By: Greg Selch (@livingstonsatnight)
In 1953, Jean-Jacques Fiechter created what is now considered the first modern dive watch. His company, Blancpain, made dress watches and ladies watches but Fiechter was an avid diver and he wanted something that he could use for diving that would suit his needs. The resulting Fifty Fathoms (300 ft.) watch was revolutionary and was immediately adopted by the French Navy (Marine Nationale) and a few years later by the US Navy as well.
One of the distinctive features of the Fifty Fathoms was a very large rotating external bezel marked with a large diamond-shaped indicator and minute markings at 15-30-45. The most important use of a diving watch is to time the duration of your dive. With this large rotating bezel, the watch could “memorize” the start of the dive. The large diamond shaped indicator would be turned to the position of the minute hand on the watch. From that moment, the scuba diver wearing the watch would be able to see, at a glance, how many minutes had elapsed since he commenced his dive.
The Fifty Fathoms was an enormous success, for many reasons besides the large size — which helped with underwater visibility — and rotating bezel. Its design remained, fundamentally, unchanged until the 1970s.
Over the years, Jean-Jacques Fiechter’s wife had noticed that her husband wore his diving watch all the time, not just as a diving instrument for his brief diving excursions, but all day, and everyday. One reason for this was that the watch had an automatic movement so there was no reason to wind or set the time, thereby wearing out the stem/crown or compromising its waterproof double gaskets. In fact, this had become a habit, and style, for divers. They all wore their specialized watches, even with evening wear or to business meetings. There was one problem, noticed by Mme. Fiechter: the large rotating bezel with its prominent knurling for grip with wet hands caused expensive shirt sleeves to fray.
Couldn’t a watch be designed, which would function the same way, without this problem? The Blancpain company was, by the 70s, working with German military contractors on new designs — the Barakuda and the Bund, for example — and they designed Blancpain’s only internal bezel Fifty Fathoms watch. It was completely smooth and streamlined externally, and even had two hidden crowns, one for rotating the internal bezel (which functioned like the large external bezel by indicating the start time of the dive) and one for winding and setting the time. It had a day and date calendar feature as well as red painted hands and a smoke-colored dial and roulette-style numbers on the internal bezel. Style-wise, it was like nothing else made by Blancpain. I’m sure that it was not a sales success.
I had seen a picture of one of these watches in a Japanese book about vintage dive watches. Occasionally, I saw one on internet forums but I had never held one in my hand. I decided that, if one came my way at a reasonable price, I would buy it. There were none for sale. A few years went by, and I had told my vintage watch dealer friends, Eric Wind and Jed Chevalier, to “keep their eyes open” as they travelled far and wide seeing much more than I could cover. They had no luck.
Then, last fall, I saw one come up for sale. It looked well-worn (the way I like it!), but I couldn’t tell if things had been changed. For example, the crowns had no markings, and the hands could have been painted or replaced. Additionally, the case was shiny, meaning it may have been heavily polished.
I went for it, and got the watch. When the watch arrived, it was perfect for me! Everything was right: it was shiny because it had been worn for years; the hands were original and retained slight traces of their original red paint; the lume had been redone in a bright mint green but that was easily remedied and dive watches often had lume redone so that they could be seen underwater. It is one of the jewels in my collection.
Value is subjective and price doesn’t always tell you what a watch is worth. Learn as much as you can and don’t forget to have fun!