Lume: Is it a need or a want?
I’d be more than willing to bet my bottom dollar that many of us here have deliberately gone to a dark/pitch black room just to witness the glow of our timepieces. Or maybe, even turning off the bathroom lights or sticking your wrist into a dark corner of a closet, or something silly like that. These acts more than exemplify the watch enthusiasts’ love of lume, as well as the dubious actual need for it.
I, and I’m sure many others would assume that lume is short for luminescence, and I’d like to think that we’re right on that part. For those who may be unfamiliar with lume, or watches as a whole, here’s a simple almost child-like explanation of what lume is for: It ‘lights’ up your watch so you can see it at night or in low light situations. Now, we won’t be talking about battery powered watches with a built-in light function, we’ll be talking about watches with actual luminescence painted on the hands and markers.
The History of Luminescence
Luminescent paint and the widespread acceptance of wrist watches among men came around the same time, during the early 1900s. Though earlier iterations of luminous paint used highly radioactive Radium, which naturally emitted a bright green glow as its isotopes decay over time. One of the most notable brands that strongly utilized Radium paint during that time, was Panerai, with their Radiomir watches made specially for the Italian Navy Frogmen. At that time, people were intrigued by this new material, and of course, no one was actually aware of the dangerous properties of Radium. But you don’t need me to tell you about the consequence of putting such a highly radioactive substance in a watch. During the mass production of Radium painted watches, factories employed many women to hand paint the Radium lume onto the dials of watches, and the subsequent exposure to the radiation overtime led to their very gruesome demise.
Options & Choices, but do we really need them?
Clearly, a new material was needed and that brings us to what we have today. With advancement in technology and innovation, we’ve come up with plenty of safe yet stunning luminescent materials. From Swiss Superluminova (the most well known of them all), to Seiko’s proprietary Lumibrite, to the rather unique Tritium valve system. Tritium of course, being radioactive too, but as its beta particles are of very low energy, and the fact that they are stored in glass vials means that they’re practically harmless.
But with the development of all these luminescent materials comes the question of: Do we really need lume? Well, to tell the time in a dark parking lot, or underwater, then yes, we need it. Lumed watches has always had a connection to the military or the deep, all the things that we as men find very cool. That, and along with our natural fascination with glowing things has made lume a very appealing feature for our watches.
I think another appeal of having great lume on our watches is the one-upmanship mentality, where features are sought out of competitiveness or to show our superiority. Lume is an understated snob appeal most of the time, unless you hang out in dark places a lot, or you’re really out and about performing some clandestine espionage. That said, with us innately treating the lume of our watches as some form of personal competition, we’d certainly like to know which one is the best right? Well, we’ve brought about 3 watches using 3 very different types of luminescent material and we’re gonna see which is best.
LUMINOX NAVY SEAL LM3501GOLD.SET MEN'S WATCH (Tritium Valves)
Being the official watch license of the Navy Seals is no small feat, and to equip the toughest men in the world, means you have the create the toughest equipment in the world. Luminox has certainly built that reputation for itself, and its Navy Seals range of watches are a testament to that. The LM3501GOLD.SET is a different kind of watch from the tough no-nonsense tool watches that the brand is so known for.
Granted, it still is a tool watch make no mistakes, with its typical Luminox ultra-lightweight and hard Carbonox case, bright tritium valves for night visibility, and bold markers and hands for immediate legibility as well. The tritium valves are always the highlight of a Luminox watch, and they do not disappoint here. With the 12 O’clock marker and minute hand featuring a contrasting orange colour as opposed to the green of the hour hand and the other markers. Thanks to the touch of gold, the watch transforms, from a watch that you can (and would) wear out in the field, to one that you can wear every day without having to think about it. This particular gold set-piece is limited to 1618 pieces worldwide and features the insignia of the Navy Seals on the case back as well.
For the enthusiasts who think that the LM3501GOLD.SET has become a ‘fashion’ watch thanks to the touch of gold that changes the personality of the watch completely, just look at it this way. Most Luminox watches we see are tool watches that we can wear every day, the LM3501GOLD.SET is an everyday watch that you can also use as a tool.
Seiko Prospex ‘62MAS’ Reissue SPB239J1 (Lumibrite)
Inspired by the classic 62-MAS, Seiko’s original dive watch that made its debut in 1965, the Seiko SPB239J1 is, in my opinion, one of the nicest looking divers you can buy today for under two thousand dollars.
There’s plenty to like about this watch right off the bat. From the uniquely subtle grey sunburst dial to the immaculate finishing around the entire watch and of course, the in-house movement that is powering it.
Powering the SPB239J1 is Seiko’s proprietary in-house 6R35 automatic caliber. It operates at 3Hz (21,600 VPH) offers a whopping 70 hours of power reserve and can be hand-wound with hacking seconds as well. The watch comes in a very comfortable 40.5mm diameter which fits nicely on most wrists, has a water resistance of 200m and is protected by a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal as well for added sweetness.
Of course, no Seiko diver is complete without a generous application of the brand’s proprietary blued Lumibrite luminescent material. And this results in an incredibly legible and visually enjoyable time-telling experience when the lights go out.
The SPB239J1 exemplifies everything there is to love about Japanese watchmaking, which is often stereotyped as a very spartan and utilitarian no thrills and frills affair. With a beautifully finished dial, multi-colored lume pips and the performance of a proper professional diver, the SPB239J1 is a properly excellent timepiece to own whether you’re looking to add a classic design to your collection or looking for a companion for your next deep dive.
TISSOT SEASTAR 1000 POWERMATIC 80 T1204071704100 (Swiss Superluminova)
Tissot as a brand needs no introduction, founded in 1853; Just 5 years after Omega and over 50 years before Rolex. The brand has been producing reliable high-quality mechanical timepieces for over a century and a half. The brand is now known more for being a creator of affordable and reliable Swiss-made luxury timepieces, and for good reason.
While the Tissot Seastar 1000 is marketed as an elegant watch for water sports lovers. That term might sound like a bit of an oxymoron considering the large bezel, relatively large case size at 42mm, and coming equipped with a rubber strap or a stainless-steel bracelet too. It certainly isn’t a brash watch nor is it exactly reserved either. It’s just a well-balanced sporting timepiece from one of the best, affordable Swiss luxury names in the market. With a uni-directional rotating bezel, simple and legible dial and a water resistance of 300m the Seastar 1000 is a proper no-nonsense diver that would fit right in beneath the waves or under the cuff of a suit.
No diver is complete without a generous application of lume of course, and the Seastar 1000 is no exception too with its large bold hands and markers coated generously in bright green Swiss Superluminova.
Powered by Tissot’s Powermatic 80 automatic movement which, as the name suggests, offers 80 hours of power reserve no less, the Seastar 1000 is certainly a wonderful offering carrying the values and traditions of proper Swiss watchmaking in this modern era.
Lumibrite, Luminova or Tritium?
So, here we have 3 great tool watches using 3 very different types of luminescence. Though the outstanding one would be the Luminox, using Tritium valves over conventional painted luminescence like the Superluminova and Lumibrite. While the 2 painted lumes shine brighter than the Tritium and for a reasonably long time too. The Tritium’s everlasting natural glow without the need of having to absorb from an external light source keeps the Luminox legible long after the Seiko’s and the Tissot’s lume has wore off. I personally prefer Seiko’s Lumibrite thanks to its incredible brightness even when its not in complete darkness (albeit, it may not glow like this as long as Superluminova). Though to be honest, I don’t think there’s an objective answer as to which lume is superior to the other. As you’ve seen, they each have very different attributes and weaknesses too. So to answer my own question, it really just boils down to which aesthetic and attribute you fancy more over the other.