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Published Oct. 5, 2021

Start a search for watches, and you can quickly find yourself deep in a rabbit hole of products and opinions (ask us how we know). With so many quality brands and styles to choose from, it’s no wonder so many people have become watch collectors. Just remember that what makes a watch ideal for one situation doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for another. If you value low-light visibility, we highly recommend upgrading from digital screens and glow-in-the-dark paint. You deserve the same kind of technology that militaries around the world have been using for decades: tritium.

Tritium is naturally occurring, but very rare. It can also be produced as a byproduct of nuclear energy. Because it glows for decades without needing to be charged by external light, it offers a fantastic way to make things like watches, compasses, and sights visible at night. If you want a tactical advantage or just appreciate fail-proof technology, picking up a tritium watch is the way to go.

Most of the watches that use tritium gas tubes are field watches designed for some kind of tactical environment. Tritium is more expensive than luminous paint, so prices tend to be a little higher than the average field watch. Because of that, many watchmakers assume that buyers looking for tritium are also willing to pay more for other high-end features like complex automatic movement, sapphire crystal, and extreme levels of waterproofing. Add all that up, and you basically get a dive watch that can easily break the $1,000 mark. Those watches are incredibly capable and built to be handed down to the next generation. Still, there are exceptions. We found several tritium watches that don’t cost anywhere near that much and still perform a lot of the same functions. Tritium watches aren’t what we’d call common in the watch world, but you do have options. We also threw in a serviceable field watch with traditional luminous paint to keep your spirits up. 

If you want the best and have the money to get it, this Marathon GSAR Automatic is the watch for you. The timeless design is easy to read at a glance, looks fantastic, and has a track record of being durable enough to handle whatever you throw at it. Tritium tubes at each hour and on all three hands make this watch easy to read, day or night. Paint on the rotating bezel also glows in the dark with enough prior exposure to light. This is also arguably the most capable dive watch on our list, with its rubber band and 1,000-foot depth rating. The self-winding Swiss movement powers this watch with the movement of your arm so you’ll never have to buy a battery. GSAR stands for government search and rescue, and we’re confident this watch will prove its worth no matter where you take it. Sure, it’s expensive, but we don’t expect things this good to come cheaply.

The Luminox Leatherback Sea Turtle makes a compelling case for anyone who wants a robust tactical watch that doesn’t break the bank. This is a watch we’d trust on deployment without losing any sleep over the risk of damaging it. The black 44-millimeter case and the 22-millimeter plastic band are subdued enough to wear in tactical environments, and the scratch-resistant mineral crystal is rugged enough to take a beating. Three colors of tritium make it easy to distinguish between hours, minutes, and the rotating bezel ring. It’s water-resistant to 330 feet, which is plenty for most people. Swiss quartz movement ensures accurate time. This watch is not automatic, so you’ll need an LR44 battery and the first one is included. Expect about three years of battery life. Luminox offers the Leatherback Sea Turtle in several color combinations, but this white-on-black design is our favorite.

Hazard 4 doesn’t get as much attention as we’d like, and that’s a shame because this Heavy Water Diver watch is damn good. The 50-millimeter case and oversized numerals give this watch a modern feel. Titanium construction keeps weight down and is incredibly strong. Tritium vials are easy to spot in the dark and, because they’re offset above the face rather than lying flat inside it, you can read the time from an angle just as well as from the top. Four two-tone vial color combinations are available. The rubber strap resists the elements and wicks sweat away from your skin. Sapphire crystal glass is scratch-resistant and the watch face is coated to avoid reflections in a tactical environment. Wear this watch safely down to depths of 990 feet. The tritium used in this watch is not as bright as some of the alternatives, but that’s actually something you’ll appreciate in a combat zone or when using night vision — it all depends on how you plan on using your tritium watch.

That’s right, Marathon made our list twice and it deserves to because the GPM (general purpose mechanical) comes in at about half the price of the GSAR at only $360. It’s a no-frills field watch with no date window, no bezel ring, and a tiny little 34-millimeter case. The good news is that it still uses tritium tubes, sapphire crystal, and stainless steel. Its automatic movement is self-winding and has a 41-hour reserve, making it great for field exercises and deployments when shopping for batteries isn’t an option. The 3 ATM submersibility rating leaves a lot to be desired, though, so don’t go swimming with your GPM. If you want to get into the world of military watches, this is an awesome place to start.

Tritium watches can be tricky to find (especially on a budget), but you can actually find one made by Smith & Wesson for less than $120. The SWW-450 comes in a blacked-out version that’s great for use in the field. The rubber strap is perfect for soggy field exercises and the waterproof rating of 200 meters can easily handle rain and swimming. Tritium markers glow constantly without being charged and have a 20-year service life. The rotating bezel isn’t as slick as higher-end watches, but it’s a great find at this price and has real utility in military life. Mineral crystal is a cost-cutting material and scratches easily, but it can also be polished.Quartz movement is less expensive than the automatic movements found in many field watches, but it’s actually more accurate. The best feature of this watch is its price. You can easily spend $120 on a normal digital watch, so getting tritium illumination and a rotating bezel for the same money is awesome. Don’t be surprised if this kicks off a watch-collecting addiction.

If real tritium puts other watches out of your budget, you can get part way there with a Timex Expedition Scout 40 until you’re ready to pull the trigger on something more expensive. Glow-in-the-dark paint replaces high-dollar tritium vials to make this watch far more affordable. You’ll still get a 40-millimeter case, mineral glass crystal, a date window, and water resistance down to 165 feet. The 20-millimeter woven nylon strap is durable, comfortable, and fits wrist sizes up to eight inches. The hour and minute hands glow, but the second hand does not. Best of all, there is a huge selection of colors and materials to choose from. This wouldn’t be our forever watch, but it’s certainly capable enough for daily duties and field exercises until you’re ready for an upgrade.

Why should you trust us

Here at Task & Purpose, I strive to bring you the best gear recommendations, whether you need a watch or a badass tomahawk. I’ve worn cheap digital watches that only needed to survive a field exercise, watches designed for formal events, atomic watches, and the latest GPS gadgets. Regardless of price, you and I both know that there’s no such thing as a perfect watch. What’s important is finding one that does what you need it to do.   

Tritium watches are popular for good reason, and there are types and styles for just about any occasion. Tactical tritium watches are worthy of nighttime combat operations. Formal tritium watches look fantastic at a club or paired with a suit and tie. Dive watches are backed by breathtaking precision. We wouldn’t be surprised if your first purchase becomes the beginning of a collection. 

Tactical

Tritium has long been a staple in the world of tactical gear. It’s used in lensatic compasses to aid in night land navigation. Firearms have incorporated tritium into their night sights for decades. It only makes sense that you’d want this technology in your watch.

Tritium is placed into watches in the form of tiny vials, or tubes, rather than being painted on in a liquid form. With vials marking the hands and face, you can easily keep track of time without lighting up a digital screen or giving away your position with a flashlight. Tritium is also compatible with night vision optics.

Formal

Just because you want the practicality of a watch face that’s visible at night doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to watches designed for a combat zone. Formal tritium watches add luminous technology to stylish timepieces fit for a night on the town. Careful design integrates luminous vials into timeless watch faces beautifully.

Popular brands like Invicta offer watches that look as great as they perform. Not only can you class up an outfit with a gold or silver watch, but you can also take a midnight swim without worrying about damaging it. That’s perfect for all those black-tie affairs (or beach barbeques) you go to.

Dive

Dive watches are intended for extensive use underwater and are held to a higher standard than other watches. Because of the added water pressure experienced at depth, these watches must adhere to incredibly strict quality standards to prevent malfunction. Divers also expect practical design cues like tritium and large numerals that are easy to read in conditions with poor visibility.

Because of this build quality, dive watches have also evolved into a bit of a status symbol. Even collectors who never intend to dive appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a good dive watch and are willing to pay to own one.

Features to look for in tritium watches

What separates these watches from the crowd is the tritium used in the watch face. This luminous material glows without being charged by a light source. It lasts decades and shines much brighter than glow-in-the-dark paint. You can also find tritium on compasses and night sights.

Because this material is fairly expensive, tritium watches tend to be marketed toward higher-end buyers who are willing to pay more than $200 for an analog watch. While this means low-budget options are hard to come by, it also means that any tritium watch you find is likely to have quality components throughout. Expect features like precise movement and automatic designs that don’t require a battery. 

Pricing ranges for tritium watches

  • Between $200 and $500: Tritium is fairly expensive, so don’t expect to find it on entry-level watches. For about $200, you can upgrade from glow-in-the-dark paint to actual luminous tritium.
  • Between $500 and $1,000: Mid-level tritium watches strike an excellent balance between affordability and features. Expect features like engraving instead of paint and more trendy styling.
  • More than $1,000: Premium tritium watches demand a hefty price tag, but they come with impeccable movement and quality. These watches are bound to become family heirlooms.

How we chose our top picks

We would love to have a test watch for every occasion and day of the week, but sometimes logistics get in the way and we have to get creative. When that happens, we rely on the wisdom of other consumers. For this gear guide, we scoured hundreds of reviews and thousands of ratings on dozens of products to find out which tritium watches buyers love, and which they find disappointing. Using that information, we’re able to provide you with recommendations on the best products out there.

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