The first part of this short review focuses on the insertion of luminescent lanthanide ions into molecular compounds. The main requirements for the development of highly luminescent chelates with potential applications in biomedical analysis and time-resolved luminescent microscopy are presented. We then describe the design of adequate macrocyclic receptors with potential applications in nuclear waste management and in the design of liquid crystalline materials. In the latter case, the luminescent properties of the lanthanide ions can be taken advantage of for the determination of the transition temperature. Finally, we turn to self-assembly processes, which allow a fine-tuning of the coordination sphere and, consequently, of the electronic, and associated, properties of the lanthanide ions. Heteropairs of lanthanide ions may be specifically recognized, which leads to the design of bifunctional (bicolour) probes. Moreover, the properties of one metal ion can be controlled by the presence of the other metal ion (either 4f or 3d) when both are inserted into polymetallic edifices. © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. Keywords: Lanthanide; Luminescence; Macrocycle; Self-assembly; Helicate; Bimetallic; Liquid crystal; Ionic liquid.