Luminox is an interesting brand. Made mostly in carbon reinforced plastic and equipped with quartz movements, they were the first to use gas discharge tubes for luminescence. And as far away from most of the high end haute horologie watches we frequently review and talk about at Deployant as any watch can be. But we were intrigued by these watches. They are tough. They are light. They are near indestructible. They are more affordably priced than 99% of the watches we review. We caught up with Barry Cohen, the founder and CEO of Luminox, and talked about the brand, its startup heritage and how they came to be closely associated with the US Navy SEALs.
It was the mid 1980s. Barry Cohen was selling watches in his native USA. He came across a Swiss company, mb-microtec AG who made self-powered illumination systems. The original intent for these systems were for use with map readers in the field, exit signage, and safety (like lighting on the floor of the airplane to guide evacuation). mb-microtec were interested to apply the technology to watches, but at that time, apparently no one in the watch industry was interested. It took an American, Barry Cohen, to see the potential, and with a friend Richard Timbo, created Luminox in 1989 to take advantage of this technology. Lumi is Latin for light, and Nox Latin for night. And the founding of the Luminox is grounded on the commitment to offer luminescence and readability in performance sports watches.
Barry signed a exclusive contract for watches in the US and began producing the watches using the gas discharge tubes. mb-microtec also supply the tubes to Ball Watch later, and subsequently also make their own line of watches using the same technology called Tracer.
The US Navy SEALs link
In 1994, the US Navy SEALs sent out a tender requiring the supply of 1000 watches. These watches were to be part of the equipment list, which the graduating cohort of the US Navy BUD/S, the elite traning facility to qualify SEALs based in San Diego. This is a particularly tough training which requires the recruits to overcome extreme physical and mental pressure, and generally regarded as the toughest military training on the planet.
Luminox brought a taste of this training to South East Asia in September 2015. The author underwent this full day training in Langkawi, under the supervision of former Navy SEAL John McGuire.
Each graduating cohort comprised of some 150 SEALs who will have the opportunity to purchase what is known as personal equipment. These equipment are “Authorized for Navy use in an Elite Facility”, and include diving gear, knives, and the Luminox watches. These are not government issue, like their firearms, but supplementary equipment the men can buy and use in their missions.
Luminox won the deal to supply these watches. The watches were specified by the US Navy, and manufactured by Luminox in Switzerland.
The contract for the supply is rather interesting. Initially, there was a loose arrangement. Luminox could incorporate the SEAL logo on the back of the cases. But soon the lawyers got into the act, and called Barry to say that there was an issue with this. Luminox then did not have a license to use the logo. Negotiations got underway, and with the support of the SEAL Chief , a contract was signed which authorized a license to Luminox for the use of the SEAL logo on the watches.
This gave Luminox the push for fame. The watches also became popular with the US Air Force pilots, and agents from government agencies as diverse as FBI, DEA, Border Patrol and SWAT teams. The agents were impressed for the good readability of the watches in all conditions and their near indestructibility.
The business flourished and currently Barry tells us that they make several hundred thousand watches a year. The market split is almost an equal 30% in the US, and 30% for Asia, and the remaining 40% for the rest of the world.
The Technology: the micro gas tubes (H₃)
Self-Powered Micro Gas Tubes (H₃) which were the prime product of mb-mictotec, a Swiss company based in Niederwangen, Switzerland. The tubes are a novel light source, and marketed by mb-mictotec as trigalight®. trigalight® works similar to a CRT tube, formerly used in TV screens. Like TV CRT tubes, the light tubes are built by sealing tritium gas in a glass vessel. The inner walls of this glass vessel are coated with a very thin layer of phosphorescent powder. This powder (zinc sulfide) has the ability to convert electrical energy into light.
As this is a self contained unit, the electric energy had to be generated from within the tubes. In the trigalight®, this is the tritium gas. Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, and is a low radiation beta emitter, decaying electrons as time passes. As the electrons exit from the tritium atoms, it hits the phosphorescent layer, and their energy is transformed into light. The coating of the layer can be varied, giving rise to various colors. And the brightness of the light is controlled by the pressure of the tritium in the tube. The higher the concentration (higher pressure), the brighter.
As tritium has a half life of 12.3 years, the tubes will have a usable service life of approximately 25 years. The brightness is also impressive. Some 100 times brighter than markings using luminous paints like SuperLuminova.
We found Barry Cohen to be warm, eager, intelligent, communicative and open. He has vision. He has character. We ended the short conversation with a quote from one of his mentors, which we think gives a glimpse into this interesting character. The quote? “Leave a little for the little guys”. This rings around the Baselworld Halls, as everywhere it evident that the big groups are squeezing the industry. Trying to edge out the little guys. And yet, a small (yet a production of several hundred thousand pieces a year is hardly small) company with this ethos strikes us as one strong in character. Strong. Solid. Almost indestructible. Like a Navy SEAL.