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Can a luxury watch be sustainable?

Can a luxury watch be sustainable?

Thursday, 12 November 2020
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Marie de Pimodan-Bugnon
Freelance journalist

“One must be absolutely modern.”

Arthur Rimbaud

It takes passion, a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonderment to convey the innumerable facets of watchmaking…

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6 min read

The end of the tunnel could be in sight for the eco-conscious luxury watch. Slowly but surely, brands are beginning to produce timepieces that incorporate ethically sourced, recycled or upcycled materials. The story so far…

Like any other industry, watchmaking is under scrutiny for its environmental impact and this is influencing purchasing decisions. Over 50% of the consumers surveyed by Deloitte for its Swiss Watch Industry Study 2020 declared that sustainability was one of the factors they considered when buying a watch. The study goes on to report how “consumers are increasingly looking at a brand’s green credentials, particularly millennials and Generation Z who are known to be conscious consumers. The Swiss watch industry also recognises the increasing importance of sustainability and ethics across its entire value chain, be it in the form of recycling/upcycling materials, responsible sourcing, looking into animal product alternatives, or reducing their overall carbon footprint.”

That watch brands are aware of sustainability issues is in no doubt; transposing ideals into products for consumers to buy is proving less evident. At a time when innovative materials are pouring out of R&D departments, why are there so few sustainable luxury watches?

Traceability = responsibility

Chopard was one of the first brands to commit to more ethical luxury. Since 2013 the family-run firm has implemented a sustainability strategy with, at its core, the decision to source 100% of its refined gold from suppliers that comply with international environmental and social best practices. This gold comes from two traceable sources: artisanal and small-scale mines that are part of Fairmined, Fairtrade or Swiss Better Gold Association schemes, and gold that complies with the Responsible Jewellery Council’s (RJC) Chain of Custody. In addition to ensuring the traceability of the gold it uses, Chopard recycles 70% of gold waste in its own foundry. A growing number of Swiss watch brands and suppliers are following Chopard’s lead and becoming members of the RJC, as Deloitte notes.

According to Deloitte, only half of Swiss watch brands actively communicate their ESG initiatives.

Pro-sustainability innovations have positive repercussions for brand image – provided consumers know about them. Again according to the Deloitte study, “almost 90% of the executives surveyed believe that sustainability is an important issue for the Swiss watch industry. However, only half actively communicate their initiatives and less than one-third publish a sustainability report.” IWC is among the latter. In 2018 it became the first luxury Swiss watch brand to release a sustainability report in line with Global Reporting Initiative standards. Proof that efforts made are starting to pay, the Schaffhausen brand says it has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 10% and reduced the average weight and volume of its packaging by 30%.

Not there yet

But back to watches, starting at entry-level where French brand Awake – wristchecked by Emmanuel Macron – wins kudos for its environmental manifesto and for its use of innovative sustainable materials such as RE:FN-S1® (made from fishing nets), a castor-based biopolymer, an eco-titanium, a sugarcane fibre textile and nylon made from ocean plastic. Another welcome initiative is Swatch’s “bio-reloaded” 1983 collection. Bio-sourced materials for the watch are extracted from the seeds of the castor plant while packaging material is a mix of potato and tapioca starch, making it fully biodegradable.

Ocean Limited Edition © Baume
Ocean Limited Edition © Baume

Evidence of this shift towards sustainability has been harder to find higher up the price scale, but this is changing. Baume took to the stage in 2018 with stylish watches made from recycled or upcycled materials, with not an animal-based product or precious metal in sight. After a promising start, in May this year the eco-conscious brand became a collection at Baume & Mercier, where it continues to promote an environmentally responsible approach. Its first watch (since being subsumed by Baume & Mercier) is the Baume Ocean Limited Edition whose case is 80% made from plastic collected by the Waste Free Oceans foundation. The interchangeable strap is also in recycled plastic. And because every little helps, each watch is delivered in a recycled cardboard box lined with recycled polyester felt.

Superocean Outerknown and Outerknown Econyl Nato Strap collection © Breitling
Superocean Outerknown and Outerknown Econyl Nato Strap collection © Breitling

Breitling was next when, in 2019, it teamed up with Kelly Slater and his brand of eco-responsible surf wear, Outerknown. Their partnership gave rise to the Superocean Heritage Chronograph 44 Outerknown whose NATO strap is made from Econyl®, a yarn made entirely from repurposed nylon waste that includes discarded fishing nets collected from the seabed.

ScubaTec Black © Carl F. Bucherer
ScubaTec Black © Carl F. Bucherer

Another example of how sustainability is making inroads into luxury watchmaking comes from Carl F. Bucherer. The brand launched the ScubaTec Black as part of its longstanding partnership with Manta Trust, a charity working to conserve the habitat of rare manta rays. “Sustainability is an integral part of our corporate philosophy and evident in the manufacturing of this model,” says CEO Sascha Moeri. “The fabric on the black rubber strap is made from plastic bottles that are recovered from the ocean then recycled. Each timepiece actively contributes to safeguarding the planet’s natural resources.”

Diver Net © Ulysse Nardin
Diver Net © Ulysse Nardin

The latest illustration to date comes courtesy of Ulysse Nardin which last month set down a milestone in its commitment to the marine circular economy with the launch of the R-Strap. Also made from recycled fishing nets, the R-Strap fits watches in the Diver, Marine and Freak X collections. Then, just a couple of days before the navigators competing in this year’s Vendée Globe set sail – the brand is the race’s Official Timekeeper – it unveiled the Diver Net concept watch. The case, middle, back and bezel are all fashioned from a material produced by Fil&Fab: a French company set up by three designers in Brittany that transforms broken fishing nets into polyamide pellets. The Diver Net also replaces the traditional sapphire crystal with transparent ceramic, a material that requires less energy to produce hence a lower environmental impact. Lastly, the fabric for the strap comes entirely from recycled marine plastic. The one drawback is that, like any concept watch, Ulysse Nardin won’t be bringing the Diver Net to market. It does, however, prove that manufacturing alternatives exist and that a greener future is possible – provided more brands put their environmental ambitions into practice.

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