Light Fantastic: Dials can defy the dark with a touch of super-luminescent razzle-dazzle

By Neil Dolby
Jan 15, 2024

Watches that glow in the dark offer the wearer reassurance they will be able to read the time even under most trying of circumstances. Many of the prestigious brands paint the hands and dial of their timepieces with a special pigment that gleams by absorbing and then reemitting light. Unfortunately, the first so-called lume watches derived their luminescence from radium, a radioactive material, and were discontinued, but the luminous phosphorescent glowing solution now used to coat key parts of the watch face is considered completely safe.

Rolex has long enjoyed a reputation for producing watches with that extra special glow. Indeed, some of their early pocket watches made for the military were painted with luminous material. Today’s collections use Super-LumiNova, which first came to light in 1933, or the brand’s proprietary Chromalight technology, which debuted in 2008, for luminescence.

The Chromalight display of the Oyster Perpetual Explorer 40, for instance, is designed to offer excellent legibility in all circumstances. The blue glow emitted in dark conditions lasts for about eight hours, while in daylight a distinctive bright white hue emanates from the watch. The new Explorer, a collection made famous by Himalayan expeditions, is crafted from a solid block of Oystersteel.

Luminescence is a critical attribute for divers’ watches in murky underwater conditions. The Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Challenge sports an array of features to combat such an environment, including patented case architecture with a sealed Triplock crown set to withstand extreme pressure and Chromalight display with superb luminescence to enhance underwater legibility.

The need for outstanding visibility has also played an important role in the design of Bell & Ross watches. The Lum collection, launched in 2017, is inspired by aeronautical instrumentation where readability and luminosity are key. Dials, numerals, indices and hands are highly legible day and night due to their Super-LumiNova coating.

In recent years, models have emitted a range of colours, from the intense green glow of the BR 03-92 Grey Lum to others exhibiting a pale yellow luminescence. The most recent iteration, the BR-X5 Green Lum, is crafted from titanium and an innovative photo-luminescent composite material, LM3D. So, unlike in previous iterations, it is the 41mm case that glows fully in the dark, serving to magnify the dial – replete with luminous hour and minute markers, hands, date and power-reserve indicators – and give the watch a surreal look.

Launched in 2010, the youthful, avant-garde brand of Ressence takes a minimalistic approach to watch design. Its latest release, the Type 1° M, features engraved indications filled with grade A Super-LumiNova on a convex German silver dial. The glow effect is enhanced by a greater range of colour codes than previously seen (M stands for Multicolour), with green, blue, yellow and red appearing on the hour, minute, second and weekday discs respectively in a beautiful contrast with the light grey dial. Its unique Ressence Orbital Convex System module is driven by the minute axle of a customised 2892 base calibre. Notably, there is no crown – time-setting and winding are accomplished via a retractable lever on the caseback.

Breitling has recently updated its Avenger range, and the new B01 Chronograph 44 Night Mission, powered by the Breitling calibre 01, has Super-LumiNova-coated indices, numerals and hands on a carbon fibre dial of all-black, or yellow with chronograph counters in black. The numerals are particularly legible. A ceramic bezel and case, with a titanium caseback, crown and pushers, round off a super-strong design.

Omega’s Seamaster Planet Ocean Deep Black ETNZ Edition pays tribute to the America’s Cup and defending champions Emirates Team New Zealand. The visually striking timepiece combines the turquoise hue of the team logo with the deepest black, while the distinctive green glow emitted in the dark by the white Super-LumiNova adds to the feast of colours. Its power comes from Omega’s Master Chronometer Calibre 9900.

The Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep in Summer Blue, meanwhile, joins a line in homage to a world-record dive of 2019. When UV light is directed at the lacquered dial, the words “Omega was here” are revealed.

One of the hallmarks of a Roger Dubuis timepiece is its superb luminescence, exemplified by the kaleidoscope of colours emanating from the synthetically grown spinels – graded from red to blue, and coated with Super-LumiNova – on the dial of the eye-catching Excalibur Blacklight Spin-Stone Monobalancier. This dazzling combination of colour and light bounces off the 42mm Eon gold case and bezel set with curved synthetic sapphires.

Capturing the free-spirited movement of the sea and the creatures who dwell within it, Seiko has added a “Whale” model to its Prospex Thong Sia Exclusive Limited Edition collection. The automatic diver’s watch features a bright white dial and bracelet and contrasting black hands and case. The bezel, hands and indices are coated with LumiBrite for practical and aesthetic reasons.

A skeletonised chronograph has joined the TAG Heuer Monaco range. It comes in a choice of three different colours powered by the Heuer 02 movement with an 80-hour power reserve. The distinctive skeleton dial, a first for the line, is housed in a tough grade 2 titanium case. In another innovation for the model, the date window (along with the indices and hands of the watch) are embossed with Super- LumiNova, ensuring brilliant legibility even in low light.

Chopard’s new ‘Mille Miglia GTS Power Control Bamford Edition ‘Desert Racer’ features oversized 6 and 12 o’clock Arabic numerals which are enhanced with black SuperLuminova© – thereby meeting motorsports’ inherent legibility requirements.