here.
Moving to the dial you find a stepped design on the Automatique. The center is slightly raised giving the dial some extra depth, although it is not hugely visible until you look at the watch at an angle. Interestingly, and to be expected from such a brand, the indices are perfectly sized to fit in the outer ring. The height of the indices is slightly taller than the raised center, again further adding to the complexity. Finally, the stepped center has a different sunburst pattern than the outer ring.
These small details are a very intelligent way to make the watch feel more manageable than its size indicates. This leads nicely to the case. As mentioned, it is available in several metals, but regardless, the watch is large, to say the least. The case is 45 mm in diameter, 15.5mm thick and has a 300-meter water resistance. To put this lightly, this is not a subtle watch. The case is finished as expected from a brand of this caliber. It has an unusual case profile and along the side, you will find “Blancpain” engraved. Inside, you will find the in-house caliber 1315 movement.
Blancpain produces high-horology movements and, even though the 1315 is not necessarily complicated, you still experience the quality of the brand. The movement has a triple barrel setup offering a 5-day power reserve, while being finished to a high standard. The movement is visible through an exhibition case back.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms versus Rolex Submariner
So why is it worth considering a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms over a Rolex Submariner? The Fifty Fathoms is the definition of the dive watch category. It has a place in history. While you see the countless Submariners, Seamaster’s or Seiko Prospex’s on people’s wrists they all derive from the Fifty Fathoms. And Blancpain is a brand that is typically associated with high horology.
This is not to say the quality of other watches is not good, but rather Blancpain goes above and beyond. You buy this watch for yourself. It is the history that draws you in and the small details that keep you satisfied. This is not a watch everyone will know, but there is something that excites me about that.
The price of the Fifty Fathoms Automatique is 15,600 euros for the stainless steel variant on a canvas strap, and goes up depending on case material, complication and strap options. This price brings it in higher than its Rolex and Omega counterparts, but you must remember that Blancpain as a brand sits a tier above these two.
What Needs To Be Improved?
Given the heritage, quality and brand image, why then is this watch not as coveted as the Rolex Submariner? Surely, for those looking at legendary dive watches, the Blancpain should be towards the top of the list. The reality is that it isn’t.
I know the first thing you might say is that it comes down to price, which is a fair observation, but getting a Submariner at retail price is a challenge. This means most end up paying a premium and the price difference is reduced. This is even before you consider all the extra benefits of the Fifty Fathoms in terms of quality and rarity that Blancpain provide. Therefore, I am excluding price as a consideration here. So how can the Fifty Fathoms Automatique be improved?
As mentioned when discussing the Automatique, this is not a small watch. It might be compared with the Rolex Sea-Dweller or Deep-Sea when it comes to size, even though they achieve a much higher water resistance (1,220m/3,900m respectively). This just makes me question why the Blancpain needs to be the size it is. Understandably, the modern iteration was released when larger watches were popular, but times are changing.
With the broader interest in watches picking up, tastes are now moving towards smaller watches. More people are in the market for luxury watches which equates to more varying wrist sizes and the Fifty Fathoms Automatique alienates a wide group of people due to its size.
Today, there is one extra ingredient to the dive watch formula and that is versatility. Most dive watches never make it to the ocean, their appeal comes down to their wearability in all situations. Rolex has nailed the Submariner because of how it is sized and how good their Oyster bracelet is. The Oyster bracelet is the industry standard when it comes to bracelets (at this price point at least). Blancpain does offer a bracelet option, but it is not the default when it comes to the Fifty Fathoms.
The bracelet is known as the X71 and has the same high build quality as the rest of the watch. There are polished accents, very little spacing between links and a double-folding clasp. The end links are integrated into the case and do add to the size as the watch sits firmly across the top of your wrist. The bracelet has a strong look. However, the key here is that it further adds to the heft of the Fifty Fathoms and doesn’t help with making the watch any more wearable.
On top of this, the bracelet option comes with a jump in price. The quality might be top-notch, but for a stainless steel bracelet option, there’s quite a price increase.
We know that Blancpain is capable of producing smaller watches. The Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe is a model in the range that is produced in 38mm and 43mm, although the aesthetic is different and is based on the Bathyscaphe released in the late 1950s. Furthermore, Blancpain produces Limited Edition models of the Fifty Fathoms, and the majority of these are smaller in size. The 2020 Hodinkee Fifty Fathoms Mil-SPEC is 40.3mm in diameter with the same depth rating, and the 2023 70th-anniversary edition is 42.3mm in diameter.
It can be done so why is there not an option in the regular lineup?
At the same time, Blancpain could develop a new bracelet complementing the watch more. A large part of what makes the Rolex Submariner so successful is its versatility of it and universal demand. The size of it is a huge factor here, and by Blancpain keeping the Fifty Fathoms as an extra-large watch, they are restricting its popularity from growing. My view is they should follow what Tudor recently did with the Pelagos and make a smaller version on offer. Only then it will start to get the attention of the Rolex Submariner customers.
If you have read some of my other posts, this has come up before. Buying a luxury watch has a social status angle attached in most cases, regardless of how we feel individually. A part of the reason behind the success of the Rolex Submariner is what it represents. It is an aspirational product and buying one usually is symbolic for the consumer to mark a specific occasion or event. Blancpain does not have this same broad appeal when it comes to the Fifty Fathoms. Outside of the watch world, does Blancpain evoke any emotion in the average consumer just looking for a luxury watch? Probably not.
At the same time as engineering a new watch to be smaller with a better bracelet, Blancpain need to consider how they can convey the excellence of their product and brand more broadly. This could be through more visible commercial sponsorships such as their partnership with Oceana demonstrating their commitment to ocean exploration and conservation. How is it we know Oris is the brand that stands for sustainability, or Omega is the brand associated with Space and James Bond? Because they never let us forget it.
Even if a potential partnership is just through a celebrity endorsement or product placement in a popular movie, it would still help boost their image among those who aren’t familiar with Blancpain. Panerai successfully achieved this with Sylvester Stallone in the 1990s and this was a contributing factor to their growth in popularity.
Beyond this, Blancpain could also improve its visibility in watch retailers. They could find clearer messaging on why their product is so good and worth the asking price (which it is!). There are many ways out there they could push their watches and this needs to be done. Not everyone out there is dreaming of owning a Fifty Fathoms one day as they do with a Submariner. The brand deserves it, the watch deserves it, and the consumer deserves to know of a great alternative.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique 5015 is special. It descends from the first modern dive watch and created the formula for some of the most popular watches in history. As it is a Blancpain, the quality is exceptional, while also managing to retain the charm of the original. Not many stainless steel divers come close to what Blancpain achieves.
Despite this, the popularity of the watch does not come close to others such as the Rolex Submariner and Omega Seamaster. This boils down to the wearability and marketing of the watch. Wearability is arguably the new ingredient to the formula for a modern diver and Blancpain need to now factor this in. Blancpain has demonstrated this to themselves already with popular Limited Editions that are smaller in size.
In my opinion, it is now time they offered the Fifty Fathoms Automatique in a smaller package and Blancpain improves their messaging to get it on more wrists. However, if you have wrists that can pull off the size (unfortunately, I can’t) and don’t care that only a select few will know what is on your wrist, then the Fifty Fathoms Automatique is a great option right now! It should be high up your list if you are looking for a modern dive watch.
For more information, please visit www.blancpain.com/en/product-finder?search=5015%20
Quick Facts: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique 1515
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds, date
Case: available in steel, titanium, or red gold; silicon balance spring; unidirectional bezel
Dimensions: 45 mm x 15.4 mm
Power reserve: 120 hours
Water resistance: 300 meters
Bracelet: integrated design in stainless steel with micro-adjusting clasp and rapid-removal links
Movement: Caliber 1315, automatic winding
Price: from 15,600 euros
You can read more articles by Raman Kalra at www.thewatchmuse.com.