Blancpain celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms
Jean-Jacques Fiechter - Blancpain CEO, 1950-1980, during one of his first dives in the south of france
“Passion makes us lose track of time”,
concedes Jean-Jacques Fiechter,
CEO of Blancpain from 1950 to 1980. With this in mind, he was dreaming of a watch sufficiently rugged, reliable, water-resistant and readable to be his trusted underwater companion.
What emerged from his creative quest is the world’s first modern diving watch and one which has defined the characteristics of diving watches ever since. Jean-Jacques Fiechter’s other passion was literature and it was Ariel’s Song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest
that inspired him when the time came to name the new watch coming out of Blancpain’s workshops.
First Fifty Fathoms 1953
« Full fathom five thy father lies;
of his bones are coral made;
those are pearls that were his eyes:
nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer a sea-change
into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them—ding-dong, bell. »
For the Director of SPIROTECHNIQUE
Subject: “BLANCPAIN” Fifty Fathoms water-resistant watches
Reference: Your letter dated 3/2/55
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.
Commander of the HUBERT commando
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. One of the essential pieces of gear for their divers was a timepiece. Tests on watches which they found on the market in Paris were disastrous; the watches were too small, difficult to read under water, and, most catastrophically, leaked. Badly.
After having met with Jean-Jacques Fiechter in Switzerland, the French officers left with sample Fifty Fathoms watches for testing. The watch passed with flying colours and the French Navy adopted the Fifty Fathoms as its diving watch. One year after the first official delivery, Claude Riffaud wrote a letter to Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms distributor, the Spirotechnique, to communicate the combat divers’ satisfaction.
Jean-Jacques Fiechter’s photographs from 1953 show him wearing a Fifty Fathoms watch during a diving vacation in the south of France with the Club alpin sous-marin.
Our future is underwater,
an article Jean-Jacques Fiechter published in the Gazette Littéraire
(July 30-31, 1955). His message: After having travelled all around the world, visiting the last pristine places, climbing the Everest, flying back and forth... Time has come to explore the ocean. “And this wonderland is here, accessible to all those who, like Alice, know how to pass Through the Looking-Glass.”
Jean-Jacques Fiechter’s 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, and 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.
It was Allen Tornek, a jeweller on 45th
street in New York, who saw the opportunity to supply the American Navy with Fifty Fathoms watches. However, Blancpain could not supply directly as it was not a US company. But Tornek could. 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 success- fully landed the contract and the famous “Milspec 1”
Fifty Fathoms was born as the US Navy’s dive watch.
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.
From the 1980s to the 2000s, the evolution of the Fifty Fathoms was put on hold, until the arrival of Marc A. Hayek at the helm of Blancpain. Like Fiechter decades before, Hayek was a passionate diver. Discovering the vintage Fifty Fathoms timepieces in Blancpain’s vault and immediately being seduced by the charm of Fiechter’s creations, Hayek vowed to bring back alive this history and tradition.
Fifty Fathoms 50th Anniversary
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. Stainless steel was still used for the watch case, but the stainless steel case used for the 2003 version was now water resistant up to 300 meters, or about 165 fathoms, thanks to its screw-case, screw-locked crown and thick sapphire crystal.
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 Fifty Fathoms was the catalyst for Blancpain’s com- mitment 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 pho- tographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta. Blancpain has been supporting his Gombessa Expeditions since the very first edition in 2013.
Laurent Ballesta’s Gombessa project focuses on studying some of the rarest, most elusive marine creatures and phenomena. Ballesta and his team use electronically controlled closed-circuit mixed gas rebreathers to reach extreme depths and bring back unique scientific data, photographs, and videos. Their activities are consistently marked by triple challenges of a technical, scientific, and artistic nature.
To date, there have been six major Gombessa expeditions – and many other underwater missions –, all underwritten by Blancpain. The first took place in the Indian Ocean in 2013 in search of the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish once thought to have become extinct 70 million years ago. With its lobe fins and “primitive lung”,
the coelacanth bears testament to the process by which land colonization occurred 370 million years ago, and is a living witness to the common origin of all four-limbed land animals.
Extremely rare and living over 120 meters below the ocean’s surface, very few direct sightings have been witnessed until Laurent Ballesta travelled to South Africa accompanied by specially trained divers and researchers to conduct for the first time an extensive series of observations and scientific experiments in contact with a living coelacanth. Locally known as “Gombessa”,
the coelacanth gave its name to Ballesta’s project.
the Fifty Fathoms
Launched in 1953, the Fifty Fathoms is the first modern diver’s watch. Created by a diver to meet the needs of underwater exploration, it was chosen by diving pioneers and elite marine corps around the world as a professional timekeeping instrument. 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.
These key signature elements that established the Fifty Fathoms as the archetypal diver’s watch continue to define the identity of such timepieces for the entire watch industry. Bearing witness to the past while simultaneously looking firmly to the future, contemporary Fifty Fathoms models incorporate modern movements renowned for their robustness and reliability. They feature numerous technical innovations derived from Blancpain’s longstanding experience in the field of diving, its risks and its imperious necessities.
The Fifty Fathoms has played an essential role in the development of scuba diving and the discovery of the ocean world. It has enabled Blancpain to forge close links with the ocean community that have been consistently strengthened over the past 70 years. The Fifty Fathoms is the catalyst for Blancpain’s commitment to the preservation of the ocean.
There is eternity
in every Blancpain