Launched in 1953, the Fifty Fathoms was created by a diver to meet the needs of underwater exploration. With its water resistance, robust doubled-sealed crown, self-winding movement, contrasting dark dial with luminescent indications, unidirectional rotating bezel and anti-magnetic protection the Fifty Fathoms has become an indispensable instrument for divers on their underwater missions for diving pioneers and elite marine corps around the world.

First Fifty Fathoms (1953)
First Fifty Fathoms (1953)

Let’s dive a little deeper into how it all began.

Early in the 1950’s, two French naval officers, Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, were charged with creating the French Combat diving corps and one of the essential pieces of their gear was a reliable timepiece. The watches they tested were either too small, difficult to read under water, and, most catastrophically, leaked.

They then tested the Fifty Fathoms watch which evidently passed with flying colours and the French Navy adopted the Fifty Fathoms as its diving watch which was even sealed with a letter Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms distributor, the Spirotechnique, on the combat divers’ satisfaction.

Jean-Jacques Fiechter diving in the South of France
Jean-Jacques Fiechter diving in the South of France

“Passion makes us lose track of time”, concedes Jean-Jacques Fiechter, CEO of Blancpain from 1950 to 1980. His passion for diving motivated him to create a watch suited to this sport, his own personal experiences as a diver guiding him in defining what was required. As he explains, at the time, patent applications were filed once the product was commercialised, so his first patent application was filed early in 1954. Three distinct innovations were patented in numerous countries:

  • the locking rotating bezel
  • the double case back
  • the double “O” ring crown system.

With its water resistance, robust doubled-sealed crown, self-winding movement, contrasting dark dial with luminescent indications, secured rotating bezel and anti-magnetic protection, the Fifty Fathoms became an indispensable instrument for divers on their underwater missions.

Fifty Fathoms

“Milspec 1” Fifty Fathoms – The US Navy’s dive watch.

Blancpain could not supply directly as it was not a US based company. It was a jeweller on 45th street in New York, Allen Tornek, who saw the opportunity to supply the American Navy with Fifty Fathoms watches. In order to qualify he had to create a small testing laboratory in the US so that the watches could be tested and certified on US soil. Tornek and Blancpain successfully landed the contract and the famous “Milspec 1” Fifty Fathoms was born as the US Navy’s dive watch.

“Milspec 1” Fifty Fathoms

The genius of the Fifty Fathoms quickly became widely recognised and was adopted by the United States Navy Seals, America’s most elite diving corps, and also by the German and Israeli navies. Peaceful uses were also found for the watch through its selection by the French GERS (Undersea Study and Research Group), a world leader in undersea research. It was thus that Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s legendary team of divers wore Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches when they filmed the award-winning movie The Silent World.

The Evolution of the Fifty Fathoms: The 2003 50th Anniversary Fifty Fathoms

From the 1980s to the 2000s, the evolution of the Fifty Fathoms was put on hold, until the arrival of Marc A. Hayek, another passionate diver at the helm of Blancpain. Seduced by the charm of Fiechter’s creations and the vintage Fifty Fathoms timepieces in Blancpain’s vault, Hayek vowed to bring back alive this history and tradition.

Marc A. Hayek, President & CEO of Blancpain
Marc A. Hayek, President & CEO of Blancpain

Representing both progress and continuity, the 2003 50th Anniversary Fifty Fathoms displayed the same dial and the same oversized luminous numerals and markers as the original 1953 design, reflecting the same adventurous spirit. However, the steel used for the watch case of the 2003 version was now water resistant up to 300 meters thanks to its screw-case, screw-locked crown and thick sapphire crystal.

50th Anniversary Fifty Fathoms
50th Anniversary Fifty Fathoms

The Whale Shark Project

Along with the presentation of the contemporary Fifty Fathoms, Blancpain unveiled its first ocean preservation initiative, the Whale Shark Project, which echoed the role played by the Fifty Fathoms in the discovery of the ocean world. The purpose of this joint initiative undertaken by Blancpain, the Shark Trust and PADI Project AWARE was to bring together the diving community, encouraging divers all over the world to contribute to the identification of whale sharks in order to constitute a comprehensive set of data, which would help identify the needs for protection.

The Whale Shark Project

The Fifty Fathoms was the catalyst for Blancpain’s commitment to the preservation of the ocean. It played an essential role in the development of scuba diving and the discovery of the ocean world, and has enabled Blancpain to forge close links with the ocean community that have been consistently strengthened over the past 70 years. Among the Blancpain Ocean Commitment stands the Brand’s partnership with French diver, underwater photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta. Blancpain has been supporting his Gombessa Expeditions since the very first edition in 2013.

What can we expect?

Timepieces and exclusive experiences will punctuate the next 12 months, orchestrated around the key number 70, as well as 20 and 10: 70 for the 70th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms; 20 for the 20th anniversary of the contemporary Fifty Fathoms and Blancpain’s Ocean Commitment; and 10 for the 10th anniversary of the Gombessa expeditions.

Coming from a family of watch enthusiasts and pioneers, Kari, as fondly identified by the watch-community, has been a part of this mystical world of horology for almost two decades now. From watch magazines to books to Internationally acclaimed watch shows, Kari has founded, initiated and pioneered various such endeavours.

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