Radium Dial Watches: A Definitive Stance on a Hotly Debated Topic

Exploring the history of radium, and addressing if you should wear it

J. HEFFNER, Oct 2021

It might be the reason you don't buy anything prior to 1963. Or perhaps you've never even considered what radium is, and if you should wear it.

The harsh reality is that there are many factors to be considered with a radium watch, and it seems there's a lack of professional decisiveness on the matter, but mere opinions on forums.

Diving deep into this topic is gonna get nerdy, so strap in for this one...

Oh, by the way, you may be wondering what makes me qualified to discuss radioactivity and shit related to chemistry...

...A degree in biochemistry and molecular biology specializing in forensic chemical analysis - that's what.

Someone Could've Died Making A Watch

The world was a different, very different place 90 years ago. This was the era of discovering, and using a thing before there was even any research as to what it actually was.

Radium was 'discovered' as physicists were researching different compounds and their uses. This chemical element was being utilized prior to any real knowledge of radioactivity and its effect on humans.

Often, those who worked with radioactive compounds prior to knowing their effects died young of cancer, but their work was still instrumental in pioneering research in chemistry.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the element, and it was soon marketed as a medical remedy. In the era of snake oil salesmen, radium could be found in toothpaste, water containers, ointments, water, pills, nail polish, really anything you could think of. There was even makeup containing radium that was said to make your skin glow (that was literally radioactivity visualized).

Sick at the doctors? Sometimes they would suggest consuming the compound. Digestion issues? Wear a radium infused corset all day and night. Want to be able to read your watch in the dark? Just apply some radium to its dial...

This brings us to the Radium Girls. Young women who worked in American dial painting factories were instructed to mix radium power (meaning this radioactive dust was in the air) with luminescent paint and apply it to watch dials.

At the time, they were instructed to lick the radium coated brushes for precision - after all, it was common knowledge that radium was either harmless, or medically beneficial.

These women started complaining of achy bones (proven to be tumors), teeth falling out, headaches, sickness, etc.

One day, while at the dentist, one of these factory workers had her jaw fall off into the dentist's hands. The dentist (as one does) put her jaw adjacent to X-ray film where he noticed an image of the jaw developed. That's when it became known that radium may not be a miracle medicine. The saddest part is that there's evidence that the watch brand heads knew of this detriment but kept it under wraps for years.

The licking technique demonstrated above - just performing this once would put an individual at a severe risk of developing cancer

What We Now Know

In an attempt to explain this phenomena scientifically, we must first look at the specific formula of radium used in these watches.

The isotope of radium found on virtually all watch dials from the era experiences a half life of 1600 years. This means that it is virtually as radioactive today as it was the day the watch was cased in the 1950s. Those with strong watch related opinions online are often under the belief that because the watch is old, it is less dangerous - but that is simply not factual.

The radium in these watches never glowed itself, but its ionizing energy excited electrons in luminescent paint that would cause glow. In theory, if you added more of this paint, the old radium would make it glow just as bright as it once did.

Our hand-applied American-made radium-packed specimen "RaSWISSRa"

Measuring radioactivity from old watches is rather telling, considering even tritium was once a little radioactive. Tritium, nowadays, is similar to background radiation (completely safe to wear).

Radium on the other hand, is about as radioactive as receiving a CT scan on your wrist daily.

Time To Sell Your Old Watches?

The answer we've all been waiting for...

Should you be worried, knowing this?

No, not really.

You see, the radiation emitted by radium watches (especially the isotope used in them) is primarily alpha rays with some gamma rays.

Alpha rays barely penetrate any solid, and are virtually blocked by steel. This means that a Geiger counter on the crystal will give alarming reads, but one on the caseback will be virtually safe (yet still more radiation compared to tritium). While the radiation is still ionizing (cancer causing), it isn't the most serious as compared to touching your skin to the compound.

Now if you're very, very diligent with your health, perhaps you'd like to stay away from radium. But it's still possible to relume/restore the paint (**vintage collectors all cringing at once**).

That brings me to the point of opening the watch up. Radium is essentially safe to wear, but the moment you open the caseback, or pop out the dial, it becomes extremely unsafe.

Radium particles can get in the air, and if any are consumed, you'll have ionizing radiation-producing compounds in your body essentially forever (unless you live to be older than 1600).

The body treats these compounds similar to calcium, so it will be deposited in your bones - yeah, that's some scary shit.

Additionally, radium decomposes to radon gas, a cancer causing dense gas that is easily inhaled into the lungs.

All in all, pretty safe to wear regularly, absolutely safe to wear on occasion, extremely dangerous to open or service.

If radium will burn a dial, what would it do to your body?

Worry Not

Now I wouldn't run to pickup a dial coated in radium, but one with little plots, or perhaps a little burn won't kill you.

If you're a watchmaker though, be very careful around the stuff, radioactivity is nothing to mess with.

Life is too short to not enjoy watches because of their lume. After all, some of the hottest pieces out there have radium, and still fetch millions at auction.

If you liked this article, shoot us a message and let us know! We are always happy to chat watches!

-JH

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