Lume with a View: Need vs. Want


Christopher Ward Moonwatch lume

I’d bet that many here have voluntarily gone into a dark closet in order to witness the glow of their timepiece. Or turned off the lights in the bathroom or something equally silly. This act exemplifies the watch enthusiasts’ love of lume as well as the highly dubious need for it . . .

I assume “lume” to be short for luminescence. To be clear, we are referring to watches that can be read at what the tactical-talking call low light conditions. Normal people would say “at night” but technically the former is more accurate, as the dark closet example proves.

Lume with a view

For those with a battery* in their watch, there are push button light-up tricks. We’ll exclude that now, for the sake of exclusivity. The traditional mechanical watch has traditional passive lume, because (boogie woogie, woogie) it’s not electric.

Luminescent paint and the widespread acceptance of the wrist watch among men came around at about the same time for about the same reason. Marie Curie discovered the element radium in 1898. It became quite the craze. And much of how it was used was quite crazy.

Practical people soon realized they could make clocks and instrument dials legible at night with radioactive luminescent paint.

Bell & Ross lume

As many already know, World War I broke out and long story short, watches on the wrist became very popular with soldiers, and having it legible at night was a killer app on top of the whole hands-free strap thing.

As a bonus, the hand-painting of all these dials was quite a business, and kept women’s little hands busy. There was that thing about them being advised to lick the paint brushes to maintain a fine point. Not to make a fine point of it, but jaws started glowing and disintegrating and early deaths didn’t take long to occur. Litigation ensued, workplace safety regulations arose.

But I digress. If I ever get to see the Radium Girls movie that should open October 23rd, 2020, I’ll review that. I encourage you to see it if you can. There are books and plays and documentaries too for those truly interested.

So the wristwatch and its lume sort of share popular birth by war. Besides the innate cool factor and fascination with glowing objects, there is that manly aspect to it all, whether anyone is conscious of it or not. I’d suspect that lume is much less common on women’s watches, because they tend to be less paramilitary in their mindset and style.

Really, isn’t that what the illusory want is about? Men, myself included, are engaging in a bit of playacting. We’re commandos, or secret agents. Never mind that a poorly lit parking lot is a cause for concern, or that we might not be in the best physical condition. It’s real in our minds.

There is also the oneupsmanship thing to which I alluded in my dive watch review. Features are sought out of competitiveness, or to show our superiority. Lume is an understated bit of snob appeal most of the time, unless you hang out in dark places. Or get a more overt big tritium tube watch that really shouts it’s glowiness in broad daylight.

Is it all bragging rights and fantasy, or does this practically matter to any sizable number of people? Being able to check the time in a dark theater is useful, or annoying, but I’m not sure who will be able to do that anytime soon.

I have only my own and another’s account of our use for lume. Speaking only for myself, I am not doing midnight military maneuvers or any cloak and dagger espionage.

Person A states that they frequently get up at night to use the bathroom. Wristglow proves handy because one need not light up an entire room to know whether it’s worth going back to bed or not. Avoiding the temporary loss of night vision is a true benefit, even if light switches are at hand.

Person B states that, maybe twice a summer, they will be outside drinking in the evening. As night falls, concern arises that others are getting a little too loud for the hour. Person B prefers not to stumble inside to find out the time, and everyone’s left ye olde cell phone indoors somewhere.

Each makes a case, but these are conveniences at best. The stakes for what would be lost if the time were not brightly at hand are quite low. We’re not exactly developing photos in a darkroom or away from electric light.

Beyond activities of the clandestine nature, I really can’t think of the dire need for lume. Watches are barely necessities for most, given personal cell phone ubiquity**, so who are we kidding? Watch lume is a party trick, a not-so-novel novelty.

It is more satisfying than necessary. Feel free to rationalize the need, but feel free to enjoy lume frivolously. Besides, enthusiasm isn’t about necessity. Would you rather be wanted or needed? We probably don’t need the lume. It might be better to just admit that we love it.

*Pedantry time! A battery is a multiple of electrochemical cells, so technically there is no wrist watch battery, but only a cell.

** It is pure coincidence that the sample sentence Lexico provides is “the ubiquity of mobile phones means you don’t really need a watch.” I had nothing to do with that entry.


    • Apparently that was a Skymall product. I’m even more taken with the idea of the GlowBowl, which I never saw on TV.

    • I’d hope that the experience of darkness is more common than high pressurization for most of us.
      That is two extremes of necessity and frequency. Lume is almost never really needed but can be used almost daily. Diving depth ratings will almost never be used but the importance if they are is nontrivial.

  1. New Watch Movie Alert! A sad tale though, that at least brought us all the way to your interesting post. Always happy to see the Ball tritium tubes disguised as matchstick fonts. I like lume but you are making me analyze my lumeliking as I never want to know the time after dark. Unless I am on a mission.

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