Blancpain Watch History: A Villeret Original’s Unique Take On Luxury Watchmaking

Blancpain Watch History: A Villeret Original’s Unique Take On Luxury Watchmaking2018-06-06T05:29:47+00:00

Blancpain is a Paudex, Switzerland-based watchmaker which has held fast to its time-honored watchmaking standards since its 1735 founding.

Because of this, the company prides itself in using only mechanical movements, and no digital components.

This brand defines itself with low-volume, traditional watchmaking in a workshop setting, creating fewer than 30 watches per day.

Therefore, these watches, typically high-end luxury diving and dress watches, are often created in short limited-edition runs.

In this guide, you will learn all about Blancpain such as its origin and history as well as its innovations and current models.

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"A tenacious small-shop wonder!" Blancpain, manufacture of the first diver's watch, continues to impress & innovate.
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Blancpain began in Villeret, Switzerland, as the modest home workshop of watchmaker and schoolteacher Jehan-Jacques Blancpain.

The business grew over the years through many generations of the family, eventually industrializing and expanding its operations internationally.

Befitting its centuries-long history, this watchmaking house has faced and survived various crises since its founding.

Keep reading to learn about this watchmaker, from its humble beginnings to current successes, or follow the links below.

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The Blancpain Family’s Homestead Horology

Blancpain Watchmakers In WorkshopAlthough records are scarce, the surviving few are enough to make an educated guess on Blancpain’s beginnings.

While founder Jehan-Jacques made watches alongside teaching and animal husbandry earlier, he officially declared his occupation as “horloger” in 1735.

He practiced his craft on his farm in Villeret, Switzerland.

At this time, many watch workshops were a family affair, with husband and wife making and finishing each component.

Few pieces made by the family survive for identification today. This is because Villeret watchmakers of the time considered branding to be vain and in poor taste.

However, by the time David-Louis, grandson of Jehan-Jacques, takes over, we begin to see Blancpain branded watches across Europe.

We find the business in turmoil after 1798, when Napoleon’s armies annexed Villeret.

Napoleon’s forces conscripted the able-bodied men of the family, though the family’s workshop did not shut down.

From Farmhouse To Factory

Blancpain Cylinder Escapement WatchIndeed, the men of the family did not waste time after the war; Frédéric-Louis totally overhauled the workshop’s production processes.

Watchmaking efficiency improved because of the new assembly line setup, and the family’s watches now incorporated the modern cylinder escapement.

Emile, son of Frédéric-Louis, continued to grow the family business into the largest watchmaker in Villeret.

However, they were not the only one to make such changes. The watch industry was becoming increasingly competitive, therefore, prices of watches fell lower and lower.

Because of this, through the latter half of the 19th century, only 4 of 21 watchmakers in Villeret would survive.

The heavily industrialized American watchmaking sector posed major competition, especially because sparser infrastructure in Villeret made mechanization almost unattainable.

However, Jules-Emile, grandson of Frédéric-Louis, had a trick up his sleeve. He used Villeret’s picturesque surroundings in order to power an electric factory, tapping into the might of the River Suze.

Portrait of Frederic-Emile Blancpain

Frederic-Emile Blancpain

Indeed, it was here that the company would manufacture the world’s first serially-produced automatic wristwatch.

British watchmaker John Harwood designed this watch and licensed it to Blancpain, who began producing it in 1926.

In 1932, following the death of Frédéric-Emile, the family watchmaking dynasty had come to an end.

The new CEO was Betty Fiechter, who had worked closely with Frédéric-Emile for years at this point.

No Blancpains were left in the company, and because of Swiss laws, the new owners needed to change the name.

Hence, the firm took the name Rayville S.A. for a time. This name’s pronunciation sounds like the company’s native Villeret when you reverse the syllables.

Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms: A Frogman’s Best Friend

The company developed the Fifty Fathoms dive watch during its time as Rayville. This watch would then go on to become the brand’s best-known collection.

The French Navy adopted this watch when it first formed its combat swimmer, or “frogman,” commando units.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Grande Date Watch

The name “Fifty Fathoms” refers to the underwater depth capabilities of the first models in the series, about 90 meters. A fathom is about six feet, and is generally obsolete today, but historically saw use in diving and sea exploration.

However, current models have a water resistance of 30 bar, or a depth of about 300 meters.

What Was The First Modern Diver’s Watch? The First Fifty Fathoms

Blancpain First Fifty FathomsWhen the Fifty Fathoms hit the market in 1953, it was the first modern dive watch available to the public. Hence, it predates other classics such as the Rolex Submariner and Omega Seamaster.

The Fifty Fathoms used rubber gaskets to keep water out, rather than the previously-common shellac or lead seals.

This required some clever engineering, since rubber O-rings kept a good seal but tended to slip or contort during assembly.

Jean-Jacques Fiechter, nephew of Betty Fiechter and CEO after her, designed a case in order to accomodate these rubber seals.

In his design, the O-ring fit into a special channel, and a metal plate pressed up against the ring. Then, the caseback screws down, compressing these parts to create a tight seal.

Another innovation of Jean-Jacques was the locking bezel mechanism. This worked in conjunction with a rotating count-up bezel to prevent accidental bezel rotation during a dive.

While accidentally rotating a bezel is inconvenient on the surface, divers’ lives depend on reliable timing of underwater duration. Later models also made the bezel unidirectional, a further protection against accidental manipulation.

An automatic movement minimized rotations of the crown, therefore the seals would need less winding, reducing wear.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms AutomatiqueThe case diameter of the original Fifty Fathoms and others that follow its design have generally been large.

At 42mm, the original’s case was huge for the time, but the current Automatique’s 45mm case dwarfs it.

The large diameters are not arbitrary, however; alongside beefy luminescent indices and numerals, they increase visibility in dark diving conditions.

These watches come with fabric watchbands, including both sail canvas straps and, in newer models, NATO straps.

Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC: Then And Now

Blancpain Tribute To Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPECIn the late 1950s, the MIL-SPEC debuted; because it fit strict and exacting U.S. Navy specifications, it received this name.

In order to fill these requirements, two new features were part of this model: luminous indicators and a moisture detector.

In the latter, a white semicircle on the dial changed to red in the event that moisture infiltrated the watch. As a further failsafe, a red semicircle below it let the wearer compare the colors even in adverse lighting.

This was important because high-pressure water filling the watch could affect the movement’s accuracy, or even stop it altogether.

In 2017, Blancpain released the Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC.

This model incorporates modern technologies, such as sapphire windows, which appear in the crystal, caseback, and over the bezel.

Another modification is the silicon balance spring, which is nonmagnetic, very shock resistant, and highly isochronous.

Higher isochronism means the spring’s harmonic oscillations are the same duration, regardless of how much energy comes from the mainspring.

Since these oscillations time the watch’s motions, a more isochronic balance spring means the watch stays accurate, fully wound or not.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC Tribute Back

Also, the rotor of this MIL-SPEC’s automatic movement is solid gold.

The gold here is for its density and other properties, however, not its appearance. In order to suit the general appearance of the watch, the rotor undergoes NAC electroplating, leaving it matte dark grey.

Jacques Cousteau And The Fifty Fathoms Aqualung

Blancpain Tribute To Aqua LungSince the Fifty Fathoms was the first widely available modern diver’s watch, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was an early adopter.

Cousteau was a titan in the diving world, who made the groundbreaking film “The Silent World” (Le monde du silence).

He also earned the name “The Father of SCUBA Diving.” He didn’t invent the first SCUBA gear, but rather the first gear that was safe for useful depths and durations.

This was the famous “Aqualung” and, due to its popularity, all diving gear that Jacques Cousteau sold bore the name.

Blancpain Tribute To Aqua Lung Watch MovementThis was to include Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches, an integral part of the diver’s equipment, bearing the Aqualung name.

2013 saw the release of the Tribute to Fifty Fathoms Aqualung which, true to the original, lacks individual bezel minute markers.

It’s similar to the current Fifty Fathoms, besides the markers for the first 15 minutes on that watch’s count-up bezel.

Like the current Fifty Fathoms Automatique, it’s very close in appearance to the original Fifty Fathoms of the 1950s.

The materials, similarly to all modern Fifty Fathoms, include a sapphire crystal and caseback, and sapphire-covered ceramic bezel.

Due to the last feature, it’s impossible to scratch off or damage the bezel markers without shattering the ultra-durable sapphire.

Blancpain Tribute To Aqua Lung In Water

The Bathyscaphe: A Classic Collection Gets A Modern Edge

Blancpain Bathyscaphe Watch SideIn the 2010s, the new Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe series began, which brings contemporary features and design to the collection.

Rather than totally reinventing the aesthetic, the Bathyscaphe preserves the general shape and colors of the original with subtle updates.

A narrow sapphire-over-ceramic count-up bezel has minute markers all around, with a sharper edge that creates crisp contours.

The lugs are also sharper, less curved, with flat, facet-like faces and corners.

Blancpain Bathyscaphe Watch Edge

In order to avoid excessive glimmer from these edges, the Bathyscaphe has brushed-steel and satin-finished black surfaces.

This series is available with chronometer subdials or a date window.

Blancpain After Quartz: A New Age

Blancpain Watch WorkshopIn 1961, the company joined the watch conglomerate SSIH, which is now Swatch Group, in order to expand its operations.

Unfortunately, the quartz crisis then hit the Swiss industry, where super-cheap quartz watches with unparalleled accuracy drove prices down.

SSIH had to sell many of its subsidiaries, including Blancpain. Jacques Piguet and Jean-Claude Biver bought the company during this time.

This is the Jean-Claude Biver who has since become famous for rejuvenating Omega, Hublot and TAG Heuer.

Blancpain Watch Assemblage

While under Piguet and Biver, the company moved its headquarters to Le Brassus, Vallée de Joux.

Rather than change the brand to create quartz watches, Piguet and Biver doubled down on traditional mechanical movements.

They reasoned that rather than compromise on traditional standards, they would appeal to the luxury watch market with haute horlogerie.

In an ironic twist, the same Blancpain that revolutionized watchmaking industrialization decades earlier went back to a small-scale workshop model.

Though SSIH bought the company back in the 1990s, the group recognized the value of what Piguet and Biver did.

Today, the brand operates in the same way, typically entrusting the assembly of each watch to an individual watchmaker.

In essence, this emulates the homestead watchmaking setup that Blancpain started with centuries ago.

Le Brassus and the Carrousel Revival

Blancpain Le Brassus Watch FrontAt the present time, the Le Brassus workshop is where the company’s complication watches are created.

Indeed, this includes the “Le Brassus” series, which centers around grand complications and the carrousel mechanism.

The carrousel fulfills a similar role to a tourbillon, that is, it counteracts gravitational influence on the balance wheel.

Like the tourbillon, it generally only gives a mechanical advantage in pocket watches, but is extremely difficult to manufacture.

Hence, Blancpain saw potential in a miniaturized carrousel as an alternate prestige complication to the tourbillon.

The carrousel mounts on the fourth wheel of the movement, making it stabler and therefore more shock-resistant than a tourbillon.

Blancpain Le Brassus Tourbillon Carrousel Movement

The Le Brassus Tourbillon Carrousel pairs a flying tourbillon and flying carrousel together with a linked carriage using differential gears.

This system allows the watch to use both regulation mechanisms simultaneously.

Villeret: A Return To Blancpain Roots

Blancpain Villeret Moonphase WatchWith a name in homage to the company’s original hometown, the Villeret collection is traditional yet anything but outdated.

This is because cutting-edge movement technology makes watches like the Quantième Perpétuel 8 Jours possible.

True to its name, the Quantième Perpétuel 8 Jours’ sophisticated automatic movement has a 192-hour power reserve. This is incredibly long for a complication watch and, besides this, you can quick-set its time and date anytime.

With many other perpetual calendar watches, using quick set during certain hours of the day risks damaging the movement.

Blancpain Villeret Quantieme Perpetuel Face Closeup

The Villeret series watches often have wide cases; for instance, the 8 Jours’ case diameter is 42mm.

Blancpain Villeret Squelette 8 JoursThese cases have a narrow, fixed bezel with a rounded, double-stepped contour as well as thin, straight lugs.

Case thicknesses range from 13-14 mm on complicated models like the Quantième Perpétuel 8 Jours to 9mm for the Squelette.

The Squelettes are skeletonized Villeret watches which put the innovative movements, the pride of Blancpain, on display.

A narrow ring of black dial frames a generously wide opening into gleaming, delicately modeled decorations on the wheels and bridges.

Continue Reading About Blancpain

We hope you enjoyed our history of Blancpain and its presently prominent watch models.

To learn more about Blancpain’s history, take a look at its excellent Lettres du Brassus publication. You can also read more about the company’s past and its current sponsorships at its history page.

Finally, for more watch histories, informative articles, guides, and reviews, visit the links below:

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