As a teenager in the 1980s, wristwatches, especially Swatches, were what got me and a lot of my friends into wearing timepieces. I recall owning Swatches, Seikos, and a few Victorinox “tool” watches. I remember receiving a small diameter, 34mm I think, white or ivory dial Seiko with simple stick hands and indices for my 8th-grade graduation. I loved it, but years passed and like many things it found its way to the back of a drawer (my dad found it back there—he wore it for decades, and my mother still wears it today, with an olive green leather Hirsch strap).
Watches were reintroduced to my life at Skinner when I joined the Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments department. I recall a gentleman calling, looking to make an appointment to bring in a watch that he called “very collectible” with a “cult following”—this was back in February or March of 2012. I was aware of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Mil Spec watches and their iconic history, but seeing this watch, I realized it was a bit different. A wonderful bold black Bakelite bezel with arabic markings at 15/30/45, still on its ratty canvas strap with compass attached (he decided to keep the compass for sentimental reasons). It had a pinkish circular disc or marking on the dial above the 6 o’clock hash mark—I later learned this was a moisture indicator—wonderfully aged lumed hands and indices, and a beat-up old crystal. I was immediately enamored with it, its simple but stunning layout, design, proportions, and weight, and honestly, it was the piece that sparked my return to the appreciation of watches.
Our client shared the story of how he came to own this watch back in 1965 or so (I was not familiar with serial numbers and issue dating at the time) while he was serving in the Navy. I thanked him for his service, but I wish I’d had the foresight to ask him about his missions.
Again, he mentioned the cult following for these watches and asked if Skinner would like to offer it at auction. I said, “sure, let’s give it a shot.” In the end, it fetched over $36,000 on a $8,000-$10,000 estimate. What that first sale did for the world record prices that Skinner has achieved for these watches is unquestionable. We have since sold five more Torneks, the first in June 2012, with the top price to date from the October 2017 auction at $123,000 (including buyer’s premium), an example that also came from a service member.
The 1933 “Buy-American Act” that was still in effect in 1964 prohibited the U.S. Navy from purchasing Swiss-made watches themselves, in this case, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec that was already tested and approved by the Navy here and around the world. Allen V. Tornek was a New York importer of Blancpain at the time and won the bid to deliver rebranded pieces to the U.S. government. There were two batches ordered, one in 1964 and another in 1966, for a total of 1,000 units. Due to the radiation markings on the dial, the government reportedly destroyed many, and some say less than 50 survived.
It has been an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to offer examples of such an iconic watch. I happily dove back into the world of watches with this as my touchstone. It has turned into a bit of an obsession for me—I started to take detailed measurements and make sketches, including tooth count on crowns, thickness and diameter measurements of the screw-back ring, crystal height, the teeth on the top edge of the bezel, sloping lug thickness, and everything in between, all to better appreciate and understand the engineering marvels of the design.
I look forward to offering more of these rare and iconic pieces—studying them brings me as much joy now as my childhood treasures did so long ago.
I loved reading this, thank you for sharing your passion. I too love watches and these are beautiful and lust-worthy. Why the radioactive warning on the back?
So glad you enjoyed it, Michele! The radioactive warning was for the radium-based lume that was used on the hands and the indices, both on this watch and many during this time period, There is a wonderful book by Kate Moore called Radium Girls that documents the use of radium in watches decades prior to this Tornek Rayville. A great read!