Everything You Need to Know About Powerful Tritium Watches
Throughout the years, luminous technology is used in the watchmaking industry to ensure maximum legibility. Different watches are equipped with different types of luminous technologies. These technologies are often made in-house by respective watch brands rather than 3rd-party production companies. Some watch brands use luminescent coatings such as LumiNova and its upgraded form, Super-LumiNova. These two are mostly used by renowned names such as Rolex, TAG Heuer, Panerai, and several other Swiss watch brands.
Today, however, we will be taking a look at another incredibly popular type of luminescence used in the watchmaking industry industry: tritium gas tubes. Tritium watches are also very popular with luxury brands due to their more “permanent” luminescence. Most people would prefer watches equipped with tritium gas tubes as they provide greater longevity—especially in situations where light sources are scarce.
The question is, how exactly do tritium gas tubes work? Does it really live up to its reputation as having a “perpetual glow”? For interested parties, are the best tritium watches that you can find on the market? Indeed, tritium gas tubes have been used in many watches over the last few decades. With such a rich history, tritium watches are still relevant to this day. It cannot be denied that there are other well-known luminescent alternatives, but the extensive and historical use of this particular technology is what makes it so interesting. That being said, let us have a closer look at the history of tritium watches to have a more in-depth understanding of how these tritium gas tubes work and what they were initially intended for.
Top 15 Tritium Watches
The legibility of a wristwatch even in poorly-lit situations has become a crucial component in a timekeeper. You never want to be caught out in the dark, at night, and find yourself unable to read your watch’s dial. The readability of a watch’s dial during the day should be equally consistent even at night, and watchmakers have managed to achieve this by utilising luminous technologies such as tritium gas tubes. Indeed, wristwatches are arguably one of the most popular benefactors of advanced luminous technologies, as they truly enhance the quality and utility of a watch. For those interested in trying out the glow of a tritium gas tube, here are the top 15 tritium watches that you can find in the market today.
1. Ball Fireman Enterprise Automatic Ref. NM2188C-S20J-BK
Let’s start the list with one of the most minimalistic tritium watches that can be found on the market. This Ball Fireman Enterprise timepiece is part of the Ball Fireman collection, which is known for featuring tritium gas tubes on their dials. This Ball Fireman Enterprise timepiece, in particular, has a fairly simple design that prioritises legibility among all else. It offers a clean, uncluttered dial and a classy undertone that is further complemented by its beguiling glow in the dark. This is a 40mm stainless steel watch that has a date aperture at the 3 o’clock position along with lengthy hour markers. The tritium gas tubes are placed on each hour marker as well as the silver-plated hands. The tritium gas tubes fitted on the lengthy hour markers and hands offer a clear and accurate view of the dial in the dark. Plus, the sophisticated stainless steel case and bracelet effortlessly complement the green and orange glow of the tritium gas tubes. This watch is equipped with a BALL RR1103 calibre movement, which allows it to run for 48 hours. The price for the Ball Fireman Enterprise Automatic Ref. NM2188C-S20J-BK starts at $1,169 USD.
2. Luminox Atacama Adventurer Field Ref. XL.1767
The Luminox Atacama Adventurer Field Ref. XL.1767 has a distinct design that exudes a fresh and youthful vibe. It boasts a 42mm dark green 316L stainless steel case paired with a matching khaki green textured dial. The nylon strap of the watch also comes in khaki green to complete the colour scheme of the whole watch. The design of this timepiece was clearly inspired by the forest, since it has wood-like features such as the solid hands as well as the hour markers. The tritium gas tubes in this watch are placed in a very unique way. Instead of the usual vertical hour markers, this particular timekeeper places its tritium gas tubes horizontally around the outer rim of the dial. This provides a fresh way to read the time without any confusion, even in the dark. With that, it is the ultimate watch to get for outdoor activities with to its stylish, nature-centric design. It retails at $790 USD—a fair price for such a fashionable tritium watch.
3. Tissot T-Sport PRS 516 Automatic Ref. T100.430.16.041.00
The Tissot T-Sport PRS 516 Automatic Ref. T100.430.16.041.00 is another simplistic wristwatch that has been further defined by its use of tritium gas tubes. It is part of the Tissot T-Sport collection, which is home to Tissot’s variety of sports watches. This particular timepiece establishes a seamless rapport between sportiness and classiness. It has a 42mm 316L stainless steel case with a see-through caseback that showcases the movement. This watch is equipped with the iconic Powermatic 80 calibre movement, which, as the name suggests, is a powerhouse that offers a power reserve of up to 80 hours. Not only that, this watch has a handy water resistance capacity of 100 metres. It also comes with a day and date aperture located at the usual 3 o’clock position. The tritium gas tubes may not be its most prominent feature, but they still add to the sporty demeanour of the Tissot T-Sport PRS 516 Automatic Ref. T100.430.16.041.00. The price for this watch starts at $600 USD, which is quite affordable for a such stylish, minimalistic sports timekeeper.
4. Traser P59 Aurora GMT Blue Ref. 107036
The P59 Aurora GMT Blue Ref. 107036 is an unusual timepiece, with a somewhat futuristic feel to it because of how its dial is arranged. The distribution of blue tritium gas tubes on its hour markers and hands hands almost make it look like a smartwatch. Coming from a rather underrated brand, the P59 Aurora GMT Blue Ref. 107036 uses a different type of tritium gas tubes, called Trigalight. The Trigalight, along with a combination of Super-LumiNova coating, successfully creates this ultimate luminous wristwatch. In addition, this timepiece has a GMT function which is illuminated right in the middle of the dial. This stylish GMT watch can be purchased for $550 USD.
5. Marathon General Purpose Quartz with Date Ref. WW194015SS-NGM
Marathon is known for manufacturing relatively large watches that emphasise durability as well as utility. That makes the Marathon General Purpose Quartz with Date Ref. WW194015SS-NGM fairly unusual in this regard, since, as you can tell from its name, the main purpose of this timepiece is for regular timekeeping, and it does not offer many other complex complications and functions. It is a simple and versatile timekeeper that can work as your casual everyday watch, or as a dress watch for more formal occasions. This 39mm stainless steel timepiece is fitted with tritium gas tubes on each of its hour markers. It also comes equipped with a 24-hour sub-dial in the centre, while the date aperture is located between the 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock markers. This watch may not be to everyone’s tastes, but its classy exterior and simple versatility make it well worth its $600 USD price point.
6. Luminox Navy Seal Colormark Ref. XS.3051.F
Luminox’s main philosophy in manufacturing wristwatches is to provide top-notch clarity and legibility under any circumstances. This vision caught the attention of the US Navy Seals which led them to create the Luminox Navy SEAL collection, in collaboration with the company. One particularly outstanding timepiece from the Luminox Navy Seal lineup is the Luminox Navy Seal Colormark Ref. XS.3051.F. This is a 44mm carbon reinforced polycarbonate watch that boasts great durability and effective timekeeping both during the day and at night. Staying true to its namesake, this watch also has a water resistance rating of 200 metres, while the tritium gas tubes allow the watch face to remain visible and easily readable even underwater. For just $390 USD, the Luminox Navy Seal Colormark Ref. XS.3051.F offers a rugged, military-grade build that is more than worth your while.
7. Tissot T-Sport PRS 516 Chronograph Ref. T100.417.36.051.00
Yet another outstanding entry from Tissot comes from their famous T-Sport series. The Tissot T-Sport PRS 516 Chronograph Ref. T100.417.36.051.00 can be considered as an improved version of the aforementioned Tissot T-Sport PRS 516 Automatic watch. The major difference between the two models is that this timepiece carries a quartz movement while also being a chronograph watch. The Tissot T-Sport PRS 516 Chronograph Ref. T100.417.36.051.00 does not fail to deliver, with its stylish 316L stainless steel case that has a classy rose gold PVD coating. This is complemented by a black embossed cow leather strap that adds to the watch’s luxurious look. This is a sturdy watch with a water resistance capacity of 100 metres. The tritium gas tubes on the hour markers and hands also help greatly in terms of the readability of the watch underwater, especially since this watch carries a darker colour scheme. It is a beautifully made wristwatch that costs only $695 USD.
8. Isobrite Executive Series Ref. ISO701
The Isobrite Executive Series Ref. ISO701 is an oversized timepiece that has a few similarities to the Ball Fireman Racer in terms of its dial design. This watch brandishes a 49mm 316L stainless steel case with a thickness of 15mm. With such a bulky build, there is no question that the durability of this watch is off the charts. In fact, it has a water resistance rating of 200 metres as well as scratch-resistant, shock-resistant sapphire glass. The tritium gas tubes fitted into the hour markers and hands are Swiss-made and of excellent quality as well. The Isobrite Executive Series Ref. ISO701 is manufactured by the Armourlite Watch Company, a brand that focuses on strength and durability above all else—and does so without compromising on legibility and accurate timekeeping. It is only unfortunate that this watch model was discontinued not too long ago. As such, the only way to get your hands on this timepiece is through the second-hand market, which offers the Isobrite Executive Series Ref. ISO701 at a price of $995 USD.
9. Luminox F-117 Nighthawk 6420 Series Ref. XA.6421
The Luminox F-117 Nighthawk 6420 Series Ref. XA.6421 is quite similar to their Navy Seals model. It has a 44mm matte gunmetal PVD-plated stainless steel case equipped with a stylishly rugged bezel. The tritium gas tubes are placed horizontally on the outer rim of the dial while the numeral hour markers are coated with Super-LumiNova pigments. This combination of luminescent technologies has become quite common in the watchmaking industry. Some might think that the excessive use of lume might ruin a watch’s design, particularly in the dark. That said, Luminox has done a great job in maintaining the balance of the Luminox F-117 Nighthawk’s self-illumination. With such a robust build, this watch is undoubtedly durable and comes equipped with a respectable 200 metres water resistance rating. The ruggedness of this watch’s polygon-shaped case and bezel might not be for everyone, but it is still a bold look as stylish as the jet plane it references. The retail price for the Luminox F-117 Nighthawk 6420 Series Ref. XA.6421 starts at $1,075 USD.
10. Nite Hawk Ref. 300TT100
Have you heard of the watch brand Nite? If not, that is perfectly understandable. This brand tends to remain under the radar, even for watch fanatics, but that does not mean it has no great watches to offer. Nite manufactures tritium watches that are perfect for thrill-seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. One of the best Nite watches is the Nite Hawk Ref. 300TT100. It offers a stealthy design, featuring a 51mm black polycarbonate case paired with a matching black polymer strap. The understated black exterior greatly emphasises the green and orange glow of the tritium gas tubes. Since the Nite Hawk Ref. 300TT100 is considered an adventurer’s watch, it is only natural that this watch prioritises durability. It is equipped a unidirectional bezel for timing and diving purposes and it has a 200 metre water resistance rating. Despite being an unpopular brand, the Nite Hawk Ref. 300TT100 is, without a doubt, a great outdoor watch to have. Plus, it only costs $510 USD, making it a very accessible watch for both beginners and experienced enthusiasts.
11. Traser P69 Black Stealth Black Ref. 109854
Unlike the P59 Aurora GMT Blue Ref. 107036, the P69 Black Stealth Black Ref. 109854 has a more tactical design. It boasts a 46mm PVD-coated stainless steel case and a bezel with embossed markings and ridges, providing wearers with an easier grip. Compared to other tritium watches, this timepiece uses the same Trigalight technology as the P59 Aurora Ref. 107036. These Trigalight tritium gas tubes can be found on the bezel as well as in the dial. This watch is also equipped with a Swiss-made quartz movement. It has a water resistance of 200 metres, making it a fairly durable watch. The design of this watch might not be for everyone, but its sophisticated structure adds to its uniqueness, making it a great find. The price of the P69 Black Stealth Black Ref. 109854 starts at $550 USD.
12. Marathon Jumbo Diver/Pilot Automatic Chronograph Ref. WW194014
Today, dive watches are almost always tritium watches as well, as they are known to come with at least one particular illuminating technology to add the diver underwater. It can either be Super-LumiNova or tritium gas tubes. In the case of Marathon Jumbo Diver/Pilot Automatic Chronograph Ref. WW194014, tritium gas tubes, as well as MaraGlo (Marathon’s own luminous technology), are used to ensure maximum readability underwater and in the dark. This watch has a 46mm stainless steel case with a thickness of 18mm. It is quite a hefty watch, to say the least, but it definitely gets the job done—especially since it is very durable. This watch is equipped with the ETA 7750 automatic calibre movement, which comes with over 48 hours of power reserve. It has chronograph sub-dials as well as a day and date aperture at 3 o’clock. For a diver/pilot watch, the water resistance rating it has is more than the average 200 metres. Instead, the Marathon Jumbo Diver/Pilot Automatic Chronograph Ref. WW194014 boasts a whopping 300 metres in terms of water resistance, which makes it perfect for scuba diving. The price of this timepiece starts at $4,700 USD. It is quite an expensive price, yet more than reasonable for a watch of this calibre.
13. Marathon Pilot’s Navigator Ref. WW194001-S-BK-B
The Marathon Pilot’s Navigator Ref. WW194001-S-BK-B is a 41mm quartz watch that has a black composite stainless steel case paired with a ballistic nylon strap. It has the same shape as the Marathon General Purpose watch, but with a much more stylish and sleek design. Despite it being a pilot’s watch, this timepiece has a limited set of features—making it on par with the Marathon General Purpose watch. The water resistance capacity of this watch is only 60 metres, which is admittedly a little lacking compared to its fellow tritium watches on this list. Either way, the Marathon Pilot’s Navigator Ref. WW194001-S-BK-B is still a great beginner’s watch to have. The tritium gas tubes offer the same green and orange glow that we can see on the Marathon General Purpose. In addition, the shape of this watch promotes comfort. This timepiece retails at $430 USD, which makes it significantly cheaper and more affordable than the aforementioned tritium watches from Marathon.
14. Ball Fireman Night Train DLC Ref. NM2092C-P-BK
The Ball Fireman Night Train DLC Ref. NM2092C-P-BK is the embodiment of what Ball wanted to convey in its watches. Since railroad watches, which prioritise precise timekeeping, are their area of expertise, the Ball Fireman Night Train DLC Ref. NM2092C-P-BK provides a dial focused on maximising readability. It is filled with tritium gas tubes on all of its hands, hour and minute markers, and has a large 45mm DLC-coated stainless steel case. This DLC coating provides a new level of smoothness that perfectly complements the green and orange glow of the tritium gas tubes. This watch also has a black rubber strap with a standard buckle, which matches its stealthy profile. The price of the Ball Fireman Night Train DLC starts at $2,099 USD. It might be a little expensive compared to other Ball Fireman tritium watches, but since it is equipped with additional luminescence, the price is certainly reasonable.
15. Ball Fireman NightBreaker Ref. NM2188C-S23-BK
Last on the list is the Ball Fireman NightBreaker Ref. NM2188C-S23-BK. Unlike the stealthy exterior of the Ball Fireman Night Train DLC, this Ball Fireman model leans more toward the classy and elegant side. With the choice of either a black dial or white dial, this watch focuses more on being a dress watch with hints of its railroad heritage. The tritium gas tubes on this timepiece are only located on the hands and hour markers, which is appropriate for the overall minimalistic design of the watch. You can also select the colour of the tritium gas tubes you want, choosing between green, yellow, and white. It sports a 40mm antimagnetic stainless steel case that has a shock resistance of at least 5000Gs. Not only that, but it also has a 100 metre water resistance, which is more than enough for a non-diver watch. The Ball Fireman NightBreaker Ref. NM2188C-S23-BK can be purchased for $1,299 USD.
History of Tritium Gas Tubes
Tritium gas tubes, also known as tritium radioluminescence, date back to 1953, and were patented by Edward Shapiro in the same year. Despite the popularity of its use in wristwatches, the versatility of tritium gas tubes can be seen from the fact that they are also used with tactical equipment like firearms, compasses, aircraft gears, and even traffic signs. It has seamlessly became an effective alternative for battery-dependent sources of light due to its reliability and efficiency. Tritium gas tubes may not have the same capabilities as an average flashlight or a light bulb, but they still get the job done in terms of visibility in the dark. That said, the invention of tritium watches is probably the most prominent use of tritium gas tubes today.
Despite the successful use of tritium gas tubes in wristwatches, there are still those who remain sceptical towards this technology. This is largely because tritium gas tubes are slightly radioactive in nature. It emits at least 0.02 millisieverts of radiation, which is barely noticeable compared to other radioactive elements. Even with such a low amount, however, officials of the German Federal Ministry of the Environment have sought to prohibit the use of tritium gas tubes in products. Swiss watchmakers were devastated by this move which led them to contest the claim. In 1998, Rolex was among the many watchmaking brands to stop its production of tritium watches. They effectively switched to Super-LumiNova, along with several other renowned watch brands. That said, aside from this major change, there are many watchmakers who still prefer tritium watches over luminous coated watches, even in spite of the rulings by the German Federal Ministry officials. It is safe to say that tritium watches are here to stay and are unlikely to be phased out of the market.
How it Works
Going into all the scientific details of how tritium gas tubes work will surely need a lengthier write-up for you to get a good grasp on this technology. Nevertheless, let us go over some of the basics to understand this luminescent technology better. First, glass tubes of any particular size are filled with phosphor powder. This powder is commonly used for fluorescent light bulbs, lamps, and other neon lights. After that, tritium gas is then inserted into the tube. The combination of phosphor power and tritium gas is what creates the glowing effect of the tritium gas tube. Electrons from the tritium gas cause the powder to emit light that will last for more than 20 years. Indeed, while tritium gas tubes cannot quite achieve a “perpetual glow”, which is more of an exaggeration made by marketing, the luminescence from tritium gas tubes can easily last a few decades, much longer than that of luminous coatings. Plus, it does not need any form of external energy source to recharge its luminescence. Advancements in chemical technology have helped in containing the tritium’s radiation and have paved the way for the continuous glow of tritium gas tubes.
Alternatives to Tritium Gas Tubes
As mentioned before, there is one well-known alternative for tritium gas tubes, which is the Super-LumiNova coating. As previously mentioned, several popular watch brands switched away from the use of tritium gas tubes and immediately started using the Super-LumiNova. There are some major differences between the two luminous technologies that set them apart. They are not perfect substitutes for one another, as Super-LumiNova and tritium gas tubes each have their own advantages and strengths.
Super-LumiNova is a branded luminescent paint that is non-radioactive and offers the same glow as that of a tritium gas tube. Unlike tritium gas tubes, Super-LumiNova requires a source of light, be it natural sunlight or artificial light, for it to keep on glowing. This may seem tedious at first, but if you are a frequent wearer of wristwatches, it will not pose any problems for you. It requires little to no effort at all to recharge the glow of the Super-LumiNova. That said, the need to keep recharging Super-LumiNova with light is one of the main reasons why a lot of people still prefer the perpetual glow of a tritium gas tube, which requires no recharging. Super-LumiNova was introduced in 1993 by Nemoto & Co., Ltd., in Japan, as an improved version of the original LumiNova pigment. Nemoto & Co., Ltd. is a company that deals primarily with luminous technology—specifically in luminous paint processing.
Yet another luminous paint that is used in the watchmaking industry is the Seiko-manufactured LumiBrite. The LumiBrite is a notable luminous coating that is most commonly used on Seiko dive watches. It features a glow that is very similar to that of the Super-LumiNova, and is similarly non-radioactive. In addition, LumiBrite also has to be recharged every now and then, to ensure that its glow lasts for more than 3 to 5 hours. The largest problem with both Super-LumiNova and LumiBrite is their longevity. Since these are paints, they are bound to fade and lose their luminosity after a few years of use. That said, the quality and glow of this paint is top-notch, making Seiko’s LumiBrite a solid alternative for tritium watches as well.
Despite the many concerns regarding the radioactive nature of tritium gas tubes, there are still many watch enthusiasts who prefer this luminous technology over luminescent pigments. That is because tritium gas tubes have greater longevity and add more to a watch’s design. Of course, that is not to say that one is better than the other. The choice between tritium watches and timepieces that use luminous pigments is entirely up to your personal preferences. For a subtle yet clear glow, watches Super-LumiNova might just be the ones for you. But if you prefer a brighter glow with embossed markings, then tritium watches would definitely be up your alley, and the ones we have listed above are simply the best of the best available.
If you prefer watches that use Super-LumiNova over tritium watches, be sure to check our complete guide on Super-LumiNova watches!
All photos courtesy of their respective official sites (Traser, Armourlite, Ball, Nite, and Marathon), unless specified.
Featured image courtesy of Ball.