The eternal glow from Niederwangen: an article from Watch Around N°40

From Watch Around N°40, August - September 2019

Henri Nidegger reports

mb-microtec. What self-luminous watches have to do with the Swiss adhesive Cementit. And how a small Bernese company became the undisputed world market leader. The story of a company that had to reinvent itself over and over again. And which today makes hands and dials shine for decades.

The man who had travelled all the way from New York to Niederwangen near Bern had a clear plan in mind: Barry Cohen wanted to produce watches, special watches that would be suitable for endless nights, and for this he needed a very specific product from Niederwangen: tiny luminous pipes called trigalight. The parts are so small and so light that they can be easily applied to the hands and indices of watches, but above all they can glow continuously without external energy supply - for up to 20 years. Super-LumiNova for comparison, the classic light source in watchmaking, loses its luminosity within hours and has to be "recharged" with light again and again.

The destination of Barry Cohen from New York, an SME in Niederwangen, still exists. It is called mb-microtec, celebrates its 50th birthday this year, has about 100 employees and still produces self-luminous pipes. The best-known customer - in addition to its own watch brand traser - is the Luminox brand, which today belongs to the Mondaine Group. In addition, there are 40 to 50 watch brands all over the world that incorporate the technology from Niederwangen. But also for self-luminous emergency exit signs, rifle visors, fishing net markings etc. is supplied. 90 percent of the production goes abroad, everything is 100 percent Swiss Made.

Barry Cohen, founder of Luminox, had initially tried in vain to reach the company's patron by e-mail. Until someone gave him the right tip: "This is a Swiss company, you have to meet the owner personally." What successfully happened in 1989: chief executive Oskar Thüler was obviously taken with the young New Yorker, he not only signed a supply contract, but also gave the destitute Cohen a loan of 80,000 francs. According to the deal, one franc per watch would have to be delivered in the future. After one year - reality sometimes surpasses every fairy tale - the debt was paid.

Roger Siegenthaler, the current CEO of mb-microtec, likes to tell the story. And he sees a clear constant in the history of the company: "If there is consistency with us, then it is always reinventing oneself".

In point of fact, there is a red thread running through the company - ever since it was founded. It all began with the two Bernese chemists Walter Merz and Alfred Benteli, who founded the company Merz + Benteli in 1918. There is a simple reason why the name might seem familiar to many people: Cementit, the famous Swiss adhesive, is, as you can read on the package, a Merz + Benteli product.

However, the young entrepreneurs had started with radium light sources for the watch industry - when nobody had any idea how inflammable the radioactive substance could be. It was later banned almost overnight, and in order to stay with the words of CEO Roger Siegenthaler, one had to reinvent oneself. The solution: what had previously served as a top coat for the radioactive luminous paint proved to be an excellent glue - and as Cementit, began a triumphal march into the Swiss craft workshops.

It was Walter Merz's son-in-law, Oskar Thüler, who reinvented Merz + Benteli once again, so to speak, and developed the trigalight luminous pipes in 1969. The company mb-microtec - mb stands for Merz + Benteli - was founded as a sister company.

The raw materials are thumb-thick glass tubes about 150 centimetres long. In the so-called drawing process, they are stretched after heating until they finally become a tube of 0.3 millimetres. Its inner diameter of 0.1 millimetres is as fine as a hair.
The inside is coated with zinc sulphide using a kind of adhesive and then filled with tritium gas. Tritium is weakly radioactive and disintegrates into electrons, which gives off the necessary energy to make the zinc sulphide glow white or in any desired rainbow colour. Finally, the capillaries are cut to the desired length using laser technology and air-sealed. At the end of the process, the original glass tube was transformed into 2000 self-illuminating gaseous light sources.

The first order came in 1989 from the American Army, they ordered 300'000 watches of the reference traser P6500 Type 6. It was the first watch in the world with trigalight pipes. The Niederwangen-based company was able to pass on the fact that the watches loosely met the strict US Army MIL-W- 46374F specifications, partly because they offered constant readability of the time, even at night. Today, mb-microtec is more than just a world market leader; the company is a monopolist, so to speak: its world market share is 90 percent. And because the company's aim is to keep its constant reinvention as a leitmotif, it is also looking for new business fields. According to CEO Roger Siegenthaler, a project in the MedTech sector has recently been abandoned, it proved to have no future. But there is a second, currently still secret project, which has started promisingly. "We believe in the future", says Siegenthaler, this is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that mb-microtec invests 20 percent of its revenue in research and development. 250,000 francs were spent on patents, and two years ago a new building flooded with light was raised for 23 million francs.

In addition to the trigalight pipes, the traser watches are also produced there; traser was the first brand ever to incorporate trigalight into watches. The initial clientele was primarily the so-called tactical community, i.e. armies, firefighters, special units, etc. A second leg was added in 2015: the adventure and outdoor lifestyle community. There are six product families, prices vary between 195 and 900 francs, usually ranging from 250 to 499 francs. The top models, such as the P68 Pathfinder with integrated compass ring, have ETA's automatic calibre 2824 built in.
So far, the watch has been sold mainly in gun shops and specialist shops for fishing equipment or knives, but now you can increasingly find it in classic retail stores such as Sonderegger in Bern, Casagrande in Lucerne or online at Kirchhofer. "Nobody has been waiting for traser," says traser former boss Michele Starvaggi, "but things are slowly and steadily getting better." Production is currently around 30,000 units per year.

Whoever wants to visit the trigalight production not only has to show official identification, but also has to wear a white work coat and plastic overshoes. Meticulous cleanliness is a must, because tritium is slightly radioactive and safety precautions are correspondingly strict. However, the material has nothing in common with the former dangerous radium, as a showcase with all kinds of numbers in the entrance area shows. Who would manage to break all trigalight pipes in one watch and inhale all the gas, would have just 0.004 millisievert radioactivity intus. For comparison: if you eat a normal banana, you take 0.04 millisieverts in. And anyone who travels 6000 kilometres in an airplane has absorbed 0.06 millisieverts.