The Case Against Watch Lume: It’s Weak Sauce and Here’s Why

I’ve always maintained that lume is the least impressive part of any luxury watch, in spite of how big a chunk of the collecting conversation it takes up. If you want to get a sense of just how unimpressive it is, try explaining it to a layman and see how long you last before inevitably describing it as “glow-in-the-dark paint,” which is exactly what it is.

Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep

Calling it Super-LumiNova sounds impressive, but it’s the same stuff the fluorescent stars tacked onto your childhood bedroom ceiling are made of. And those haven’t impressed you since you hit puberty.

Lume on a watch, however, is—and will remain—the bee’s knees, the cat’s meow, and the dog’s bollocks, as the Brits would say, up there with racing stripes on a roadster and vanilla ice cream on a slice of apple pie. Every collector I know goes ga-ga over it.

Even our lord and savior, Tim Mosso, raves about the luminosity of each luminous watch he covers on YouTube, ending each review with a patented lume shot, taken with the lights completely off for full effect. Insert Toy Story alien GIF here: Ooooooooooooooooooh!

I don’t get it. All lume does is hold a bit of light and temporarily beam it out. Big whoop.

Admittedly, when fully charged, it is eerily captivating. I can’t, for the life of me, tell you why, but I’m sure you’ve been there: holding your watch at eye level, fixated on the dial, basking in the fluorescent afterglow radiating back at you before a nice, sobering “What the hell am I doing?” springs to mind and snaps you out of it. 

Lume is, as far as I can work out, distracting at best and useless at worst. How, in this day and age, it translates to a big selling point is, for all intents and purposes, beyond me.

Ball Watch Engineer Master II Diver Chronometer lume

Besides, if that’s what tickles your pickle, why not go for the full Marie Curie treatment and get a Ball Watch? Independently from external light sources, the gas tubes it comes with will glow a hundred times brighter than conventional lume, like an anglerfish, meaning you’ll be able to tell the time in the dark no matter how long you’ve been in it.

Rolex Milgauss on the wrist (photo courtesy Raman Kalra)

I can’t say the same about my Rolex Milgauss, whose time I’ve hardly ever been able to tell in a movie theater, or in my car at night (my Mazda’s clock can’t keep time for shit).

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Neither can I make the time out when I wake up in the middle of the night, no matter how hard I squint, even though my eyesight isn’t even half bad. I understand that laying the watch down, dial side up, underneath a bright bulb for a while would help the lume retain its glow, but who wants to do that before going to bed each night? “I’ll be right there, honey, ‘soon as I’m done harvesting light!”

Panerai Radiomir Otto Giorni

Functionality aside, if only for the sake of tradition rather than application, lume does make sense on a wide range of sports pieces and dive watches in particular, playing a big role aesthetically. It’s hard to imagine a Panerai Radiomir or Blancpain Fifty Fathoms without it—and for good reason: lume is integral to the genre and (as Mosso would say) true to history.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa

On high-end, dress pieces, however, not so much. Here, the addition of lume clashes with the baroque, artisanal, and classical cadence of such things, especially when used to excess.

Finished product: uniquely fitted Wellendorff bracelet, Lange Datograph Lumen (photo courtesy CB)

Drenching a Datograph’s dial, or any Lange’s, for that matter, with the stuff is like dipping bluefin tuna in mayo or sriracha—criminal.

Same goes for dressy sports watches. Lume will ruin anything dressy, or at least take it down a notch, no matter how sparsely sprinkled in.

Omega Speedmaster “Ed White” 321

Case in point: the Speedmaster “Ed White” 321. Its indices are of the unfortunate “fauxtina” variant, a new substance made to look old, meant to take us back to simpler times. You know, when female factory workers were encouraged to lick the tips of radium-soaked paint brushes, causing their jaws to crumble.

Alas, I digress. Consider again the Ed White. Close your eyes for a second and substitute the sickly, lumpy lume, which is about as palatable as a turtle’s taint, with fresh white paint that matches the rest of the dial’s details. Now, isn’t that better? What you have there is an honest-to-God, good-looking watch, clean and pristine.

I don’t know about you, but a greenish-yellowish color scheme doesn’t exactly scream moon landing to me. Save it for your Hamilton Khakis and the like. 

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While we’re on space watches, here’s another favorite of mine, a dressy icon spoiled by the same culprit: the new Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute, now available partly in platinum. If I’m paying a substantial premium for the metal, I expect nothing less than matching appliqué numerals and indices.

Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute

But that’s just me. Nearly everyone else, I suspect, would rather have a watch that (under the right circumstances) glows in the dark: Oooooooooooooooh!

George Kern and his overlords know this and cater to the masses accordingly, thus achieving their ultimate goal of moving units and making boat-loads of money. Cha-ching.

Rest assured, should I bump into Kern, I’ll sit him down and plead my case: Can you please do it my way? I don’t see why not. John Mayer sat Thierry Stern down and talked his way into a piéce unique, a 5004G decked out with lumed hands, effectively dressing Michelangelo’s David in a high-visibility vest.

John Mayer’s Patek Philippe 5004G

Surely, if Mr. J.C. Mayer could make such requests, wildly deviating from tradition and bordering on the sacrilegious, I should be given some room for customization.

I know Mayer’s a Grammy Award-winning national treasure and a serious collector at that, but I’m no slouch either; I write for Quill & Pad, for Pete’s sake. This gig may not qualify me for a meeting with Patek, but a meeting with Breitling? Doable.

George, if you’re reading this, let’s get the ball rolling on my piece: a platinum Cosmonaute featuring solid platinum numerals and indices in lieu of the squidgy luminescent ones.

And whatever you do, please don’t worry about me. Should I need to read the time while my spacecraft is in the shadow of the Earth, I’ll hit the dome light.

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3 replies
  1. J. Quincy Magoo
    J. Quincy Magoo says:

    On the subject of the use of lume, and especially with its current day “superluminova” (whatever that means, Ha!) presentation, let’s bring back tritium! I like glowing in the dark! Now, if I could only find the light switch.

    Reply
  2. John Adams
    John Adams says:

    I don’t follow…yes sports watches have lume and dress watches do not, something about not liking the lume color on a speedmaster?

    Reply
  3. LocalheroEd
    LocalheroEd says:

    My weak lume often causes me to mistake the time in the early hours. I thought the answer was better lume but now I’m thinking no lume and just checking my phone like ‘normal’ people do.

    J. Mayer has improved general legibility with the custom hands but will still be squinting in the dark like he just hit puberty with those numerals. He clearly doesn’t have an eye for aesthetics, or he would have got the weekday and month backgrounds to match the dial on his custom piece – although, ironically, this might have made them harder to read.

    In summary, some good lume some of the time or just forget it?

    Reply

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