The question of form & functionality in terms of wrist watches is probably now more relevant than ever before…with the advent of diving computers on the wrist & mobile phones; telling the time, let alone under water, is quite a prickly topic. The simple fact you might be reading this suggests you are one of the purists who still has an innate longing to understand the mechanics of all things & their respective beauty.
With that in mind, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms collection is not only one of the most instantly recognisable designs in the horological hall of fame but it is also one of the few timepieces that does what it says on the box! Moreso, it offers true testament from some serious sources as to whether it was fit for purpose…Jacques Cousteau wore a Fifty Fathoms whilst filming the Oscar & Palme D’or winning “Silent World” in 1956!
However, let us go back to its humble beginnings with Jean-Jacques Fiechter who was Blancpain’s CEO from 1950 – 1980. His passions lay in watches & diving; the first helping Blancpain lay its roots whilst the latter is to help create this quite dramatic timepiece.
In the aftermath of World War II, two heroes of the Free French Forces; Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier & Lieutenant Claude Riffaud created the Combat Divers via the “Ecole des Nageurs de Combat.” Their missions were often dangerous, under water & often at night. These missions required respectively rigorous tools including the important diving watch. Maloubier outlined the necessary criterion but no watch fulfilled these strict obligations.
By chance, Maloubier & Fiechter made acquaintance through their joint passion for diving. The seeds for the Fifty Fathoms were laid…Fiechter added to the already strict requirements to create, arguably, the benchmark for the modern diving watch! The name was derived from 91.45m or Fifty Fathoms, being the maximum dive depth a human could achieve at that time. The watch quickly became a staple for the French military & thus opening up its quality in real world scenarios to the military & civilian world.
For administrative & commercial purposes, all diving apparatus including the watches were purchased from a Parisian retailier; Spirotechnique. This boutique also happened to work with Jacques Cousteau, selling his inventions including the famous Diving Regulator Valve. This lovely coincidence led to the aforementioned use of the Fifty Fathoms during Cousteau’s now legendary expeditions across the Galapagos Islands.
Various other countries soon also began to use the Fifty Fathoms as its reputation grew but arguably the collectible version was created by the U.S. military. As with most countries during the war, domestic retail was being urged, especially in the United States. Given the quality of the Fifty Fathoms, the U.S. naturally did not want to use inferior goods but could not be seen to be buying from abroad hence it was imported to the U.S. by Allen Tornek, another diving acquaintance of Fietcher’s.
This model was delivered under either the “Blancpain Tornek” or “Rayville Tornek” titles. The United States added one further request that was complied to by Tornek in that both the bezel & dial luminosity was created by using a radioactive element; Promethium 41. Given this potentially hazardous element, the military versions were distinguished from the civilian models by adding the radioactive label to the dial. This military specific detail led to this model being known as the “Milspec-1.” Now hugely collectible like many other war era Fifty Fathoms; a modern version of this model was created in a limited series in 2010.
The 50th Anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms in 2003 saw the watch gain the sapphire glass bezel that further added to its already robust detailing. From breaking the mould of diving watches to shattering the concept of wrist watches in terms of size; the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms continues to remain a mainstay in all true contemporary collections. Delivered today in a very robust 46mm case on either a sailcloth strap or newly introduced steel bracelet – the modern Fifty Fathoms does its ancestor proud while remaining a consistently modern timepiece.
Today this iconic timepiece is delivered in varying complications from the simple date model with a typically unassuming five day power reserve to the beautiful rose gold model with visible Tourbillon carriage…we are authorised & official agents for Blancpain – please see our Facebook page for a full breakdown of the current Fifty Fathoms collection & maybe begin your own tradition! Please feel free to contact us any further Blancpain inquiries…