In 2019 Blancpain released the Fifty Fathoms Nageurs de Combat Automatique reference 5015E-1130-B52A as a tribute to the brand’s historical collaboration with the French military. The watch was produced in a limited run of 300 pieces in stainless steel with an original MSRP of $15,500. The name for this timepiece translates to “Combat Swimmers” in English. Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms was the first Swiss timepiece selected as a military qualified dive watch for many Navies around the world. In 1953, soon after its advent, the French military unit of “frogmen,” known as Commando Hubert, adopted this watch as official kit.
The Blancpain Nageurs de Combat Automatique includes all the defining characteristics of a dive watch, as originally envisioned by the brand’s former President, Jean-Jacques Fiechter. The first of these is legibility. Fiechter was an avid scuba diver in the very early days of the sport. Because he lost track of time and ran out of air during one of his dives, Fiechter was forced to risk the bends and make a dangerous emergency ascent. Consequently, he was inspired to create the world’s first purpose-built watch for timekeeping at depth.
On the Nageurs de Combat Automatique the time is easy to discern. It is indicated by sword hands for the hour and minute and an arrow-style hand for the seconds. The hands are white lacquered, which contrasts nicely with the black dial while also complementing the white minute markers. The luminous material on the hands is matched by luminous hour markers (triangular at 12, baton-shaped at 3, 6 and 9, and dots for the other hours). Further to this, the indices on its sapphire crystal bezel insert are also lumed.
Legibility in low light conditions is extremely important when diving. At certain depths very little light is available. The Nageurs de Combat’s 45mm case is rated for 1000 feet of water resistance. Depths greater than 656 feet in the ocean are referred to as the dysphotic, or twilight, zone because the light deficit defeats photosynthesis. While recreational divers will never actually reach these depths, diving in many areas in North America (and especially north of the 40th Parallel) means murky/unclear water.
Blancpain included a date window at 4:30, which is perhaps not very critical as a diving feature but otherwise a highly useful complication. The date is quickset when the crown of the watch is unscrewed and pulled out to the first position. Above the 6 o’clock marker is, arguably, one of the most subtle design elements on the Nageurs de Combat. An oversized number 7 is printed in glossy black material, subtly visible against the matte black of the dial.
Most special operation military dives involve rebreathing equipment rather than traditional scuba gear. The latter emits bubbles, which would reveal the position of divers during a mission. Early rebreathers employed chemicals in a closed circuit to “scrub” carbon dioxide from exhaled air. These systems allowed divers to breath pure oxygen but doing so under pressure while submerged risks toxicity. Tests of rebreathing systems revealed that 7 meters of water (approximately 23 feet) was the maximum safe depth for a diver while using a pure oxygen rebreather. The 7 element on the Blancpain Nageurs de Combat dial is ingenious in that it is stealthily presented, just as undersea commandos would surreptitiously approach their targets. Moreover, this number was, no doubt, always lurking in the mind of each and every frogman wearing a rebreather during a dive.
Arguably the most important feature of a dive watch is the rotating bezel. This allows the wearer to track elapsed time up to one hour. At the start of the dive, the bezel is rotated to align the diamond- shaped “lozenge” bezel marker with the current position of the minute hand. From that moment forward the minute hand will indicate, on the bezel, the amount of elapsed time. The Blancpain bezel lozenge is a style hallmark of the brand’s diving timepieces.
The Nageurs de Combat bezel is sapphire, a notoriously durable material. On many combat dive watches (and in accordance with the modern international standard for dive watches, ISO 6425) the bezel is marked in one minute increments around the entirety of the bezel. But for some combat divers, such as those in the German Navy in the 1970s, no minute markers of any sort were preferred (see the Fifty Fathoms Bund Steel 3H). For the Nageurs de Combat bezel, Blancpain elected to combine the functionality of a bezel minute scale for the first fifteen minutes of elapsed time with the cleaner aesthetics of five minute demarcations for the remainder. Finer increments of elapsed time can also be determined using the minute marks on the dial. The bezel turns unidirectionally counter-clockwise.
This convention ensures that—should the bezel inadvertently rotate while tracking elapsed time—the wearer will end up overestimating how much time has elapsed. This is a failsafe feature because the wearer would cut her dive short, thereby ascending early and avoiding the bends. Or, if the wearer is using the bezel to time steak on a grill then he will not burn the entrée. The edge of the bezel offers a softly serrated surface which increases grip when handling the watch with wet, or otherwise slippery, hands.
The main body of the watch case is finished in satin brushwork. This detail serves an aesthetic and tactical purpose. Combat divers requested a dull finish for early references of the Fifty Fathoms in order to minimize the chance that the watch would reflect light and compromise stealth. On the left side of the case the manufacturer’s name is engraved, and on the right we see very modestly sized crown guards. This is, perhaps, a nod to the fact that the very earliest Fifty Fathoms references did not offer protection of the crown. The crown itself is engraved with the initials of the brand’s founder, Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, who started the company in 1735. The lugs are drilled, and its strap is secured with screwed bars for added peace of mind. Accompanying the Nageurs de Combat is a sailcloth strap—a strap type commonly used by Blancpain that have a good reputation for comfort and durability.
The Nageurs de Combat is powered by Blancpain’s in-house calibre 1315 automatic movement. Given the challenges associated with winding a watch in a nautical environment, an automatic winding is critical for a dive watch. Blancpain’s 1315 movement has an astonishing 120 hour reserve supplied by three barrels. In addition to offering hacking seconds, the date in this movement is adjustable both forward and backwards. The silicon balance spring is resistant to both magnetic and temperature influences, thereby enhancing the timepiece’s reliability and accuracy. Given the tool watch focus here, The Nageurs de Combat is fitted with a solid caseback, engraved with the Combat Diver Qualification emblem. French military candidates are awarded this qualification after a grueling 27 week course covering diving, sabotage, navigation and parachuting.
The Blancpain Nageurs de Combat is the product of almost seventy years of experience in the design and production of dive watches. The historical record shows that Blancpain was the originator of the dive watch form factor. In the early days of combat diving, both the American and French navies were so impressed by the performance of the Fifty Fathoms that they chose it over otherwise favored models offered by domestic producers (Bulova and Lip, respectively). The Nageurs de Combat honors this history in both functionality and design. It is a worthy addition to any collection.