The Blancpain Air Command was originally produced by Blancpain in the 1950s, and was supposedly intended for use by the US Air Force, the US Navy having already adopted the 50 Fathoms diver’s watch. The Air Command was a flyback chronograph, constructed somewhat along the lines of the Type 20 spec, and supposedly 12 watches were made and offered to USAF pilots through Blancpain’s US distributor, Allen Tornek. It’s now an extremely rare grail watch for vintage Blancpain Air Command collectors – they’ve appeared at auction very rarely. One is coming up at Phillips Hong Kong later this month, with an estimate of $50-100,000; and prior to that, another one (not the same watch) hammered in 2016, also at Phillips (in the 88 Epic Stainless Steel Chronograph auction) for CHF 100,000.
The lot notes for both watches are pretty much the same in the essentials. The catalogue essay for the 2016 auction reads, ” … scholars have asserted that it was never serially manufactured or commercialized,” and then continues, “Like many other Swiss manufacturers, Blancpain was hit by the quartz crisis and … had to sell many of its assets, including some unfinished watches. With only a handful of specimens of this mythical model known to have survived, it is hard to determine what the exact specifications of the Air Command are.”
It then goes on to say, “However, as some of the Air commands have Blancpain-signed movements, it is possible that examples like the one presented here have only been assembled and fitted with a Valjoux 222 after the sell-off of the cases, dials, bezels and pushers and hands.” While the origins of the original Air Command seem to be destined to remain a mystery (albeit if we had records from the era, many passionate collectors would doubtless be deprived of the pleasure of arguing with each other) it was a handsome flyback chronograph, with classic mid-century instrument-timepiece good looks, and Blancpain has in terms of cosmetics, stayed very close to the original. Indeed, from the dial side, at first glance it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other. The new-for-2019 model is very slightly larger than the original (42mm, vs. 42.50 for the new model). The Arabics are larger in the new model (as is the crown), the word “Flyback” is present in a very subdued fashion on the new guy, and of course, the difference in chronograph pusher positioning gives away the newer movement. The new model has no running seconds, with a 12 hour counter where there was a running seconds on the original; but taken as a whole, it’s a pretty faithful reproduction, right down to the elongated 3-minute markers in the 30 minute register. The new watch, however, has a very different movement from the flyback Valjoux caliber 222 in the vintage model. It uses the Blancpain caliber F388B – this is a column-wheel controlled, flyback automatic chronograph with vertical clutch, and which runs at 5 hertz, or 36,000 vph, giving the chronograph a 1/10 of a second resolution.
If you’re going to do an homage to a vintage model this is a great way to do it. What a lot of us love about vintage watches is, yes, the nostalgia they can evoke, but of course functionally vintage watches are generally inferior to their modern counterparts, especially with the advances in materials technology, lubricants, gaskets and seals, and movement design which the last ten or fifteen years have brought us. The overwhelming tendency from a design standpoint, from modern brands, seems to be to use ecru Super-LumiNova (somewhat ironically, it turns out that “ecru” actually means “raw” or “unbleached”) in an effort to reproduce the look of yellowed radium or tritium paint, but as Jason Heaton mentioned in one of his stories for us, you don’t necessarily have to see this as an attempt to drape oneself in borrowed glory – at this point, and despite the fact that “fauxtina” is a term that seems to be here to stay, you can as easily look at it as just another color choice if you want.
While the new Blancpain Air Command really succeeds in general of capturing the charm of the original vintage model, the one other niggle I can see folks having with it is the propeller-shaped rotor. This is the sort of thing that tends to come across as either an annoying bit of kitsch, or a harmless bit of fun, depending on who you are (and maybe on which side of the bed you got out of this morning). Propeller-shaped winding rotors on aviation-themed watches are, like ecru lume, present in large enough numbers that I personally don’t object to them as much as I did even a few years ago (perhaps this is just a sign of age-related resignation, but I can’t manage to rouse much outrage about it). The rotor in the Air Command is reasonably well done, anyhow, and the rather sober brushed finish the red gold has been given, is pleasantly harmonious with the style in which the rest of the movement has been finished. A propeller on a watch whose design originated in the 1950s is a bit of an anachronism, as by the early 1950s most air forces were falling over themselves trying to switch as fast as possible to jet aircraft, but it’s still a handsome looking rotor.
All praise, incidentally, to Blancpain Air Command for omitting a date window – normally I don’t mind them but a date guichet would have been jarringly out of place on this watch (ditto for sticking to a two-register design). Overall, this is a very respectful as well as faithful homage to one of the most interesting, to say nothing of mysterious, vintage Blancpain watches, and the use of modern materials and a modern movement adds significantly to the appeal. These will be produced in slightly larger numbers than the very few surviving vintage Blancpain Air Command watches – Blancpain is offering this watch as a 500 piece limited edition.