This was another watch I was able to study at a friendly watch retailer recently and, as a sucker for nice chronographs, they will always “command” (oh dear! Ed) a little more attention!
Blancpain is an interesting brand as its origins are very old – going way back to 1735! Jehan-Jacques Blancpain was the founder, and set up his business in Villeret – mainly producing pocket watches. By 1815, grandson Frederic-Louis had upgraded the workshop and also refined an ultra-thin escapement. In 1859, a loose tie-up of sorts occurred with movement maker Louis-Elysse Piguet. Piguet was a very highly skilled watch engineer and his movements were bought by some of the most prestigious Swiss brands.
In 1926 Blancpain collaborated with British watchmaker John Harwood, who had invented the first reliable automatic calibre. Blancpain revised it and launched the Leon Hatot designed square Rolls watch – the first ladies automatic watch in fact. This was a great success.
In 1932, Frederic-Emile Blancpain died, ending the family reign. Two long-serving employees – Betty Fiechter and Andre Leal, bought the business, but due to Swiss company ownership law at the time, had to change the name to Rayville. Betty was joined by her nephew Jean-Jacque Fiechter who would take over upon Betty’s retirement in 1952. In 1961, Blancpain (for simplicities sake I will retain that name. Ed) was bought by SSIH, who by that time also owned Tissot, Omega and Lemania.
During the 50’s and 60’s, Blancpain supplied the naval military in France and the US with their popular 50 Fathoms dive watch (worn by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Ed), and slightly later, to their air force arms with the Air Command chronograph – but in much smaller numbers. Alas, in the late 70’s, with the impact of quartz watches (which they refused to embrace) and the oil crisis, business waned, so SIHH – which was under financial pressure, decided to sell the brand. The buyers were Louis Piguet’s son Jacques, and his friend Jean Claude Biver. Biver had worked in sales at Audemars Piguet (where he met Jacques) and Omega. The rights were acquired for a mere CHF 22,000! The company then located to Le Brassus with Biver as vice chairman, and was is instrumental in revitalising the brand, by widening sales outlets, broadening the model range and increasing quality by the use of complications and precious metals. The Company flourishes and in 1992, the business is sold to the SMH group (subsequently Swatch) for an astonishing CHF60m (some $43m)! In 2002, Marc Hayek became president and CEO, and by 2010, the Piguet business was officially absorbed with Blancpain. Today, Blancpain is viewed as a very high quality watch brand, with sports and dress watches for men and women and, regarding the latter, haute joaillerie pieces too.
Coming more to the present, in 2019, Blancpain re-launched the Air Command model in stainless steel. This was on a 500 limited edition basis at some £16,500, and pretty much copied the original in most respects. Then, in November 2021, two more versions were launched – one in grade 23 titanium (£18,500), and the other in rose gold (£25,600). It is the latter which I had the opportunity to handle recently so this is now the focus.
I admit when I first saw the gold watch I was pretty blown away! The colour combination of the gold and blue bezel/dial/strap was so striking, and well, cool! So, down to business: The case size is 42.5mm x 13.7mm and is fashioned from 18k rose gold. The case is fine brushed – save the highly polished lug tops which are at an angle. The gold edged serrated bezel has a blue ceramic insert with a countdown numbers, and is bi-rotational. A meaty traditionally-shaped crown lies at 3 o’clock, and two pump – or mushroom style pushers, are at 2 and 4 o’clock. The domed crystal is non-reflective sapphire, and the reverse sports a similarly glazed port. Waterproofing is noted at 300m.
Moving to the dial tableau, this is a striking. There is an outboard tachymeter track to measure ground speeds, then the main dial centre which is of a mid-blue sunburst pattern. At one angle it can appear quite dark, but, tilt in the light and it comes to life with real vibrancy. Large Arabic numerals are employed, made of green Super-Lumi Nova to maximise legibility. Some have been nibbled away at in order to accommodate the two registers – at 3 o’clock for the 30 minute record, and at 9 o’clock for the 12 hour one. Each have fine snailing. Incidentally, there is no running seconds dial offered, plus no date complication (groan. Ed!). The main hands are gold, syringe in shape and filled with lume. The second hand is a needle with a lumed arrow tip.
Turning to propulsion, this is supplied by the in-house automatic caliber F388B. It boasts 297 parts, beats at 5hz (thus facilitating 1/10ths of a second time recording), and all smoothed by 35 jewels and a silicon balance. The stopwatch element is a top-quality column wheel vertical clutch arrangement, ensuring that stopping/starting is as smooth as possible. A useful fly-back feature is also included. Power storage is noted at a sensible 50 hours, generated by the rotating weight of course – or via manual winding if needed. Peering through the generous back port reveals a no-nonsense engine – with precious little decoration, and all somewhat dominated by the large skeletonised gold rotor. Finally, the whole ensemble is finished off with a smooth and soft blue calfskin strap with white stitching, secured with a generous 18k pin buckle.
So, my concluding thoughts? Well, first off, aesthetically it is lovely – that shade of blue complementing the rose gold perfectly, and the dial image well-balanced. The size is probably getting to the optimum for me (at my average wrist size anyway), but is a comfy wear. The legibility, functionality, finish, and quality of the movement cannot be faulted, and all from a brand that has an old and venerable history. Price? At £25,600 it is by no means a modest purchase, but I feel it sits pretty comfortably with similar quality offerings and brands. Would I buy it? Well, all I can really say is that if it had a date function I could have been very tempted!
Words/Images: The Writer.
Thanks to Berrys (York) for suppling the watch and for being good eggs!