Source: Matthew Bain Inc via Bloomberg
Vintage Watches

Monday Morning Find: A Rare Naval Dive Watch With Big Deal History

It's equal parts Swiss and American

Watch collectors love dive watches. They just do. Rare dive watches are even more appealing. This Fifty Fathoms is a rare creation from a Swiss factory for a century-old American watchmaker, and you can count the number made on one hand.

The history of Waltham Watch is confusing. The company was founded in 1850 under a different name in Massachusetts, then a big watchmaking and clockmaking hub. The name changed a few times over the years as the company continued to make nice, affordable watches and clocks on U.S. soil. After declaring bankruptcy in 1949, the company restructured. In 1954, it opened a Swiss subsidiary that teamed with manufacturer Blancpain to make watches there. The entire venture went belly-up in 1957, and the brand sat mostly dormant until some Swiss investors launched a brand under the old name in 2014. I know, it's a mess.

The watch here was made by Blancpain under the Waltham name in 1957, the company's final year in business. The design is almost identical to that of Blancpain's own Fifty Fathoms dive watches, but it has a large Waltham logo on the dial, caseback, and movement. It's a slightly different situation than the one that produced this wild Bulova back in the 1930s, but it follows a similar principle.

The case is massive for a watch from 1957 and the caseback seals it against the elements.

This case is massive, for a watch from 1957, and the caseback seals it against the elements.

Source: Matthew Bain Inc via Bloomberg

The Fifty Fathoms watches were were first produced in 1953 and were made for various military dive units. While everyone knows about the Rolex Submariner, the Fifty Fathoms was actually the first watch to have an external rotating bezel that could be used to time dives with the 60-minute markers. The oversized bezel, large 41mm case, and luminous markers present here are all hallmarks of the style.

Beyond the dial signature, some further aspects make this Waltham unique. Instead of the combination of bar- and dot-shaped luminous markers, this watch has 3-6-9-12 numerals, in addition to some bars—all of which are intact. (As are the hands, also filled with glowing material.) 

The movement inside is still signed Waltham on the winding rotor.
The movement inside is still signed Waltham on the winding rotor.
Source: Matthew Bain Inc via Bloomberg

If you pop off the Waltham-signed waterproof caseback, you'll see the 1361N movement. It has 17 jewels and is automatically wound with the large, heavy rotor. Even though the movements came from Blancpain workshops, they were signed "Waltham," just like the rest of the components. The movement is shielded with shock protectors and an antimagnetic cage to make it battle-ready.

The Waltham Fifty Fathoms is an American naval watch made in Switzerland.

The Waltham Fifty Fathoms is an U.S. Navy watch made in Switzerland.

Source: Matthew Bain via Bloomberg

Original Fifty Fathoms are collectable for a number of reasons. The first is that they're military watches—much more accessibly priced military watches than the $100,000-plus Rolex MilSubs. The second is that they were made in a large number of tiny variations, meaning that there are only a handful of models of any given configuration. There are variations in dials, bezels, and even tiny caseback markings. The Waltham Fifty Fathoms are particularly rare, and the seller of this watch claims that only five are known to exist with this dial. That sounds about right to me, though there's no way to know for sure.

This Waltham Fifty Fathoms is available from Matthew Bain and is priced at $27,000.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.