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A Brief History of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

A Brief History of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was the first dive watch built for professional divers by professional divers

Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud were men who knew the value of precision instruments. As the founders of the French Combat Diving School, they trained an elite group of Frogmen to undertake dangerous nautical missions ranging from intelligence gathering to acts of sabotage against ships and ports. Captain Maloubier had been a member of Winston Churchill's Special Operation Executive in World War Two, a secret army whose role was to spread chaos and disorder across occupied Europe, and knew that in order for his dive trainees to be successful, it was critical for them to have the best equipment.

Captain Maloubier wearing the blancpain fifty fathoms. photo courtesy of blancpain.

Captain Maloubier wearing the blancpain fifty fathoms. photo courtesy of blancpain.

Timing instruments were crucial to military divers as it would allow them to more accurately time underwater maneuvers and allow them to safely ascend to the surface before their limited supply of oxygen ran out. Maloubier and Riffaud tested various 'waterproof' watches and found them lacking in nearly every capacity as all the watches being too small, difficult to read underwater and prone to leakage. Neither men were watchmakers but set about designing what they believed would be the ideal watch for military diving; a large case and contrasting dial were needed to maximum legibility underwater, a large rotating bezel to mark the initial descent and of course, actual waterproofness

A Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, circa 1950s. Photo courtesy of watches of knightsbridge.

A Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, circa 1950s. Photo courtesy of watches of knightsbridge.

These design elements might seem ordinary today but it was revolutionary back in the 1950s. Unfortunately the watch companies that the two men pitched their idea to were skeptical about its success with one commercial director for LIP, a popular French watch manufacturer, saying that that the concept of a dive watch would have no future. Just like Dick Rowe saying that 'Guitar groups are on their way out' before turning down The Beatles, LIP would be on the wrong of history and it would be a small Swiss producer who would accept the challenge. 

Finally a small watch company, Blancpain, agreed to develop our project which envisioned a watch with a black dial, bold large numerals and clear markings: triangles, circles, squares; a rotatable exterior bezel which repeated the markings of the dial. We wanted at the start of a dive to be able to set the bezel opposite the large minute hand in order to mark the time. We wanted each of the markings to shine like a star for a shepherd
— Captain Robert Maloubier

The decision for Blancpain to make a dive watch might have been influenced by CEO Jean-Jacque Fietcher's passion for diving and the lack of potential financial return might have been overshadowed by Jean-Jacque's desire for another gadget to play with whilst diving. Whatever the reason, Blancpain agreed to make the watch with a few additional changes added provided by Fietcher and his team.

The bezel would only rotate anti-clockwise and only when pressed down to minimize the chance of accidental knocks increasing the displayed dive time. Rolex held the patent for a screw-down crown at the time so Fietcher patented the 'Double O-Ring' system with two gaskets inside the crown providing seals to protect the movement from water despite the lack of a screw seal. The automatic Anton Schild Caliber AS1361 movement reduced the need for divers to fiddle with the crown to set the time and wind the movement and reduced the wear on the gaskets. The concept of an automatic movement inside of a dive watch was revolutionary at the time and it would take Rolex years before they would replace the manual wind movement inside their Submariner.

Fietcher's patent for his alternative caseback design.

Fietcher's patent for his alternative caseback design.

The caseback of the Fifty Fathoms was specifically designed to be waterproof at high depths as the increasing pressure whilst submerging would push a part of the caseback tighter against the seal,  further ensuring the protection of the movement. A fathom is around 6 feet, or just under 2 meters, and the Fifty Fathoms was true to its name and was water-resistant down to 300 hundred feet/100 meters.

In 1953 the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was released, one year before the Rolex Submariner

Like the technical aspects of the watch, the depth rating might seem quite simple now however it was the deepest divers could descend with the technology available however another French diver looking to change that. Jacques Cousteau is one of the most influential men in watchmaking who never picked up a loupe, as through his commitment to advancing diving technology, Cousteau aided in developing what we consider a dive watch to be.

The French Navy bought all their supplies through the Parisian dive shop, Spirotechnique, the very same dive shop that Cousteau sold his new diving regulator valve. Soon Cousteau heard about the Fifty Fathoms and managed to secure one to wear during the filming of his Oscar winning documentary, the Silent world. Cousteau and his team would go on to wear several dive watches from a number of brands (The Rolex Submariner and Sea-Dweller, Omega Seamaster 300 and PloProf 600, the Doxa Sub 300 and Aquastar Deepstar to name a few) but the Fifty Fathoms was the first.

Jacque COUSTEAU (Far Left) with MALOUBIER's Combat Divers.

Jacque COUSTEAU (Far Left) with MALOUBIER's Combat Divers.

Whilst it is sometimes difficult to wrist check people in older movies and photographs, the Fifty Fathoms is instantly recognizable on Cousteau's wrist because of its huge 41mm case. It might not be that big today, and is dwarfed by later Blancpain divers, but at the time it was a gargantuan piece of equipment and the large thick bezel only added to the mystic of Cousteau's subaqueous adventures.

It wasn't long before the Fifty Fathoms became the choice of divers and soon Blancpain were making watches to military spec for various nations across the globe and the most collectible military Fifty Fathoms doesn't even bear Blancpain's name. The Tornek-Rayville" branded watches were issued to the U.S. Navy  in the mid-1960s and were made possible only by the efforts of the U.S. distributor for Blancpain, Allen Tornek.

Two U.S. Navy 'tornek-rayville' Fifty fathoms. the large circular disc at 6 o'clock is a humidity detector which could alert the wearer to leakage.

Two U.S. Navy 'tornek-rayville' Fifty fathoms. the large circular disc at 6 o'clock is a humidity detector which could alert the wearer to leakage.

Pro-American business legislation in the 1960s put foreign companies at a disadvantage when bidding for U.S. Government contracts, even when domestic products were vastly inferior to those produced overseas, but Tornek was committed to getting the Fifty Fathoms on the wrist of U.S. divers. He would eventually purchase movement jewels from Missouri to use in the Fifty Fathoms to alleviate concerns of using a Swiss watch over an American one, however these Missouri jewels so dreadful that Tornek surreptitiously used the original Swiss jewels instead.

The Tornek-Rayville Fifty Fathoms are extremely scarce with only 700 were ordered by the U.S. Navy in 1964 with an additional 300 in 1965 and only a handful surviving military life.

These U.S Navy issued pieces were made to Military Specification MIL-W-2217A which along with other specifications required a hacking seconds movement (the Anton Schild Caliber AS 1361 N was used) and markers filled with any radioactive luminous compound, as long as it wasn't radium. The side-effects of radiation were gradually being discovered so radium was being replaced with tritium. However the luminosity of tritium wasn't enough for the U.S. Navy so Blancpain used isotope Promethium 147 which had a much more manageable half-life of only 2 and a half years yet provided a strong glow.

Each U.S. Navy piece had a caseback engraved with the wonderfully ominous engraving that read "DANGER. IF FOUND RETURN TO NEAREST MILITARY FACILITY". The Spring Bar produced a wonderful collector's guide to the Mil-Spec Fifty Fathoms that I heartily recommend to anyone looking to purchase a mil-spec.

As recreational diving became more popular, the desire for civilian dive watches became stronger and soon Blancpain had to address a concern for potential customers, radioactivity. It's hard to sell a watch that the public thinks is going to give them a third arm so the civilian Fifty Fathom dials were produced with the now famous 'No Radiations' logo at 6 o'clock, a bright red and yellow radioactive symbol with a black cross over it. It might just be me, but my eyes certainly focus more on the large radioactive symbol than the thin black lines but I can see what Blancpain were attempting.

Whilst LIP had initially dismissed the idea of a diving watch, they eventually came around once they saw Blancpain's creation and distributed a LIP branded Fifty Fathoms in France from 1954 till 1967 when they released their own dive watch, the Lip-Nautic. In 1975, Blancpain created a military spec dive watch for the West German Bundeswehr Kampfschwimmers ( The German Navy Combat Divers) and other than the funky case, the instant point of difference for the German version is the so-called 'sterile' bi-directional bezel.

The Fifty Fathoms issued to the West German Bundeswehr KAMPFSCHWIMMERs. Photo courtesy of watches of knightsbridge. 

The Fifty Fathoms issued to the West German Bundeswehr KAMPFSCHWIMMERs. Photo courtesy of watches of knightsbridge. 

Devoid of any numerals or markings other than a single lumed triangle. This was a special request from the combat divers whose missions kept them underwater for extremely long periods of time so individual markers were unnecessary. The dial was inscribed with the red 3H seen on all German military pieces which revealed the use of tritium in the hands and indexes. 

So why isn't the Fifty Fathoms as well remembered as watches from Rolex or Omega despite it being the first true dive watch?

I think it comes down to the design and name recognition. Collectors might become giddy at the site of that huge bezel and radioactive symbol but the Fifty Fathoms is hardly going to win any beauty contest especially against a timeless design such as the versatile Submariner. Blancpain might be a well known name to amongst the community but to your average Joe on the street, there won't be a flicker of recognition on their face if you mention their name which is a real shame.

Through the efforts of Captain Maloubier and Lieutenant Riffaud, Jean-Jacque Fietcher and Jacques Cousteau, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms created the definition of what a professional dive watch would be, and that is something we should never forget.

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