Trivalent lanthanide ions display fascinating optical properties. The discovery of the corresponding elements and their fist industrial uses were intimately linked to their optical properties. This relationship has been kept alive until today when many high-technology applications of lanthanide-containing materials such as energy -saving lighting devices, displays, optical fibers and amplifiers, lasers, responsive luminescent stains for biomedical analyses and in cellulo sensing and imaging heavily rely on the brilliant and pure-color emission of lanthanide ions. In this review we first outlined the basics of lanthanide luminescence with emphasis on f-f transitions, the sensitization mechanisms, and the assessment of the luminescence efficiency of lanthanide-containing emissive molecular edifices. Emphasis was then put on two fast developing aspects of lanthanide luminescence: materials for telecommunications and light emitting diodes, and biomedical imaging and sensing. Recent advances in NIR- emitting materials for plastic amplifiers and waveguides were described, together with the main solutions brought by researchers to minimize non-radiative deactivation of excited states. The demonstration in 1999 that erbium tris (8-hydroxyquinolinate) displayed a bright green emission suitable for orgenic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) was followed by realizing that in OLEDs, 25% of the excitation energy leads to singlet states and 75% to triplet states. Since lanthanide ions are good triplet quenchers, they now also play a key role in the development of these lighting devices. Luminescence analyses of biological molecules are among the most sensitive analytical techniques known. The long lifetime of the lanthanide excited states allows time- resolved spectroscopy to be used, suppressing the sample autofluorescence and reaching very low detection limits. Not only visible lanthanide sensors are now ubiquitously provided in medical diagnosis and in cell imaging, but the feasibility of using NIR emission of ions such as Ybm is now being tested because of deeper penetration in biological tissues.