A Blancpain Fifty Fathoms in Tornek-Rayville’s clothing: watches, government procurement, and loopholes, a tale as old as time
“In summary, experience with 12 Blancpain underwater watches during Operation HARDTACK yielded virtually complete satisfaction.[…] It is strongly recommended, on the basis of this experience, that the desirable features of this watch be incorporated in whatever watch is selected for Navy procurement.”
Final testing report of 1959, from the US Navy. s./E.H. Lanphier
This is the second piece in a series looking at watches and some of the lesser stories behind them, which often relate to law and international trade. The first piece is available here.
The history of dive watches can be traced back to Blancpain and its Fifty Fathoms. The Fifty Fathoms is the Granddaddy of them all, undoubtedly one of the most important watches of all time, surpassing other pinnacle-level pieces, such as the Rolex Submariner or the Omega Seamaster. Not for nothing, Blancpain is the oldest watchmaker in existence. Unfortunately, their original watches are hard to come by; nevertheless, Tornek-Rayville dive watches are even rarer but are intrinsically linked to Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms. This is the story of how the Fifty Fathoms made its way to the US Navy under the guise of Tornek-Rayville and created another chapter in the legacy of Blancpain.
The Fifty Fathoms is largely credited as the first genuinely modern dive watch. Although this may be disputed, its status remains because it pioneered, and patented, many essential dive watch features. To illustrate this further, if the Fifty Fathoms were a horror film, it would be John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978), which was the most profitable independent film for many years. Although now it may seem quaint, it established the classic staples of the slasher genre, such as death by sex, the masked killer, and the “final girl”, to name a few. Just as horror films keep using these tropes, most dive watches keep replicating the features first established by the Fifty Fathoms, such as a screw-down crown, screw-down case-back, dive bezel, etc. Many of these features have now been incorporated into the ISO 6425 standard, but before this standard existed, Blancpain did it first.
Separating dive watches from armed forces is virtually impossible. Armed forces worldwide were amongst their first users, and they regularly tested and improved these watches in the early 1950s. As expected, word of the Fifty Fathoms eventually got to the US, reaching the ears of Allen V. Tornek, who under the Allen V. Tornek Co., based in midtown New York City, became Blancpain’s exclusive distributor in America in a mutually fruitful relationship for many years. Mr. Tornek thought that since the French Navy’s professional diver unit, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage, had adopted the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, why not sell it in the US to the largest potential purchaser of them all at the time, the US Navy?
The US Navy would undoubtedly fit the bill as the ultimate client. Still, there was a big problem that Mr. Tornek had not accounted for: the Buy American Act, which President Hoover signed on his last full day in office–March 3, 1933–and which has been amended several times since then. The Buy American Act requires Federal agencies to procure domestic materials and products. Two conditions must be present for the Buy American Act to apply: (1) the procurement must be intended for public use within the United States; and (2) the items to be procured or the materials from which they are manufactured must be present in the United States in sufficient and reasonably available commercial quantities of satisfactory quality. At the time, the Act imposed a series of obstacles on non-US watches and a 25% tariff, but we will get back to this.
Following the existing government procurement process, in 1955, the US Navy drafted the corresponding request for quote (RFQ). Although the US Navy seemed to lean towards Bulova (an American watchmaker) to win the tender, the 1955 RFQ draft requirements asked explicitly for the Fifty Fathoms, the standard-setting dive watch by Blancpain. An additional feature requested by the Navy, in the form of a moisture indicator, was a feature Blancpain added later, by creatively incorporating a small disk in the six o’clock position of the dial that would change color whenever there was moisture intrusion. Wristwatches with this new feature made their way into the 1957 Oscar-winning documentary by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, “Le monde du silence”.
The US Navy’s Experimental Diving Unit, a precursor to the NAVY SEALs, tested three commercially available watches: a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, a Rolex Submariner, and an Enicar Sea Pearl 600. One of the many preferred features noted in the report’s findings was the Fifty Fathoms’ dull case, as opposed to the shiny case of Rolex and Enicar watches which “should not be used in tropical waters where biting fish abide”.
The stress tests were rigorous, with some claiming they were more strenuous than those later conducted by NASA for the Omega Moonwatch. For example, one of these tests involved dropping a 5/8-inch solid steel ball on the watch crystal from a distance of 40 inches. The results of Project NS 186–200 Subtask 4, Test 43, published on July 15, 1958, indicated that only the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms passed, and with flying colors.
A subsequent Navy specification from 1961 required non-magnetic features to prevent triggering magnetic mines. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms’ MIL-SPEC 2 fulfilled this criterion using a special metal alloy that significantly reduced magnetic attraction.
After these successful tests, the US Navy issued purchase orders for Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC and MIL-SPEC 2. These orders did not exempt Blancpain from complying with the Buy American Act, which mandated the purchase of American-made jewels; however, finding a loophole, Blancpain determined that the requirement was merely for purchase and not for use in the 17 jewels of its automatic calibre AS 1361. As a result, the American-made jewels were bought and discarded since they did not meet their strict quality standards.
That was not all. Another hurdle, namely the reference to the Swiss watchmaker, required of Mr. Tornek further creative thinking that he would likely characterize as a stroke of genius: he convinced Blancpain to forego having its name on the dial and instead print “Tornek-Rayville U.S.” instead of Blancpain. Everything else remained the same. Blancpain acquiesced, which in turn facilitated the sale of the watches to the Navy through Mr. Tornek’s company. Rayville, an anagram for its Swiss hometown of “Villeret”, after all, was also the official name of Blancpain, adopted in 1932 after the death of the last member of the Blancpain family to run the company, Frédéric-Emile Blancpain, forced a legal name change.
The orders did not flood in as Blancpain, and Mr. Tornek, expected. For any other watchmaker, the pace of sales would not have been profitable. Still, for Mr. Tornek, it was profitable enough, with the potential of having a continuous stream of orders by the US Navy. Nevertheless, at USD 55 per Tornek-Rayville TR-900, it would take many orders to make it financially viable, even for Mr. Tornek. Had the US Navy picked Rolex, it would have had to pay USD 95 per wristwatch. It is difficult to know how many watches were delivered to the US Navy; some estimate 1,000 pieces. We know for sure that one of the orders Blancpain received was for 631 watches, which was thought to be oddly specific, but after further inspection, the reason was clear, it amounted to 600 watches with a standard reserve pool of 5% plus 1.
Most of these rebadged Blancpain Fifty Fathoms MILSPEC-2 were subsequently destroyed due to its use of Promethium-147, a radioactive element produced industrially from uranium for its luminescent properties. Although it is difficult to ascertain how many of these watches exist, it is believed somewhere between 30 and 50 survived, making it a highly rare and extremely coveted collectible item. During these years, the sales to the US Navy accounted for just a fraction of the 100,000 watches Blancpain produced per year. Still, it cemented the legend of the Fifty Fathoms as the first watch diver and one that was used by many of the most important armed forces in the world, including the US Navy, even if it was under another name.
Rayville’s hopes of keeping the orders going were slashed with the Vietnam War in 1968, and no additional orders were placed. The distributor Tornek-Rayville disappeared after this. The Swatch Group eventually acquired Blancpain and to this day continues to deliver luxury watches of the highest quality. Tornek-Rayville has recently been revived as a watchmaker with the launch of the TR-660. This watch heavily resembles the Tornek-Rayville TR-900, but hopefully without circumventing any government procurement laws.
About the Author:
Rodolfo Rivas is A qualified lawyer from Mexico, he holds several university qualifications including an LLM in Law and Information Technology from Stanford Law School and an MBA from University of London. He also boasts extensive experience in international law, arbitration and international affairs. He designed and launched the Trade Lecture Sessions @ the WTO, is an author with over 11.1K downloads across various platforms, a Panelist for domain name disputes and a creator and host of the podcast The Rodolfo Rivas Project.