Welcome to Adventures in Luminova, a three-part series of stories exploring the wild and wonderful world of luminous materials in watchmaking
In Part 1: MB&F’s New Glow, we introduce the brand’s exciting new luminous pieces launched at Baselworld 2016
In Part 3: The Light Touch, Black Badger founder James Thompson helps us get right down into the science of photoluminescence
There are times when you need your watch to glow in the dark – when you’re 200m under water, in the twilight zone, and you’ve lost your dive computer; when you’re at the cinema watching an Adam Sandler movie, and you’ve lost your will to live; and when you’re five going on 55 and are under the bedsheets with a boyish grin at your luminescent timepiece.
And, for all the acclaimed functionality of glowing hands and indices, it’s surely the last that counts the most. It is, as watch designer Fiona Kruger has it, “something fun”.
That’s how the Swiss-based, Scottish designer describes her Celebration Skull watch – a riot of Mexican Day of the Dead-influenced colour by daylight, and a glowing blue skull outlined in hand-painted Superluminova in the dark. “Traditionally Superluminova is a technical material but I’ve had this idea of using it in a different, more artistic way for a couple of years,” she says.
“I’m surprised luminescence hasn’t been used much before, although the trick is always to use it in a way that’s clever rather than tacky. But the fact is for a watch designer a more creative use of luminescence opens up many possibilities. And for most people glow-in-the-dark stuff has an appeal that’s easy to grasp.”
Indeed, Kruger is currently far from alone in exploring the potential of the ghostly glow. At SIHH this year, Laurent Ferrier wowed people with “Boreal” versions of its Galet Square and Galet Traveller watches, the hours marked out by lume in the pattern of an old-fashioned sector dial.
Chopard even gave us a glowing fish surrounded by luminescent diamonds in an eccentric version of its Happy Diamonds ladies’ watch last year; and it may be a more conventional use of lume, but Omega’s Pitch Black version of the Dark Side of the Moon, with ultra bright luminescent dial and bezel markings, brought a whole new aspect to the Moonwatch.
An inevitable early mover is Max Busser, founder of MB&F, who got creative with lume in 2014 with the final edition of the HM3, in which the rotor swung back and forth over a luminescent disc, creating a strobe effect in low light. He has just launched a range of watches and clocks going heavy on the use of luminescence (see Part 1 of this series). “It’s going to be the next big thing in watches,” he says. “It’s practical, it catches your attention and, well, it’s just really cool.”
The brightest star (as it were) in this particular sky, however, is Busser’s sometime collaborator, Scandinavian watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva. His Korona “Northern Lights” limited editions – unveiled last year, and with a new batch just announced – have dials milled directly from luminous material, which are overlaid with Superluminova indexes. “And we just used it on the dial when I was planning to use it much more extensively, so maybe that’s a watch that’s yet to come,” says Sarpaneva, who first explored the idea back in 2005 with his Moonshine design.
“We have a very dark winter here in Finland so we need any light we can get. But really luminescence gives your watch two identities – it’s Jekyll and Hyde. Yes, it’s difficult to find a sophistication that doesn’t make a watch look like a free toy from McDonald’s, but I do think the use of luminescence will be very big within a couple of years”.
Morten Linde, the designer behind Linde Werdelin watches, says luminescence is “an element you can play with that can give a watch a certain poetic treatment rather than the usual functional one” – he cites the likes of the company’s Oktopus moonphase, in which the photo-realistic lunar disc was entirely covered with a luminous material. But he too argues for restraint: “Only the right amount of luminescence can make a watch interesting, rather than hysterical”.
The Swiss company behind all this glow-in-the-dark activity is RC Tritec, which developed Superluminova (in conjunction with Japanese firm Nemoto), the watch industry’s go-to luminescent material. A single gram of this material may be enough for as many as 600 watches. “One thing that is really important to brands is the Superluminova’s consistency, in both texture and colour,” says the firm’s head of luminous pigments, Albert Zeller. “We can do any colour now for its non-active [ie. daylight] state – if we get that wrong it can destroy a lot of watches.”
As it happens, the patent on Tritec’s product lapsed 18 months ago. For now, though, Tritec itself is driving the creative application of lume by keeping pushing the material’s potential. Last May saw the launch, for example, of Grade X1, a Superluminova pigment that promises twice the brightness of standard lume after 12 hours – the longer you keep it in the dark, in fact, the brighter it gets.
This helps overcome the problems both of the material’s efficiency decaying over time, and the eye growing gradually acclimatised to it over prolonged exposure, reducing its effectiveness. Tritec is also developing Superluminova as a more structural material, meaning that within a couple of years whole watch parts will be able to made out of it.
“That’s going to make for a lot more creative possibilities,” reckons Zeller. “Much of the watch industry sees its creative use as risky, but we’re starting to see much more experimentation with Superluminova now, albeit mostly with the smaller, more progressive independent makers.”
And not just through working with Superluminova. For the Korona “Northern Lights” watches, Sarpaneva worked with Sweden’s Black Badger Advanced Composites, a company founded by expat Canadian industrial designer James Thompson, which also makes rings using luminescent materials. Thompson was also behind the eerie glow encircling the dial on Schofield’s pioneering Blacklamp watch from 2013, and specialises in working with materials like Moonglow, a green photoluminous acrylic, and Ambient Glow Technology’s AGT Ultra.
It’s the latter that’s deployed in Sarpaneva’s watches, and a forthcoming 2.0 upgrade, plus other strontium aluminate (the active ingredient in all luminova) products new to the market, could really dazzle in the near future. They look likely to provide the kind of fine tolerances required in high-end watchmaking, allow a move away from the use of plastics, and will mean whole glowing parts can be easily integrated into a watch design.
“That would allow us to make something more exotic still, more glossy,” says Schofield’s Giles Ellis, who is continuing to investigate the potential of luminous design. “The important thing is to strike the balance between gimmick and a really good idea, and clearly the provision of a free light source can be a good idea.”
For a really free light source, you could look to HYT, the avant-garde firm specialising in “hydro-mechanical” watches. It has exhibited a completely different take on glow-in-the-dark with its H4 Metropolis, a watch that incorporates a tiny mechanically-powered generator to charge two LEDs that bathe the dial in a soft blue light. It also energises the green fluid that’s pumped around the edge of the dial to mark out the hours.
“Luminescence is a strong idea in an industry which often seems to have plateaued on new ideas,” adds Thompson. “Refinement is required to get an element of playfulness rather than end up with something that looks like a movie prop. But everyone has this childish, visceral, positive reaction to it. It wakes up some corner of your mind – back when you hid under the covers, back before you forgot how to have fun.”
Read on for Part 3, in which we explain just how luminova actually works.