Rulers of the Deep: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

03.12.2018
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms turns 65 this year. Being the first full-fledged divers in the market, these gorgeous and sturdy timepieces played an important part in popularizing the most demanded watch segment of our era. 

 

We all know how willingly the watchmakers tend to supplement their chronicles with the explicit legends. But even against this backdrop, the story of Fifty Fathoms looks like a fragment of an adventure novel, though there is no doubt about its authenticity. To begin with, the design of a landmark product for the industry, originated not within a watch manufacture, but on the desk of the real combat divers Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud. 

 

As a head of the French special corps created in 1952, Bob was preparing his wards to commit sabotage at sea, collect intelligence and destroy the enemy's man-power. But since the task was new to the world, Maloubier and Riffaud had to develop tactical schemes and pick up equipment themselves. The lack of noteworthy offers in the market urged them to design a purpose-built watch. In addition to serious water resistance, key requirements included the size and perfect readability of the dial. 

The sea is calling 

Convinced of the complete commercial futility of such products, renowned manufacturers did not want to get involved in such a risky project. Two officers found some help only when Jean-Jacques Fiechter, head of the small watchmaking maison Blancpain stepped in. It's hard to believe now, but when in 1953 the manufacture from the Swiss Villeret released the first batch, the feedback was quite cold. 

 

A contrasting indication on a black background, a bezel rotating in one direction with five-minute marks, and of course, a huge for those days 42-millimeter case did not quite fit with appropriate style of the day. The military spirit seemed too strong for civilians. By the way, the company immediately began to experiment with dimensions and versions with a diameter of 41 and 43 mm were born the same year. 

The water resistance was another reason to be proud. The words ‘fifty fathoms’ in the name not only addressed the professional measurement system but matched the real numbers: the watch was ready to immerse the water to a whole hundred meters. The creators were desperate to avoid paying for the Rolex patent on a screw-down crown, so they used a double ring lock on the crown. Also, to make the probability of leakage totally insignificant, the engineers went for the self-winding caliber AS 1361. If a diver does not need to wind up the watch, he wouldn’t leave the crown unlocked, right? 

Close the ranks! 

The key part in the commercial success and cult status of the collection were the points of sales. Since Fifty Fathoms was initially positioned as an expensive tool, and not a prestigious accessory, it was distributed in the diving equipment shops, covering the professional audience first. Soon Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the main popularizer of the wonders of the deep, showed his interest too. The union of two legends was captured by the first feature-length documentary Le Monde du Silence (Silent World), which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival 1956. Of course, during his career, the great Frenchman had got to dive in almost all dive-ready Swiss watches, but this can hardly affect Fifty Fathoms’ heritage. 

 

Meanwhile, other NATO members successively picked up the ideas of Maloubier. And although the collection’s basic concept remained strong, the Swiss were always ready to meet the requirements of the customers in uniform. For the West German Bundeswehr, the entire indication except the triangle was removed from the black bezel, the thickness and hence the strength of the case was increased. Blancpain even approached another company to supply the US Navy: it was legally forbidden for the American military to use special means produced by other countries, even if their technical characteristics left domestic equivalents far behind. The question was solved thanks to Allen Tornek from Rayville Tornek, who volunteered to purchase all the components, assemble them without the slightest change in the US territory, and place on the dial the logo Rayville Tornek MIL-SPEC 1. 

 

On the Origin of Species 

Military Fifty Fathoms of different countries were often equipped with a function of stopping the second hand, making it possible to effectively synchronize the watch before going on a combat mission, as well as radioactive luminescent components designed for the maximum readability at depth. On the back cover, it was pointed out that the device is dangerous, and whoever finds this was prescribed to return it immediately to the location of the nearest military unit. Over time, the watch became so firmly associated with the army that it was decided to supply the civil version with a large No Radiation sign. Add here the pieces with a round water-leak indicator, which changes its color to red with the penetration of the smallest particles of moisture inside the case, then the personalized series released in cooperation with major retailers like Aqualung or LIP, and you’ll get the living dream of any watch collector. You can collect vintage versions of Fifty Fathoms all your life and still barely scratch the surface. 

 

In turn, modern pieces can interest even the most demanding complication fans. Despite impeccable diving abilities, Blancpain products are often equipped with the most prestigious mechanical functions, such as tourbillon in Fifty Fathoms Tourbillon 8 Jours, fly-back chronograph and a full calendar in Chronographe Flyback Quantième Complet, and retrograde counters in flagship X Fathoms.