It's officially summer and things are heating up in the HODINKEE Shop. In honor of our favorite season we are hosting a month of content dedicated entirely to dive watches. Expect dive-focused content, products, and perhaps a limited edition to celebrate. Stick around and you'll be sure to learn something new – let's dive right in, shall we?
This week we're doing things a little differently in honor of Dive Month – today, we're bringing you 11 vintage dive watches, ranging from lesser known models to some of the most sought after references out there. There's a little something for everyone, with watches from Omega, Rolex, Doxa, Zodiac, Blancpain, and more. Let's get into it!
1950s Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 'Rotomatic Incabloc'

Let’s go back to the beginning – all the way back to 1953. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms splashed onto the scene in a subtle way, because it was used by professionals. It was the watch that was doing what other watches of the era simply couldn't do, and was the first watch of its kind to be completely adopted into military programs as a standardized piece of equipment. That's why we've sourced two fine examples of the Fifty Fathoms, both in original formulation. One is a special iteration for the U.S. Navy, under the name of Tornek-Rayville, and it's an extremely rare and prized collectible piece.
The history of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms started in 1953 with the company's CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter's love for the ocean. His passion as an amateur diver made him realize that there was an untapped market for enthusiasts like himself who dove for leisure. He and his team quickly put his passion project to work and raced*to create the ultimate diving watch. Coincidentally, around the same time, the elite French Navy (known as the Marine Nationale) was desperately in search of a military-grade dive watch. After not having much luck,*Captain Robert "Bob" Maloubier and his Lieutenant, Claude Jean Riffaud, approached Blancpain, a relatively small company at the time, with a request to produce a watch durable and reliable enough to withstand the most dangerous underwater missions. Fiechter and his team obliged, and the Fifty Fathoms was born. The advent of the Fifty Fathoms – which met all of the necessary military specifications – made it the gold standard for dive watches, and eventually paved the way for later civilian models.
Fiechter's obsession with creating this life-saving tool watch also led to an unprecedented design overhaul.*The feature of the early Fifty Fathoms that jumps at you immediately is the extra wide-set, deep black acrylic bezel*with accentuated ridges on the edges.*Sure, it's aesthetically attractive, but it*was developed purely for function, to allow legibility and maneuverability – but it accidentally*became the signature*element of this model that vintage collectors can't get enough of.*The case sizes were made larger compared to conventional wristwatches from the same era (measuring in at 41mm diameter), and they were fitted with black dials with luminous markers and hands to ensure ultimate legibility even*in dark and murky waters. The watches were fitted with automatic movements to minimize wear around the crown, and a soft iron inner case was added to shield the movement from any magnetic fields. They created a double-sealed crown to ensure water-tightness even if the crown came undone underwater. The screw-down caseback design was re-engineered by adding a metallic ring, which helped to prevent*the O-ring from getting accidentally misaligned. All these designs which we come to expect as standard specifications today came from one man's passion and drive for creating the ultimate dive watch. Read more about the example available in the HODINKEE Shop here.
1965 Tornek-Rayville Ref. TR-900 Sterile Dial

If you are not into vintage dive watches, you may have never heard the name Tornek-Rayville. However, you may have seen dive watches bearing this name fetch serious*prices at watch auctions – even six-figure prices! So what makes watches bearing this name so special? It's essentially a variation on the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, but it came about thanks to a brilliant plan conceived by a New York–based businessman, Allen V. Tornek, who was an official importer of Blancpain in the U.S. It was the perfect alignment of political history and business opportunity. In the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy, like the French Marine Nationale, was in search of a military-grade timepiece that served well underwater. Considering the political climate at the time, and the patriotic "Buy American Act" that was in place, it was no question that the U.S. Navy had almost no choice but to go with an American watch company. Plus, the U.S. military had a rigorous military specification (MIL-W-22176A) of what could be accepted as an official instrument for military use.
In the meantime, in 1958, the Navy Experimental Diving Unit tested three dive watches; naturally the most prominent dive watches at the time were selected for this challenge: the Rolex Submariner, the Enicar Seapearl 600, and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. The Fifty Fathoms came out on top for meeting all military specification requirements including materials used, performance, and cost ($55 vs $95 for the Submariner, to be exact). Now the challenge became how to jump over the hurdle of the "Buy American Act." Tornek who could not pass on a great business opportunity*for a substantial government contract, and convinced Blancpain to drop their name and instead use the name "Tornek-Rayville U.S." on the watch, to be sold by his "American" company. It seemed rather unbelievable, but Blancpain agreed, and Tornek got a contract to supply essentially the "Mil-Spec" version to the U.S. Navy in 1962.
The desirability*of the Tornek-Rayville model (known as the TR-900) comes from the fact that all were military-issued (none were civilian-issued, unlike many other military models) and not many were commissioned, likely to be somewhere around a 1,000 to 1,100 units. Most of the pieces were returned to the U.S. government and were likely destroyed upon decommission or damage. The casebacks of the watches indicated "IF FOUND RETURN TO THE NEAREST MILITARY FACILITY," due to the radioactive luminous material Promethium 147 originally used on the watches; they were considered hazardous*and required proper disposal.*Promethium 147 has a half life of only 2.6234 years, and no replacement dials, hands, or bezels were ordered by the U.S. Military as the property of the material was considered too dangerous.*It is presumed that less than 50 have actually survived in varying degrees of condition (as they were tool watches which went through real extreme conditions), and somehow remained in private hands.
The "Sterile Dial" variant we have for this week's vintage selection is considered extremely rare, and only five examples are known to have surfaced to the public. One common thread among the known examples is that the dials were stripped of any signature or marking on the dial and the lume was re-applied with tritium to replace the Promethium 147.*While there is no known public documentation explaining why these dials were "sterilized," it was significantly*unusual for watches to be given a new life when the majority of them were simply discarded and had no reason to be resurrected. Another curious observation is that all known examples have some sort of engraving on the case indicating anti-magnetic tests being conducted, with corresponding dates as to when they were performed. There is no question that there is a mythical curiosity*around this rare breed, especially for military watch collectors, and to find one in spectacular condition with a dreamy patina is on another level altogether. Read more about this special Tornek-Rayville reference TR-900 here.
1977 Rolex 'Double Red' Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665 And Two Rolex Submariners

And, of course, we would be remiss if we were to leave out some of the crowned kings of dive watches, the Rolex Submariner and the Rolex Sea-Dweller. We’ve curated a selection that represents a fantastic cross-section of a very deep, passionate world of collecting, including a 1968 Submariner ref. 5512, a 1982 Submariner ref. 16808 in gold, and a rare 1977 Sea-Dweller. Whether you’re buying your first vintage Sub, or you’ve been holding out for the much coveted Rolex "Double Red" Sea-Dweller, we’ve got you covered.
The Full Set

But that's not all! We’ve sourced a fantastic mix of other classic dive watches, ranging from an Aquadive 1000m all the way to a diver from Bulova that, when it was released, was able to reach a devilish 666 feet (suited perfectly for skin diving, otherwise known as snorkeling). There’s a certain charm that vintage watches have, some being that they’re simply timeless designs that haven’t changed much over the years.
This special selection of vintage dive watches and more are available now in the HODINKEE Shop.


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