After some time in the sun, you may notice that your watch’s hands and/or hour indices are glowing, particularly when you enter a darker room. This is made possible by photoluminescent materials (lume) like Super-LumiNova. Lume is a great feature for people who work in dark environments, but it’s not a priority for the wide majority of watch buyers. Most of us have flashlights on our phones now. . . and the time, for that matter. However, glowing indices were once a principal feature in watchmaking, particularly in military timepieces. It’s been ingrained in the trade since the early 1900’s. Approaching World War I, Central and Allied Powers both made it a priority for soldiers to have accurate time: late at night, in the trenches, under murky water, etc. However, Super-LumiNova and similar photoluminescent materials weren’t invented yet. Naturally, and very unfortunately, watchmakers turned to a recently discovered element – radium – as their lume of choice.
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As we know now, radium is highly radioactive. Workers who applied radium to watch dials and hands – known as the “Radium Girls” – were told to “point” radium brushes with their lips before application. This extreme exposure led to radiation poisoning in most, killing many. The tragic story of the Radium Girls kickstarted some much-needed litigation against the U.S Radium Corporation, ultimately saving countless lives. Today, these radioactive watches still trade hands amongst collector circles, easily recognizable by their grainy, discolored, and sometimes burnt appearance. While the radium itself isn’t too dangerous, assuming you take proper precautions (namely not opening the watch), the gas it emits – radon – is the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Anyway, there’s no easy way to make this transition, so I’ll just say it. Today we’re looking at three of my personal favorite watches from the radium lume era.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Rotomatic Incabloc
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The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, originally created for the French Marine Nationale, exploded in popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s. Blancpain produced the dive watch for a number of militaries, as well as civilian markets. The Rotomatic Incabloc – a name that refers to its automatic rotor and Incabloc shock protection system – is an earlier example of the beloved diver. Why is it on this list? Two words: ‘simplicity’ and ‘proportions’. The wide bezel, compact dial, and straightforward text/indices are breathtaking. In the 1950’s, the Fifty Fathoms’ 41mm diameter was considered very large, done so for legibility and ease of use. Today, it’s on the medium-small side of dive watches, making it an ultra-desirable size for many (including myself). Of course, the hour indices, hands, and bezel indices are all lumed in radium, giving each existing example a unique creamy-yellow patina. My personal favorite examples have arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6, and 9.
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In the 1960’s, when the dangers of radium became horrifyingly apparent, watchmakers shifted to using tritium: a still-radioactive but far-less-radioactive substitute for radium. Instead of putting a small ‘T’ for tritium on the dial, like most watchmakers, Blancpain sold watches with a huge X’ed out radiation symbol. These models became known as the “No-Rad” Fifty Fathoms, and I couldn’t write this article in good conscience without mentioning it.
Breitling Navitimer 806 “AOPA”
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When I think of lumed watches, I think of dive watches. Of course, lume is important for divers to tell time in dark and murky waters. Let’s switch it up with a pilot’s watch. What better choice than the quintessential pilot’s watch: The Breitling Navitimer. Released in 1954 (a great year for watch releases), beginning with the reference 806, the Navitimer was a joint effort between Breitling and the Aircraft Owners & Pilot’s Association (AOPA). It was all but a necessity among pilots due to its chronograph and slide rule bezel. This logarithmic scale enabled calculation of speed, fuel consumption, time of ascent/descent, and much more. Pilots who weren’t issued a Navitimer by their airline/military often paid out of pocket to get one. It was a no-brainer to have a Breitling Navitimer; the technology was just too powerful. The Ref. 806 "AOPA" can be identified by its beaded bezel, winged AOPA insignia, and of course, interestingly-aged radium indices. On these watches, radium was applied to the arabic numerals (all but 3, 6, and 9) as well as the inner hands. Frankly, I'm not big on the Breitling Navitimer. For whatever reason, this reference does it for me.
Rolex Submariner 6204
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The Rolex 6204 was the first Rolex to read “Submariner” on the dial. It’s the first iteration of perhaps the most iconic wristwatch ever. The 6204 has a galvanically printed dial with gilt accents: text, minutes track, and index frames (outlines of hour indices, see above). The lacquer used on these dials has degraded over time, giving most examples a bubbly, grainy, sometimes sand-blasted texture. No two are the same; each dial aged uniquely based on its environment and sun exposure. Of course, the first Submariner – released in 1953 – features radium lume. This was standard procedure at the time. You’ll find the radioactive lume on the hour indices, hands, and in some models, a drilled hole on the bezel at 12 o’clock. In retrospect, the 6204’s gilt index frames are the perfect companion for radium lume. As the radium ages, you can refer to the index frames to see how much the radium has morphed, spread, and degraded. Think of leaving a lemon meringue pie in the sun for 8 hours. You knew how the pie looked in its tin 8 hours ago, now the unchanged tin is your point of reference for the discolored, misshapen, sugary mess you have in front of you. Weird analogy, but I hope you get my point. Of all the radium-laden watches to admire (from a distance), the Rolex 6204 has to be one of my favorites.
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