I n 1961, the US government, under contract MIL-W-22176A, sought to supply their sailors with a watch that would withstand the rigors of modern SCUBA diving. Many manufacturers vied to win the contract, but due to the numerous and specific demands set forth by the Navy, a watch supplied by Allen Tornek was the only one to meet them all. Simple in design, the Tornek-Rayville TR-900 is more than meets the eye – it was an incognito Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.
Several watches were tested by the Navy, each as hopeful to win the contract to supply the first UDT (underwater demolition team) divers. Namely, the Enicar Sea Pearl, Rolex Submariner and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. The testing procedure was brutal. The watches were dropped from great heights, frozen solid, exposed to high temperatures and stomped into sandy beaches, to name a few.
The Blancpain was not only the sole watch to meet all of the criteria – it was the only one still ticking after the Navy’s abuse. There was just one problem: The Buy American Act of 1933 required that military goods be procured from within the country. Blancpain, based in Switzerland, couldn’t pass that test.
A solution came from Tornek, a New York-based importer whose company brought in watches from Europe. His name appears on the dial alongside the American-sounding “Rayville,” which is merely an anagram and anglicization of Villeret, the town where Blancpain resides.
The particular TR-900 offered in Sotheby’s Important Watches auction was issued to Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Tech Lieutenant Brian S. Economy at the Naval Dive and Salvage training center in 1988, some 22 years later. Visible on the 9-o’clock side of the case are the “low mu” engravings that signified that the watch had passed “magnetic and acoustic signature control for mine warfare (MIW) (U)” testing in July 1982 and again in June 1987. The specifics of this testing process are still classified. The same low mu symbol can also be seen on the double-hose, closed-circuit regulator also included in the lot.
During Economy’s service, the watch faithfully kept time on deployment in Central America, Iraq and Somalia. Economy also wore this watch while working with his trained, sea-mine-hunting dolphin named Nino.