US Navy Tornek Rayville TR-900
This is about as special as a Fifty Fathoms gets, mostly because it technically isn’t one. Tornek Rayville was (is?) a company created in the imaginative American spirit of creatively avoiding laws, to get around the US Navy’s ‘Buy America Act’ in 1933. That put Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms well out of consideration for the US Navy. But the FF was, undeniably, the best tool for the job. So Blancpain’s US distributor, a man by the name of Allen Tornek, came up with a little idea. Convince Blancpain to print dials as Tornek-Rayville (Rayville is an anagram of Villeret, Blancpain’s hometown) and create a new, US-based company. Everyone was happy, Blancpain got a large order, the US Navy received dependable wristwatches, and Tornek, I’m sure, made out well from the deal. But the story really only starts there, because the TR-900 is about the rarest and most desirable ‘Fifty Fathoms’ iteration that’s ever existed, in part for its US Navy role but most because they barely exist.
In their infinite wisdom, the US Navy made two decisions. First, they decided the Tornek-Rayville was too expensive, that Tudors and Benrus could do the job for less. The partnership ceased after just two orders. The initial batch of 780 watches delivered in 1964 (this example is from that batch) and one smaller order of 300 in 1966. Second, toward the 1970s, they destroyed the vast majority of TR-900s. The dials used promethium-147, which had a bit of uranium instead of radium or tritium. As was the standard practice at the time, the watches were sunk deep at sea with other outdated dive gear. The caseback warned of this, reading ‘If Found, Return to Nearest Military Facility’. I wouldn’t advise that today.
Any surviving example is a rare feat, most that made it did so on the wrists of their original divers they were issued to under the radar, not returned to the Navy when asked. A handful survived destruction to be issued at far later dates. Unlike many Fifty Fathoms, the Tornek was Navy issue only, magnifying the cool guy factor. There also aren’t many US issued dive watches, at all, by comparison to the Royal Navy or MN. There aren’t US Navy Milsubs or SM300s. This is the grail for that category as well as many Fifty Fathoms collectors. It is widely accepted that fewer than 30 examples survive today, fewer known to the market. As cool as dive watches get with rarity, American ingenuity, Navy ties, and debonair good looks all on its side.
Morever, this example is incredible. The dial shows no damage, a great fade to its moisture indication (that’s what the circle at 6 does, alert in case water enters the case), totally unrestored and with beautiful lume. Theres swear as one would expect of a watch like this but unpolished with no major bashes. Even the bezel is uncracked, which is almost as rare as finding one to begin with. It comes from a well-regarded US retailer.