The topic of reluming a watch dial is a topic that splits opinions. There are all kinds of different advice online, but in this article, we thought we would discuss the pros and cons and explain why some people think it is a good idea and others not. Once you have all the details and information, only then can you make a decision of whether you should relume your watch or not.
What does it mean to relume a watch dial?
Most watches have luminescent material applied to them in order to improve the legibility in the dark, most often referred to as ”lume”. But the innovations regarding luminescent materials that have been used have evolved and changed a lot over the years. In the early stages of wristwatches, in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, most manufacturers used radium for the lume on their watches. The issue with radium, that people weren’t really aware of, was that radium is highly radioactive and extremely dangerous to our health. In fact, in fact, the individuals who applied the luminescence to watch dials are today known as ”radium girls” because it was women who worked with this task in the factories. These women contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with radium, and oftentimes, they were instructed to lick on their brushes in order to get more precision with their tip.
Eventually, people started realizing the health dangers of using radium in watches, in particular for the factory workers, and so Radium was banned for watches. In 1963, Rolex stopped using radium due to the high risk of cancer that this radioactive substance has.
Later on, manufacturers moved from radium to tritium, another radioactive substance, but not anywhere near the radioactivity of radium.
What does this have to do with reluming a watch dial, you may ask?
Well, over time, both radium and tritium start to age and deteriorate. Tritium, in particular, which is the type of watches that most people consider reluming, has a half-life of 12,3 years. As such, the glow of tritium becomes weaker and weaker over time, until it finally stops glowing. Of course, the point of luminescence is that it glows, and therefore, an old watch that has stopped glowing is by some people seen as a problem that needs to be solved. This is then done by reluming the watch dial.
Reluming the dial of a watch essentially means that you remove the old luminescent material from the watch dial and hands, and apply new, fresh, and glowing material to it. By doing this, you get a new and strong glow so you can achieve better legibility in low-lit conditions. With the said, reluming a watch dial may make perfect sense.
In addition to the half-life that some luminescence materials have, the luminous material also tends to change appearance over time. If you look at vintage watches, for example, you can see what is often known as ”cream lume”. This means that the luminescent material starts turning brown or cream-colored. And over time, it can also start cracking and coming off the hands and markers.
With this in mind, some people also see reluming as a way of tidying up a watch and giving it a fresh new appearance.
So, what’s the deal about reluming? Why are some people so negative against it? Well, here’s the deal:
Why you shouldn’t relume a watch dial
Because of the natural aging of watches, the watches that need to be relumed are vintage watches. Vintage watches get a unique look thanks to their aging, and this includes its lume as well. But as you may know, vintage watch collectors and enthusiasts want everything to be completely original in a watch. This is true for virtually any vintage object and industry.
The ”patina” and signs of aging are an appealing aspect of vintage items that tell a story and add to their charm. But when you then go in and change that, by adding completely new material, vintage watches, according to most collectors, lose their appeal.
The truth is that in most cases, reluming a watch dial will affect its value negatively. Remember that collectors strive to find perfect examples of untouched, original, vintage watches, but a relume watch dial is a watch that has been tampered with, and therefore, reluming a watch negatively affects the appeal that it has amongst collectors. Essentially all modifications to vintage watches will hurt a watch’s value, and this is particularly true for something that is as visible as its lume. When you add new lume to a vintage watch, the lume will most often also be completely white. And this of course does not align with the signs of aging that a vintage watch actually should have. Usually, it will create a strange contrast to a perhaps aged dial or bezel.
Of course, everyone is free to do whatever they want with their watches. As long as you are aware of the fact that it will have a negative effect on its value.
But as a wise man once said, ”appreciating vintage is appreciating imperfections.”. But with this in mind, if you have an affordable vintage watch, reluming a watch may not be a big deal. Yes, it will most likely affect its value, but if you value the benefits of reluming more, then you may prefer to relume it anyway.
Another piece of advice that we can give when it comes to reluming is that if you really want to go that route, it is better to buy an additional dial for your watch that you relume, and then keep the original untouched. That way, you get the benefits of reluming, but without having to destroy the originality of your watch.
Because the fact of the matter is that most vintage watch buyers would opt for an original, untouched watch over a relumed watch. And as a result, this also affects the value for the relume pieces.
Not all relume jobs are good
If you take a look at various relume jobs, you’ll quickly find that not all of them are done well. Reluming back in the days was more or less standard practice, and this is why you can find a lot of watches that have been relumed. But today, when more vintage watches have become collectible, and the number of collectors has increased (and equally so the prices), not reluming has become even more crucial for the value of a watch.
The issue with reluming is that if the job is not done by someone who is truly an expert, the application of new lume can look unprofessional and uneven. You’ll definitely be able to distinguish a good lume application job from a poor one.
The bottom line is, a relume of a watch dial loses its originality and appeal to collectors, regardless if the job has been done well or less well. Patina is and has always been a great appeal in vintage items, and aged lume plots and hands are a big part of that when it comes to watches.