The Fifty Fathoms, a pioneer and a legendary diving watch

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With its clean and easily readable dial, its large hands, its oversized indexes and above all, this unidirectional rotating bezel typical of diving watches, the Fifty Fathoms has imposed the watchmaking standards of a new discipline, military and civilian: underwater diving. Launched in 1953, this watch, whose aesthetics remain unique, gave birth to the great family of diving watches, whose success has continued to grow over the years, and has established itself as the archetype of the watch. athletic.
A look back at the exceptional history of a timepiece that has not finished marking its time.

A story of men, a story of eras

Passionate diver, Jean-Jacques Fiechter has designed a waterproof watch with a unidirectional rotating bezel. Bottom left, the contemporary watch.Photo Credit – Blancpain

The Fifty Fathoms is contemporary with the beginnings of scuba diving. Its design, like its functionalities, were born out of very precise specifications: that of divers. After World War II, the French army set up a combat swimmers unit, under the leadership of a hero who served in the SOE (Special Operation Executive), a secret unit created by Winston Churchill during the war to support the actions of resistance in the occupied countries, Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier, and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud. At the same time, sport diving developed modestly, and among its followers a certain Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who co-directs the Blancpain watchmaking house. During a dive, the latter loses track of time and must urgently ascend, without taking care to respect the essential decompression stops. This accident acts as a trigger and the watchmaker imagines what a diving watch could be. This tool watch is a UFO in the watchmaking universe, but it meets all the needs of the diver, starting with the waterproofness of the case, thanks to a new closure system that protects the seal, that of the crown and finally, a rotating bezel as simple as it is clever. By positioning the index of the bezel in front of the minute hand as it enters the water, the diver can visualize at a glance the duration of his dive. Unidirectional and secure, this bezel cannot be inadvertently rotated.
For their part, Bob Maloubier and Claude Riffaud are looking for the tool watch that will equip the divers with their unit. Without success. The size, readability and waterproofness of products on the market pose unresolved problems. Thus, the two men decide to start from a blank sheet, to imagine the ideal watch. The one that Jean-Jacques Fiechter developed in a small village in the Swiss Jura. The three men will meet through Spirotechnique (now Aqua-Lung), which sells diving equipment. In 1953, the Fifty Fathoms – which won a non-magnetic case in soft iron at the request of Bob Maloubier – made its first dives on the wrist of French army divers. The German and American armies followed, and many others. Captain Cousteau and his crew adopt it: the Fifty Fathoms is one of the discreet but omnipresent actresses of the cult film of a whole generation, “Le Monde du Silence”, awarded with a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1956 and the Oscar for best documentary film the following year.
A legend was born, paving the way for modern diving watches.

to summarize

Emblematic model of the fine watchmaking house Blancpain, the Fifty Fathoms is much more than a watch. Presented in 1953, this timepiece with its distinctive design and functionality is the very first modern diver’s watch. First used by French combat swimmers, it has supported the development of sport diving. Almost 70 years later, under the leadership of Marc A. Hayek, President & CEO of Blancpain, this timeless watch is also the emblem of a cause dear to the brand, the protection of the oceans.

Carole Huyvenaar

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The Fifty Fathoms, a pioneer and a legendary diving watch