Blancpain released a “Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC” diver’s watch at this Baselworld, but you’ll never know the significance of this timepiece till you know the back story of the development of Blancpain’s first diver’s watch.

The name Fifty Fathoms is a reference to the depth rating of the watch. A fathom is a unit of length in the imperial and the U.S. customary systems equal to 6 feet, used especially for measuring the depth of water. So the name refers to the water’s depth rating of 300 feet (or 91.4 meters).

The original Fifty Fathoms from 1953

In the early Fifties, Blancpain’s CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter – a passionate diver himself – conceived a new diving watch as part of a joint project between Blancpain and the French Navy’s “Nageurs de Combat” or combat swimmers lead by Captain Bob Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud.

By 1953, Blancpain had a diver ready for the Frenchmen. It featured a double sealed crown system that protected the watch from water penetration in case the crown was pulled during a dive. It uses a screw-down caseback with a channel in to which the “0” ring (used to seal the caseback) was inserted and held in position by an additional metal disc. This prevent the ring from being twisted while caseback was being screwed down.

Patents filed for in the FiftiesBut perhaps the biggest innovation was the introduction of a uni-directional rotating  acrylic bezel that could be used the measure the time of the dive. To prevent the bezel from turning by accident, Blancpain created a blocking mechanism which would prevent any accidental rotation.  

Blancpain patented this unidirectional bezel, so until the patent period expired, most diver’s watches (in the Fifties and Sixties) featured bi-directional bezels unless they had permission from Blancpain to use a uni-directional bezel. This also led to the development of the supercompressor case that allowed for a rotating ring inside the dial.

The first Fifty Fathoms diver’s watch that was released in 1953 also had excellent legibility thanks to a large black dial and contrasting white luminescent indices and hands. As part of the evolution of the diver, Blancpain incorporated a humidity indicator on the dial, a disc at 6 o’ clock. In case of a leak, the upper half of this disc would signal the problem by turning from white to orange to match the other half.

Introduced in 1957-58, the Fifty Fathoms divers with the humidity indicator were referred to as the MIL-SPEC 1 to meet the requirements of the military. From 1958 on, these watches became standard issue of the US Navy’s combat divers and Navy Seals.

In the Sixties, these watches would evolve into the MIL-SPEC 2. And this is where you need to know about Allen V. Tornek, the sole US sales representative for Blancpain Watches. Though Blancpain had been chosen to be the official suppliers, a restrictive “Buy American” policy enforced in the US prevented the brand from supplying to the US Navy.

A Tornek Rayville sold for CHF60,000 at a Philips auction in 2016

Torney found a way around this by creating a US-based company called Rayville. The Tornek-Rayville TR-900 supplied to the US Navy was essentially a rebadged Blancpain Fifty Fathoms MILSPEC-2. A total of approximately 1,000 examples were made in the early Sixties, and the US Navy destroyed nearly all of them, making each exceptionally rare in the vintage market today.

THE 2017 TRIBUTE

The “Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC” pays tribute to the late Fifties model that Blancpain developed for the US Navy. The watch is a faithful recreation of the original in style but the tribute pieces has some important modern upgrades.

The 2017 version has the moisture indicator of the MILSPEC-1

It uses a 40 mm stainless steel case with a uni-directional rotating bezel that is coated in scratch-resistant sapphire protects the luminescent indications underneath, a Blancpain innovation which first appeared in 2003 with the 50th Anniversary Fifty Fathoms. It has a matte black dial and the hands and indices are coated with Super-Luminova that resembles the radium of the historic models.

The watch is fitted with Blancpain’s in-house automatic winding caliber 1151, comprising 210 components including two series-coupled mainspring barrels that offer a four-day power reserve. Unlike the utilitarian tool watch aesthetics of the original, the 2017 edition has an exhibition caseback that allows views of the solid gold winding rotor with a NAC coating (a platinum alloy) and the silicon balance-spring.

The 40 mm stainless steel version wears well

This timepiece is water resistant to 30 bar, which is equivalent to 300 meters. It is limited to 500 examples and is offered with a NATO strap, sail cloth strap, or steel bracelet with a secure buckle.