October 9, 2020
by Matt Reudink
2020 ushered in a number of surprising trends, from the bad (the unexpected surge in the popularity of toilet paper) to the not-so-bad (pajama day every day for those of us working from home). In the world of horology, one trend that I most certainly did not see coming was the resurgence of the rainbow. This year we’ve seen the release of rainbow dial watches from the likes of Breitling the Mido, but we’ve also seen entire multi-hued lineups from brands like NOMOS and Rolex. 2020 appears to be the year to forget about delicately sampling from the color wheel and head straight to the buffet. The BALL Watch Engineer III Marvelight Chronometer Special Caring Edition NM2028C-S29C-BK (don’t worry, I’ll stick with Marvelight from here on out) fully embraces the rainbow renaissance, but unlike the watches above, when the lights go out, the Marvelight truly shines.
BALL Watch is renowned for its use of tritium tubes to provide incredible illumination and, in this case, the use of 27 micro gas tubes of different colors on the dial and hands creates a bacchanalian atmosphere on the wrist when the sun goes down. This special edition was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to provide support for those that are especially vulnerable during this crisis. For every limited-edition piece purchased during the pre-order period, $300 USD will be donated to the Salvation Army.
BALL Watch traces its lineage back to 1891 and the expansion of the American railroad system during the post-Civil War era. After a major train collision in Ohio due to the inaccuracy of an engineer’s watch resulted in eight fatalities, Webster Clay Ball was tapped to establish precision timing standards for watches used by railway employees – an event that sparked a lifelong ambition to produce the most accurate and robust watches possible. The BALL Watch of today maintains the tradition of creating robust tool watches that emphasize shock resistance, anti-magnetism, water resistance, legibility, and timekeeping. The RR (for railroad) counterweight featured on the seconds hand of many of BALL’s watches is a tribute to BALL’s inextricable link to the expansion of the American railroad. Though the watches are produced in Switzerland, the brand is unabashedly American. If you’re nostalgic for the great westward expansion of the late 19th and early 20th century and life on the rails, you owe it to yourself to peruse BALL’s vast catalog.
The rainbow dial Marvelight reviewed here is a limited-edition model in BALL’s Engineer III line that includes two case sizes (40mm and 43mm) and dial options of black, blue, and silver. On my wrist is the 43mm version. While admittedly, the 40mm version would be a better fit for my 6.75” wrist, if you’re going to wear a rainbow dial watch with an abundance of high-polish surfaces, you’re not looking for under-the-radar subtlety, so might as well go all-in.
At 43mm in diameter with a 50mm lug-to-lug distance, the watch wears large, but the case shape and sloping lugs still allow the watch to wear comfortably on my modest-size wrist. The watch isn’t svelte at 13.6mm in height, but the curvaceous mid-case tempers the perceived size. The entire case is polished and the lines are classic and flowing with soft transitions throughout. The polishing definitely dresses the piece up, but it still sports 100m of water resistance and, in keeping with the tradition of BALL Watch’s Engineer line, is anti-magnetic up to 80,000A/m.
The rainbow Marvelight is outfitted with a flat sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating and a date magnifier (cyclops) at 3 o’clock. Date magnifiers are typically love-it-or-hate-it elements, and while I prefer the cleanliness of a cyclops-free crystal, I can’t deny their utility. The date pops and is much easier for me to read without squinting. On the flip side of the case is a solid caseback engraved with a locomotive. Few watch brands put the time and energy into designing interesting casebacks, but BALL Watch is definitely an exception. The train engine is a fun callback to BALL’s roots on the American railroads.
The bracelet on the Marvelight is a well-executed H-link design with polished center links and a butterfly closure. What immediately stands out when looking at the bracelet are the pillowy high-polished center links. No question that they’re a divisive element and this is especially the case when it comes to the more subdued, non-limited versions of this watch where the polished center links push the piece towards the dressy end of the dressy-sporty spectrum. In the case of the rainbow Marvelight, the polished elements give it that much more bling. But considering this is a 43mm three-hander with rainbow indices, some added sparkle and shine from the bracelet fits with the overall vibe of the watch. If the rainbow Marvelight makes a statement, the bracelet adds the exclamation mark. One downside to butterfly closures is that it can be difficult to find the sweet spot; however, BALL includes two half-links, allowing you to fine-tune the fit.
The case and bracelet certainly make a statement, but the dial on the rainbow Marvelight steals the show. BALL showcases its incredible depth of knowledge and experience using tritium tubes for luminosity. But first, let me briefly explain what tritium tubes are and why I personally find them fascinating. Tritium refers to the radioactive isotope of hydrogen, H3. When tritium gas is encapsulated in glass tubes lined with phosphor, it undergoes beta decay, releasing light in the process. Depending on the phosphor compound used to coat the glass tubes, different colors of light can be produced. In the rainbow Marvelight, BALL employs five different colored tubes: green, white, yellow, blue, and orange. The advantage of using tritium tubes in watchmaking is that, unlike luminous paint, tritium is essentially self-powered and does not require an external light source to charge. In addition, the half-life of tritium is glass tubes is 12.3 years, meaning that in 12.3 years, the tritium will be half as bright and in 24 years it will be one-quarter as bright. Don’t worry though, the starting strength is extremely bright — not as bright as a fully charged Seiko just in from the sun, but bright enough for my wife to ask me to put the watch in a drawer at night. Plus, when the tritium has decayed enough for nighttime readability to be affected, BALL can replace the tubes for a nominal fee. Though radioactive, the health risks associated with tritium gas are extremely low when encapsulated in non-hydrogen-permeable containers.
So, tritium tubes are pretty neat, but the key is how they’re deployed to actually create an attractive dial. In the rainbow Marvelight, BALL uses 12 large rectangular hour markers, each surrounded by an applied border with a color corresponding to the luminous material in the tube. In other words, a green surround on a green tube. Thinner yellow tubes are also attached to the Dauphine hour and minutes hands, with a small tube attached to the end of the seconds hand. The handsets are angular and highly polished, providing a dressy complement to the watch case. The counterweight on the seconds hand is an ornate RR for railroad – an homage to the brand’s past. The biggest surprise for me when I turned out the lights the first time was the illuminated seconds markers that continue the rainbow color scheme throughout each five-minute window. Ball accomplishes this feat through the use of a sandwich dial, affixing small tubes to the underside of the dial and allowing them to shine through small, circular windows. The effect is stunning and it is that extra little effort that makes all the difference. When combined with the deep, matte black dial and minimal text, the dial makes full use of the tritium tubes, allowing them to be the focal point of the dial.
Perhaps this harkens back to BALL’s roots as a manufacturer of timepieces designed for the railways, but BALL is serious about accuracy, and the automatic caliber BALL RR1103-C movement (modified ETA 2824-2) in the Marvelight undergoes COSC Chronometer certification. The movement features 25 jewels, a 38-hour power reserve, date function, and beats at 28.8kbph. The COSC certification means that the movements are sent to one of the COSC labs in Switzerland and subjected to a series of tests to ensure they meet chronometer certification. For the user, this provides some extra assurance that the watch will run accurately (average daily rate of -4 to +6 seconds/day), with low positional variance. Note that the movement is also protected from shocks by employing an Amortiser anti-shock system and is shielded from magnetic fields up to 80,000A/m.
If we think about comparable pieces, it’s impossible to ignore the aesthetic similarity to the Rolex Datejust. The case shape, polished surfaces, rectangular hour markers, and date magnifier are all instantly familiar. But then again, so are circular indices, rotating bezels, and oyster-style bracelets on dive watches, so… My point is that, yes, it looks a whole lot like a Datejust, but many of these are classic elements you’ll find across any number of watches, and with BALL’s use of tritium markers, Dauphine hands, and H-link bracelet, the Marvelight line has a personality all its own. And, of course, the Marvelight is a fraction of the price of a Datejust 41 ($7,900). If we head the other direction in price, the Halios Seaforth (~$700) shares many of the same design cues, water resistance, and an ETA movement, but lacks a bracelet and the high anti-magnetism of the Marvelight. Of course, what both the Datejust and the Seaforth lack is what sets BALL apart from most every other brand on the market – tritium gas tubes for incredible nighttime legibility.
The rainbow Marvelight is a striking, attention-grabbing watch that packs a welcome surprise when the lights go out. Is it for me, personally? No, probably not, as my tastes tend toward tool watches and more subdued design elements. But that’s not to say I can’t appreciate the design and execution. The mix of brushed and polished elements, flowing transitions to angular surfaces and sweeping planes all evoke the attention to detail and craft that BALL Watch injects into watchmaking. The tritium tubes are absolutely mesmerizing at night and create a whimsical tableau that you really can’t achieve any other way. This is a fun statement watch and, though I’m certain it could work as an everyday wear for someone with much a more adventurous wardrobe than me, I could see this as a perfect watch for hitting the town (post-COVID). Need a conversation starter in a low-lit club? This should do the trick.
Since I’m not so adventurous in my personal style and my clubbing days are behind me, I’d be looking seriously at the 40mm black-dial version of the Engineer III Marvelight with a mix of blue and green tritium tubes. It’s a bit more subdued, but with high-quality execution throughout, and polished surfaces that provide a dressy elegance that would pair well with formal attire. Throw it on a fabric strap for casual days, and it’s an excellent all-rounder of a watch. In many ways, the BALL Watch Engineer III Marvelight is exactly what many people are looking for in a “nice Swiss watch,” whether their style draws them to the funky and colorful Caring Edition or one of the line’s more conservative colorways. The 43mm BALL Watch Engineer III Marvelight Chronometer Special Caring Edition is available on the brand’s website for pre-order for $2,199 USD.
>Brand: BALL Watch
>Model: Engineer III Marvelight Chronometer Special Caring Edition NM2028C-S29C-BK
>Price: $2,199 USD
>Size: 43mm-wide, 13.6mm-tall, 50mm lug-to-lug
>When reviewer would personally wear it: Fun vacation watch or when out hitting the town. Maybe Vegas.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: A friend who enjoys a flashy, colorful wardrobe or is looking for a conversation piece for nights on the town.
>Best characteristic of watch: The tritium tubes at night, no question.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Too many polished surfaces for my taste; a bit of brushing on the case would make the watch more versatile.