MODEL: FIFTY FATHOMS
BOX/PAPERS: NO/YES (Blancpain Service)
CASE DIAMETER: 40mm
CASE MATERIAL: STAINLESS STEEL
BRACELET MATERIAL: TEXTILE NATO / TEXTILE RUBBER
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, the pioneer in modern dive watches, is a tale of an extraordinary collaboration between civilian and military forces. Like two sides of a coin, they navigated parallel routes before merging into a mutual endeavour, setting the stage for a tool as valuable to scuba divers as to the special forces. And, let's not forget, it evolved into a timepiece of remarkable aesthetic appeal.
This marvel, tracing its roots back seven decades, carries an intriguing legacy further magnified by Jacques Cousteau, the illustrious oceanographer. Cousteau, awarded the Légion d’honneur for his wartime resistance, tweaked Emile Gagnan's fuel regulator to present the Aqualung amidst the occupied France. His invention broke open the floodgates of the underwater world and highlighted the need for a watch such as the Fifty Fathoms to safely time these prolonged dives.
Fast forward to 1952, Captain Robert 'Bob' Maloubier, a French secret agent, and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, a Special Forces officer, were commissioned to forge a new combat diving unit, the French Combat Swimmers. Their mission was to institute a team utilising the strategies they had deployed during WWII with Britain's Special Operations Executive. A robust and reliable watch was an essential tool for their kit - one that could time dives and operations and endure punishing environments.
After a series of trials with commercially available watches, which ended in disappointment, Maloubier and Riffaud concluded that their perfect timepiece would have to be invented. They devised a set of guidelines for this ideal watch, emphasising underwater legibility, aided by a sizeable case, a black dial, and large luminous hour markers of varying shapes for intuitive low-light orientation. Additional prerequisites were anti-magnetism, automatic movement, and water resistance.
Their vision, however, wasn't embraced by all. The French watch behemoth Lip famously rejected their proposal. But fortune favoured them in the form of Jean-Jacques Fiechter, co-CEO of a "petite societe d'horlogerie" or Blancpain, who also happened to be a diving enthusiast.
Fiechter, acutely aware of the perils of diving from personal experience, recognised the pressing need for a purpose-built diving watch. He got to work and conceived an entirely new watch, integrating innovative features such as a double-gasket crown, two-piece screw-down caseback, and a 'push to unlock' unidirectional crown. Except for anti-magnetism, which was resolved using a soft iron cage, his creation ticked all boxes in Maloubier and Riffaud's checklist.
In 1953, the first Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches landed in the hands of the freshly formed combat unit. These watches, housed in a robust 42mm stainless steel case - a behemoth compared to the watches of the era - were a significant success, quickly earning a following among divers globally, especially after the endorsement of Jacques Cousteau in his award-winning film The Silent World.
The US Navy, in their quest for a reliable watch for its combat divers, including the Navy SEALs, found a winner in the Fifty Fathoms. However, in compliance with post-war 'Buy American Act' regulations, it had to be rebranded as 'Tornek-Rayville'.
Fast forward to a decade later, the Fifty Fathoms received a facelift in the form of the 'No Radiations' dial. The use of tritium luminescent material replaced the previously used radium. The watch saw a change from fixed bars to removable spring bars, in line with the commercially available case.
This specific piece was issued to the German Bundeswehr (Armed Forces), more precisely the Kampfschwimmer, their naval special forces command unit, in 1967. The watch, flaunting its battle scars with pride, an intact acrylic insert, is a testament to its tumultuous past. It is, undeniably, an enticing watch that encapsulates an immense history, deserving a place in any serious vintage collection.