After several weeks of mystery, Blancpain finally unveiled their new watch on October 25th 2011 at the Dubai Mall Aquarium. Christened “X Fathoms”, this 55,6 mm novelty titanium timepiece is a sophisticate mechanical diving computer accurate to 30 centimeter down to 15 meter of depth. Only a handful of brands has achieved to produce watches with analog aneroid pressure indication, but the X Fathoms pushes the envelope in terms of diving measurement and readings.
The history of Blancpain diving watches is closely tied to that of SCUBA diving. Contrary to popular belief it was Blancpain, not some other Geneva-based company, who was first in supplying reliable diving watches to the earliest experimental divers. Throughout the history of watchmaking, brands like Officine Panerai, Favre-Leuba, IWC and Jaeger-leCoultre have all worked to perfect the analog depth gauge watch using modern manufacturing processes. With a watchmaker of the caliber of Vincent Calabrese on board since 2008, it looks like Blancpain felt they had to pay tribute to their diving heritage and plunge deeper into the technology to release a “tour de force” (French for: A feat demonstrating brilliance or mastery in a field).
Blancpain R&D team
Being closely integrated with the movement manufacture Frédéric Piguet, Blancpain added Vica Sarl to its assets in 2008. Vica was purchased from Master Watchmaker and AHCI co-founder Vincent Calabrese, who came to join Blancpain as a consultant.
A self-taught watchmaker, Vincent Calabrese is one of the few people in his trade capable of building a timepiece from the ground up “by hand” (without computerized machines). Having engineered complications for the most prestigious Swiss manufactures, Mister Calabrese is mostly known for his custom-made in-line tourbillons, which count amongst the earliest wrist tourbillons of the 20th century. In 2002, Bell & Ross unveiled a collection of mechanical complications developed with the help of the Master Watchmaker.
Since his early days in the field, Vincent Calabrese has always advocated for a down-to earth and equitable watchmaking, that would give credits to the craftspersons behind a masterpiece. This creed led him to co-found the prestigious AHCI with the most prominent of his peers.
Now operating within the Blancpain manufacture, Vincent Calabrese has been serving collectors with a new breed of mechanical complications that bear his unmistakable touch. The Carrousel Volant in particular, is a wink from Mister Calabrese to confound those horological marketers over-confident in their understanding of high-end watchmaking: the watch perfectly fits the consensual description of a Tourbillon, yet its creator insists on calling it a Carrousel.
But I digress. As the video reveals, the X Fathoms is designed for use as a depth gauge:
Like the rest of the watches discussed below, the X Fathoms is another implementation based on the aneroid barometer.
Invented by 19th century French engineer and inventor Lucien Vidi, the aneroid barometer is pretty much straightforward: changes in surrounding temperature and pressure lead Vidi Chamber (sealing a gas) to contract or expand. A mechanical system amplifies those variations into readable information. By the way,
would the reader be curious in building a simplified aneroid barometer at home, the bottle barometer is great to begin with, as it only requires basic objects as parts.
Instruments with Vidi Chambers
Needless to say, thanks to the invention of Lucien Vidi, altimeters and barometers have been mass-produced
through the 19th and 20th centuries.
Unexpected use of Vidi Chambers in clocks
Instead of building a mechanism to display atmospheric pressure change, Swiss-Romand engineer Jean-Léon Reutter managed in 1928 to use the motion of the Vidi Chamber to wind a clock. Commercial production started in France the following year until the design was perfected and production overtaken by Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-leCoultre.
Most of all, manufacturing of the Vidi Chamber prooved very tricky: the sealing is not virtually perfect, the gas eventually escapes and leaves the chamber to be refilled.
Vidi chamber in barometric altimeters
With the invention of aviation, engineers started to work on adapting the barometer for measuring altitude, to create an instrument that was vital for night navigation. Paul Kollsman eventually managed to design the first reliable example of a barometric altimeter in 1929.
Vidi Chamber in wrist instruments
Specialized in Military instruments, the Officine Panerai of Florence, Italy, did build one of the earliest wrist depth gauges based on the aneroid barometer principle.
One of the earliest integration of the aneroid barometer within a time-indicating instrument could be the Bivouac, released by Favre-Leuba around 1962-1963. The watch used the aneroid barometer to provide a reading of altitude.
In 1966 the brand released the Bathy, which was the diving version of the mechanism. The display mechanism was modified to handle much stronger pressure changes, while offering a reading of depth.
Altitude and depth measurement in the late 20th century
The piezoelectricity of quartz crystals allowed to use them as a tuning fork in watches, but reversely they could also be used to measure pressure change. In consequence, instruments makers eventually managed to replace the cumbersome Vidi Chamber by a piezoelectric quartz crystal that didn’t require maintenance and made for a rugged instrument. Still, the barometer of most electronic watches is very sensitive to temperature change and the altitude or depth gauge must be slightly adjusted every day. The Global Positioning System solved the problem
once and for all: with subsequent improvements GPS devices can now measure altitude with a precision of of 10 centimetres.
A new age for watches with aneroid barometers
With the Renaissance of mechanical watchmaking in the late 20th century, a handful of brands decided to take advantage to the progess in manufacturing processes to create modern mechanical aneroid barometers.
In the mid 1990’s, Revue Thommen designed the Altiland, an double-cased instrument hiding an analog altimeter under the watch. In 1998, the brand unveiled the Airspeed Altimeter, a hand-wound
watch integrated with the altimeter much like the 1962 Bivouac from Favre-Leuba.
The International Watch Company unveiled its first aneroid depth gauge watch in 1999, the Aquatimer Deep One; and followed suit with the Aquatimer Deep Two, unveiled 10 years later.
In 2007, the revived Officine Panerai issued the PAM193, an aneroid depth gauge that paid tribute to the brand’s early depths gauges. In the meantime, Jaeger-leCoultre, who still manufacture the Atmos
clock, was busy developing their own aneroid depth gauge watch, which was unveiled in 2008.
With all that in mind, the Blancpain R&D team decided to push the envelope: their mechanical diving computer features twin depth gauges (reading from 0 to 15 meter and from 0 to 90 meter), maximal depth indication and a retrograde 5 minutes counter for decompression stops.
Like all its predecessors, the X Fathoms relies upon a Vidi Chamber, but the Blancpain R&D team manage to pull ahead with the complexity of the mechanism surrounding it.