A Brief History of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
The Rolex Submariner is often incorrectly credited as being the world’s very first dive watch; however that title is actually held by the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, which first made an appearance a year before Rolex announced their Submariner. Although it may not be as well known as the Submariner or have a design that is as frequently imitated by other timepiece manufacturers, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms has a truly fascinating history that started with a sketch and a wish-list of features made by a French military diver.
In 1952, France’s Ministry of Defense created an elite team of combat divers to carry out specialized and often top-secret missions underwater. Led by Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier, the team of elite divers frequently operated in highly-aquatic conditions, and required specialized equipment that could be optimized for such use and stand up to the rigors of duty. In addition to compasses and depth gauges, their equipment list included water-resistant wristwatches; however none were ideal for prolonged and rugged use underwater, let alone specifically designed for SCUBA diving.
Maloubier sat down with a pencil and paper, made a list of features that a diving watch would require, and then drew a sketch of what would later become the Fifty Fathoms. Maloubier sent his dive watch design to several timepiece manufacturers of the time; however he was not met with warm responses, and most of the brands that received his request (including LIP) told him that a wristwatch specifically designed for SCUBA diving had no potential for a real future.
The one brand to finally accept Maloubier’s dive watch design was Blancpain, who Maloubier eventually convinced to manufacture the timepiece. At the time, Blancpain’s CEO was Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who had a strong interest in diving that evidently outweighed any reservations that he may have had about the long-term viability of a wristwatch specifically designed for SCUBA diving and use underwater.
The list of requirements was relatively straightforward. The watch was to be large in size for maximum visibility and ease of use. Additionally it was to have a black dial with large and clear markings, an external rotating bezel that could be used for tracking elapsed time, and (obviously) superior water resistance. Lastly, the markings on the watch were to be luminescent so that it could be easily referenced in the dimly lit environments that divers would inevitably face while in deep or murky waters.
Blancpain was able to meet these requirements and the Fifty Fathoms was released in 1953. The “Fifty Fathoms” name came from the watch’s depth rating, which at the time, was considered to be the maximum depth (just over 90 meters) that a diver could safely reach while using a single-use oxygen source. The Fifty Fathoms was able to achieve its impressive water resistance by using a two-piece screwed-in case-back with a newly developed winding crown design that relied on a double O-ring gasket system. The use of a screw-down crown on the Fifty Fathoms was not permitted, since Rolex still held the exclusive rights to its use as part of the existing patent for their waterproof Oyster case. The Fifty Fathoms also featured an automatic movement which meant the crown would not need to be unscrewed as often which would minimize wear on the crown, reducing the risk of damage.
Another important detail of the design was the one directional bezel. This was an added safety measure that ensured that even if the watch was accidentally knocked underwater, it could only result in the diver reading a shorter dive time, guaranteeing an adequate air supply. Many Fifty Fathoms also featured a humidity indicator on the dial that would alert the diver to any moisture in the watch.
Throughout its production, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was manufactured to military specifications and sold to numerous military organizations throughout the world as well as to the public for civilian use. The military issued Fifty Fathoms used radium on the dial as it would produce the most luminescent glow for the divers when working at night. As the Cold War brought increased attention to the dangers of radiation, Blancpain added a “No Radiation” symbol to the dials of civilian models, which were lumed with tritium.
The Fifty Fathoms was issued to the Israeli, Spanish, German and US Militaries. At the time, the US government was pushing for all military suppliers to be American made. In order to work around this, the watches were rebranded as Blancpain-Tornek and Rayville-Tornek. These watches were issued to Navy SEAL divers and are extremely rare today as few were issued and many were destroyed after service.
A few companies distributed the Fifty Fathoms in its early years. Because the watch was regarded as a tool it was sold in dive shops rather than jewelry stores. The French military purchased exclusively from Spirotechnique – the supplier of all of their diving gear. On the civilian side a large percentage of Fifty Fathoms were sold under the name “Aqualung.” Jacques Cousteau (any many of his crew) has worn the Fifty Fathoms for the historic dives documented in his film “The Silent World.” Aqualung is the name of Cousteau’s groundbreaking regulator and the name of his line of diving equipment. All Fifty Fathoms sold in his stores are labeled Aqualung on the dial. LIP who had originally passed on the opportunity to develop the watch eventually became a distributor as well so many Fifty Fathoms dials feature a LIP marking. Safari outfitter Abercrombie marketed a small number as well.
Despite the success of the Fifty Fathoms and the growing public interest in the dive-watch category of timepieces, the quartz watch revolution and the resulting crisis that followed had a significant impact on Blancpain, and forced the company to shut its doors in 1980. Three years later, it was purchased by Jacques Piguet and Jean-Claude Biver and revived to its former glory. During the late 1990s, Blancpain re-introduced the Fifty-Fathoms, and the historic line of watches is now available in numerous different sizes, designs, and materials, and fitted with a variety of different complications.
While the majority of contemporary dive watches follow a design language that often borrows aesthetic elements from the Rolex Submariner, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is the watch that most closely adheres the original design that was requested by Captain Robert Maloubier. Although the appearance of the original Fifty Fathoms can hardly be considered refined and elegant, it is this purpose-built timepiece manufactured by Blancpain in 1953 that is the true grandfather of the modern dive watch.