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2003 : Fifty Fathoms*


It was bound to happen. The second Gulf War started on 20 March. The conflict, whose consequences are still with us, was to last well beyond 2003. In March, the US Navy SEALs launched its biggest operation ever, aimed at taking out Iraqi oil platforms and gaining control of Al-Faw. War continued in Afghanistan, too, with a large number of special forces engaged in that theatre, including the SEALs and their French counterparts, the Special Operations Command. On 4 July, 2003, to boost the morale of US troops, Arnold Schwarzenegger went to Iraq to present Terminator 3, which had been released in the United States two days earlier. A few months later, he was to become the 38th Governor of California. A Republican, he was elected in the traditionally ‘blue’ state for a second term, thanks to his environmental policies. Meanwhile, on 3 January, future environmental warrior Greta Thunberg was born!

Perhaps it was no coincidence that one of the highest-grossing films of the year was Finding Nemo, a cute sea world story. A favourite with young and old alike, it also raised awareness of the ever-increasing threats to our oceans. Climate change moved centre stage, too, with a fierce heatwave hitting France that summer, killing over 15,000 people. All in all, though, 2003 was a year of conflict: one in which a watch-loving screen hero became The Gubernator; and one that also saw the birth of a future eco-warrior, the victory of a small, feisty fish – and a Warrior King in Lord of the Rings 3. It follows that for 2003, we need a watch that has nothing to fear from conflict, or the elements. Introducing the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms – fitting military hardware to represent this warrior year.

One Year, One Watch

Fifty Fathoms © Blancpain

Why Blancpain?

In 1953, Blancpain created the first ‘modern’ diving watch. Doing so required a little luck. This came in the persons of Bob Maloubier and Claude Riffaud, the founders of the first French combat divers unit, who were in search of a reliable watch. They contacted one manufacturer after another, only to be met with refusals, until at last one said yes: Jean-Jacques Fiechter, CEO of Blancpain. And so the Fifty Fathoms was born, notable features of which included the new unidirectional bezel. The watch was to equip many special forces, from French frogmen to US Navy SEALs. Cousteau wore it on his wrist during the filming of The Silent World, the documentary that revealed the beauty of the oceans to a mass audience.

One Year, One Watch

Fifty Fathoms © Blancpain

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 2200a 50th Anniversary – Big Nemo

In 2003, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (FF) turned 50. The Le Brassus-based brand celebrated its golden jubilee with a limited edition of 150 watches. The 40.5-millimetre watch drew inspiration from the design of the original FF, in particular the superb Bakelite bezel, in sapphire crystal here – a first, I believe. It was relatively small in size and came mounted on a steel bracelet. The piece was accompanied by an astonishing tool to fit the rubber strap that also came with the watch and was itself reminiscent of the ‘Bund’ straps (short for Bundesrepublik) on the watches of German pilots. That was doubtless no coincidence: Blancpain had developed an FF for the German combat divers, too. This particular 50-year-old was an immediate success, resulting in Blancpain including it in its collections.

The Take from The Devil’s Advocate

When the topic is war, he naturally pricks up his ears right away! But he’s not so interested in all that stuff about protecting the oceans. The 2003 Fifty Fathoms is a beautiful timepiece, rejuvenating the FF without slavishly copying it. That’s no easy feat, but it’s one Blancpain pulled off. It might have been better not to have a date on it, and not to have gone so over the top on the Blancpain engraving adorning the side of the case. The rubber strap is admittedly really cool, but it’s also fiddly to change. These are just details, though; truth is, the 2003 FF is a watch that signalled the start of better fortunes for Blancpain.

*On the occasion of GMT Magazine and WorldTempus' 20th anniversary, we have embarked on the ambitious project of summarising the last 20 years in watchmaking in The Millennium Watch Book, a big, beautifully laid out coffee table book. This article is an extract. The Millennium Watch Book is available on www.the-watch-book.com, in French and English.

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