Original radium dial markers or not?

Submitted by Michael78 on November 19, 2020 - 9:13am

I have eelatively recently started to collect military watches (Bulova amongst them) and have read a lot on the forums about Radium and the health issues that come with it's deterioration in the form of radon gas emissions. Even a small collection in an enclose dspace can present with readings well above recommended safety limits.

Can anyone please advise me what the current concensus is amongst collectors and the secondary market as to whether original radium dial markers should be replaced with a more modern and completely safe alternative such as a symathetically coloured superluminova?

My feeling is that in the fullness of time original radium marked dials will deteriorate so much that replacements will probably prove necessary not just desirable.

Any thoughts or perceptions would be very welcome.

Geoff Baker
Posted November 19, 2020 - 9:15pm

There is a lot of information on the internet about the dangers of radium including all it's many uses. While we are avid watches collectors we really can't claim to be scientists so I suggest getting information from the scientists. Having said that there are a few forums posted by different members regarding radium and it's use to illuminate watch hands. HERE is an example of one such comment posted by one of our resident watchmakers, Rob.

Posted November 20, 2020 - 2:57pm

In reply to by Geoff Baker

Geoff, thank you for your reply and link to an extremely interesting thread.

I was hoping for a professional and collectors opinion about whether to redial radium marked dials. It seems pointless to collect radium watches if you cannot enjoy wearing, looking and displaying them without exposing yourself or your family to the high risk of radon poisoning.

I’d really appreciate any help you or any other members are able to offer regarding, whether replacing the watch dials with new dials with appropriately and sensitively coloured superluminova marks:

Firstly, would remove the radon emissions and radioactivity risks altogether;

Secondly, detract from the perceived value or would this (possibly in the longer term) make them more attractive to the more safety concious collectors?

Thank you.


Geoff Baker
Posted November 20, 2020 - 10:05pm

Mike - removing the radium does not remove any risk but as Rob stated there's strong opinion that the movement and case adds a layer of safety and mitigates virtually all the risk. There seems to be a great deal of risk in the act of removing the radium as it become friable. Regarding the collectability, I don't think there is consensus either way. I had most of my dials restored and yet some collectors will not even consider a watch that had been restored. My belief is that if someone is so concerned with safety they should consider collecting stamps or coins instead.

Posted November 21, 2020 - 3:18am

Mike I'm of the belief that the risk is minimal as long as you don't plan on digesting the radium.

I have in the past removed the radium by immersing the dial in a bucket of watch and removing the radium paint and then disposing of the watch in the garden.

Others may not agree with this method and I've only ever done it were the lume is partial and distracts from the overall look of the watch. If the lume is still all there then I typically leave it in place.

When you read of the stories of the women in the 1920s who originally painted the dials (the radium girls) and would lick their paint brushes to refine the tip, over and over and over and over...again, they did end up with radium poisoning.

Reverend Rob
Posted November 28, 2020 - 11:12pm

I would add that there certainly are instances where touching the dial in any way will profoundly affect the value. Higher end vintage watches like Rolex can be affected very negatively value-wise, if the dial has been re-done in any way. Any time you have a rare watch, and I mean, really rare, or really valuable, doing any kind of mod or refinish will be detrimental to the value. 

That said, there are a great many watches that would not suffer any loss of value by re-dialing or removal of Radium. Radium paint can be stabilized like any other paint if it begins to flake, but this is conservator work. My Grandfather was also a watchmaker, and suffered terribly from radium sickness because during WWII he was tasked with repairing Aircraft Instruments and re-painting luminous instructions on panels. Everyone knew it was hazardous, but you just got on with it. This does inform my decisions to wear or even collect Radium watches. I do have an old Tudor that I wore for decades, with no ill effects as far as I know. I think the key here is condition. Is that old watch beat up and with a cracked crystal, and flaking Radium lume? Or is it in fairly good condition, and looks as though it has been well kept? We've all seen Radium burns on dials, but remember that takes many years of the hand not moving. As I have mentioned elsewhere, removing the Radium also does not render the watch non-radioactive. In all cases the emissions are still fairly high afterwards. Stripped Radium dials are still radioactive, but I would assume the risk is far less. 

There are Geiger counters available for smart phones, and I used to carry one all the time, it is just a little collector tube that plugs into your phone. Hand held ones are also available and not very expensive, less than $50. 

Posted November 29, 2020 - 10:52pm

This is a really interesting talk about radium and how safe or not safe it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Kew04Qgc1I 

I wouldn't mess with a dial that has the radium still on it. You do more harm to yourself by removing it vs just leaving it alone than it can do to you in the case. 

I have a few watches from the 20s and 30s that have radium dials and hands. Some still glow a bit, some don't. I don't mess with them, just wear them from time to time. The radioactivity is for the most part contained by the watch case and crystal.