Loyal to its core values of traditional watchmaking while constantly pushing the boundaries of innovation through a host of complications invented over the years, the illustrious Blancpain is much more than its famed dive watches, as Allyson Klass finds out.
Jehan-Jacques Blancpain started his watchmaking workshop producing pocket watch parts in the upper floor of his farmhouse in 1735. Little did the man who wore many hats – he bred livestock and was a schoolteacher – know that his humble manufacture in the Swiss Jura would later go on to become a brand that pioneered modern industrial watchmaking methods in the 19th century and create pioneering timepieces in the 20th century. Here, we list seven reasons why you need a Blancpain timepiece in your watch wardrobe.
It is the world’s oldest watch brand
Based on a 1735 entry in the official property records of the Villeret municipal, Jehan-Jacques Blancpain was registered as a horologer – proof that he had established the oldest watch company in the world that has operated in continuity until today. It is safe to surmise that the talented Blancpain had been practising his craft for some time before the 1735 entry was recorded.
Blancpain has total creative freedom in creating movements and timepieces
With workshops located in Le Sentier and Le Brassus, Blancpain is one of the rare watchmaking companies to have mastered the entire manufacturing process, including conceiving and creating its movements. Every stage of the fabrication process is handled in-house, from research and development, assembly, hand-finished decoration to quality control. And to ensure that the timepieces created are loyal to the brand’s centuries-old heritage yet innovative DNA, the master artisans take watchmaking up a notch by making their tools in-house as well. Now, that’s true dedication to the craft.
It is committed to ocean preservation
Since the launch of the Fifty Fathoms in 1953, Blancpain has maintained an unfailing commitment to support important activities and initiatives dedicated to the oceans. In recent years, the Blancpain Ocean Commitment (BOC) was launched through multiple partnerships such as Pristine Seas expeditions, The Economist Group’s World Ocean Initiative and the World Oceans Day, which takes place every year at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In 2014, 2016 and 2018, Blancpain launched limited-edition BOC watches, and even donated €1,000 from the sale of each timepiece in support of ocean protection.
The manufacture is a pioneer in the history of petite timepieces for women
Blancpain has played a pioneering role in the creation of ladies’ mechanical watches with small movements. In 1930, it produced
the world’s first automatic women’s wristwatch named Rolls, which flaunted a narrow feminine shape with a 15-jewel self-winding movement and an ingenious sliding system to wind the mechanism. The Ladybird followed in 1956. Equipped with the smallest round movement ever created at the time, it featured miniature elements that required great creativity and ingenuity of the artisans. Still sought after by collectors today, the maison has refreshed the model with new movements over the years. However, the hugely popular petite timepiece would not have materialised without the foresight of Blancpain’s CEO Betty Fiechter – the first woman to head and own a Swiss watchmaking company in 1933. Her visionary spirit paved the way for the creation of women’s jewellery watches at Blancpain, contributing greatly to its international reputation.
It created the world’s first modern scuba diver’s watch
Thanks to Jean-Jacques Fiechter’s (Betty’s nephew, and Blancpain CEO from 1950 to 1980) own passion for scuba diving, he developed the first Fifty Fathoms watch in 1953 with significant inventions, of which three were patented. Addressing the challenges of timekeeping in the diving milieu, these included a double-sealed crown with a second inner seal that would protect the watch should the crown be pulled out accidentally under water; a locking mechanism to prevent an inadvertent rotation of the bezel during a dive; and an additional metallic ring in the caseback with a channel in which the “O” ring would sit without the risk of becoming twisted when the back was screwed in place. With its avant-garde technical, safety and aesthetic features, the Fifty Fathoms rapidly became a staple of the French combat diving corps, followed by the US and other navies in the world later on. The legendary diver’s watch would later become a benchmark model in the watchmaking industry for its category.
Blancpain has not and will never produce a quartz watch
The perfect storm of the quartz revolution, oil crisis, global recession and strong Swiss franc of the ’70s and ’80s brought the Swiss watchmaking industry to its knees, costing about two-thirds of the industry’s employees their jobs. But in 1983, Jean-Claude Biver, who then co-owned Blancpain with Jacques Piguet, embarked on a brazen campaign with the now famous slogan: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.” Biver’s outrageous strategy was to focus on exclusivity instead and produce mechanical timepieces in limited numbers. The gamble paid off. Not only did Blancpain play a pivotal role in reviving luxury mechanical watchmaking in Switzerland, its sales rose from 8.9 million Swiss francs in 1985 to 56 million Swiss francs in 1991. While the tagline is no longer used now, the maison’s stance on not producing any quartz movement still stands firm.
The maison’s technical prowess in rare decorative art techniques and automata is unrivalled
While highly complicated watches bearing erotic scenes were popular at the end of the 17th century, they were subsequently banned by religious authorities. However, not long after Biver and Piguet took over the reins at Blancpain, the house brought back this celebrated form of complication with the Calibre 332 in 1993 – the world’s first minute repeater wristwatch with automata. While each of the bespoke, one-of-a-kind timepieces showcases a dial with a classic aesthetic, the pièce de résistance is the elaborate automata depicting an erotic scene that is discreetly featured on the reverse side. Beyond creating automata, Blancpain has a studio in Le Brassus dedicated to Métiers d’Art, which include rare and ancient techniques of shakudō, binchōtan and damascening that result in breathtaking artwork on dials.
(All images: Blancpain)