The Swiss company Blancpain, part of the Swatch Group, is known for its Villeret watches, its Air Command aviation series, its women’s Ladybird timepieces and its dive collection, Fifty Fathoms.
The dive series was born in 1953, after a close call by the co-chief executive Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who survived running out of air during a dive off Cannes, France. The experience made him realize he needed to invest in a more highly functional dive watch, creating the original Fifty Fathoms, introducing a bezel that turns only counterclockwise so a diver doesn’t go beyond the capacity of the air tanks, a hallmark of dive watches today.
Now, under Marc A. Hayek, who has been Blancpain’s president and chief executive for more than 20 years, the brand is celebrating two milestones: the 70th anniversary of the original Fifty Fathoms and the 20th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms line he revamped.
To mark the occasions, the company has introduced three new versions: the 42-millimeter Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 3 that debuted in September ($32,000) and uses an alloy it calls Bronze-Gold that includes copper and 9-karat gold; the Act 1, a 42-millimeter stainless steel watch ($17,400) released in January; and the Act 2, a 47-millimeter titanium Tech Gombessa dive watch ($28,000) issued in February.
Mr. Hayek, during a recent video interview from Le Brassus, Switzerland, discussed their rollout and what he planned next for Blancpain. His comments have been edited and condensed.
You opted to release the three watches at different times this year. Is this a new strategy for other anniversaries?
It actually kind of fell together. The main anniversary piece, Act 3, was the original idea for the 70th anniversary watch. We had been working on it for three to four years. But then we started working on Act 2, the Tech Gombessa, that was not going to be a commercial piece. But when we started testing it, we were excited. It was the spirit of the Fifty Fathoms, and that spirit came alive again.
It couldn’t be the main watch, but it had to be a part of the anniversary because it is the future. It was also the 20th anniversary and revival of the Fifty Fathoms, so we decided that we had to have a trilogy, a bouquet that celebrates Fifty Fathoms. I don’t think we would do it again; it just fell together, and it felt right.
What were the challenges involved in making the 70th anniversary watch?
The first — and the one that took the longest — was finding the material; that took years. I wanted to bring bronze out for Blancpain, but it had to be right. I like that the patina changes a little, but it couldn’t corrode in a way that destroys the case, so finding the material was a challenge.
That became a joint venture with Omega, which was working on the alloy a year before us.
The biggest challenge was finding gold that would stabilize. The other large challenge that we figured out fairly quickly was with the humidity indicator on the watch. It is black and attracts dust, but we realized we couldn’t clean it with a solvent.
What’s next for Blancpain, especially since the company will turn 290 in 2025?
In the early 20th century, Blancpain under Betty Fiechter, Jean-Jacques’ aunt, basically specialized in very tiny movements, cocktail watches, jewelry watches and movement development. Then when Jean-Jacques came in, it switched completely to sport watches, and then in the ’80s it switched to classic horology, but they were all Blancpain.
I wanted to bring it all together. Today we have 40 percent classic Villeret pieces and 40 percent sports pieces. The other 20 percent is women’s. For me, that was the goal and for the anniversary, I want all of these types of watches happening at the same time.
Some people think that we stopped doing haute horology and complications. We didn’t. So in 2025, we will offer one, maybe even two, very complicated, very Blancpain, high-end mechanical watches as well. That way, we will bring all of the members of the family back together.
Are you implementing any changes on the sales and distribution front?
We are decreasing very slightly the overall number of retailers we are in, but at the same time we are slightly increasing our stand-alone boutiques worldwide. We have 40 now and hope to go to about 50, but that takes time. Some locations need to be found; some boutiques, like in New York, will be relocated. We are missing, for example, a boutique in Italy, but we need to find the perfect location.