In 1952, two French naval officers, Commander Robert "Bob" Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud were instructed by the Ministry of Defense and the French Navy to set up an elite unit called "Les Nageurs de combat" - i.e. Combat Swimmers - which became then a highly selective and top notch unit within the French forces.
Their underwater operations required rugged, water-resistant and reliable equipment capable of withstanding the testing conditions and environment of sub-sea missions. At the time, they found no diver's watch that could meet their demanding specifications. The two officers determined what they needed by way of a wristwatch and got in touch with Blancpain Rayville SA, in Villeret, Switzerland. The company's visionary engineers and watchmakers put their talents and know-how to work and came up with a compact marvel of precision mechanics, which would later become a myth: the FIFTY FATHOMS.
Three pieces case structure of the early Fifty Fathoms, with inside dust cover
It means 50 pitch-stirrers of 1.8 meters, that is to say 91 meters, the maximum depth an autonomous diver could reach then with normal compressed air at 200 bars. 50 fathoms was regarded as a safety threshold that only later studies by COMEX with mix of air and helium will break. Actually the watch itself did support 150 meters depth.
Early version of the Fifty Fathoms for the french combat divers (1953)
At the same time, LIP's reputation in France was second to none. Their dominant position in the French market led Blancpain, then virtually unknown in France, to sign a marketing and distribution deal with them in 1953 to enable them to get a toehold in France. Lip was at the same time able to distribute high-class watches with their own name on the dial.
Small and large version of Lip-Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
In 1954 Lip put Blancpain's fifty fathoms waterproof watch on the market in France. The watches were signed on the dial by both Blancpain and Lip. Lip also sold movements to Blancpain at this time, and one series had Lip R23 movements (marked Lip brevets Blancpain). Apart from this exception, Lip weren't involved in the design of either the movements or watches, but just provided marketing, distribution and after sales support in France. This deal is particularly amusing, as the inventors of the watch, Robert Maloubier and Claude Riffaud, first contacted Lip at the start of the 1950s with an idea for a waterproof watch, but were turned down, and so went instead to Blancpain Rayville SA, who designed and produced the watch. La Spirotechnique provided the professional world of diving with Fifty Fathoms models in the same period, and was the main supplier for the French Navy.
Letter from Lieutenant Claude Riffaud to La Spirotechnique expressing the wish to own a Fifty Fathoms for personal use
Within a decade of its design, Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms had been adopted by not a few specialist oceanographic exploration and research organizations, notably the "Groupe d'Etudes et de Recherches Sous-marines" (GERS) in France.
Letter from the oceanographic research institute "Centre d'Enseignement Technique de l'Oceanographie" praising the reliability of the Fifty Fathoms in professional duty (1959) (Photo: Blancpain Website)
Letter from the "Antibes Club de la Mer" recommending the Fifty Fathoms for deep sea diving activity (50-70m) due to its perfect water-resistance and dial readability (1956) (Photo: Blancpain Website)
The fifty fathoms received a huge world wide boost when it was worn by Jacques Cousteau and his divers during the underwater film "Le monde du silence", which won the Palme d'or at the Cannes film festival in 1956.
"The Silent World" (1956)
Members of the Cousteau team wearing Fifty Fathoms (screen captures: Milwatch, Jean-Michel)
The watch became famous in the US when TV star Lloyd Bridges wore a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms dive watch in a photo that appeared on the cover of the February 1962 edition of Skin Diver Magazine.
February 1962 edition of Skin Diver Magazine
Over the years, and until the 1980s, several models were issued by Blancpain, in small quantities, often for the military, in several countries, with polished, satin, or mat cases, most often fitted with AS (Anton Schild in Grenchen) auto movements, with date like 1712, or no date 1700, or other variants as shown below, many with the "no radiation symbol" on dial, and some with the wetness circle indicator to control water resistance, often seen on the MILSPEC1. Some super rare models issued for the US Navy - marked Tornek-Rayville, or US Navy on the dial - are seldom found in great condition and represent a true collectors dream. These watches were made under U.S. Military Specification - Mil-W-22176(SHIPS) / WATCH, WRIST, SUBMERSIBLE (400-FOOT), NON-MAGNETIC. Mr. Tornek worked with the Blancpain firm and based his design on the Fifty Fathoms, which was already in production. The watch uses the AS1361 movements, which were also used in the Fifty Fathoms of those years; 1000 exemplaries were sold to the US Navy in 1964.
Tornek Rayville for the US Army (Photo: Billy Schorr)
Blancpain produced a limited number of models, approximately 20, over a period of 30 years, with a production of a few hundreds to a few thousands per model. The reputation of reliability of these watches earned them the right to be used by armies such as French Navy, Czech, Polish, German federal, some Nordic countries, and also by the US Navy (SEAL, under water demolition team, Frogman).
President Kennedy visiting US Navy divers wearing Fifty Fathoms
The first and smartest model of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms has matt nickeled steel with a broad bezel and black plastic inlet and 5-minute marks, screwed back (but the crown is not screwed) and has a very nice finished movement from Anton Schild in Grenchen (AS). The case is like that of the very rare pilot's chronograph sister model, Blancpain Air Command. This watch was used by the French at Toulon and also by the U.S. Navy's underwater demolition teams.
French combat divers wearing Fifty Fathoms in the 1950's (screen captures: Jean-Michel)
The second type of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms of the Federal Navy has a more simple movement, cal. AS 1700, without date and without screwed crown. It was used by the French and by Jacques-Yves Cousteau for his nautical research and the Bundeswehr Federal Navy (6645-12-149-5012). This exact model also equipped the 1964 British caving expedition to the Gouffre Berger near Grenoble in France. The aim was to explore and dive the terminal underwater siphons and, in the process, to achieve the world underground depth record. This expedition was unfortunately unsuccessful as after being underground for 10 days, severe storms caused underground flooding , trapping the expedition for several days. In 1965, the same expedition team explored the worlds highest ice caves. In 1967 the watch equipped the "British Speleological Association Expedition" which successfully broke the underground depth record at the Gouffre Berger.
Letter from the captain of the St. Briac who sailed around the world with his yacht between 1959 and 1966 wearing a Fifty Fathoms
The third Blancpain combat divers watch that I know of (6645-12-171-4162) has the asymmetric and screwed crown at 4. The movement is a 24jewd, cal. CD 2873 of ETA, with date indication. Some characteristics: the crown position, the black bezel with one single fluorescent mark and the red minute hand. The bezel does not turn clockwise. The watch has the red mark for radioactivity, 3H in a red circle, that indicates the tritium layer of fluorescent digits and hands.
Fifty Fathoms circa 1975