When in the 1950s the U.S. government started looking for well-built divers watches to purchase for its U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Team (that will later become the U.S. Navy SEALs), Blancpain’s legendary Fifty Fathoms grabbed their attention.
There was one problem though. Because of the 1933 “Buy America Act” signed by President Herbert Hoover, the Federal government was to “favor domestic end products,” which automatically eliminated the possibility of Swiss-made Blancpain timepieces making it to the wrists of American servicemen.
But an ambitious watch importer, Allen V. Tornek, managed to go around the “Buy America Act” by convincing Blancpain to put “Tornek-Rayville U.S.” on the dial and sold the watches to the government through his New York-based company. To make his intentions seem genuine, he even purchased American-made jewels to supposedly use in the watches that he eventually threw away.
And now two of these water-resistant and antimagnetic dive timepieces have resurfaced and are up for auction at Skinner Auctioneer's Clocks, Watches, & Scientific Instruments sale on October 19 to 27.
While it’s not exactly clear how many of those watches were produced, it is estimated that about a thousand pieces were manufactured in two batches—one in 1964 and another one the following year. Interestingly enough most of these were later destroyed again by the US military because it turned out that the luminescent hour and minute indices on the dial were made using the radioactive element Promethium-147.
The second Blancpain watch that Skinner Auctioneers is auctioning is noticeably lacking the “Tornek-Rayville U.S.” sign on the dial. That’s because when the timepiece was turned over to the military to be disposed of, it had its original dial replaced with an unsigned one that featured non-radioactive tritium hour and minute indices. Both watches have bidirectional black bezels and moisture indicators at 6 o’clock.
Jonathan Dowling, Skinner's Director of Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments, explained that if the moisture indicator changed its color from blue to red, it signaled that moisture had contaminated the watch so the diver would know it is no longer safe to use it and he would return to the surface.
Both watches have 40mm cases and feature military engravings on their screw-backs.
“It's a fascinating, fascinating story about these and many people continue to dive deep into this[…]What I find really rare with these is the fact that an unsigned dial and assign dial is being offered at the same time in the same auction. I've never seen this happen,” said Dowling.
The auction house estimates that the Tornek-Rayville TR-900 Dive Watch that still has its original dial (and yes, radioactive indices) would fetch up between $70,000 and $90,000 and the one with the "Sterile Dial" would sell for $40,000-$60,000.