Perhaps no other segment of watches generates more debate, more snobbery, or higher prices than vintage dive watches. Even within a single brand, the different models and variations seem to be endless, and this creates a hierarchy from most to least desirable. While Rolex often dominates the conversation, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms has a more substantial historical claim, and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Aqualung “No Radiations” version is one of the most sought after.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is the progenitor of the modern dive watch. The watch was developed as a collaboration between Blancpain and elite French divers—nageurs de combat—who required a watch with perfect legibility, robust construction, and the ability to measure dive times precisely. Prior to its introduction in 1953, watches had featured luminous dials and ever-increasing water resistance, but the Fifty Fathoms was the first to affix a unidirectional rotating bezel to meet the dive timing requirement. As an added perk, the watch featured an automatic movement, another first for such a watch.
When the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was introduced, radium paint was used on the dials as its radioluminescence allowed for a bright, constant glow. By the 1960s, knowledge of the dangers of radium coupled with the Cold War pushing the world to the brink of nuclear disaster, the use of radium as no longer acceptable in the public eye. While radium remained in use in military applications, tritium paint became the preferred material for civilian watches. When Blancpain made the Fifty Fathoms commercially available in the 1960s, they wanted to make clear that the watch was safe, and so created a dial that boldly showed just that.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Aqualung “No Radiations” features a 41mm case that is fully polished. The design of the case itself is rather unremarkable: flat sides with gently downsloped lugs that feature blocked ends. While one might expect a screwdown crown, Rolex still had the patent to that technology in the 1960s. So Blancpain achieved its roughly fifty fathoms of water resistance (roughly 91m or 300ft) by installing a pair of gaskets in the crown. Furthering the water resistance is a screwdown caseback, with the usual branding and text. Around the acrylic crystal is a knurled bezel with a Bakelite bezeinsertl. Unlike many of its contemporaries, the Fifty Fathoms’ bezel is not graduated and features a combination of short and long hashes, Arabic numerals, and a triangle at 60/0. Finding an example with an intact bezel can be a challenge, as Bakelite was notoriously brittle and prone to cracking (while it was used on dive watches well into the 1970s, Rolex had already discontinued its use by 1956).
The “No Radiations” features a glossy black dial with a minute/second track and tritium hour indices in a combination of batons, circles, and a 12 o’clock diamond. Just outside of the minute/second track at 5 o’clock is the tritium indication, “T<25 MC.,” meaning that the watch emits less than 25 millicuries of radiation—a harmless amount. The white, pencil-style hands are also infilled with tritium, and the seconds hand features a lumed tip. As is common with vintage luminescent paint, one can expect the material to discolor from its original white to a brown-yellow tone (modern reissues often try to imitate this with “Old Radium” lume).
At 12 o’clock, the Blancpain name and Fifty Fathoms model are applied in block letters and script, respectively. Just below, the “Aqua-Lung” branding is printed in white script. The Fifty Fathoms was primarily made available to professionals, and as such was commonly sold through dive equipment outlets, which often cobranded their pieces. The most famous of these was Aqua-Lung, owned by Jacques Cousteau. At 6 o’clock is the namesake mark, a crossed out radioactive warning symbol with “NO RADIATIONS” printed on the lower arc.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Aqualung “No Radiations” features an automatic Blancpain R310 automatic movement, chosen to avoid the unnecessary crown and gear wear a handwound movement would cause. The R310 was in fact a Blancpain-branded A. Schild AS1700 movement. A. Schild was a massive movement manufacture all the way through the 1970s and created exceptionally reliable calibers (it’s not unheard of to encounter an old unserviced A. Schild movement running without issue). The Blancpain R310/AS 1700 movement features 17 jewels, a 41-hour power reserve, and antishock protection while beating at 18,000 vibrations per hour. Further, the movement is protected by an antimagnetic shell, hidden by the solid caseback.
Versus the Competition
The 1960s saw a surge in dive watches, and as such, vintage pieces are widely available. That said, finding the right watch in the right condition can be a challenge. As it was with Blancpain, Rolex and Omega shifted to tritium dials (in 1963 and 1964, respectively). The closest contemporary that isn’t simply another Fifty Fathoms, would be either a Rolex Submariner or an Omega Seamaster from the same era. Of course, Blancpain has revisited many of their original Fifty Fathoms designs with modern recreations.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Aqualung “No Radiations” is a historical piece not just as a dive watch, but on a larger scale as well: It acted as a symbol of an age when public fear of radiation was at its height and overtly marked the watch industry’s shift away from radium. Such a watch would be a perfect fit in the collection of a watch lover who not only treasures the early days of dive watches and unique dials, but also has an interest in that Cold War era.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms “No Radiations” is perhaps the most engaging Fifty Fathoms model ever released, and obtaining one is no easy task. With its timeless design, list of firsts, and historic importance, one simply can’t go wrong.