Among the numerous rationales enthusiasts may give for enjoying the mad niche that is watches, history is often referenced. History, where wristwatches are concerned, may come in one of two varieties. First, there is the general historic significance a model range may have contributed to humanity: think Speedmaster to NASA or Sub to Comex. Second, there is the background or story an individual piece can represent: think Jacqueline Kennedy’s Tank or thee Paul Newman. Today, I have the distinct pleasure of featuring a piece that excels in both definitions of historic significance.
This is the first ‘modern’ dive watch. By modern, I mean a uni-directional rotating bezel with substantial water resistance. This honour is often mistakenly attributed to the Submariner. This exact model is from the first year that the Fifty Fathoms was available to the public, 1953. Only prototypes and military pieces existed previous to that. Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud of the French Combat Diving School required a watch for their most elite divers to measure elapsed time at depth. The market didn’t seem very wide to most of the Swiss watchmaking houses. Only Jean-Jacques Fiechter of Blancpain, a diver himself, saw the practical commercial appeal of a water-resistant watch. Fiechter managed to design a dive watch with Fifty Fathoms, or ~90m, of depth rating. As you may be aware, the formula caught on. The watch they created together was a massive 41mm to accommodate is rotating bezel, a first. The luminuous dial had to be visible with an easily-distinguished 12 marker. Water resistance was accomplished through a screw down case back and reliability of timing was ensured through an automatic caliber. The crown would not have to be adjusted or wound to keep time. This was crucial, because Blancpain could not include a screw-down crown. The technology existed, but Rolex held its patent. The result was a free crown with gaskets, not to be adjusted whilst diving. The model proved wildly popular, particularly after Jacques Cousteau wore his in ‘Silent World’.
Although the Fifty Fathoms was a child of the French Navy, their military specification watches were ordered by numerous other nations including the German, British, Spanish, and US Navies. This Milspec example is one that was intended for an export Navy, and a very early example at that. It utilizes a Tornek-Rayville case which was made for the US military. The watch is engraved AM on its back. No one seems to know quite what that stands for. Blancpain historians debate to this day. Some say it was a designation for US minesweeper boats, others claim it simply abbreviates anti-magnetic. What is known is that this is among the rarest Milspec Fifty Fathom variants. Wherever this watch did serve, it certainly has quite a storied and mysterious past.
This is an honest vintage service watch which has not been restored. This is not a safe queen; this one has led a life. The case is unpolished and it shows its original beveled edges. The dial’s tritium is all present, rather impressively, and has begun to darken just around the edges of its application. Its bezel is original bakelite and has hairline fractures but is still entirely present and weathered. It comes from a well regarded Miami retailer.
Find this AM Milspec Fifty Fathoms here from Menta Watches for 65000 USD.