The story of the Fifty Fathoms is all over the place now, but the connection with Lip is still a mystery for some people.
When you discuss with new collectors, you still hear the question "what was the connection between Blancpain and Lip ?", or even "what is Lip ?" !!!
So here's a short review of a Lip Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, with a focus on the contract between Blancpain and Lip in the 1950's.
In late 1952 / early 1953, the first combat divers unit was created in France. This unit was the result of a partnership between the Navy and the French secret service. For the Navy, that later become the "Commando Hubert". The divers need to have a minimum of equipment to carry out their missions: a watch, a depth gauge and a compass. The Fifty Fathoms was produced to address the lack of proper equipment at the time.
It was at the initiative of Capitaine Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud that Jean-Jacques Fiechter - then CEO of Blancpain - took this opportunity to developed a waterproof watch especially designed for scuba diving. It had to be able to measure the dive time at a given depth, in order to avoid the use of the oxygen reserve. The watch was the diver’s first safety feature, so it had to be very reliable and have a great readability.
In his autobiography published in 1986, Robert Maloubier defines the characteristics of the dial and bezel he asked for, establishing a specifications which still governs the design of today’s diver’s watches:
"(...) Blancpain agrees to carry out the project which features a black dial with big numbers and large easy marks: triangles, circles, squares. A moving outer ring repeats the dial divisions and gives the time since the dive started. Each index shines as long as the evening star. "
Blancpain - at the time - was a small Swiss watch company based in Villeret. His CEO was a diving enthusiast, who was receptive to the Maloubier’s requests. The first model of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was presented in Basel in 1954 and was the subject of two patents :
- A patent for the bezel locking system: you have to press the bezel in order to rotate it.
- A case back in two parts, made of a “cup” and a ring which rotates around it, in order to avoid damaging the O-ring when closing the watch.
The military watches were sold though La Spirotechnique , an official supplier of the Navy.
In 1953, Blancpain was not known in France but the management of Blancpain was pretty close to Fred LIP, who was interested in selling the watch in France under the brand LIP Blancpain .
An agreement was signed in 1954 and allowed Lip to market the Fifty Fathoms through its 2,000 shops. It ended in 1957, when Fred Lip launched his own sportswatch: the LIP Nautic.
Lip was not the only one to retail the Fifty Fathoms and add his name on the dial: Aqua Lung (a US manufacturer of diving accessories), Technisub or Tornek-Rayville did the same in other countries.
Here are some pictures of my ex LIP Blancpain. The case lugs have a very cool shape and the dial design is really beautiful:
The caseback is in two parts, the inside caseback is engraved Rayville SA SWISS:
The calibre is the Blancpain Lip R108, a movement developed by the company Ebauches SA - which explains the bridge engraved AS 1361 N. A self-winding movement reduces the number of times the crown needs to be turn, thus maintaining o-ring in better condition.
The Lip Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is not only a rare and collectible timepiece, it is also and above all a beautiful watch !