So Marie Curie said of the element she discovered in 1898, which filled her with a sense of “ever-new emotion and enchantment.” Seeing the potential for this element—which she supposed was “much more active than uranium”—to be used in science and medicine, she and her husband Pierre sought to publish their findings as soon as possible. Over thirty papers were published, including one that declared radium’s efficacy in destroying cancer cells.
It was in one of these papers that they coined the term “radioactivity.”
After Pierre’s sudden death in 1906, Marie was given his chair on the faculty of the University of Paris. She accepted, filled with the desire not only to evangelize about her “beautiful” element, but also to set up a laboratory that would be a fitting tribute to Pierre. Years later, that laboratory would blossom into the Radium Institute, now a Nobel Prize-winning facility devoted to the research and treatment of cancer.
Since the Curies never patented their discovery, radium found many uses outside of medicine. Shortly before the United States voted to join the First World War, the U.S. Radium Corporation patented Undark—luminous paint concocted from a mixture of radium and zinc sulfide. Before long, companies like the Radium Luminous Material Corporation and the Radium Dial Company were set up exclusively for painting the dials of watches and clocks.
Starting in the 1910s, thousands of young working class people—usually women—began working at these facilities, located in Newark, NJ and Ottawa, IL. They would sit in rows, dipping their camelhair brushes into the radium solution, and then moistening the tip of the brushes between their lips to give them a finer point. Knowing that the dials would end up on watches issued to the boys fighting “over there” (this was shortly after the U.S. voted to join the war in Europe), the “Radium Girls”—about a thousand of them—churned out dials, to the tune of 4300 a day.
By the 1920s, the Radium Girls (and even Dr. Sabin von Sochocky, the man who invented Undark) began to fall ill and die of wasting diseases that doctors attributed to their ingestion of the element. Lawsuits filed against the company by the girls brought the danger of radium to the world. In the 1960s, the U.S. Radium Corporation stopped producing it altogether, finally going out of business in the 1980s.
Shortly thereafter, its abandoned factory—where the company dumped 1600 tons of radioactive material—was declared a Superfund site.
For all the danger associated with the element, there’s an undeniable appeal in the watches that bear it. Distinguished by the dark patina of their numerals and the “burns” that often scar them, they’ve become collectible items in of themselves.
This watch, produced by Omega, is a member of the Reference 2639 family, which saw as many as sixteen different expressions through its relatively short production run. Simple in design, and a true workhorse, the Reference 2639 lent itself well to a bevy of interpretations, many of which bore interesting dial and hand variations. This one hails from the very first iteration and has an absolutely stunning dial burned by the radium that adorns it.
Powered by the Calibre 265 (based on the Calibre 30T2 that saw Omega through the Second World War), this Reference 2639-1 resonates (or shall we say, radiates) with a perfect understated style that is sure to transfix.
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