Many watches can feel like a solution in search of a problem, but for decades Blancpain has been a leader in building tools to solve challenges faced by divers who push human ability to the extreme. Today, Blancpain is announcing the first Fifty Fathoms “Tech” watch – part of a new line dedicated to technical diving – the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa.
Just like the original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms drew on the needs of the most technical divers of its time in 1953, Blancpain CEO Marc Hayek worked with the brand’s close partner, diver, photographer, and underwater biologist Laurent Ballesta to engineer a specialized technical tool to suit a modern technical diver’s needs. The watch, cased in Grade 23 titanium (surgical titanium rated higher than grade 5), measures 47mm wide and 14.81mm thick, features a helium escape valve, an unusual central lug design, an integrated strap, and houses a brand new caliber. This triple-barrel-powered movement has five days of power reserve along with a three-hour hand and matching bezel.
As much as recreational diving is a beloved hobby, technical diving (which often combines greater depths, mixed gasses, rebreathers, or even extended saturation dives) is a whole different – and potentially dangerous – ballgame. But it’s just another day at the Gombessa Project, which Ballesta founded to study some of the rarest, most elusive marine creatures and phenomena. He and his fellow aquanauts wore four prototypes of this watch on an almost 50-day trial period at a depth of 120 meters as part of the Gombessa V and Gombessa VI missions in 2019 and 2021. On these Mediterranean expeditions, the team combined saturation diving with closed-circuit rebreather diving for the first time.
Over the course of a 28-day saturation dive, Ballesta’s dive computer tracked his entire dive and all the necessary stats to keep him safe as he breathed helium-enriched oxygen to live and work at pressure and depth. When he entered the water, Ballesta would set the three-hour bezel on the Tech Gombassa to time how long he was in the water specifically. Using a rebreather means almost no bubbles (which can, among other things disturb the marine life you’re photographing) and allows more time underwater as your exhaled CO2 gets cycled, cleaned, and turned into once-again useable oxygen. But the standard recommended maximum rebreather time is three hours, hence the dedicated three-hour hand (which is always running, you just spin the bezel to align for the start of the dive).
That’s a long dive time for anyone, let alone at those depths, but while presenting the watch Ballesta casually mentioned he once dove for 24 hours using three different rebreathers and, if necessary, could push that time to nine hours per tank with “careful breathing.”
When he was asked what he needed in the ideal dive watch, Ballesta mulled over the question, eventually saying “the idea of a traditional watch for modern diving didn’t work together until I realized it’s not about the depth, it’s the duration.”
All of this testing led to refinements like the integrated rubber strap with a central lug system, big block luminous orange indices which stand out against a black dial that absorbs 97% of light, and a touch of the original Fifty Fathoms design in the bakelite-esque bezel which has been subtly adjusted so it can be more easily gripped underwater with gloves on. The bezel also features luminous numerals that help track the three-hour hand as it counts the elapsed dive time.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch has been in development for five years and while it wasn’t slated to necessarily be a part of the 70th Anniversary celebration of the Fifty Fathoms, the timing worked out perfectly. The watch will be available later this year for $28,000 and comes in a Peli (a durable and waterproof storage) case with dive extension, divers logbook, and other accessories.
When I was a kid, I said I wanted to be a marine biologist and recently I’ve dreamed of learning to dive in order to photograph marine life like many of the iconic photographers I met at National Geographic gatherings. And while I’ve been aware in some form of Laurent Ballesta’s work for some time (and of course I love the iconic original Fifty Fathoms) I truly had no idea how far he was pushing himself as a diver in pursuit of both great images and conservation efforts. This Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch is a testament to that spirit and on that alone, I was hooked.