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History of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms history

The demand for water resistant watches started to emerge with increasing pressure in the late 19th and in the early 20th century, in particular by categories such as explorers, military and professional divers.

In the 1920s, watchmakers started to use hermetic seals to increase waterproofness.

Several brands put significant efforts in creating watches that could withstand some water pressure in the following two decades but it was only with the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms in 1953 that the full set of features defining a modern diving watch appeared all together for the first time.

Today we have a clear understanding of the set of characteristics that define a watch that is suitable for scuba diving but it was not so obvious at the beginning of this research path.

As it often happens, one pioneer was instrumental to the discovery of the right "formula". This time the innovator was Jean-Jacques Fiechter.

Jean-Jacques Fiechter

Born in 1927 in Alexandria of Egypt, in 1950 the young Jean-Jacques joined his aunt Betty at the lead of Blancpain (where he served as General Manager and then President until 1980). 

It is here important to mention that in these years, the Blancpain firm had to be renamed "Rayville S.A., successeur de Blancpain" (with "Rayville" being a phonetic anagram of Villeret) . 

In fact, on the sudden death of Frédéric-Emile Blancpain in 1932, his only daughter, Berthe-Nellie, did not wish to go into watchmaking and the two members of the staff who had been closest to Frédéric-Emile, Betty Fiechter and the sales director André Léal, bought the business. But since there was no longer any member of the Blancpain family in control of the firm, the two associates were obliged by a Swiss law of the time to change the company name. Despite this change of name, the identity of the Manufacture was fully perpetuated, and the characteristics of the brand were preserved.

Appointed CEO of the company in 1950, Jean-Jacques Fiechter was an amateur diver and member of a club located in the south of France. He realised the importance to have a watch to track the time spent underwater when he exhausted his scuba tanks during a dive. 

Well aware that a measured ascent was required in order to avoid injuries, he resisted to the impulse to sprint to the surface and survived to the scare.

Returning to the Blancpain workshops, Fiechter started to work on the design of a reliable and robust wristwatch that could help divers to time their underwater adventures. 

Guided by his own experience, he defined the main specifications that a watch dedicated to scuba diving had to meet: perfect water-resistance, an antimagnetic case, a self-winding movement, luminescent hands and hour-markers contrasting with a dark dial, and a secured rotating bezel.

The Fifty Fathoms and, below, an advertisement of the new model

To improve water resistance, the engineers of the brand conceived a double sealed crown system to protect the watch from water penetration in the event that the crown were accidentally to be pulled during a dive. The presence of the second interior seal worked to guarantee the timepiece’s water tightness. 

To further ensure watertightness, Fiechter determined that the watch had to be automatic. This would minimize wear on the crown sealing system that otherwise would accompany daily manual winding.

To aid group diving where synchronization of watches would be important, Fiechter also equipped the Fifty Fathoms with a hacking mechanism to stop the watches when the crown was pulled. 

Another area of improvement was the sealing of the caseback. This had been a recurring problem with other pre-existing systems because the “O” ring used to seal the caseback might become twisted when the back was screwed into the case. In order to eliminate this risk, Fiechter invented a channel into which the “O” ring would be inserted and held in position by an additional metallic disk.

Extracts from the Swiss and the US (below) patents for the double sealed crown system of the Fifty Fathoms. Patent applications were filed once the product was commercialised, so his first patent application was filed early in 1954. Three dis-tinct innovations were patented in numerous countries: the locking rotating bezel, the double case back, and the double “O” ring crown system.

An iron inner case wrapping the movement as a shield was used to protect it from magnetism. The movement of choice was a modified self-winding A. Schild AS 1361N calibre beating at 18,000 vibrations per hour with a 38-hour power reserve.

Another ingenious feature was the rotating bakelite bezel. By placing the bezel index opposite the minute hand at the start of a dive, the elapsed time could be read directly from the bezel. And to prevent accidental rotation of the bezel, Fiechter devised a special locking mechanism, that was also awarded with a patent, requiring the user to push down the bezel before starting to turn it in order to time the dive.

41 mm in diameter, this unique timepiece was named Fifty Fathoms, a reference to the depth rating of the watch expressed in fathoms. A fathom is an old unit of length in the imperial and the U.S. customary systems equal to 6 feet (1.8288 metres), used especially for measuring the depth of water. 

Although, the fathom is neither an International Standard unit, nor an internationally-accepted non-SI unit, it is the most frequently employed maritime measure of depth in the English-speaking world. 50 fathoms correspond to approximately 91.45 metres / 300 feet, at the time the maximum depth reachable on the oxygen tanks of the day.

The idea for the "Fifty Fathoms" name came to Fiechter while reading the "Ariel's song", a verse passage in Scene II of Act I of William Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" which begins with the words "Full fathom five".

Almost in the same period, Captain Robert "Bob" Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, founders of the newly formed French Combat Swimmers unit, had started their research for a watch suited for their aquatic missions defining their own list of product requirements. 

The first tests which they conducted with "water-resistant" French watches failed: the watches they tested were too small with hard to read dials and not really waterproof cases. To use Maloubier’s words, the watches “drowned to death”.

Eventually, the French team made contact with Fiechter and, in 1953, Blancpain was able to deliver a watch for testing that fully met their criteria. The watch performed brilliantly in all of the tests quickly becoming one of the essential pieces of equipment for the French Combat Swimmers corps. 

One year after the first official delivery of the watch, Lieutenant Claude Riffaud wrote to Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms distributor, the Spirotechnique, to communicate the combat divers’ satisfaction: 

"I hereby confirm receipt of the “BLANCPAIN” no. 166 Marine Nationale watch. I am delighted to inform you that I am very satisfied with this type of watch that we have been using for our diving exercises for the past year.

The water resistance that we have tested to 100 metres is perfect, the operation is excellent and the luminosity matches requirements.

During a dive, one of these watches was lost at a depth of 53 metres. We found it 24 hours later in perfect condition and still running smoothly.

I attach considerable importance to the outer mobile crown which is very useful when diving.

Since certain officers have expressed a desire to buy a watch of this type for their personal use, I would be grateful if you could inform me of the official price."

The letter written by Lieutenant Claude Riffaud to Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms distributor

The path that led to the adoption of the watch by the United States Navy was a bit more complicated due to a strong Navy bias in favour of an American watch company as well as to the Buy American Act that was imposing a series of hindrances against non-US watches, such as a 25% tariff and even a rule requiring the “purchase” of jewels fabricated in America.

Blancpain could not supply directly but their exclusive US distributor Allen V. Tornek could. In order to qualify, Tornek had to create a small testing laboratory in the US so that the watches could be tested and certified on US soil. 

Allen V. Tornek with his son Larry and, below, an advertisement of the Fifty Fathoms

But there was still one obstacle. The 1955 draft specifications defined by the US Navy for their “submersible wrist watches”largely mirrored the Fifty Fathoms watches that were already in the hands of other navies with an exception: a moisture indicator. 

In particular, their requirements said: "A moisture indicator shall be securely fastened to the dial in a visible location. The free rotation of the hands shall not be affected when the indicator is in place".

To understand this requirement, it is important to keep in mind that, in a military environment, watches were provided to divers at the beginning of a mission along with the rest of the diving equipment and were returned to the equipment personnel at the conclusion of a dive. Thus, since a diver would likely be diving with a different watch on each dive, he would have no idea if the watch had been misused by someone earlier. 

Fiechter had a smart solution. He fitted the dial with a small bi-coloured disk - pale blue on one half and red on the other. In the event of moisture intrusion, the blue half of the disk would change its colour to red. Thus, when a diver was issued his watch for a mission, if the blue color showed well on the disk, he could wear the watch with confidence that it had not been compromised earlier.

A Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC 1 from the 1950s (courtesy of Christie's) and, below, the operating instructions and the dial specs

Finally, Tornek and Blancpain successfully landed the contract and the famous MIL-SPEC 1 Fifty Fathoms was adopted by the United States Navy Seals, America’s most elite diving corps, as well as by the navies of other countries. 

MIL-SPEC 1 Fifty Fathoms for the US NAVY

The watch was also used by the French GERS (Undersea Study and Research Group), a world leader in undersea research. Among the others, Jacques Yves Cousteau and his team wore Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches for their dives, including during their filming of the Academy Award winning film "The Silent World" (2Le Monde du silence") in 1956.

The Fifty Fathoms also attracted the interest of recreational divers. But a civilian version of the watch required some changes. 

In particular, the hour markers and the hands of the Fifty Fathoms were generously treated with radioactive radium to ensure optimal legibility underwater. Therefore, in the mid-1960s Blancpain created a special versions without radium which was identified by a bright yellow and red ‘No Radiations’ mark placed in large format at 6 o’clock. This would ensure the public that no harmful coatings were used in the making of their timepiece, further noted in the presence of the marking T - 25 MC. to the outside of the dial, highlighting that tritium was used and that its emissions are less than 25 milli-Curies (mCi).

Above and below an example of Fifty Fathoms ‘No Radiations’ manufactured in 1965 - Courtesy of Christie's

Blancpain collaborated with important companies specialising in the production and marketing of technical diving equipment. 

A version designed in collaboration with renowned company "Aqua-Lung" first appeared in a US Divers catalog from 1958. It was made exclusively for the American market and had a remarkable depth rating of 300 meters / 1000 feet. 

The Fifty Fathoms for Aqua-Lung - 1958

The American actor Lloyd Bridges wore this model on the cover of the February 1962 issue of "Skin Diver" magazine. Bridges had become popular among the diving community for playing the role of a former U.S. Navy frogman in the television show "Sea Hunt" that aired from 1958 to 1961.

In Germany, Blancpain supplied the Bundesmarine (Federal Navy) with Fifty Fathoms models via Barakuda, one of the oldest diving and water sports brand in the world. Characterised by a distinctive style, notably featuring the use of two-tone rectangular hour-markers, white-painted fluorescent hands, as well as a highly visible date display at 3 o’clock, these models became known as the Fifty Fathoms Barakuda and were also issued to the American and Polish military.

A Fifty Fathoms Barakuda made for the Polish Military - Courtesy of Phillips Watches

In addition to the regular Fifty Fathoms, Fiechter decided to create a smaller diameter diving watch that was named the Bathyscaphe. In fact, at the time a 41 mm timepiece was considered too large for women or even for men looking for a daily wearer.

Despite having a diameter of 35 mm to 38 mm, the watch was still equipped with distinctive features such as the patented crown and the rotating bezel. 

The smaller in diameter Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe

To support the continuous growth, in 1961 Rayville Blancpain merged with the largest Swiss watch group of the time, the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH), joining Omega, Tissot and Lemania. Growth continued achieving a production level of more than 220,000 watches per year by 1970.

During the 1970s, Blancpain evolved its line of Bathyscaphe models, introducing a few diving watches with new aesthetic codes. These models featured a silvered dial ring with rectangular indexes and Arabic numerals radially arrayed every five minutes and windows for the day of the week and date at 3 o’clock. This model inspired the Bathyscaphe Day Date 70s released in 2018

But that decade brought many challenges. Not only the fall of the dollar against the Swiss franc reduced transatlantic exports and the first oil crisis triggered a world-wide recession but the entire Swiss watchmaking industry was seriously hit by the  success of quartz watches from Japan with dramatic sales drop.

As part of the reorganization, Fiechter resigned and the new management of the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH) decided to build its strategy around quartz watches rather than mechanical ones. The production of the Fifty Fathoms was put on hold.

In 1982, the Rayville-Blancpain name was sold to a partnership of movement manufacturer Frédéric Piguet, led by Jacques Piguet, and Jean-Claude Biver, then an employee of SSIH. The new company started trading under the name of Blancpain SA but initially focused on traditional luxury models. 10 years later, SSIH - the future Swatch Group - purchased the company back. For more details on this, you can read our article "The history of Blancpain".

It was only in 1997 that the Fifty fathoms made a come back in the Blancpain catalogue as part of a “Trilogy” of watches for land (a GMT), sea (the Fifty Fathoms). and air (the Air Command). Characterised by a relief numerals at 5 minute increments on a metal bezel rather than the classic inset, this 40 mm Fifty Fathoms model was water resistant to 300 meters / 1,000 feet. 

The Fifty Fathoms part of the "Trilogy" and, below, the trio - 1997

The Trilogy was refreshed in 1999 as the limited “Concept 2000” series with bezel and crown in carbon fiber reinforced rubber.

The Concept 2000 Fifty Fathoms - Courtesy of Christie's

When Marc A. Hayek, the grandson of Swatch founder Nicolas, succeeded Jean-Claude Biver as CEO of the company, his first project was the Fifty Fathoms with the release of a limited edition of 150 pieces created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the watch. 

Mark A. Hayek (on the right) with Jean-Jacques Fiechter

Powered by a Frédéric Piguet Calibre 1151 with a double barrel delivering 4 days of autonomy, this commemorative model came in a 40.3 mm stainless steel case water resistant to 300 meters / 1,000 feet. The classic dial with numerals at 3, 6, 9, and 12 was framed by a unidirectional rotating bezel with numbers only at 15, 30, 45 and covered in scratch-resistant sapphire, an element that will become a signature feature of the modern Fifty Fathoms.

The Fifty Fathoms 50th Anniversary and, below, its scratch-resistant sapphire bezel - 2003

Immediately after the success of this limited series, Hayek and his team started working on the next Fifty Fathoms generation that was launched in 2007. It was powered by a new high-performance automatic movement, the in-house designed and manufactured Calibre 1315 delivering a power reserve of 5 days thanks to three barrels.

The Fifty Fathoms 5015 and, below, its new Calibre 1315 shown without its rotor - 2007

Just like the 1953 original that was oversized compared to the standard civilian watch size, the new Fifty Fathoms 5015 came in an imposing 45 mm case to accommodate a soft iron inner case for enhanced magnetic resistance.

2012 marked the release of the X Fathoms, presented as the most high-performance mechanical diving watch ever produced. Housed in an imposing 55 mm x 24 mm titanium case, this model combined the usual features with a retrograde 5 minute counter for decompression timing as well as a mechanical depth gauge with two scales and maximum depth memory along with a decompression valve. 

The X Fathoms - 2012

In 2013, Blancpain further expanded the line with a reinterpretation of the Bathyscaphe model introduced in the late 1950s. Featuring a flat ceramic bezel with a graduated scale in Liquidmetal, the new Fifty Fathoms Bathyscape was presented in a 43 mm case and followed, in 2017, by a 38 mm version. 

The modern interpretation of the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscape launched in 2013

The Fifty Fathoms 5015 is still today the main pillar of the Fifty Fathoms line. Around it, Blancpain developed colour and metal variations and added horological complications like GMT, grande date, chronograph, annual and perpetual calendars, moonphases, and even a watchmaking feat like the tourbillon. 

From left to right, the Automatique in titanium with blue dial and bezel, the Chronographe Flyback in red gold and the Tourbillon 8 Jours in titanium

In recent times, Blancpain revived some of the models of the early years maintaining their look and feel while taking advantage of the technical innovations resulting from the continuous research of Blancpain in the fields of scuba diving and watchmaking. Among them, the MIL-SPEC (2017), the Barakuda (2019) and the No Radiations (2021). All these releases have a diameter of 40.3 mm, a size reserved for Fifty Fathoms timepieces in limited series.

From left to right, the Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC, Barakuda and No Radiations limited series

With the almost 70-year legacy of the Fifty Fathoms diving watch, Blancpain has developed close relationships with explorers, photographers, scientists, and environmentalists who deeply care about the preservation of the world’s oceans. This brought, in 2014, to the creation of the Blancpain Ocean Commitment (BOC), an initiative with three main goals: raising awareness on the beauty of the ocean, contributing to scientific research, and implementing efficient ocean conservation measures.

The Fifty Fathoms Ocean Commitment III (2018), one of various limited editions launched in support of expeditions and major oceanographic projects

In 2023, Blancpain started the celebration of 70 years of history of this model with the release of the Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary, a limited edition comprising three 70-piece series, each of them dedicated to a region of the world – EMEA, Asia-Pacific, the Americas – and bearing a number from I to III on the dial. Crafted from stainless steel, this model came in an exclusive diameter of 42 mm, a size that was never used before for the Fifty Fathoms as regular models measure 45 mm and limited editions 40 mm (you can read more about this reference here).

The Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary - 2023

A true legend among dive enthusiasts, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms has played an essential role in the development of scuba diving and the discovery of the ocean world and remains one of the most iconic diver's watch ever designed, the one that set the benchmark in this field. 

By Alessandro Mazzardo.
Published on December 29, 2022. 
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: History of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
History of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
The complete history of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms from 1953 to the our days. Fiechter, MILSPEC, Tornek Rayville, Aqua-Lung, Barakuda, Bathyscaphe
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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