Now in its 60th year, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms watch has become a legend. A legend that is steeped in history. It is a history with three main protagonists: Jean-Jacques Fiechter, Blancpain’s CEO for three decades from 1950-1980, who was himself a passionate diver, and Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, both of the French combat diving corps, who needed a watch for their military diving missions. These two poles come together to give birth to the legend.
Blancpain was not part of the equation when Maloubier and Riffaud began their quest for a watch in the aftermath of World War II. Both officers saw a timepiece as one of the essentials for their divers and together they developed a list of requirements, specifications, if you will, for the diving watch that they needed. Tests on watches that they found on the market in Paris were disastrous; the watches were petite in size, difficult to read under water and, most catastrophically, leaked. Badly.
Separately, Fiechter was devoting himself to his avocation of diving. His passion for the sport kindled an inventive spirit. With his own personal experiences as a diver guiding him, Fiechter began addressing the challenges of timekeeping in the diving milieu.
First on his list was obvious: water resistance (and keep in mind the failings of the first watches Maloubier and Riffaud tested). This led him to develop a double sealed crown. As the crown was not one of the screw-down variety, his idea was to protect the watch from water intrusion if the crown were accidentally pulled out while under water. In that event, the inner second seal would protect the watch. Fiechter patented this invention.
A second element was a rotating bezel to use for timing of the dive. When he dove, his idea was to rotate the bezel to place its zero index opposite the minute hand at the commencement; thereafter he could directly read time underwater with the minute hand using time markings on the bezel. Again safety was on his mind. He knew that if the bezel were accidentally rotated, this vital timing function would be lost. So Fiechter developed a locking mechanism, which he also patented, to prevent inadvertent rotation of the bezel. His original locking system required a push on the bezel in order for it to rotate. Not only did this help insure against inadvertent turning, it served to protect the bezel from salt and sand interfering with its operation.
There was a third patent which he obtained related to the screw-on case back. The problem with previous systems was the “O” ring which seals the back can become twisted and misaligned when the back is screwed in place. Fiechter developed a system to protect against that risk with his design that placed the “O” ring in a channel with an additional metallic ring to maintain its position.
Legibility was key, particularly in murky water, leading Fiechter to the idea of endowing a diving watch with large size, a white against black color scheme, and luminous hands and indexes.
Automatic winding for the movement was another vital element in his design, done to minimize wear on the crown and its seals, which would occur with manual winding. Finally, because magnets were part of the diving environment as he knew it, Fiechter saw the need to equip a diving timepiece with a soft inner iron case to protect the movement from residual magnetism.
There is the expression “great minds think alike” which perfectly describes the conception of diving needs from these two poles working separately; Maloubier and Riffaud in France and Fiechter in Switzerland. Both had formed ideas to define the perfect diving watch. Maloubier and Riffaud had carefully thought through the requirements for the divers and the military missions of the French combat diving corps. Fiechter, from his own diving experience, had done the same. Building a watch embodying his ideas, Fiechter was able to provide a watch for the French to test.
The watch passed those tests with flying colors and became a staple of the French combat diving corps and later other navies from around the world.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Adapted with permission from Jeffrey Kingston’s The History and the Legend of the Fifty Fathoms: The Birth and Evolution of a Legend.