ICONS: The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
There is always a lot of back and forth on how exactly to define the first dive watch. While of course Rolex introduced the Oyster case in 1926 (made famous by Mercedes Gleitze and her English Channel swims), Omega produced the Marine model in 1932, and Rolex also produced watches for Panerai to issue to military divers in the 1930’s, it really has to be considered that the combination of attributes to create the ideal sub-sea tool arrived on the scene in 1953.
Although there is plenty of mystery surrounding the development of the Rolex Submariner that was also announced in ’53, but only seems to have found its way into the commercial market the following year, the early history and evolution of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms which debuted the same year is much more clearly detailed and sheds a great amount of light on how these utilitarian devices came to exist.
A copy of Fiechter’s patent for the case design of the Fifty Fathoms, via Google patents, alongside a period advert, courtesy of Blancpain
The Beginnings of the Fifty Fathoms
The creation of such a watch required the union of a company with the commercial power to produced a true tool for diving, with a group of professionals that could map out their exact needs and then test the design to its endurance. In the first part we have Jean-Jacques Fiechter, Blancpain’s CEO from 1950 to 1980, who not only ran the firm but was also an avid diver, and learnt the importance of accurate time-keeping underwater when he nearly ran out of air and barely had enough time to go through the required decompression stops from his 50 meter depth.
On the other side there are Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud who, having served in the British Special Operations Executive and Free French Navy respectively during World War II, saw the need to form an elite combat diving force post-war. In their search for equipment they tested a variety of watches in the market, none of which survived, so they drew up their own specification and designs before approaching a selection of manufacturers who decided they were not interested, with Lip declaring “there is no future in diving watches”.
Maloubier diving during the 1950s with a Fifty Fathoms on the wrist, courtesy of Blancpain
It became clear for both Fiechter at Blancpain, as well as Maloubier and Riffaud, that the best watch for the purpose would need to conform to specific requirements: legibility in murky water helped by a large diameter and big luminous accents, automatic winding so the power reserve doesn’t have to be monitored as well as minimising wear to the crown and stem that would compromise water resistance, centre seconds so at-a-glance it is clear the watch is running, a locking bezel (preferably uni-directional) to time remaining air supply, a degree of anti-magnetism to prevent rate variations around equipment that produced magnetic fields and, of course, for the thing to be very waterproof.
With luck, Maloubier and Riffaud were having some of their diving equipment supplied by Spirotechnique, the subsidiary of Air Liquide founded by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Émile Gagnan which produced the CG45 regulator that would become known as the Aqua Lung in English speaking markets. A former French Navy officer working at the company called Jean Vilarem was able to introduce Maloubier and Riffaud to Fiechter, uniting the parties to allow them to bring their vision of what a dive watch should be come into reality.
The original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms which was released in 1953
1953: The First Fifty Fathoms
Soon, the first of the Fifty Fathoms (taking a name from the unit of measurement equalling 1.822 meters, so 91.44 meters total) made their way into production, then into the hands of Maloubier and Riffaud for extensive testing under the demanding conditions of military manoeuvre, where the watches performed flawlessly.
Due to a requirement of the French government that military equipment had to be purchased from a French company, Blancpain has to sell the watches to Spirotechnique who acted as a go between. While inconvenient, this had the added benefit of introducing the watches to Cousteau who would issue them to the divers during the filming of “The Silent World”, which would go on to win the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or in 1956.
An iconic shot from “The Silent World” (“Le Monde du Silence”) released in 1956
Thanks to the success of the film and the book it was based on, as well as the proliferation of the Aqua Lung regulator, there was a huge uptick in interest for recreational diving. While the larger case size was popular in professional applications, it did not represent the most practical of purchases for those looking for a waterproof watch that they could wear on a more regular basis. Fiechter was aware of this and decided there would be a market for a smaller model.
With the watches appearing on the wrist of the their Navy divers and Cousteau’s team, the French market seemed a ideal first port of call for these additions to the collection, but while Blancpain was relatively well known in Switzerland, they would need a partner in this new market. Given its well regarded position for horology in France as well as its strong distribution and marketing platform, Lip was the clear choice (ironic given the company’s initial reaction to Maloubier and Riffaud) so a deal was inked in 1954.
Dating from around 1955, a smaller sized Fifty Fathoms with Lip name also on the dial, and a moisture indicator above at 6 o’clock
The model was graced with a double name dial to leverage the brand equity of Lip, a configuration that would pave the way for similar layouts for Technisub (the distributor of Spirotechnique in Italy) and the Aqua Lung brand, as well as a dial configuration nicknamed Barakuda after the German dive equipment supplier. This was not the only innovation to grace the dial; on the lower half a moisture indicator was applied, the first of its kind in a watch, to allow the owner (or the person who had hired it with their other dive equipment) to easily see if the case had been compromised.
Bathyscaphe Trieste circa 1958 courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command
Not long after the Fifty Fathoms started to gain traction in the market, a new word was entering the common vernacular that would prove to be a great name for a dive watch: bathyscaphe. Used to describe deep-water research vessels, but known to most for its associate with Trieste, which was designed by Auguste Piccard and navigated by his son Jacques and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh to the 10,916 metre bottom of Challenger Deep on the 23rd January 1960, Fiechter realised the Bathyscaphe name represented the extremes of the ocean and could be a good marketing hook.
An original Bathyscaphe showing early adoption of the date window in a dive watch
The CEO of Blancpain was friends with Piccard senior so was aware of the word before it fell into regular usage, and as a result was able to bring the smaller 37mm model (versus the 42mm diameter of the original Fifty Fathoms) into the product range in 1956, together with an even smaller version at 26mm in diameter intended for women divers, of which there were an increasing number. The case shape of the model, distinctive hand shape and dial with its sun-burst anthracite finish would form keys design features of the re-edition of the Bathyscaphe that was released by Blancpain in 2013.
President John F. Kennedy with U.S. Navy SEALs in 1962, courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Following the role of the French Navy in its conception and their issuing of the watch to their divers, it was inevitable that other armed forces would take note. Thanks to their relationship with their American agent, Allen Tornek in New York, a variation of the Fifty Fathoms designated TR-900 was entered into the assessment of the US Navy against the Rolex Submariner, Enicar Seapearl 600, and a Bulova design that was still under development, to find a dive watch that was suitably resilient for their divers. The Blancpain was found to be the most attractive option, being praised for its strap design, cost versus the Rolex (55.50 USD versus 90 USD for the Submariner), ease with which the bezel can be rotated, and its matte case finish, due to the fact that the polished surfaces of the Enicar and Sub could attract sharks and barracuda in tropical waters.
A very early example of the watches made for the US Navy, before the dial was branded as Tornek-Rayville
Due to the Buy American Act ensuring that the US government had a strong preference to buy domestically made products, a workshop was set up in Tornek’s home to assemble watches, and they were obligated by the military to buy rubies for the US that were inferior, so were simply discarded for the Swiss jewels to be used; fortunately the US Navy were not aware of these details.
At the end of their service life the vast majority of the watches that were issued (totalling roughly 1,000 pieces), were destroyed by the American government due to their rules on disposing of items containing atomic material, such as the luminous Promethium 147 used on the dials of the TR-900. Luckily for collectors today, a number of pieces survived, including the very early example shown here with Blancpain and US Navy naming to the dial that was sold by Phillips in their Geneva November 2015 auction for 125,000 CHF. In recent years we have also seen a Tornek-Rayville branded piece sell at Christie’s New York December 2017 sale for 150,000 USD proving the desirability of these watches among collectors of military issued pieces.
An extract from the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit Evaluation Report from 1959 detailing their comments of the Fifty Fathoms
Inevitably, word spread among the elite divers in armed forces internationally and the Fifty Fathoms found its way to be issued with a number of navies. The German Bundeswehr were among the most prolific, providing a number of different models to their divers, including the easily recognisable “No Radiation” versions which frequently makes an appearance at auction (Christie’s New York December 2017 for 22,500 USD and Phillips Geneva November 2016 for 18,750 CHF among others) with case numbers grouped between 208’142 and 208’702.
A 1960s Fifty Fathoms “No Radiation” version issued to the German military
As time progressed, the requirements of divers changed as technology improvements allowed them to dive even deeper necessitating a new Fifty Fathoms which would have its development driven once again by a military agency, this time the Bundesmarine. To conform with their needs, the double sealed crown was replaced by a screw down version, the plexiglass crystal made way for one made of mineral glass, the minute hand was made bright orange to improve visibility, the 3H symbol on the dial denoted the low radiation tritium used for the luminous material, the crown was moved to 4 o’clock to reduce the risk of damage, and the case was made significantly thicker to ensure water resistance up to 1,000m. Introduced in 1975, the model was also produced as a civilian model with the bezel featuring the more standard 60-minute markers rather than a simplified single triangle version that was requested by the German Navy.
A side profile of the so called 1000 Bund that was produced at the request of the Bundesmarine showing the thicker case and repositioned crown to meet their requirements
As the 1970s progressed, it became clearer that the dive watch was moving from below the waves on to dry land as a fashion accessory. It was noted by Fiechter’s wife that the sharp edges of the bezel that made it so easy to grip and turn when diving caused damage to his shirt cuffs, so he went back to the drawing board and conceived a design that moved the rotating bezel under the crystal, and added a second crown so that it could be positioned. It also featured a day and date indicator to give some added practicality, plus a very 1970s aesthetic of dégradé grey dial, bright red hands and sharp contrasting blocks with Arabic numerals to the outer bezel. While not a dedicated diving instrument, it still retained the functionality that was so important, while making for a practical day-to-day companion, something which we take for granted today but was fairly revolutionary during the period and translates perfectly into the models that Blancpain still offer today bearing the Fifty Fathoms name.
A revised design language to marry the dive watch requirements with something that is easier to wear with something other than a dive suit
With its wonderful heritage born out of a true practical application for military forces giving rise to a genre defining set of characteristics, together with enough variations to make collecting interesting and affordable while still being rare enough to provide a decent thill from the chase, the Fifty Fathoms really does offer a mix of attributes that almost perfectly summarise what makes the vintage watch world so interesting.
With special thanks to Blancpain who were kind enough to share a selection of watches from their museum collection for photography, and for the production of the excellent book “Fifty Fathoms The Dive and Watch History 1953-2013” which proved to be an invaluable resource for this article.