Blancpain Air Command: Total Air Superiority
The Blancpain Air Command represents a new chapter for the manufacture, and is perhaps one of the most intriguing flyback chronographs in the world. We explain why
Watches are quite possibly amongst the most powerful secular symbols in the world, relative to their size. Even the pocket watch — a much larger object — is quite portentous. Granted, timepieces will have little meaning to most audiences besides being signifiers of status, if that, but in meaningful company, they can really add value. For example, the pocket watch was probably the first object that the wealthy and powerful could easily keep on their persons that demonstrated their status — leaving weapons and jewellery aside. Well, watches are jewellery too, I can almost hear you whisper, dear reader. That may well be, but they might also be precision instruments with barely any ostentation — a man with purpose distinguishes himself from the landed gentry thusly. This is of course not a story about pocket watches, but it does include some history, and Blancpain is perhaps the most storied name in contemporary watchmaking. Well, there are a variety of opinions on this, but it cannot be denied that the manufacture was founded 287 years ago.
This all hinges on an understanding of the word manufacture, as it relates to Swiss watchmaking. For this, do yourself a favour and take a look at the Blancpain catalogue on its website. Filter by complication and see what options are available. You may be surprised to find that all complications great and small are on the menu, so to speak. This includes some unique offerings, one of which we looked at for the cover of the Spring 2019, namely the extravagantly named Tourbillon Volant Heure Sautante Minute Retrograde.
What is really interesting on this point is that the manufacture has real expertise in the creation of all types of features and functions. A Blancpain executive reminded me that the manufacture is competent in so much watchmaking know-how that it is virtually unparalleled. Obviously he is biassed, but Blancpain does have the Frédéric Piguet know-how and capabilities, as well as the incredible resources of the Swatch Group at its disposal. I have no doubt that Blancpain can pretty much make anything it wants to, as far as traditional watchmaking goes. The only matters to discuss here are Blancpain’s vision and execution of watchmaking, and the question of value. We get into aesthetics and user experience in the Cover Watch story, as is our usual style. To begin with though, value is the central question of the day for collectors, and this is where we will begin.
In terms of authenticity and savoir faire, Blancpain is unassailable. You need only look to two types of history, that of the manufacture itself and its tradition of supplying timekeepers to the military. Blancpain was established in 1735, allowing the brand to claim that it is the oldest Swiss watchmaker still in existence. Little is actually known about the early history of the brand known as Blancpain, but we do know for certain when things get murky. The Blancpain heir did not want to take over the trade in 1932 so two employees put together what would today be called a management buyout. And this precipitated the start of the military saga that we are here to examine.
Once Upon A Time…
It goes without saying that we do not have the luxurious space to chart the entire course of Blancpain here, but we do want to set the scene properly. The Blancpain family demonstrated early on that they were game for challenges and ready to innovate. An early example of this is seen in Frédéric-Louis Blancpain’s efforts to modernise the family business in Villeret for the 19th century. Frédéric-Louis was the grandson of Blancpain founder Jehan-Jacques Blancpain. Swiss watchmaking was on the back foot at Frédéric-Louis’ time, contending with serial production emerging from the industrial revolution. He kept the Blancpain flag flying, and is today recognised for pivotal innovations in escapements as well as updating the watchmaking craft to take advantage of new scientific and engineering solutions. The Blancpain story circles back to this spirit repeatedly, with bold 21st century escapement technology also gracing the 2021 Air Command chronographs (see our cover watch story for more details on this – Ed). This kind of detail cannot be manufactured, and reminds us that even though references AC02-12B40-63 / AC02-36B40-63 are wholly new, they still maintain indelible links with the past.
Jumping ahead a little, and moving to the Vallee de Joux, another chapter in technical haute horlogerie was being penned. Louis Elysée Piguet opened his own watchmaking workshop in 1859, eventually transforming an old mill in Le Brassus to take his work to even greater heights. It was yet another step in the industrialisation of watchmaking in Switzerland, albeit unlinked with Blancpain. Piguet is a storied name in watchmaking, and more than a century later, Louis Elysée’ firm would take Blancpain to new heights, and a new home. Jacques Piguet, a descendant of Louis Elysée, bought the Blancpain name from Societe Suise pour l’Industrie Horlogere (SSIH) in 1982 to complement his own manufacture, now called Frédéric Piguet. But the story is getting ahead of some key events…
A Tough Reputation
As mentioned briefly, there was a major change in the Blancpain manufacture in 1932, and the new management would give the business a new lease of life, and an entirely new meaning by the 1950s. Betty Fiechter — who became the first female leader of a fine Swiss watchmaking outfit in 1932 — kept the hairsprings breathing and the gears turning all through the Great Depression and World War II. Her story makes for remarkable reading, and though we do not have the space here we heartily recommend it. Not being a member of the family Blancpain, Swiss law obliged Fiechter to change the name of the manufacture to Rayville-Blancpain (Rayville being a phonetic anagram for Villeret) but she also made it a family affair by eventually bringing in her nephew Jean-Jacques Fiechter in 1950. Both of them presided over one of the most significant phases in the history of not only Blancpain, but of watchmaking.
Famously — perhaps its greatest achievement — Rayville- Blancpain gave the world a totally new sort of watch in 1953, the dive watch. Not only did this watch open up new vistas for Rayville-Blancpain, leading eventually to the brand’s US distributor Allen V. Tornek winning the competition to equip the US Navy with dive watches. It was this success that allowed Rayville-Blancpain to scale up its production and achieve major success ahead of the brand joining the SSIH in 1961, alongside Omega, Tissot and Lemania. That company eventually became the Swatch Group and brought both Frédéric Piguet and Blancpain, finally operating under its proper name, back into the fold in 1992. By that time, Blancpain was established once more as a firm favourite amongst collectors, and now boasted a rather unique history of being able to produce extremely tough watches but also highly refined complicated watches.
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With the history lesson done, we move on to the two Air Command models themselves, and we reiterate that this cover story is a little different to what we have done in most previous covers. Yes, the Air Command is a full collection, but it is just one watch at the moment — a bicompax flyback chronograph. It began, properly, in 2019 with a limited edition that gave every impression of being a highly specialised and totally focussed watch. In other words, it did not look at all like Blancpain was going to open up a whole new segment for itself, especially when one considers the dominant position of the dive watch, both in the brand’s own catalogue as well as the broader world of watches. Clearly, the brand sees an opportunity for counter-programming, as it were — Blancpain even skipped the traditional three-hander pilot’s watch, which is more typical for Swiss watchmakers.
The Federation of Swiss Watchmaking has consistently reported that the chronograph and the two-time zone watch are the most popular complications for wristwatches exported out of Switzerland. With this in mind, the decision to go with a chronograph for the Air Command has a sound foundation that goes beyond the success of the 2019 limited edition in steel. We will not say too much about that watch because it is no different, in terms of identity, to the two references we are looking at in this story. There are, as you might rightly expect, key differences in details, and we will address that in due course, where our opinion comes into play. For now, let us look at the character and defining traits of the Air Command, and for that, we need to talk about dive watches again.
As noted in the previous segment on Blancpain and the dive watch, the manufacture’s grand success here made it a compelling player to supply military forces of all stripes. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Blancpain would want to create timepieces for pilots in the 1950s. What is unusual here is that the information is quite opaque, leading Blancpain and independent sources all to declare the origins of the Air Command to be a mystery. Nevertheless, there is a functional and logical link with the Fifty Fathoms here.
Dive watches are meant to provide divers with an indication of how long they have been underwater, or how much air they have left, so they effectively record elapsed time. You can surmise that this is not particularly accurate because the count-up bezel is used to track the time and inform the diver. It is pretty rough-and-tumble stuff, and today dive computers and pressure gauges offer better accuracy. Nevertheless, the 1950s were a different time, with tough-and-reliable being good enough, so dive watches just had to have great legibility, be readable in low-light situations, be automatic (in case one forgets to wind the watch), and of course have excellent water-resistance. A number of these requirements ruled out chronographs, the typical instrument for measuring elapsed time — chronographs were hardly water-resistant, thanks to the pushers, and not automatic besides.
In other words, the chronograph is the more accurate and elegant solution, but military forces were willing to brute-force matters. Here we rely on the example of the German military and its order of Blancpain dive watches in the 1950s, as related by Jeffrey S. Kingston for Blancpain’s Letters du Brassus. The Germans considered that just the sole index marker on the bezel was acceptable for its purposes. Apparently, this was good enough for the divers to estimate dive times. We are of course simplifying the issue massively but we want to be focussed here.
Even though the chronograph was not suitable for diving, it could actually serve pilots and navigators quite well. To put it simply, this is because cockpit instruments were quite limited in the pioneering age of aviation so an additional precision instrument on an airman’s wrist was very useful. Precision is the key word here because pilots need “perform time/distance/ground speed calculations with great precision, measuring intervals to the nearest second,” (Kingston).
Once more, I can imagine the groans of protest of anyone reading this, because aviation in this era was indeed evolving past the need for wristwatches to perform such functions. You are right, of course, and this may go some way towards explaining why the nascent US Air Force, which had only been a separate branch of the armed forces since 1947, passed on the Air Command. The watch was certainly not made for the US Air Force, but it might have been commissioned by the Colombian one, as Blancpain CEO Marc Hayek told Alexander Linz of WatchAdvisor in 2019. For this reason, and not only to satisfy ourselves, we will get into why and how Blancpain specced out the Air Command.
Kingston and other observers including Jack Forster at Hodinkee note that Blancpain may have been eager to follow-up on the success of the Fifty Fathoms at the US Navy, and so proposed the original Air Command for the US Air Force’s consideration. Everyone chooses their words carefully here because there is a lot that is unclear about the circumstances surrounding the original Air Command, which one should bear in mind. Something else to bear in mind with the Air Command in particular is its use-case, or the purpose for which it was designed. As mentioned previously, the current models are almost identical to the original, at least as far as functionality goes.
Here, we must introduce an aviation term called “fix,” which refers to a “predetermined minimum altitude which can be maintained for a precisely measured interval after passing a known reference point,” (Kingston). Basically, they are navigational points in the sky, and these days are established and regulated by aviation authorities around the world for their respective airspaces. In any given flight, the passage between one fix and another requires precise timing, meaning as soon as one timing interval has passed, another must begin immediately. In a conventional chronograph with twin pushers, the clear limitation is in how the start-stop-reset-restart action works. You would have to press the chronograph pushers four times to do that, which the flyback chronograph neatly skewers. One press on the lower pusher allows a user to stop, reset and restart the chronograph, bringing the number of actions down to three.
It is for this reason that flyback chronographs feature quite strongly in the roster of aviation watches, and also brings into focus the bidirectional rotating bezel because that too has a functional purpose. This has to do with countdown timing, with regards to the time it will take to get to the next “fix.” As you can see, the numbers are arranged in a counter-clockwise fashion So a pilot or navigator would use the bezel to mark the estimated arrival at the next “fix” opposite the minute hand. By doing this, the pilot can then read the time remaining to reach the next destination on the bezel. In this fashion, arrival should be marked via the index.
Understandably, this will not make much sense to the average person, especially a person without some knowledge of how the analog aviation chronograph wristwatch works. Thankfully, we will be skipping the slide rule here because the Air Command never featured one. In any case, the current versions of the Air Command are not meant to be tool watches. Instead, they pay tribute to a legendary watch whose repute has grown quite powerfully over the decades. This brings us to the reason this watch returns to the world, having sold out its limited edition run in steel in 2019, and piqued the interest of collectors all over the world with its incredible backstory. Incredible is a big word to use, and perhaps incredulous would work better. What other word would one use when even Blancpain cannot say for certain if the Swiss or the Americans pushed for the original Air Command.
Adding to the confusion here is a note about the French military aviation specced Type 20 and Type 21 watches, which is why you might encounter literature asserting that there was yet another party involved. The reason for some of this weirdness is the absolute lack of original records, which Blancpain admits, and the aforementioned competition between the Swiss headquarters of Rayville-Blancpain and its US distributor Allen V. Tornek. Kingston writes that Tornek wanted to build on his success with the Fifty Fathoms and the US Navy, and saw an opportunity with the US Air Force. In one version of the Air Command’s origins, Tornek convinced Betty Fiechter and Jean-Jacques Fiechter to create a dozen samples of the Air Command watch. Tornek then used the samples to make his pitch to the Air Force.
A Little More History
On the other hand, there is an argument that the Rayville-Blancpain manufacture itself developed the Air Command. The chief evidence for this is that the watch adheres to the French Air Force’s specifications for a pilot’s watch, then known as the Type 20 (updated with improvements in 1956 to become the Type 21). So, the flyback chronograph function, with 30-minute counter, and bidirectional rotating countdown bezel are all spelled out in the Type 21 specifications. While this seems to decisively seal the deal in favour of the manufacture, the watchmakers did not hew exactly to the Type 20/21 specifications, and this is one of the most specific details of all in this convoluted tale. We draw your attention to the 30-minute counter and its very prominent indexes every three minutes — the Type 20/21 watches go with 5-minute intervals, which seems far more intuitive. You might want to hold your horses on that one though…
Of course, the Air Command is a precision instrument so there is a good reason for the three-minute markers. As it happens, three works well with base 12 systems, such as those used in timekeeping, and we have already seen examples of how the Air Command helps pilots to make quick calculations, and would have done in practice in the 1950s when there were no cockpit computers. With three-minute marks on the 30-minute chronograph counter, the pilot can easily tell the time in terms of fractions of an hour — bear in mind that speed is basically distance divided by time (in hours). The tachymeter scale on the periphery of the dial completes the quick speed calculation properties of the Air Command, a feature it has in common with most traditional pilot’s chronograph watches.
With this, we can see that the Air Command was created with yet another feature that would have been useful to pilots, and may indeed have been for some lucky pilots with the Colombian Air Force. Those of you familiar with vintage chronographs of different eras will certainly recognise the pump-style chronograph pushers, generously proportioned crown and syringe-style hands, alongside the flyback chronograph (with bicompax subdial configuration with snailed finishing) and the countdown bezel. To our eyes, the crown (now with the contemporary logo) actually makes a great aesthetic fit alongside contemporary Blancpain models, such as the Bathyscaphe for example. With regards to the proportions of the watch itself, the current diameter of 42.5mm matches the original 42mm quite closely.
Returning to the origins of the Air Command, everyone knows that the US Air Force did pass on the watch, and Kingston speculates that this was simply because of a strong contrast between how the Navy decided on the Fifty Fathoms, as well as how the French decided on the Type 20/21. The US Air Force did not have specs in mind for a pilot’s watch, and this is easy to understand in the context of where cockpit instruments were going. Clocks were about to be integrated into the instrument panel, and aviation was on the cusp of adopting jet technology as well as the more advanced instruments that this heralded. In other words, the US may have been betting against the wristwatch as an essential bit of kit for airmen. Paradoxically, this result made the Air Command extremely sought-after by collectors, because Rayville-Blancpain did not make very many — the exact numbers are indeed unknown.
Once again, no one is suggesting that the specific old school use case scenario detailed above is functionally relevant today. This is an object that celebrates a specific era, and is available today because the limited edition was so popular. While you may like to think of this watch as something Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart would wear, that is merely a bonus. We bring up this Golden Age star because he headlined a film called Strategic Air Command (1955), which some have suggested is the source for the name of this Blancpain flyback chronograph. Whatever the truth might be on that matter, Stewart served as a bomber pilot in World War II, rising to the rank of colonel in that conflict. To our knowledge, he did not wear a recognisable timepiece in Strategic Air Command, nor did the film dwell on the usefulness of a timepiece to a pilot. Nevertheless, we do like the idea of the Blancpain Air Command on the wrist of a heroic icon such as Jimmy Stewart.
This of course brings us to what we think of the new Air Command in particular. One of the best things about the Air Command — charming backstory aside — is that it represents boldness because Blancpain did not need to make it. It is certainly true that the few original Air Command models in the world are highly sought after, and Hayek did show off his own original. We will not get into the auction results for the original watches, as that has already been given far too much play. Instead, we think this is a great watch for chronograph lovers, and people with a passion for planes and flying. From our single interaction with this watch, we can report that the pusher action is smooth and leaves nothing to be desired. While one might put this down to calibre F388B’s column wheel and vertical clutch, it is really a testament to how the whole watch works as one beautiful instrument. Obviously, this includes the overtly classical and dressy aesthetic, even in the titanium version.
Turn the watch over and more compelling and easy to understand reasons to love the Air Command become evident. In our opinion, the fine finishing evident on the plates and bridges of the automatic calibre F388B tells you everything you need to know about why the Air Command is extraordinary. At this level of watchmaking, you expect some degree of hand-finishing and Blancpain does not disappoint here. To bring the price in for a moment, the Air Command in titanium is a lot of watch for US$25,600, and US$40,300 in red gold. Remember that this is, in effect, a haute horlogerie flyback chronograph so it offers quite a different proposition to most chronographs at this level. Indeed, we will be so bold as to say that the Air Command is a far better proposition than the majority of luxury sports watches.
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