Watches are about stories. The most interesting timepieces are accompanied by equally valuable backgrounds, both for the intrigue of collectors and their friends. Today, we are covering a watch that is both rare and fascinating from a historical perspective. Few watches have stories that can rival the Blancpain “Tornek Rayville” TR900.
The story of the TR900 begins in 1961, when the US military sought to outfit its Navy with capable dive watches. Various significant pieces were suggested to meet this need, notably, the Rolex Submariner, the Enicar Sea Pearl, and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. The Navy subjected these “contestants” to a variety of grueling tests to determine which would be reliable enough for military issue. Seeing as this article is about a Blancpain, it’s unsurprising to hear that the Blancpain passed and the others failed.
While Blancpain had passed the tests necessary to become a Navy watch, one problem remained: in the 30s America introduced an act called the “Buy American Act”, which required that military equipment be made in the US. Thus, Blancpain, a Swiss brand, was left with an issue. To bypass this technicality, a partnership was made between Blancpain and a New York importer called Tornek. Thus, the timepieces were labeled with Tornek’s name rather than Blancpain. The second part of the name, Rayville, is an anagram for the town Villeret where Blancpain timepieces are manufactured. Crisis averted, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, branded the TR900 for domestic military use, was made in a scarce roughly 1000 examples. Today, few examples remain, making the quirky timepieces highly collectible within the world of military watches.
While for many, the history of this piece will be all that’s needed to close the deal, the TR900 is also a shrine to vintage dive watch design. The stainless steel case has been bead blasted, complementing the watch’s tactical vibes. One of the interesting elements of this watch is its lume, Promethium-157, which has aged to a yellow crust. This model has an early unidirectional rotating bezel with a black insert to match the dial.
For a watch of this age, this example is in great condition. With any vintage piece, the condition is of primal importance. The TR900 is 40mm in diameter by 14mm thick, a contemporary sizing that was rebellious at its time of release. The Fifty Fathoms architecture is one of the most iconic in the industry, and this is likely the rarest of all configurations. Although at first the piece was made in the roughly 1000 examples previously mentioned, as a result of the radioactive Promethium-157 used, most examples were disposed of, and others were lost in combat. Thus, it is estimated that only about 30 remain in the hands of collectors.
Yet another interesting feature of this piece is its antimagnetic properties that were also considered rather progressive for the time. This watch was a departure from many norms, yet feels at home in our contemporary view of the watch industry. Finally, at 6 o’clock, Blancpain has placed a humidity indication, a complication rarely seen on modern pieces.
The Blancpain “Tornek Rayville” TR900 is powered by the AS caliber 1361. For a relatively early movement, the 1361 features hacking seconds, 17 jewels and a primitive shock absorption system. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the movement is rated for 200 meters of water resistance, a number that was quite rare in the 50s and 60s when this watch was made. Keep in mind that this piece was on the earlier end of the dive watch history. While this movement may seem primitive by contemporary standards, it was way ahead of its time (as with many other facets of this piece as outlined above).
Versus the Competition
The first piece to consider in alternative to the TR900 is another Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, referred to as the “No Radiations”, a relatively rare example that was intended for civilian use without any radium in the lume (thus, “No Radiations”). Alongside the super rare TR900, the “No Radiations” is a slightly more common yet still obscure piece in dive watch history, highly sought after by vintage dive watch collectors.
Alongside other Blancpain pieces, any assemblage of dive watches should include a Sea Dweller. In this case, the reference 1665 “Double Red”. Produced in the 70s, these watches mostly still had tritium lume, which means that you can enjoy the beautiful appearance of patina, even while welcoming some more contemporary neo-vintage details. For example, this reference has the vintage dial appearances and has hollow end links, yet it also has a solid bracelet. There was a short window where you could get solid bracelets alongside “patinable” dials. This makes for a charming blend of modern enhancements and vintage appeal.
Finally, we’ll end with an obscure piece referred to as the Rolex Project X Heritage HS01 Submariner. Like the Double Red, this watch is a fusion of vintage elements on a modern package. The result of a collaboration between vintage Rolex specialists, the limited edition uses a new old stock vintage crown, patina added to the dial and hands, a modified bezel and case. These watches are relatively unknown, yet the mix of modern body and vintage finish make for a really interesting blend.
The Blancpain TR900 “Tornek Rayville” is the type of watch that is gobbled up by vintage military watch enthusiasts. Within the pantheon of collectible military issue timepieces, few are both as horologically significant and rare as this reference. Alongside these pulls, the watch is also accompanied by an interesting story, a factor that always helps to inform a purchase for a watch collector.
While this piece would be valuable in many collections, in most cases, as a result of the rarity of this piece, there is a wealth of collectors waiting for one to go up for sale, and usually those that buy a piece of this kind know exactly what they are getting. The Tornek Rayville is not the type of watch you walk into a store and walk out with. It’s the piece you have a computer program set up for to notify you of a listing so you can be the first to pounce before other collectors foaming at the mouth can beat you. You get the idea.
Tactical watches remind enthusiasts of the essence of what wrist watches are. First and foremost tools for practical use, this watch takes us back to the era where everyone relied on timepieces in the day to day. While it is unlikely that you will encounter one of these rare examples, the Blancpain TR900 Tornek Rayville helps shed light on an interesting period in watchmaking history, as well as the history of the US. This watch is one with a unique story to accompany a beautiful package.