There are a huge number of factors to consider when hunting for your next wristwatch. And we know that the industry — marked by dozens of noteworthy brands and literal thousands of individual models — can seem excessively daunting. That’s why we’ve found that sometimes your best bet is to narrow the search down to a few things you know you want and/or need and then base your search on those few determining factors. For some, that means seeking out ultra-tough tactical timekeepers built for survival. For others, it’s more along the lines of heirloom-level watches that can be passed down for generations. In this particular case, we’re looking at something perhaps a bit more niche and overlooked: illumination.
Most folks probably don’t take low-light illumination into account when searching for a watch and we think that’s a big mistake. After all, there are just as many daylight hours as there are night ones — which means (especially if you spend a lot of time awake after sundown) having a watch you can read in the dark can be pretty important. There are a wide variety of illumination types — from glow-in-the-dark coatings to built-in LED lights. But we wanted to take a look at what some consider the king of all watch illumination types. That’s why we’ve wrangled up the following eight watches, all equipped with tritium illumination tubes, for all your low-light timekeeping needs. These are the best tritium watches.
What Is Tritium?
Even if you’re unfamiliar with its name, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen something with tritium illumination — or you’re at least keen as to what tritium does. You see, this glow-in-the-dark substance is actually a gas. To be more exact, it’s a rare radioactive isotope of hydrogen — also known as super heavy hydrogen — which contains a nucleus with one proton and two neutrons, as opposed to just one proton or just one proton and one neutron (as in hydrogen-1 and hydrogen-2), which was first discovered by Ernest Rutherford, ML Oliphant, and Paul Harteckin in 1934.
However, the gas alone does not produce illumination. Rather, it must be paired with phosphorous and, together, typically sealed inside of a hermetically-sealed glass tube — known as a GTLS (Gaseous Tritium Light Source). These tritium-and-phosphorous tubes create a radioluminescent light source that will glow, without the need for any kind of “recharging,” for somewhere between 10-20 years — although there are some claims that it will last even longer. They’re not affected by light, temperature fluctuations (within reason), motion, and are even waterproof and visible through as much as 60-meters of H2O.
If you’re worried about safety — after all, we did mention that tritium is a radioactive isotope — don’t be. Studies have shown that, if you were to break open a tritium watch and absorb 100% of the radioactivity, it would be no more dangerous to you than eating a banana every other day. In fact, the energy produced by tritium isn’t even strong enough to penetrate human skin, thus making it perfect for use in wearable gear — like watches, of course.
As you might guess, tritium’s primary use in the modern age is to function as illumination inside of wristwatches. And many would say, thanks to the fact that it has been measured up to 100-times the brightness of other forms of watch illumination (like SuperLuminova coatings), it’s by far the best type of watch illumination. However, that does come at a cost. You see, unlike alternative coatings and LED lights, tritium is a good deal more expensive — which is reflected in the MSRP of any tritium watch — thanks to its rarity. That being said, the benefits, especially when considering dive watches, more than makes up for the added cost.
Deep Blue Daynite Tritdiver T-100 Automatic Watch
You might not have heard of Deep Blue before, but their Daynite Tritdiver T-100 automatic watch has a number of big things going for it. For starters, it’s powered by a reliable Seiko-built movement — so you can count on its accuracy and longevity. But, while this watch has tritium tube illumination built into the hands and dial markers, it also benefits from iconic “Pepsi” styling with its blue-and-red ceramic unidirectional dive timer bezel. Good for depths up to 500 meters, this is a beautiful timepiece that can stand up to plenty of punishment. For the price, it’s hard to find a better tritium watch than this one.
Movement: Seiko NH 35 Automatic
Case: Stainless Steel
Strap: Stainless Steel Link
Nite Hawk Tritium Watch
If durability and aggressive styling is your thing, the Nite Hawk tritium watch might just be the illuminated timepiece for you. Available in a wide variety of color combinations — all with black cases — this beefy wristwatch was built to be life-proof. That’s why the brand opted for a reinforced polycarbonate case, your choice of a polymer or PVD-coated stainless steel strap, a Swiss-made Ronda quartz movement, and a sapphire crystal. As lightweight as it is durable, this sinister time-keeper was built for maximum adventure and unrivaled independence.
Movement: Ronda 715Li Quartz
Strap: Polymer or PVD Stainless Steel
Marathon Search & Rescue Diver’s Watch
There are a lot of watches out there that claim to be “mil-spec,” but there are far fewer that were/are actually worn by soldiers in the field. The Marathon Search & Rescue Diver’s Watch fits squarely into the latter category, as it was specifically made in accordance with US Government specifications and was issued and worn by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. As you might imagine, this watch was specifically built to go along on SAR missions. As such, it’s built from durable 316L stainless steel, has a sapphire crystal, boasts tritium illumination on its hands and dial, and is water resistant to a whopping 30ATM. With its iconic dive styling and legendary toughness, you definitely can’t go wrong with this piece of wearable military equipment.
Movement: ETA F06 Quartz
Case: 316L Stainless Steel
Strap: Rubber or Stainless Steel
Traser P68 Pathfinder Automatic Watch
Most watch brands that make tritium watches do not build their own illumination tubes. Traser, however, makes theirs in-house. In fact, not only did they pioneer the technology, but they are one of the chief suppliers of tritium tubes to other watch brands. As you might imagine, that pioneering spirit put them on the map — even resulting in military contracts for their timepieces. This particular watch might just be their best, with its Swiss-made automatic movement, dual tritium and SuperLuminova illumination, PVD-coated stainless steel case, NATO strap, and 10ATM water resistance. Of course, if you don’t like this style, they have many more — all with tritium illumination.
Movement: Swiss-Made Automatic
Case: PVD-Coated Stainless Steel
Strap: NATO Nylon
Isobrite Executive Series ISO701 Watch
The name of this particular tritium watch is a little misleading. Yes, it’s certainly handsome enough that you might find a high-powered executive wearing it — but life in a boardroom would also be doing this watch a disservice, as it’s far more than just another handsome watch. On top of its good looks — granted to it courtesy of a 316L stainless steel case with a matching link band — it’s also water-resistant to 200 meters, has a screw-down crown with side shields, and — the star of the show — a Swiss-made mechanical movement that will keep it ticking for years and years to come.
Movement: ETA 2824 Automatic
Case: 316L Stainless Steel
Strap: Stainless Steel
MTM Special Ops RAD Watch
For the most part, it’s pretty easy to know what to expect out of the tritium watches on this list: reliable movements, solid construction materials, and unparalleled illumination. But the MTM Special Ops RAD watch has another, ultra-cool hidden feature. That is to say, it has its own onboard Geiger counter — meaning you can use it to detect ambient radiation wherever you go. Obviously, this has significant usefulness for top-tier soldiers when used in the field. But still, even as a novelty people might not use, it’s a very enticing one. On top of that, this watch is also highly customizable, comes with a lightweight solid titanium case, and boasts tritium illumination in the dial alongside electroluminescence for the digital displays.
Movement: MTM Proprietary Ronda 763E Quartz
Strap: Nylon or Stainless Steel
Luminox Deep Dive Automatic Watch
In case you’re unfamiliar, Luminox has been building ultra-tough timepieces for use in some of the world’s harshest environments for a very long time now. And that makes them especially good at building dive watches — as they’ve not only had to cope with the deepest depths but also extreme temperatures. Their Deep Dive automatic watch is a prime example of just what they’re capable of, with its 500 meters of water resistance, ultra-tough stainless steel case, screw-down crown, helium release valve, double-thick antireflective sapphire crystal, and integrated polyurethane strap. If you want a watch you know won’t let you down, stop right here.
Movement: ETA 2826-2 Automatic
Case: Stainless Steel
Ball Roadmaster StarLight Bronze Watch
A good deal more elegant than most of the tactical-styled watches on our list, Ball’s Roadmaster StarLight bronze watch is no less one of the best tritium watches ever made — especially if you want one you can wear to the office and/or formal events. Done up in beautiful bronze and mated to a calfskin leather strap, this automatic watch also has another thing going for it that the others lack: Arabic numerals with tritium illumination. That means you can gather what time it is at a glance much easier than you otherwise might. This watch also comes with a secondary, extra NATO strap, has a simplified rotating dive timer bezel, and even features a day/date window for your convenience. However, if you’d prefer something a little different, Ball does, in fact, make a wide variety of tritium-illuminated timepieces.
Movement: Ball RR1102-C Automatic or Ball RRM7309-C Automatic
Strap: Calf Leather & NATO Nylon
What's The Difference: Quartz vs. Mechanical Watch Movements
One of the many factors to consider when purchasing a watch, the type of movement in your timepiece can affect its functionality, longevity, and overall value. learn everything you need to know on our quartz vs. mechanical watch movements post.