At the end of 1952 and through the beginning of 1953, the first French navy’s scuba diver unit was created, as a result of cooperation between the French Navy and the Secret Services. The naval branch was to become known as “Commando Hubert”, though the Secret Services branch was not given a specific name, operating instead under the auspices of the SDECE (Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage, later to become the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure in 1982, responsible — as was the SDECE — for external intelligence services).
Initially, there were only two individuals in this unit — Lt. Claude Riffaud from the Navy, and Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier of the SDECE. The two men were put in charge of developing this unit.
The basic dive gear comprised a depth gauge, a compass and a watch. There was at the time nothing adequate for their requirements, so Riffaud and Maloubier created a design for a suitable watch, which was manufactured by Blancpain.
Blancpain was then a small firm headquartered in Villeret, Switzerland. Its CEO at the time, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, was an amateur diver, who received the two officers’ request with great enthusiasm.
The watches were distributed by two networks. The first was Spirotechnique, the official French naval supplier; at the time, it was almost a tradition that the head of the military branch of Spiro be a former frogman. The first Blancpain Fifty Fathoms model was presented in Basel in 1954. The Fifty Fathoms had two patented features at the time of its introduction. The first was a system preventing any accidental rotation of the bezel, thanks to a system of leaf springs which prevented the bezel from being turned unless it was pushed down. The second was a two-piece caseback, consisting of an outer cup and bushing which protected the watertight seal from friction, thus preventing the seal from being compromised when the back of the watch was tightened.
The whole series of 1950s Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watches (all of which are represented in the exhibition) were sold by Blancpain through Spirotechnique, and are marked “Blancpain Fifty Fathoms”.
At that time, the management of Blancpain was very close to the brilliant Fred Lip, who suggested that his firm distribute these watches, as Lip S. A. was a very important brand in France. Because Lip at the time made no sports watches, Blancpain watches were distributed as “Lip Blancpain” in the Lip network (or, more precisely, Fédération Nationale HBJO — Horlogers, Bijoutiers, Joailliers, Orfèvres — network, Lip being a well-established brand in France with HBJO).
There were many different models of Fifty Fathoms watches made up to and through the 1960s. One of the most important was the Milspec, which was made in both civilian and military versions, the major difference between the two being that some have a service number for the American navy. Among these models are two which were delivered to the armed forces of Pakistan, which were trained in the 1960s by American Special Forces. There were even models marketed by Abercrombie, which at the time sold camping and other outdoor and sports gear — ironically, unlike today, these watches were not considered luxury products at all, but were rather prized for their functionality.
The third generation of Fifty Fathoms watches arrived in the 1960s. During the Cold War, an understandable anxiety over nuclear energy and radiation arose, in the United States and elsewhere; and, at the same time, there was a general awareness of the use of radium as a luminous material on watch dials, which began to cause concern. Blancpain therefore visibly marked on the dial of this generation of Fifty Fathoms watches that no radium was used and that there was no radiation danger. Instead of radium, tritium was used — still radioactive, but at much lower and safer levels. To say, “Our watches do not contain any radium,” became commercially desirable, and a “No Radiation” label was therefore added to the dials. Overall, about 50,000 Fifty Fathoms watches of this type were manufactured — a not insignificant number.
In the 1970s, the “Barracuda” series was made for the German Bundesmarine. This model has a screwed-down crown and is water resistant to 1,000 metres. On the dial is the “3H” symbol for tritium.
By the end of the 1970s, there were some models with the exaggerated cushion-shaped cases fashionable at the time — aesthetically challenging to modern eyes, but trendy then.
Photos courtesy of Thierry D., Laurent A., and Jacques R. Translated by Rasika F