Why not...? A "Californian" Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
I’ve lived in southern California for nearly six years now. Since leaving Geneva to embark upon my American adventure, I have come to know and appreciate the state whose very name sounds like a dream to many people. Here, between Los Angeles and San Diego, we’re in the south of the state, where it’s basically summer all year round.
Southern California is full of famous places that draw millions of tourists every year. From the beaches of Malibu to the luxury estates of Beverly Hills, from the golf courses of Palm Springs to the Mojave Desert! Anaheim’s Disneyland Park is a microcosm of California and a potted American history, all at the same time: you’re in the Wild West, on the Pacific coast, between the desert and the sea.
California is the epitome of cool, with its pot-smokers (marijuana was legalised last year), its starlets strolling along Venice Beach and, of course, its palm trees!
But California has another face too.
Because of its strategic location, it is home to many military bases. The cinema made Top Gun famous, and the Navy pilot training base was located in San Diego for many years, before moving north.
Marines train at Camp Pendleton (also close to San Diego), and the famous Navy Seals can be found at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, just down the road.
So California is both cool – and military. Military cool, maybe?
In the interests of precision, I should also state that I live in Orange County. That might not mean anything to you, but in the USA, in California, the name has certain connotations.
Orange County is a bit Matisse, by which I mean “Luxe, Calme et Volupté” (luxury, peace and pleasure).
For luxury, there’s Newport Beach and Shady Canyon. Here you’ll find some of the most expensive homes in the country, nestled in high-security canyons, or strung out along the Pacific coast. In the centre of the county is a very special mall: South Coast Plaza. Why is it special? Well, it’s the must luxurious mall on US soil, and it boasts the highest average spend. That tells you all you need to know. The PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) is a parade of luxury car and yacht showrooms.
But OC also means peace and quiet. Sunset over Balboa Pier, as many whales and dolphins as you could hope to see, and all that glorious sunshine. And then there’s pleasure. Southern California is all about the body beautiful. Here, looks matter. Plastic surgeons outnumber bakers, and there’s a gym on every street corner. Food is probably healthier than in many other states, because Californians are dedicated foodies. They also like their wine, whether it comes from the north of the state (Napa Valley) or from Temacula in the south.
And finally, there’s sport. Hunting Beach is the state surfing capital. Hockey means the Anaheim Ducks (founded by Disney) and the LA Raiders. Then of course there’s basketball, which has the Lakers and the Clippers.
So… what has all this got to do with watches? Southern Californians love watches, vintage and modern alike.
Some watches have names that reference the Wild West. Rolex and Panerai offer California Dials. IWC has its Top Gun, and there are also native Californian brands such as Weiss. All the watchmakers want a space on Rodeo Drive, or a spot in the watch corner of South Coast Plaza. If you go for a stroll around old Orange, you’ll come across many antique stores, including one that has some extremely rare vintage pieces.
And that’s what gave me the idea for this article. The question I asked myself was a simple one: “Which watch most resembles the California I know?”
First, it should have a famous name that resonates, in the same way as Beverly Hills or Santa Monica do. Next, it must be well-made, and it must have a mechanical movement, because Californians love fine engineering. It has to be waterproof, obviously, otherwise… bye-bye beaches.
As the sun shines for most of the year, and we’re in a rich county, we can work with yellow or rose gold. Just not too much of it. So we can forget about a “full gold” look.
The strap should be made of leather or rubber, because our Californian timepiece has to be athletic, and must be able to cope with a bit of sweat and salt. So, in fact, that means our best option will be rubber.
But let’s not forget that ‘other’ California: military, yes, but also a state that has to be prepared for earthquakes, forest fires and mudslides. A Californian watch should ideally have military DNA, and be robust enough to cope with any trials that Mother Nature might choose to throw at it.
My original list had quite a lot of names on it. I began the process of elimination. I got it down to five names. Then just two. And I finally settled on the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, in red gold.
The brand was founded in 1735 in Villeret, Switzerland. It grew over the years, only to be brought to its knees by the quartz crisis. But it survived, just, and was taken over by watch industry legend Jean-Claude Biver, who nurtured it back to strength. Today, the name of Blancpain is strongly associated with luxury watchmaking.
For the purposes of this article, however, we’re going to ignore the haute horlogerie creations to focus on one watch whose name should be very familiar: the Fifty Fathoms.
For many people, this was the first real diver’s watch. While Omega and Rolex pipped Blancpain to the post in terms of water resistance and diving specifics, the Le Brassus firm enjoyed a confluence of circumstances that earned it the distinction of becoming known as a tool watch for professionals.
Before the Fifty Fathoms, there was Bob Maloubier, a French hero of the second world war, and founder of the first French combat diving unit. Maloubier and his partner Claude Riffaud were responsible for recruiting, equipping and training these future elite soldiers. They very quickly realised that they didn’t have a high-performance diving watch to match the one being used by their Italian counterparts, the frogmen of the Decima MAS, who had their Panerais.
They contacted a number of watchmakers, before finally plumping for Blancpain. Thus was born the legendary Fifty Fathoms, whose name remains something of a mystery. Why choose the English language, and a British imperial unit of measurement, for a watch that was intended specifically for French soldiers?
Whatever the reason, and however bizarre it might seem in retrospect, the name stuck, and is now part of the legend. The first diving watch with modern specifications was born. The year was 1953.
Bob Maloubier © Blancpain
The FF set out to conquer the world. It went by different names, sometimes LIP, sometimes Tornek-Rayville. It equipped French divers, but also divers from the US Navy, who would later become the Navy Seals. It was worn by Jacques Cousteau and his team, and legions of other leisure divers, some of whom were famous, some not...
In fact, it was a photo of Lloyd Bridges wearing a Skin Diver in 1962 that made the Tornek / Blancpain FF so famous in the USA. Lloyd Bridges wasn’t just anyone, you see. He was the star of the TV series Sea Hunt which, over the course of 155 episodes, recounted the adventures of a former combat diver named Mike Nelson. During the series he wore several different diving watches, but it was his photo on the cover of a well-known diving magazine that cemented his association with Blancpain.
And, given that Lloyd Bridges is a Hollywood star, from California, who was born in the north but died in LA, and a sportsman to boot, he perfectly encapsulates the reasons why I chose the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms to celebrate the California Republic!
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms in red gold: California Dreamin’
So here it is, our wonderful Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (reference 5015 3603C 63B).
We are in the presence of a classic Blancpain, produced in many different iterations over the years. Here, the 45 mm version is the basis for this new model in red gold. It possesses all the elements that have defined the success of this luxury diver: the chunky round case, the sapphire bezel with its vintage accents, the date at half-past four, and a simple and legible 3/6/9/12 dial.
Fifty Fathoms ref. 5015-3603C-63B © Blancpain
The choice of red gold transports this Fifty Fathoms from its military origins into a more glamorous world. Our venerable diver, now a senior citizen at over 65 years of age, is given a more youthful aspect by the red gold. And red gold is absolutely the perfect choice. It makes the watch even more luxurious, while skilfully avoiding the “bling” trap that is all too common in Beverly Hills.
But what is even better about this Blancpain is the colour of the dial – a deep sunburst blue, which contrasts beautifully with the case, and tones with the sapphire bezel in a darker shade of blue. And the dial holds yet another surprise: it is made of ceramic, which gives the blue colour a distinctive depth.
The tip of the second hand is in red – a small but important detail. This colour accent works particularly well with the blue of the dial, the bezel and the strap. It also enhances the red gold case.
The blue of the dial continues onto the calf leather strap, where it is accented by beige topstitching. The strap is lined with rubber.
At the heart of the Fifty Fathoms beats the manufacture calibre 1315, a movement with a solid track record, which can be seen through the sapphire caseback.
Given that this is a diver, the Fifty Fathoms is water resistant to 300 m, three times the depth referenced in the name!
This is a fine Californian timepiece. It’s subtle and charming, and would make the ideal companion for an ocean dip in Balboa, or while enjoying a French croissant on the terrace of Le Moulin!
What does the Devil’s Advocate think?
Given how many Hollywood films and TV series he’s appeared in, the Devil loves California and its excesses. As far as the watch is concerned, there are a few minor details that could be improved.
First, the size. The same watch with a diameter of 42 mm, even a little less – like the new Barakkuda – would be ideal. And I don’t like the date at 4:30. I’d prefer to either get rid of it completely, or nudge it back to 3 o’clock.
Finally, the lug width is 23 mm, which makes it difficult to find replacement straps. I would also love to see this Blancpain Fifty Fathoms on a blue NATO strap with a gold clasp and retainers, like the Bathyscaphe.
But these are just minor quibbles, and they don’t stop me finding the FF in red gold an ideal watch for a trip around Orange County!
How to wear this Blancpain Fifty Fathoms with – Californian – style
There’s only one way to go. Dress like a local!
Let’s head for the Lido Marina Village in Newport Beach, and make our first stop at Alchemy Works. Here we can pick up a blazer by Californian brand Apolis, along with a couple of their t-shirts.
For the trousers, we’ll go to Allende Edmonds in South Coast Plaza. Let’s not be distracted by the shoes; we’re looking for a pair of chinos by Civilianaire, another Californian brand. Their Five Pockets models are very well made – made in California, in fact.
So where shall we go for the shoes? There’s only one choice: Vans. S’il y a une marque absolument californienne et locale, c’est bien Vans. Née en 1966 à Anaheim, dans Orange County, elle s’est imposée dans le monde comme LA chaussure des skateboarders. Vous aurez l’embarras du choix dans la boutique de South Coast. Et si vous prenez la Freeway 405 vers le nord, vous apercevrez vite le siège de la marque et ses couleurs particulières.
OK. Now for some sunglasses – an essential accessory. Here, it’s got to be Oakley, another brand headquartered in Orange County. I’ll just leave it at that: there’s a huge choice and they’re available everywhere.
Just a couple more things: a backpack by TIG (This Is Ground) from LA, a couple of bits and pieces from Fred Segal, and you’re ready to take a drive along the PCH, with your Blancpain on your wrist!
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