Watch Hands

Watch hands are the most important part of the dial. Without them the watch has no utility. They are almost always made from metal, and can be finished in a vast range of ways, although black, gilded and shiny silver finishes are popular. Blued hands were popular in watches up to the early 20th century.

1. Hand Styles

Alpha

They are triangular in shape, with a wide base that tapers to a sharp point. The design creates a sense of depth and dimension on the watch face while maintaining legibility. Alpha hands are flat and often found on dress and sports watches alike.

Arrow

Arrow watch hands feature a pointer in the shape of an arrow on the end.

Baton

Baton watch hands are a common and old style of watch hand. They are similar to stick hands except they are wider and are characterized by their simple, elongated, rectangular shape. Baton hands are often used on dress watches and minimalist watches.

Breguet

Breguet hands are a type of watch hand that feature a hollow, eccentric “moon” tip. They were designed by Abraham Louis Breguet in 1783 and have been a common watchmaker’s term ever since. 

Cathedral

Cathedral watch hands are a type of watch hand that are named for their resemblance to stained glass windows. They are often found on military and pocket watches. Cathedral watch hands are typically larger on the hour hand and smaller on the minute hand.

Dauphine

Dauphine watch hands are a type of watch hand that have been used since the 1930s. They are tapered and have a faceted relief that gives them a shiny appearance.

Lance

Lance hands are named for their long, slender shape, which is similar to a long, pointed weapon. They are usually faceted to catch light for better legibility. Their proportions need to be carefully designed to keep the hour and minute hands easily distinguishable

Leaf

Leaf watch hands are a style of watch hands that are shaped like leaves. They are also known as feuille hands, which is French for leaf.

Pencil

Pencil watch hands are a type of watch hand that resemble the shape of a pencil.  They are long, thin, and straight with a small point at the tip.  Pencil hands are sometimes called compared to stick hands which are thinner and are often used on watches that focus on legibility.

Skeleton

Skeleton watch hands can really be of any shape. What distingues then is that they are open in the center and non-lumed

Stick

Stick watch hands, the thinner version of pencil or baton hands, are long, straight, and unadorned. They are a versatile option for various watch styles and are often used in minimalist watches. The tips can either be pointed or flat.

Sword

Sword watch hands are long, thin hands with a sharp point at the end. They are shaped like a sword blade, with a wider base that narrows to a point at the tip. Sword hands are often used for seconds or other small subdials, but they can also be used to indicate chronograph functions

SYRINGE

Syringe watch hands are a type of watch hand that feature a barrel-shaped body with a needle-sharp pointer. These hands should be long enough to hit the minute or seconds markers

MERCEDES

Mercedes hands are a type of watch hand that resembles the Mercedes logo and typically the pattern is just on the hour hand.  These were first introduced in the mid 50s on Rolex sports models such as the Explorer and Submariner.  They are designed to hold the lume component of the watch and provide visibility of the hour hand when it is overlapped by the minute hand.

SNOWFLAKE

Snowflake watch hands are a type of watch hand that was first introduced in 1969. They were designed to be more legible for divers who relied on their watches in low light conditions and the pattern is seen on the hour hand.

Fleur De Lys

The fleur de lys motif is a stylized lily, which is common in French heraldry. Fleur de lys watch hands feature a thicker lilly on its hour hand, and a ultra-thin one on the minute hand. There are tons of varieties and designs that would fall under this category.

Spade

Spade watch hands are shaped like the playing card suit.  Popular on pocket watches there are several different varieties and designs

Luminous

Luminous watch hands are any hands that glow in the dark.  The earliest version used Radium and then Tritium was introduced both of which are radioactive. Now lume powers are all safe to use and exposure to the powders. They can be of almost any shape or style of hand as long is its skeletonized.

2. Removing Watch Hands

3. Cleaning Watch Hands

Cleaning plated watch hands can be done in a few ways depending on how dirty they are: 

  • Use a pencil eraser to brighten tarnished hands.
  • Use a glass scratch brush to remove heavy corrosion.
  • Use a chamois or leather polishing stick to wipe off gilded or plated hands.

You can also try these steps to refinish blued steel hands: 

  1. Clean the hands with detergent and IPA.
  2. Remove any heavy corrosion with a glass scratch brush.
  3. Polish the hands with a leather buff stick with rouge to remove any scratches.
  4. Polish the hands on a rotary tool with a soft cotton wheel or hard felt bob until they have a high luster. I recommend using Dialux orange for cutting, grey for pre polishing and green for polishing.
  5. Clean the hands with detergent and rinse well in water.

Fitting Loose Watch Hands

4. Luminous Hands

Radioactive Luminous Hands

Since the latter decades of the 20th century (from about 1970) watches have been made with non-radioactive luminous paint on their hands and dials. The paint absorbs energy from daylight or artificial light, and then glows with a greenish light for several hours after dark. Other colors of luminosity can be achieved at greater cost.

4.1 Radium

Early luminous watches used radium, which is radioactive material that takes thousands of years to decay (lose its radioactivity). Consequently, this type of luminous paint is still almost as radioactive as when new, even though the phosphors it is mixed with may no longer luminesce.

The radiation from the radium on a watch dial is very low in normal use. The danger arises if the radioactive paint is disturbed. It tends to break up into fine, dust-like particles which can be ingested or inhaled. Once in the body they present a real health risk.

If you suspect a watch uses radium for the dial numerals or hands, you may want to consider politely refusing the work. Radium may still be present even if the dial or hands no longer glow in the dark.

After the use of radium was discontinued, some watches used a tritium-based luminous dial treatment. This is regarded as much safer than radium (indeed, it was used in the dials of some telephones in the 1970s). However, it is no longer in use.

Always exercise caution if working with vintage watches, and avoid direct contact with older luminescent materials.

4.2 Tritium-based Lume

Tritium is a radioactive material that continuously glows on its own. It’s less bright but has a constant glow that lasts for years. However, its radioactive nature means it’s regulated in many countries.

Following the ban of radium, tritium emerged as the luminescent replacement. While tritium shared some characteristics with radium, it was significantly less radioactive. Think of tritium’s radioactivity being somewhat similar to an x-ray. It was safer, not just for the person wearing the watch, but also for those making them.

The glow of both radium and tritium came from the decaying compounds in the paint. As they decayed, they released glowing electrons. However, there was a drawback. As the compounds decayed, the glow became weaker over time until it stopped glowing entirely. Also, the luminous paint changed its color, turning creamy and later to a sandy hue.

Tritium became the luminescent favorite until around the late 1990s to early 2000s. By then, newer and safer materials like Luminova and Superluminova started to take over. That said, tritium hasn’t completely vanished. Brands like Luminox and Ball have found innovative ways to use tritium gas tubes for consistent brightness.

4.3 How Did Brands Indicate the Use of Tritium?

Due to its radioactive properties, watch brands had to inform users when tritium was used on dials. For example, Rolex and Tudor had specific markings like “T SWISS T” and “SWISS T <25” on their dials. These markings signified the presence of tritium and the degree of its radioactivity.

5 Types of Luminous Paint

5.1 Super-LumiNova

One of the most popular and widely used non-radioactive luminous compounds. It charges quickly when exposed to light and glows in the dark. It comes in various colors and grades, determining the intensity and duration of the glow.

The Swatch group has exclusively used this material on all of their watches since 1997.  

5.2 Tritium Gas Tubes

Tritium gas tubes are an innovative solution for achieving perpetual luminescence in watches.

Unlike other materials which require an external light source for charging, tritium gas naturally emits electrons due to its aging process. These electrons then energize the paired phosphorous material, making the watch glow continuously.

5.3 Advantages of Tritium Gas Tubes

While tritium-based watches might have a slightly higher manufacturing cost than watches with Super-LumiNova, the benefits they offer are notable.

Instead of the glow fading in just a few hours, tritium gas tubes ensure the watch shines for an impressive span of up to 25 years!

Tritium in the Watch Market:

Despite its clear advantages, tritium is not as commonly used as one might expect. It’s somewhat of an unsung hero in the world of watch illumination.

However, there are some pretty good brands that have recognized and embraced the potential of this technology like Luminox, Marathon, Traser, and Ball

In conclusion, while tritium remains less dominant in the market compared to other luminescent materials, its sustained glow and longevity make it a valuable choice for many watch enthusiasts. The brands mentioned are pioneers in utilizing this promising technology.

6.1 RC-Tritec

A leading manufacturer to Swiss watch brands, this company produces Super-LumiNova and has a wide range of colors

6.2 Color Brightness

  • C1 – White with about 31% brightness of C3
  • C3 – Yellow with the brightest glow
  • C5 – Greenish-yellow with 89% brightness
  • C7 – Green with 84% brightness
  • C9 – Bluish-green with about 83% brightness
  • BGW9 – Light bluish-white with about 95% glow of C3
  • Old Radium – Appears to be aged/vintage tritium lume in the daytime, but glows a bright yellowish-green at night
  • Old White – Off-white color in the day, glows yellowish-green at night

6.3 GRADES OF SUPER-LUMINOVA:

  • Standard
  • Grade A
  • Grade X1

Grade X1 is the newest formulation of SLN. According to RC Tritec, Grade X1 lume shows improvements of up to 60% after two hours. This increase is based on a comparison between Standard Grade and X1 grade. It does not mention what the performance increase is when comparing Grade A to Grade X1.

Note: It appears that not all colors/pigments are available in all grades. For example, C3 (green) is available up to Grade X1, but the BGW9 (white) is only available in Standard Grade or Grade A.

While this newer formula of Super-LumiNova is said to provide a brighter and longer lasting glow, traditionally the more lume material you apply to the dial the brighter it will be. This is why some watch brands advertise that they apply multiple level of lume to their watches. For example, Lum-Tec is recognized in the luminescence arena for their process of applying 6-8 layers of Super-LumiNova over a pure white base to produce a long-lasting, dense glow.

6.4 Lumibrite

Found on Seiko watches, Lumibrite is a proprietary luminous material that’s very similar in performance to Super-LumiNova. Seiko began using it around 1994. I will not spend much time on, because you can’t buy it, other to say that it is one of the best lumes, if not the best lume used in watches.

6.5 Chromolite

What Rolex calls Chromolite looks to be Super-Luminova BGW9.

6.6 MB-Microtec

Known for producing self-illuminating tritium gas tubes used in tactical and military watches. You can not source these as far as I know.

7 Safety & Environment Concerns

Modern lume like Super-LumiNova is non-radioactive and safe for use. However, older luminescent materials, like radium, were radioactive and hazardous. Always exercise caution if working with vintage watches, and avoid direct contact with older luminescent materials.

8 Installing Watch Hands

9 Restoring Watch Hands