The latest developments in luminous technology add an exciting glow to sporty timepieces, but achieving this startling result has been far from easy.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP:
This Breitling Cockpit B50 watch ($7,200) features a titanium case with black dial and LCD backlighting. The analog/digital watch offers 1/100 of a second chronograph, tachometer, alarm, calendar, and more. London Jewelers, 2046 Northern Blvd., Manhasset, 516-627- 7475
From Officine Panerai, this Luminor Submersible 1950 Carbotech 3 Days Automatic 47mm watch ($18,400) is crafted in high-tech composite material based on carbon fiber. The timepiece offers a calculation of immersion time and features Super- LumiNova hands and markers. London Jewelers, 2 Main St., East Hampton, 329-3939
This Tudor Pelagos watch ($4,125) features a self-winding movement inside a 42mm titanium case with unidirectional rotating bezel with black ceramic disk. Water-resistant to 500 meters, it is equipped with Super-LumiNova hands and markers. London Jewelers, 2 Main St., East Hampton, 329-3939
The Aquatimer Automatic 2000 watch ($10,100) from IWC Schaffhausen houses a mechanical self-winding, in-house-made movement and is water-resistant to 2,000 meters. Crafted in titanium, it features a rubber strap with SafeDive system on the buckle for security. London Jewelers, 47 Main St., Southampton, 287-4499
Creating a watch that glows in the dark sounds simple enough, but perfecting this technology has taken more than a century—sometimes with heartbreaking results. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, an effort was made to add shine to watches by crushing shimmering shells and iridescent volcanic materials and then painting them onto the dials. The first real possibility for true luminescence did not come until the early 20th century in response to Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium.
The Curies first isolated radium-226 in 1898. The material was said to have a fairy-like blue glow that was quickly used to illuminate watch dials, hands, and markers. In 1914, an American company called Radium Luminous Material Corporation (later U.S. Radium Corporation) mined radium and began producing its own radio-luminescent paint called Undark. U.S. Radium Corporation and similar companies hired thousands of workers (mainly women) to paint watch dials with this substance with tragic results due to the fact that radium emits alpha and gamma radiation, which is deadly if ingested. While scientists and chemists were aware of the dangers, workers were not. They were asked to lick the tips of their fine paintbrushes to keep them pointed for legible painting and sharp numerals. Many began suffering grave illnesses and death.
From Ball Watch USA, this Engineer II Marvelight ($1,899) gets its luminosity from 14 tritium gas tubes below the crystal that form the hour, minute, and second hands for night reading. Housing an automatic movement, the watch is shock- resistant to 5,000Gs, antimagnetic, and water-resistant to 100 meters. Tourneau at Roosevelt Field, 630 Old Country Road, Garden City, 516-873-0209
Thanks to the efforts of a group of workers known as the Radium Girls, manufacturers of radioactive material were forced to confront the dangers of working with the substance, leading to this practice eventually being outlawed. This spurred the development of new photoluminescent paints that absorbed energy from external light sources in the UV spectrum and reemitted it over a period of time, creating a legal and safe lumen.
In the 1990s a nonradioactive substance called Super-LumiNova, made of a variety of elements, was unveiled to the world. It is a strontium aluminate substance created in a host of colors that enable the watch numerals, markers, hands, and other dial accents to glow blue, green, or even red-orange, depending on the mixes used. Over the past two decades, the material has advanced, thanks to a great deal of research and development, and the Super-LumiNova of the early 1990s has evolved into a new intensity that can be as much as 10 times brighter than the previous zinc sulfide-based materials of 20 years ago, making Super-LumiNova the current market leader for luminous watch dials.
There are other luminescent materials on the market used by a handful of watch brands for dive and pilot watches. MB-Microtec is a major developer and supplier of a tritium-based device called “gaseous tritium light source” (GTLS), wherein radioactive material is encapsulated inside tiny glass tubes that are placed together to offer a brightness that can be as much as 10 times greater than applied Super-LumiNova. It is worth noting that GTLS is banned in certain countries.
It has been found that the nonradioactive Super-LumiNova begins to dim after a short time, whereas tritium capsules will not dim for about 15 to 20 years. Additionally, while Super-LumiNova needs to be exposed to a light source to regenerate its power, tritium capsules are permanently luminescent during their lifetime. Of course, companies continue to strive to find new and different ways to give watches their glow, but for now, these methods shine brightest.
photography courtesy of ball watch company