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Blancpain Ocean Commitment: Alain Delamuraz on the history of divers watches

To illustrate its passion for diving and underwater preservation, Blancpain is producing an annual limited-edition publication showcasing 12 pictures by four different underwater photographers. Vice president Alain Delamuraz presents some of the most striking shots captured so far

When does a watch become an icon? After shifting a particular number of units? Once it has celebrated a certain birthday? Perhaps as it begins to achieve six-figure sums at auction? Whichever way you cut it, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms has acquired legendary status.  

The watch may not be what the Royal Oak is to Audemars Piguet, or what the Nautilus is to Patek Philippe – indeed, the Fifty Fathoms still gets outsold by dressier sister collection, the Villeret – but the diver’s watch has, almost by proxy, become Blancpain’s most emblematic timepiece. 

Commissioned by the French Navy in 1953, the Fifty Fathoms beat both the Rolex Submariner and the Omega Seamaster to become the world’s first bona fide, modern-day dive watch. More than six decades later, the timepiece continues to set the tone for almost all underwater tool watches.  

In 2014, following years of ocean conservation commitments, Blancpain reorganised its underwater initiatives under the Blancpain Ocean Commitment. Since then, the brand has co-financed ten major scientific expeditions, helping to add three million sq km to the total area of marine habitats protected across the world. 

In October 2016, at the Royal Institute of Great Britain, Blancpain unveiled the Bathyscaphe Flyback Chronograph Ocean Commitment II. It is the second line of limited-edition timepieces created as part of Blancpain’s commitment to the underwater world. Funds from the first watch were awarded to the Gombessa Project, a new study that is currently documenting the pack-hunting behaviour of grey reef sharks along the Fakarava atoll, French Polynesia. 

Post-press conference, Blancpain vice president, Alain Delamuraz – a man who has served the brand since 2001 – kindly puts his story in his own workds.

Five or six years ago, during Baselworld, the CEO of Tissot came to me and said, ‘I’ve just met a guy who you need to meet’. I said, ‘No I can’t, I’m too busy’. He said, ‘No, trust me, you must meet this guy, the world of diving is the domain of Blancpain.’ The guy’s name was Laurent Ballesta. He showed me two pictures and immediately I knew I was in trouble – they were beyond beautiful. 

I knew then I had to talk to Mr Marc Hayek [president and CEO of Blancpain, Breguet and Jaquet Droz], it became my moral mission to show him these two images. When I did, he decided to meet Laurent immediately. They spent hours together looking at hundreds of his pictures. He knew straight away that we must work together. 

Laurent was honoured to become a Friend of the Brand. Marc Hayek is an experienced diver and also very passionate about what he does so this was natural for them. Laurent’s work was published in Edition Fifty Fathoms that year [2012].

We are a real manufacture; we never buy movements from other watch companies. We sell half of our products to other brands when we exchange movements. In our manufacture you have the raw material arriving and we produce the tools that we need to make the pieces. From A-Z, we do everything in-house.

We invented the first diver’s watch in 1953, so we wanted to make an impact in that field; we wanted to help fund expeditions that would leave our oceans in a better condition for our children. We trust institutions like National Geographic to choose how to use our money to achieve concrete results. We have doubled the size of the oceans being protected.

The Bathyscaphe Flyback Chronograph Ocean Commitment II is the first time that someone has managed to make a watch case in blue ceramic. We’re not talking about covering the ceramic with a blue finish; we actually added blue pigment into the ceramic to cause a chemical reaction. The collection is limited to 250 pieces. For each timepiece sold, 1,000 will be donated to scientific expeditions.

For the first months of the year, 2015 was quite strong. After that, demand flattened a bit; the second half was not good, as it was affected by the [terrorist] attacks of 13 November. Comparatively, 2016 was the opposite: the beginning of the year was not very strong because of the effect of the attacks. However, the end of the year saw growth. That is compensating for the disappointing start of the year, but not entirely. At the end, 2016 will be below 2015, but still we will be eight times above 2001! Consequently, we can’t complain about the situation. 

Overall, our growth is strong in China – by double digits. Hong Kong is likewise recovering. Thanks to China and Hong Kong, the second half of 2016 will show recovery measured against the first part.

Blancpain entered the Chinese market very early on. Too early, as we were among the first to establish ourselves there. Today, that beginning is bearing fruit because Chinese buyers respect that. We have begun with the same type of trajectory in India. For the moment we are taking a risk as the market is struggling to take off.

In gastronomy, you have the traditional style of cooking, and then you have the molecular approach, where you destroy and reconstruct. Some of the traditional chefs say ‘This is a catastrophe, we must react.’ I say, ‘You should study what the new chefs are doing; don’t do the same, but watch the way they are cooking the egg.’ It’s the same with the connected watch or the Apple Watch. It’s great, it’s new. It means that watches are moving forward. 

Electronic products live and die. The first TVs, the first quartz watches, you can’t use these anymore. The art of watchmaking will never die. As long as you have a brain and two hands and a heart you will be able to repair and redo a mechanical watch. Our product is a type of art – more expensive [than other watches], less accurate, but it will always remain an art form.