If you Google the phrase, "fifty fathoms," you will be immediately presented with a large number of links relating to Blancpain watches of that name from the original 1953 model to the latest tribute watch, launched by Blancpain this year. This most recent model very close in spirit to the Mil-Spec 1 version of the Fifty Fathoms, as supplied 60 years ago to US underwater demolition teams and Navy SEALs. Most articles containing some history of the Fifty Fathoms watch have this element "bolted on" to a review of one of the more modern versions, including the new tribute watch.
The new 2017 Blancpain tribute watch, paying well-deserved homage to the Fifty Fathoms wristwatch (pic from cloudfront.net):
It is tempting to continue in this vein here, reviewing the new Fifty Fathoms model and providing a brief overview of the Fifty Fathoms story. However, I am not going to do that. Nor am I going to look at other editions and variations of the Fifty Fathoms that have been launched since the first tranche of Fifty Fathoms models, which ended in the mid-1970s with the advent of the quartz crisis. Instead, I shall look more deeply into the earlier Fifty Fathoms watches, in particular the original 1953 French Mil-Spec model as made for the French combat swimmers. Note that though my notes below are effectively an analysis of the 1953 Mil-Spec version, they will also apply to civilian examples of the period.
The original Fifty Fathoms is a seminal dive watch - not the first to incorporate waterproofing for professional use but the first to set the scene in terms of aesthetics and design - as well as the necessary technical means - for later dive watches to come. In fact, the design of the original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms still reverberates today such that hardly a single watch company hasn't a watch in the basic Fifty fathoms style whether made for diving, swimming, or just plain wearing. I do not wish to detract from the role played by other early dive watches, including of course the first Rolex Submariner, but there was, and still is, something peculiarly evocative about the history and development of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms that has always given it a special place in watch history.
An American advertisement for the original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms dive watch, placed by the US distributor for Blancpain at the time, Allen Tornek. He would later play an important role in the Fifty Fathoms story- see text below (pic from i1.wp.com/wristreview.com):
The story of the Fifty Fathoms dive watch began in 1952, with the creation of the French "Frogmen" Unit by the Ministry of Defence, in co-operation with the French Secret Service, and the requirement for a dive watch suitable for this elite team of combat swimmers, "Les Nageurs de Combat.- later known as "Commando Hubert."" The purposes of the team were mainly intelligence gathering, and the sabotaging of harbours, ports and ships.
Initially, Captain Robert "Bob" Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud were the sole members of the new commando swim team and it was they who proposed the idea of a suitable dive watch that could be fully usable under as well as in the water. They tried and tested a number of currently available watches but were unable to find a model that suited the team's needs; Maloubier therefore drew up a number of essential specifications and took these to various watchmakers, but without success, partly because most watchmakers at the time were concentrating on aviation watches.
The two essential requirements for the watch were, obviously, a high degree of water resistance, and visibility underwater, even at night. On first failing to obtain any interest in their ideas for a new military dive watch, Captain Maloubier and Lieutenant Riffaud eventually met with Jean-Jacques Fiechter, CEO of Blancpain, then a small watch company situated in Switzerland. Fortunately, Fiechter was himself a passionate diver, and he readily agreed to develop a watch for the French combat dive team, going further than the specifications required by the French Navy by including other innovations useful in a diving timepiece. According to Maloubier in later recollection, "After all, we agreed with a small watch factory, Blancpain, to develop our project: a watch with a black dial, large, bold numerals and clear markings, as well as an outer rotating bezel. We wanted to be able to align this bezel with the large minute hand, in order to easily know our remaining oxygen time. And we wanted all those markers to clearly glow in the dark."
It is a tribute to Jean-Jacques Fiechter that he managed to provide a suitable and also innovative dive watch in such an incredibly short time, with the first model being available in 1953 and presented at Basel in 1954. When the Fifty Fathoms watch first appeared, it already had the fundamental design characteristics that were to remain present in future versions of the collection, i.e. with "a black dial with contrasting, self luminous numbers and indexes, a notched bezel (unidirectional only for safety reasons) also in black with luminous numbers and indexes" (The History of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Monochrome Watches 06/08/14). The watch was from the start made of stainless steel and the case size of the first edition was surprisingly large for the time, being 41mm, and with lugs that were long and substantial. The strap provided with the original 1953 model is thought to have been the rubber Apollo Tropic, designed to stand frequent underwater use.
The original 1953 Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (pic from storage.googleapis.com):
On its introduction, the Fifty Fathoms had two patented features:
Firstly, the watch had a system preventing any accidental rotation of the bezel using a system of leaf springs that required the bezel to be pushed down before it could be rotated. It has been stated that the safety feature of having a unidirectional bezel, introduced on the first Fifty Fathoms model, was also the subject of a Blancpain patent, which, until it expired, prevented other watch firms from incorporating the feature without permission. Certainly, it does seem that Blancpain was the first to use the unidirectional rotating bezel, but it was very soon followed by Rolex with their Submariner. Also, I have read that in the original (pre-production?) design for the Fifty Fathoms, the unidirectional rotation was not present.
And secondly, the watch used a three-piece caseback, comprising a screw-down ring, the actual caseback, and a dustcover. This assembly was devised such that any friction from screwing down the back did not compromise watertightness of the seal. The caseback of the 1953 model had stamped markings of a kind typical of the period, listing the main features of the watch, and the inner dust cover warned the user, in French, that opening the watch would require the attention of an official Blancpain Fifty Fathoms dealer to reseal the watch.
One of the earliest known examples of the Fifty fathoms showing the movement and caseback - the latter pictured as the separate dust cover plus the two back-elements together (ie. screw-down ring with central back) (pic from production-fratellowatches.netcdn-ssl.com):
An early original-model Fifty fathoms together with a note signed by Captain Maloubier (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):
The term "fifty fathoms" was chosen as the name of the watch partly, if not wholly, because this depth - 91.45 metres - was considered to be the maximum safe depth for using a one-time use oxygen mixture in an "Aqua Lung," and interestingly, this depth approximates to the 100 metre water resistance we see on so many recent watches that cannot be defined as luxury or expensive. I cannot help remarking here that even if the depth of fifty fathoms had no technical significance for the new watch, the name, "Fifty Fathoms" would have been an evocative choice. In addition to the patented caseback, water resistance was also obtained by means of an innovative crown with a double O-ring gasket. Using a screw-down crown had been impossible because to do so would have infringed a patent, so Blancpain developed their own diving crown, which also prevented water from entering the watch if the crown was inadvertently pulled out.
The original Fifty Fathoms used either of two bezel types; the first has a lozenge or diamond at 12 o'clock while the second has a triangle marker at that position - both bezels have indices, with numbers at 15, 30, and 45 minute positions. The lozenge type bezel is more often associated with a numbered dial, while the diamond type is associated with a dial having just markers. As for the dial of the first Fifty fathoms model, there are a number of variations with regard to the style of hands and the dial markings, and I will give the basic facts here. The dials on the first Fifty Fathoms model are always black, and have radium lume where appropriate. Typical dials are either of two styles. Firstly there is the 3/6/9/12 type with lumed triangles beside each of the four numbers (and apparently tiny number markings beneath the luminous indices) . And secondly, a marker only dial was also used, with an arrow at 12 o'clock, luminous rectangles at 3,6 and 9, and circular markers at the other intervals. This sort of marker dial has been popular with watch companies ever since.
If dial marker and hand style variety is somewhat complicated, there are also variations in the legends printed on the dial. Basically though, the first watches will be marked "Blancpain" above a script, "Fifty Fathoms, on the upper half of the dial, and "Rotomatic" above "Incabloc" in upper case on the lower half of the dial.
The Fifty Fathoms 1953 model used an automatic movement by Anton Schild- the caliber AS 1361. The movement was marked, "Blancpain/Seventeen jewels/Unadjusted Swiss. It used Incabloc shock resistance and it was not a hacking movement. Interestingly, an automatic movement was chosen partly to counter the need to fiddle too much with the crown when the watch was being worn, so perhaps eventually compromising the seal of the crown; a difficult choice since with a handwind movement, you should at least know how long the watch will run before having to be rewound.
The original 1953 Fifty Fathoms wristwatch was in production until new versions appeared for the French Navy in the late 1950s. The watch immediately attracted attention in both military and civilian roles, with civilian versions being sold through diving shops, such as "Aqualung" rather than jewellers or watch shops. Blancpain was soon to start receiving orders from the militaries of other countries, and the civilian spotlight was also thrown on the Fifty Fathoms when Jacques Cousteau wore the watch during his sea explorations that were documented in the 1956 film, "Le monde du silence," (The Silent World).
The Fifty Fathoms watches from the 1950s were distributed by two networks. The first was Spirotechnique - a rather modern-sounding name for what was then the official French naval supplier - with the head of its military arm tending to be a frogman himself. The second distributor was the Federation (acute on first two 'e's) Nationale Horlogers, Bijoutiers, Joaillers, Orfevres (grave on 'e'), or Federation Nationale HBJO. This network was run by the well-known watch company, Lip S.A., which had a strong presence in France but no sports watch in its line-up. Fred Lip, who was close to the Blancpain management at the time, suggested that Lip should distribute the Fifty Fathoms watch via HBJO, and Blancpain agreed. The early Fifty Fathoms watches so distributed bear the name "LIP" on the dial, and one of these Lip pieces is the very rare gold plated example of which only 20 were made.
Two versions of the Fifty Fathoms made by Blancpain for Lip - an early version and the slightly later very rare gold-plated model with its bespoke dauphine hands (pic from revolution.watch):
The first (notable) change to the original Fifty Fathoms dive watch took place in 1957, and was incorporated in the Fifty Fathoms model supplied to the US Navy in that year. This new feature, inspired by Fiechter's continued concern for diver safety, was a humidity indicator, which took the form of a disc in the dial, horizontally divided in two halves. In the event of ingress of moisture, the upper, blue, portion of the disc would turn pink. Note that on most surviving examples with this feature, the blue has faded over the years to a pinkish hue.
The watches made for the US Navy with the new humidity indicator were labelled, "Mil-Spec 1" and were supplied to US underwater demolition teams and Navy SEALS in 1957 and 58. The term Mil-Spec is spelt differently by different authors on the subject, and my own use of the form, "Mil-Spec," derives from the recent Salon QP article about the new 2017 tribute Fifty Fathoms watch. The Mil-Spec 1 version of the watch, in almost identical civilian form, was sold through the late 1950s and into the early 60s, being regarded by marketers and public not as a luxury item but more a solid tool watch, and this was backed by the known reliability of the timepiece. The use of the moisture disc on Mil-Spec 1 watches was not to become formally part of the US Naval specifications for the watch until the early 1960s and the development of the Mil-Spec 2 version of the Fifty fathoms both in Europe and the USA (where virtually the same watch, the Mil-Spec 2 was produced as the Tornek-Rayville TR-900).
Mil-Spec 1 version of the Fifty Fathoms showing the moisture/humidity indicator on the dial. Note that this example dates to the period just after Blancpain adopted tritium lume for the Fifty fathoms watches. (pic from i.ytimg.com):
Early in the 1960s, the US Navy were again on the hunt for a watch for their Navy-trained "Explosive Ordinance Disposal Units", this time with uprated specifications, mainly with regard to anti-magnetism. Several companies competed for the contract but the strict technical specifications for the timepiece were too challenging for all but one contender - Allen V. Tornek. Tornek was an importer of watches by the Rayville Watch Company, a manufacturer of watches for Blancpain, and he took on board the tricky task of producing the upgraded Fifty Fathoms watch while adhering to the "Buy American Act."
An example of Tornek's problems and solutions was the question of where the jewels were to be sourced for the watch. The contract specified a US company in Missouri as the source of the jewels, and Tornek did indeed purchase jewels from the States; however, these were not used, and instead Tornek used Swiss jewels. Tornek also had to use a special steel and hardened brass in parts of the case and movement to fulfil the specifications.
The original US naval order for the Tornek-Rayville Fifty Fathoms watch came in 1964 and was for 780 pieces; this was then followed in 1965 by an order for 300. These two orders represent the total production of the Tornek-Rayville Fifty Fathoms watch, making the model one of the rarest and most desirable of the Fifty Fathoms versions. Note that this model is variously referred to as the "Tornek," "Rayville-Tornek" or "TR-900." The watch remained in service until it was withdrawn in the 1970s.
The Tornek-Rayville TR-900 used only a single marker-only black dial design, with an inverted triangle at 12 o'clock. The Tornek-Rayville US branding is very dominant in the upper half of the dial, while the lower part of the dial features the humidity indicator and the word, "Swiss" and "PM 147." This last legend refers to the interesting change of lume to Prometheum-activated. It had been found that lume using promethium 147 glows brighter and for longer than the equivalent radium or tritium lumes then available. Unfortunately, promethium 147 has a very short half-life in terms of how long a good watch should last, so short term brightness was at the expense of long-term activity, though presumably the watches could be re-lumed when necessary.
The movement used for the Tornek watches was by Anton Schild, and was an upgraded version of the AS 1363 caliber found in the 1953 Fifty Fathoms watches. It was designated the AS 1361N and unlike the earlier version, this movement had a hacking capability. It is marked, Tornek-Rayville TR 900, and is the same size as the earlier 1361; also it has 17 jewels.
The back of the Tornek-Rayville was replete with stamped-in messages, all in English, and including the word, "DANGER," and the warning symbol for ionising radiation, the military specifications, a warning that "IF FOUND RETURN TO NEAREST MILITARY FACILITY," and "NON MAGNETIC." The date of production is also given just above the radiation symbol in the form of, say, 11/64, for November 1964. The Tornek-Rayville also has a dust cover, but this is not marked.
The Tornek-Rayville version of the Fifty Fathoms (pics top to bottom from static1.squarespace.com, images.skinnerinc.com, and scontent-seal-1.cdninstagram.com): ):
If you are lucky enough to obtain a Tornek-Rayville Fifty Fathoms with an original strap, you will see that it was originally black and made of nylon. The small numbers of the Tornek-Rayville TR-900 made has already been mentioned, but an additional factor making these watches so rare today is the fact that they were regarded as radioactive waste and hence were sent to be buried in containers deep underground.
I am now moving towards the end of my history of early Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches. The last change I propose to mention occurred in about 1960 and was a result of the growing concern about the dangers of radiation, partly stimulated by the Cold War. The dangers of using radium in watch lume was already known, but a more general awareness of this led to changes in lume to make it safer. It has already been mentioned that the Tornek-Rayville watches used promethium 147, and in the early 1960s, Blancpain had changed from radium lume to tritium, and they then felt able to add a brightly coloured disc-shaped label on the dial of the Fifty Fathoms to indicate that no radium had been used so that the watches were safe. Overall, about 50,000 Fifty Fathoms watches of this type were produced.
Early 1960s Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch sold through "Aqua Lung" and featuring tritium lume and the bright non-radiation label on the dial (pic from cloudfront.net):
I have taken the history of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms from 1952/3 to the middle years of the 1960s, and I regard new models made after that date to represent a modern sensibility concerning the Fifty fathoms and its place in history. The civilian versions of the various Mil-Spec models produced in the 1950s and 1960s are essentially the same watches but without the military numbering In the 1970s, Fifty Fathoms watches appeared with different case shapes, and in 1975, the West German Bunduswehr Kampfschwimmers (German Navy combat divers) asked Blancpain to make a special edition of the Fifty Fathoms. The resulting watch was water resistant to 200 metres, assisted in this by a screw-down crown, screw caseback, heavy steel case and thick mineral glass crystal. It is not clear from the literature whether this watch for the Germans is the same as the "Barracuda" series that was made in the 1970s for the German navy and apparently had a water resistance of 1,000 metres.
Fifty Fathoms model made for the Bundeswehr Kampfscwimmers - see text here above (pic from cloudfront.net):
The first Fifty Fathoms watches, from the original 1953 iteration to the Mil-Spec 2/Tornek-Rayville TR-900, represent a particular type of watchmaking at its best, in the sense that form followed function, and modifications were incorporated for safety and professional purposes rather than as aesthetic enhancements. Whether or not the visual beauty of the Fifty Fathoms can be accounted for purely as an accident or partly as a by-product of inherently design-sensitive creators has not been stated, but beautiful the watch certainly is. Obviously, to those who wore and used the original Fifty Fathoms models under water, what mattered most is that the watch was reliable and suitable for its designated purposes. But now, in the fullness of time, the first watches in the Fifty fathom can be regarded as masterpieces and need no fancy claims to bolster their prime position in the history of the wristwatch.
NOTE: As is so frequent when delving a bit deeper into watch history for a topic, one finds certain differences in the narrative between sources. I have tried to steer the most accurate course I can through this, but one inconsistency needs to be mentioned, concerning the involvment of Allen Tornek. There is a version of the story that claims that Blancpain had already been accepted by the US Navy as the proposed manufacturer of watches in the new Mil-Spec 2 specifications, and as Tornek was apparently the sole US supplier of Blancpain watches, it was down to him to provide these watches as ordered for the US Navy in a way that did not contravene the Buy American rules.
A rare and beautiful dive watch by Lip made in the early 1960s shortly after the agreement to sell Fifty Fathoms watches through the company had ended. The watch is a Lip design but incorporates much Blancpain technology including the patented Bakelite bezel (pic from mentawatches.com):
A very rare Barakuda Fifty fathoms produced for the Polish Navy in the mid-1960s. Powered by an Anton Schild caliber AS 1902 movement (pic from cars&watches.com):
A perfectly respectable Seiko 5 automatic dive watch, with about the same water resistance as the first Fifty Fathoms watches, but because of its similarity to the Fifty Fathoms, modders have used it as a basis for recreating a homage to that more famous watch (pic from bladebarrelbezel.files.wordpress.com):