#103 - Radium Girls

Posted on Thursday, November 4th, 2021 at 12:20 pm by LaLonde Jewelers

Radium painted numbers on a 1920's clock.

Every industry has its dark side, some have been because of the lack of knowledge and some have been because profits were more important than safety.

The auto industry had various safety concerns like seat belts. Its hard to imagine today that cars at one time didn’t even have seat belts.

Well, in the watch industry we dealt with our own concerns.

Starting in the early 1900’s the watch industry first came out with a luminous dial that glowed in the dark. This enabled a consumer to have a timepiece that was easy to read in complete darkness. These were great selling points and were extremely popular.

A number of factories mostly around the east coast of the United States sprung up in the teens thru the 1920’s. These factories were hiring mostly young women in the 18 to 24 age group. These were the years that women of that age didn’t go to college and a well-paying job was very attractive to them.

The unfortunate thing was the luminous material being used was called radium. It was a substance of great value and at the time no indication of its harmful properties.

Radium was radioactive and caused serious deformities and sickness.

In the early years these girls used paint brushes that they would lick the bristles to get a fine point to get an accurate stroke to fill the numbers on the dial. Without knowing it these women were slowly killing themselves.

This was tragic and I am sure the companies using these techniques were at first not willing to admit their over-sites.

Eventually these companies were able to find substitute ingredients that were not harmful and more worker friendly like Promethium and Tritium. The last radium was used in the early 1960’s Then in 1993 LumiNova was invented which gives the watch industry a very good luminous dial.

I have owned watches that have crossed all these time periods and I am always amazed when I see a watch that has a dial that lights up in a dark room.

But I never loose sight of those poor girls that just wanted to have job and make some money. Unfortunately, they paid a very high price.

Written by Dan LaLonde, G.G., G.I.A.
Lalonde Jewelers & Gemologists
The Gem Expert