LDB Issue 18 Fifty_Fathoms 1957 vintage rvb


The now iconic Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC was selected as the US Navy dive watch.
The Tribute pays homage to its history

When Jean-Jacques Fiechter created the original Fifty Fathoms

After the end of World War II, scuba diving was in its infancy. As is often the case with a newly born field of endeavor, equipment lagged behind enthusiasm. Amateurs and professionals (at this time, military) were struggling to come to grips with the underwater world and its demands. Events transpired to place the Fifty Fathoms as a bridge between the efforts of these two groups: the amateur was Blancpain’s CEO at the time, Jean-Jacques Fiechter; the military professionals were Robert (“Bob”) Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud of the recently formed French Navy Combat Diving Corps. In Fiechter’s amateur diving world, where he was a member of a club located in the south of France, it was not yet understood that divers needed a watch. One dive changed all that. Without a watch to track his time underwater, Jean-Jacques Fiechter exhausted his scuba tanks. Resisting his impulses to panic, he knew that he could not sprint to the surface without risk of injury; a measured ascent at the very limits of his breath was required. Of course, he survived the scare. But beyond the raw emotion of his fright, he acquired both profound insights and the inspiration to create a timing instrument for those who shared his diving passion.

jj fiechter diving
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec Vintage Ad

The history of the Fifty Fathoms with the US Navy
merits its own dedicated chapter in the LEGEND.

The French military was not the only navy to adopt the Fifty Fathoms for its divers. It became the watch for the navies of the United States, Germany, Spain, Israel and Pakistan among others. But it is its history with the United States Navy that merits its own dedicated chapter in the larger Fifty Fathoms story. These United States Navy Fifty Fathoms watches came to be known as “MIL-SPEC”. Today, MIL-SPEC models are arguably the most coveted and sought after Fifties watches in the vintage market, with skyrocketing auction prices. And it is the MIL-SPEC patrimony that inspired Blancpain’s new limited edition Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC which was a sensation at its debut during the 2017 Basel fair. We will return shortly to the description of the new limited edition piece, but first let us turn to the history that lies behind it.

Since a diver ISSUED THE WATCH WITH HIS OTHER DIVING GEAR could not know if the watch had been misused by another diver, a moisture indicator on the dial represented an ADDED SAFETY MEASURE.

The watch shall be equipped with a rotatable ring in the location normally occupied by the bezel. (In use, the ring will be rotated to line up the index mark with one of the hands.) The ring shall be designed to be rotated and set by hand without tools and shall be protected against unintentional movement caused by abrasion, shock and vibration. While the American Navy was waiting for the “favored” US watch company to develop a watch, it needed interim supply. Its efforts were summarized in a December 1957 report where it determined that Blancpain and one other Swiss brand had watches that were considered acceptable for use.

JJ Fiechter Vintage Diving
The new limited edition Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC

The new limited edition Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC.

The third in the series of limited edition Tribute to Fifty Fathoms pieces, the MIL-SPEC has been inspired by this rich history. Its MIL-SPEC heritage is instantly seen with the presence of a bi-color moisture indicator at 6 o’clock on the dial, the same position as on the original watches. As with the original, it is the change of color which would signal any intrusion of moisture. The top half of the disk is white in color. If exposed to moisture the color will change to a warning red. The dial of the Tribute likewise recalls the Navy’s watches with its stick markers at 3, 6 and 9 and prominent dots elsewhere at five-minute intervals. Of course, there is a large marker at 12 o’clock. The Navy specification called for the dial marking “U.S.” under the name Blancpain. Naturally, that has been left out. Creating a Tribute timepiece did not mean that Blancpain’s modern innovations would be swept aside. To the contrary, the Tribute MIL-SPEC makes use of Blancpain’s current savoir faire. The automatic winding movement is equipped with two mainspring barrels endowing the watch with a 96-hour power reserve. The balance wheel is free sprung with gold regulation screws and it is fitted with a silicium balance spring. The silicium balance spring achieves the same protection against magnetism as the vintage models’ inner iron cases. With no further need of an inner iron case, the modern Tribute has been fitted with a clear sapphire case back which affords a view of the finely finished movement including the solid gold winding rotor witha NAC coating (a platinum alloy) and Blancpain logo.

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