Regular price $45,086
Sale price $45,086 Regular price


YEAR: 1967
BOX/PAPERS: NO/YES (Blancpain Service)

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.

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I've pondered many times if beginner’s luck is universal. We’ve all seen it, but how, why? Think in the watchmaking context. Even if you try to consciously separate the fallacy collectors have to preference the earliest iterations of any watch, it still holds. There’s a magic about tabula rasa thinking, as long as you exclude everything on Kickstarter. And the Fifty Fathoms is what first-principles thinking from some of the brightest Marine Nationale frogmen of the early 50s created. Whether it’s luck or something to do with the creative enthusiasm a new idea attracts, it’s still one of the best looking military divers ever created, 70 years later. I’ve said it before, but it has the kind of persona that’s itching to start a bar fight, and would win. Rambo with an escapement.

Of all early Fifty Fathoms, it is probably the Milspec and this ‘No Rad’ that most capture the imagination. The Milspec for its very manly name, the ‘No Rad’ for its loud yellow warning. See, the Fifty Fathoms was created in an era where radium was the standard. Then, when it was discovered that your teeth would fall out and you’d die a slow painful death, everyone switched over to tritium. To underscore new safety for military applications, Blancpain printed a massive ‘No Radiations’ marker at 6 in full spectrum color, a rad sign with an X through it. This, I just find amusing, as it’s essentially the brand shouting ‘We won’t kill you guys, promise!’ This one was issued to the Bundeswehr Kampfschwimmers, as serious as frog-manning got at the time. As hazard to life is concerned, I think radiation would be the least of a 60s Kampfschwimmer’s worries. More sharks, bullets, and enough cigarettes to sponsor a Ferrari F1 team. That’s the life.

The Bundeswehr continued using the Fifty Fathoms through the 70s for its dependability, even creating their own iteration in 1975 with no bezel markings and a prominent 3H that’s now a bit of a rare bird collector’s darling. But the earlier watches are the beautiful classics that Blancpain has built their modern brand image upon. Despite all the magnificent 90s complication, Blancpain rest on the Fifty Fathoms today as heavily as AP use the Royal Oak. And yet, none are better than the start. Luck? Brilliance? A high from parallel diving bends and cigarettes? Who knows, but I know I like this one.

This example is just great. The tritium dial has what certain looks like original applications and no visible damage. That lovely wide bakelite bezel is uncracked. Its case has deep engravings and many delicious battle scars. It comes from a well-regarded London retailer, whose name appropriately includes the word Fathoms.

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