Blancpain’s talismanic Fifty Fathoms was the very first modern dive watch. In hindsight, it’s a horological icon whose creation was inevitable, historically traced by a two-pronged mission from both civilian and military parties treading parallel paths before eventually converging, by chance, in a joint effort that would serve scuba divers, as well as it did special forces. And lead to one hell of a handsome watch, obviously.
The watch’s genesis 70 years ago is made all the more intriguing by the shadow cast over it by famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. His Légion d’honneur-winning wartime resistance saw him co- create the Aqualung in occupied France, modifying Emile Gagnan’s fuel regulator to offer on-demand compressed air to divers for the first time, which afforded them greatly increased dive times.
Not only did Cousteau’s invention open up the undersea world like never before – creating the need for such a watch to safely time dives – but it was through one of his companies that a pair of war heroes, on the trail of a diving watch that could keep up with them, would meet the diving-mad CEO of Blancpain.
By 1952 French secret agent Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier and Special Forces officer Lieutenant Claude Riffaud had been tasked with establishing a new combat diving unit, the French Combat Swimmers to employ the kind of tactics they had used during WWII with Britain’s Special Operations Executive. Foremost among the instruments the new unit would require was a watch for timing dives and operations, but one that would be robust enough to perform in the punishing environments its operatives would face.
Maloubier and Riffaud first tested a number of commercially available watches, but all failed. The pair decided that if the right watch didn’t exist then it would need to be created and drafted up a series of criteria for their new watch. Legibility underwater was to be paramount, aided by a case much larger than the dainty offerings of the day with a black dial and large luminous hour markers in a variety of shapes for intuitive orientation in low light. The watch would also need to be anti-magnetic, automatic and, of course, water-resistant. The pair sent their proposal out to several watch manufacturers.
French watch giant Lip famously passed on the project in a meeting that Maloubier recalled in his 1986 autobiography, Plonge dans l’or noir, espion! “Encouraged, I go to Lip, Rue Royale. A dynamic young executive offers me a small gold-plated thing, equipped with a domed glass, and a white strap. ‘She’s all the rage on our beaches, Captain!’ I turn the golden miniature between my fat fingers. ‘And water at the same time, because it is not automatic, your jewel… and a winding seal is not eternal… you will replace the wrecks, I hope!’”
“He refuses to have a model made on a Riffaud- Maloubier plan that I submit to him and that he flies over, wrinkling his nose. This watch is too massive. No future. Wasted investment.”
Maloubier and Riffaud soon found themselves talking to the co-CEO of “une petite societe d’horlogerie” called Blancpain, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, himself an avid diver and member of the world’s first diving club, the Club Alpin Sous-Marin in Cannes. The two parties were introduced by a former French Navy officer working at Spirotechnique, a subsidiary of Cousteau’s Air Liquide company.
Fiechter, the CEO and nephew of Blancpain’s co- owner Betty Fiechter, knew only too well the dangers of diving, having once mistimed a dive and nearly run out of air on his ascent.
Realising the need for a dedicated diving watch to time dives, he developed an entirely new watch from scratch with a double gasket crown, two-piece screwdown caseback and a ‘push to unlock’ unidirectional crown, all of which he’d have patented by 1954. The watch answered each of Maloubier and Riffaud’s requirements except one, anti-magnetism, which was solved by means of a soft iron cage.
The first Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches were delivered – with Spirotechnique acting as the required French middle-man – to Maloubier and Riffaud’s new unit for testing in 1953 in a 42mm stainless steel case; positively hulking compared to the majority of watches available at the time. The watch expressed no water resistance rating on the dial. Fifty Fathoms (which is equal to just over 91m) was merely a play on a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The Fifty Fathoms codified the template for virtually every diving watch made since then and, as well as meeting the requirements of Maloubier and Riffaud’s new unit, proved a hit with divers around the world, especially after the Spirotechnique connection led to Jacques Cousteau wearing the watch in his breakthrough Palme d’Or-winning 1956 film, The Silent World.
Its special forces credentials were then bolstered in 1958 when the US Navy began searching for a dependable diving watch to equip its combat divers, including four years later the Navy SEALs, and found in favour of the Fifty Fathoms when tested against Rolex and Enicar watches as part of Operation HARDTACK. However, before the $55.50 USD watches could be issued they underwent rebranding as ‘Tornek- Rayville’ to circumvent the post-war ‘Buy American Act’ procurement regulations.
Even Lip’s founder, Fred Lip, came around to the concept and, from 1954 until 1959, offered the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms – double-signed with the Lip logo – for sale through his 2,000-plus outlets. Blancpain produced the Fifty Fathoms for both civilian and military markets and, by 1971, the commercially available collection had grown to include three lines, the Fifty Fathoms, Fifty Fathoms 1000 and Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe.
Despite the success of the Fifty Fathoms with military divers, Blancpain’s own fortunes varied wildly during this period. The business – now detached from the founding family – was compelled to change its name following Fiechter’s acquisition in 1932. The newly establish Rayville would join the SSIH conglomerate in 1961 and, while still making watches under the Blancpain name, switched focus to making movements for others, something that initially served it well –peaking at 220,000 movements in 1971 – before Blancpain made its final appearance at Basel in 1975, followed by Rayville in 1980, both falling victims of the Quartz Crisis.
The Blancpain name would be revived in 1982 – its archives and tooling had been destroyed in 1979 and its Villeret premises handed to Omega – when it was acquired by Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet, of the renowned Frederique Piguet movement manufacturer, before being sold to Swatch Group in 1992.
Blancpain in turn eventually revived the Fifty Fathoms name in the final years of the 20th Century. They got off to what honestly feels like a bit of a false start, somewhat clumsily attempting to amalgamate a version of the iconic diver – it featured an incongruous bare metal relief-etched bezel – and its Air Command chronograph to form the Trilogy (Sea, Earth, Sky) collection.
The first truly authentic revival would come in 2003, when newly appointed CEO Mark A. Hayek another enthusiastic diver, marked the model’s 50th anniversary with three 50-piece limited editions across three territories. Housed in 40mm stainless steel cases with domed, sapphire crystal-topped bezels and water resistant to 300m, the Series 1, 2 and 3 watches quickly sold-out in Asia, Europe, and North America, respectively. Hayek would celebrate the launch by going for a dive with an 80-year-old Robert Maloubier in Thailand.
In 2023, with the Fifty Fathoms now celebrating its 70th anniversary, Blancpain is releasing another series of limited editions that take their cues not only from the very first watch, but also that 2003 ‘renaissance’ trio.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Series 1, 2 and 3 will offer 70 pieces to each of those same three territories, for a total of 210 pieces, but will use the 42mm case size of the original Fifty Fathoms, the first modern version of the watch to do so, with recent limited editions housed in 40mm cases and collection pieces using 45mm cases.
Inside is the same automatic Calibre 1315 that’s been powering Fifty Fathoms watches at Blancpain since 2007, with three barrels providing five days of power reserve. With materials – including a silicon hairspring – now helping the watch achieve anti-magnetism, rather than that original soft iron cage, Blancpain is free to show off the movement through a sapphire crystal caseback.
The exhibition caseback reveals a custom 70th Anniversary Series winding rotor in platinum featuring an aperture used by Blancpain in the 1950s as a shock- absorbing feature, designed to increase the suppleness of the rotor.
Supplied on a black NATO strap, made from 100% recycled recovered fishing nets, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Series is available to pre- order now, priced £15,200.
More details at Blancpain.