Blancpain launched their most extreme watch in the largest aquarium in the world, the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo in the Dubai Mall, Dubai.
25th October 2011
I had arrived in Dubai a few days earlier and I could not escape the billboards proclaiming “A World Premiere Launch” and “X Fathoms”. However, being a keen follower of all horological matters, I knew that Blancpain clearly had something special to show the world and I was not to be disappointed.
Dubai is unlike anywhere I had been before, clean, safe, luxurious and hot!
Watch retailing is another revelation as the single branded, factory backed Boutiques offer extensive ranges of watches seldom seen outside Switzerland. With a local clientele who have a passion for haute horology and one of the best retail environments anywhere in the world, what better location to launch a new watch?
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
The Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo is the largest in the world and is an amazing tourist destination. I had visited it a few days earlier and marvelled at sharks and rays only a few feet away, behind the safety of the “World’s Largest Acrylic Panel” (Guiness World Record).
Dubai Mall is the location of The Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo and it too has a significant claim; “The world’s largest shopping, leisure and entertainment destination”. This year the Dubai Mall expects 50 million visitors.
Nothing is modest about Dubai, other than it’s lovely, polite people. Grandiose? Yes, but always tasteful.
A watchmaker’s bench underwater in an aquarium?
The world’s press is assembled in front of the large acrylic panel and gazes ahead in anticpation.
The first thing that catches the eye is a watchmaker’s bench, underwater on the base of the faux ocean floor, encircled by sharks, rays and numerous species of different fish.
What was going to happen next? A submarine possibly? No, Marc Hayek CEO of Blancpain in a wetsuit with a dive cylinder on his back, arrives at the watchmaker’s bench with a fellow diver. They sign to each other and the anticipation builds.
The next moment, a man wearing a Watchmaker’s coat, swims to Marc at the Watchmaker’s bench carrying a bright orange case. He is wearing no cylinder but is normally aspirated.
How long can he hold his breath? A long time. This is no mere mortal but champion freediver, Gianluca Genoni (holder of the World Record for freediving to a depth of 152 metres).
Gianluca has been freediving for 20 years, holds 15 free-diving records and is an extreme athlete who carefully watches his diet and has an intensive fitness regime.
I subsequently chatted to Gianluca and his wife Paola and was amazed to learn his resting heart rate is only 38 beats per minute. Moreover, when he descends to 150 metres below the ocean surface, his heart slows to an amazing 10 beats per minute.
Yet another superlative.
A history of diving watches
Blancpain has earned an excellent reputation for its timepieces both in terms of craftsmanship and tradition but also its spirit of innovation and seeking for new ideas and technologies.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms has a well deserved reputation as a horological icon, being the first modern diving watch, dating back to 1953. It was originally developed for the elite French Naval Diving Corps “Les Nageurs de Combat”.
Over the years, new derivatives of the original 1953 model have been launched, but the resemblance to the original has always remained. However, the Fifty Fathoms has now spawned a son, the Blancpain X Fathoms.
X Fathoms revealed
The orange case still held by Gianluca is passed to Marc Hayek and the mystery is revealed.
Close up shots are transmitted to the large video screens in front of the assembled audience and we all gasp in unison – wow!
The X Fathoms is unlike anything you have seen before. It is huge with a case diameter of 55.65mm and a multitude of hands, crowns and colours all featured. However, do not think the watch is unduly large. Its size aids operation. Neither think the plethora of hands, crowns and colours are too complex, a brief explanation and they become simple to interpret and operate.
Technologies never used before
The watch is the culmination of years of research and development and the fruit of huge R&D expenditure by the oldest watch manufacture (established 1735).
The watch contains “Amorphous Metal” to make the depth guage membrane. The predetermined expansion and contraction provide super accurate measurement of depth, manually i.e. without electronics. The liquid metal sounds like a black art that goes beyond my comprehesion. What I can appreciate is that the depth guages (there are two) can indicate the variation of depth to an accuracy of +/- 30cm!
A rack and pinion, linked to the membrane containing the “Amorphous metal”, move as depth changes and the two depth guage hands move. The degree of precision required in manufacturing the rack and pinion is so critical that Blancpain uses another cutting edge technology, deep X-ray lithography known as LIGA (an acronym based on the German words Lithographie, Galvanoformung, Abformung). With this adjustment, each 0.01mm of membrane deformation corresponds to a depth of one metre.
Blancpain remains true to tradition also
The 9918B movement powering the Blancpain X Fathoms is based on the Manufacture-made Calibre 1315. Self-winding and equipped with three barrels ensuring a five-day power reserve. This movement has featured in several models in the Fifty Fathoms collection previously.
The movement has proved to be very reliable as expected, considering the fantastic pedigree of the Blancpain, whose artisans work within wooden clad ateliers.
If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing a Blancpain movement on the bench, you are reminded of the tradition of haute horology with finissage of the highest order.
The Calibre 1315 was adapted for the X Fathoms with a new baseplate, eliminating the date indication and adding a silicon balance-spring, as well as a retrograde counter.
The watch has two depth guages. A blue hand moves to indicate the depth from 0-15 metres in small integers. On reaching 15 metres the hand ceases to move and the diver moves his gaze to the orange tipped hand with depth markers up to 90 metres.
Between 10 O’ Clock and 11 O’ Clock is a blue hand which provides a retrograde 5 minute counter for decompression stops, operted by a pusher.
Finally, a vivid shade of green is used on text and indices to indicate the hour, mnute and seconds hands and is repeated for the text and indices on the undirectional, rotating bezel.
A question and answer session
Marc Hayek invited questions from the assembled media and one journalist enquired about the source of the name. Why X-Fathoms?
Marc explained that “X is a variable, a change of depth” it also has other connotations; “something unknown”, “something extreme”.
“Something unknown” maybe but I knew one thing – I wanted this watch, hence my question to Marc was very simple; “I love this watch, assuming my wife was willing to allow it, what are the chances of me being able to buy this watch? How long would I have to wait?” (I secretly wanted to beat the queue and get my name on the list post haste).
Marc smiled gently, chuckled to himself, I think he knows he has created a winner and replies, “We hope to produce maybe 30 – 40 watches per year, maybe I will be able to get you one”. “Yes, please” I said to myself, momentarily forgetting about my children’s school fees falling due for next term.
I sat down still excited at the prospect of owning this wonderful watch and then I felt my mobile phone vibrate in my pocket. It was a text message from my wife, unknown to me, she was watching proceedings with my children on the website live, back in our Hotel. The message was very simple, “Even if Marc can get you the watch, you are not buying another one!”
Sometimes, modern technology can have negative implications and this certainly was one of them. In times gone by, the watch would have been purchased, squirrelled away and revealed at a later date with my rehearsed mantra “I’ve had it for ages”. I will watch out for big brother next time to prevent me “blowing my cover”.
The morning after the night before
A few fellow journalists and a handful of Blancpain employees assembled the next morning at the base of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
We ascended the tower in the fastest elevator I have ever been in. We disembarked on the 124th floor, the “At The Top” observation deck and marvelled at the view.
The panorama of Dubai is spectacular with numerous sky-scrapers in ever more ingenious forms, but for me there was another view to behold, a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms in red gold.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms with bespoke strap.
Adam Bossi and Marc Junod were both wearing Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (one an Automatique and one a Flyback Chronograph), but both had unusual straps.
A leather strap on a diver’s watch? Well Adam and Marc were trying a bespoke strap to guage its popularity and for me, the leather with contrasting stiching worked wonderfully. The warmth of the leather gave the watch a wonderful character.
I hope the watch strap makes it to full launch as I think it is magnificent and reminds me of watch straps featured on old pilot watches of yesteryear.
Hence another dilemma, X Fathoms or 50 Fifty Fathoms with bespoke strap or maybe both. I just need to time my wife’s departure from our home on the “school run” with the delivery of two parcels from Le Brassus.
A nice dillema to have, which watch to buy? However, one thing is certain, Blancpain have just produced the most interesting diving watch I have ever seen.
Angus is a self-confessed watch addict and is frequently asked to contribute to various printed magazines and websites around the globe. He also writes for individual watch companies on matters of horology and has appeared on television and radio as an industry expert.