Watches Go GreenBy Felix Scholz
Looking back at the year that was 2021, we can see that a few key trends dominated the narrative in the watch space. And one of the most powerful was that of green. But while Patek Philippe announced a 5711 with a coveted green dial and Rolex debuted a leafy new Datejust, the more significant greening of watches was something more meaningful.
It’s not just the dials that are going green; the broader industry is seeing a concerted shift towards sustainability. From corporate giants like Cartier to smaller independent brands, watchmakers from Geneva to the Jura are busy working out how to reduce, reuse and recycle in an effort to make their business more sustainable.
Sustainability is Luxury
Of course, sustainable business is good for the planet and the bottom line. Consumers of luxury products — like watches — are becoming younger, with millennials and Generation Z driving growth in the luxury sector. These consumers, as countless studies tell us, are prepared to put their money where their values are, and — you guessed it — sustainability and ethical production are increasingly important for these audiences.
Richemont, the corporate group behind Cartier, IWC, Panerai and many other luxury producers, as well as significant retailers YOOX Net-a-Porter and Watchfinder, are well aware of the importance of sustainability and ethical production to young people. So much so that as part of its new Transformational Strategy launched in 2019, Richemont conducted research exclusively with people under 25. In the 2020 report, Richemont acknowledged that not only did Generation Z make up an important stakeholder group as employees, but an increasingly significant consumer group as well, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. In this stakeholder analysis, climate change and environmental impact, in particular, the transparency and traceability of raw materials, were identified as the highest priority for both stakeholders and the business. As part of this process, Richemont has committed to meeting the science-based targets of the Paris Agreement, notably using 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. This strategy sees change focusing on people, communities, sourcing and the environment as a way to move towards “Better Luxury.” Richemont has laid out a comprehensive and ambitious road map of goals, which covers everything from the boring-but-very-important development of a “waste taxonomy” to increasing the percentage of responsibly sourced raw materials.
Of course, Richemont isn’t alone in prioritizing sustainability as part of good governance. The Swatch Group has approximately 150 production sites in Switzerland and is actively working to reduce CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030, from base levels established in 2013. They’re well on the way to meeting that goal early, with 2020 data showing they were down 26.1 percent, with other initiatives focusing on battery recycling (Renata, the major supplier of watch batteries, is a Swatch Group company), and water consumption. Sustainability is literally being built into Swatch’s architecture, with the Group’s new headquarters being one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, made from sustainably grown Swiss spruce.
Of course, the shift to sustainable practice isn’t just taking place in head offices, as mandated by wide-sweeping strategy documents. Sustainability is increasingly being incorporated into watch design and production, and if the increasing cadence we’ve seen in the last few years is anything to go by, it’s going to become more important in the coming years.
Cartier and Design for Good
There’s an inherently linked relationship between sustainability and luxury — especially when it comes to watches. A well-made watch is perfectly capable, with proper care, of doing its job for decades, or even centuries. The technology is mechanically stable, and watchmakers pride themselves on fighting against the built-in obsolescence that is so prevalent in other product categories. The challenge, as any watch lover can attest to, is creating a watch that people will want to wear for decades. Because while the caliber inside might be up to the task, tastes change.
This is where Cartier comes in. The maison has mastered the art of timeless design and beauty. The Tank is as relevant today as it was a century ago. In speaking about the necessity of beauty, Cartier CEO Cyrille Vigneron says: “Beauty is more important than novelty. And when it comes to functionality, the truth is we need this less and less, especially when we are surrounded at every moment by so much technology. But why do you have an expensive watch if it is not so functional? Here you need to understand it is about a sense of beauty … A beautiful design doesn’t age. This is the power of Cartier’s designs. They are ageless, and they do not lose their relevance. For example, the Love bracelet has never been more popular, but many people don’t realize that it was created 60 years ago. Or the Tank Must… the new generation will see it and like it, and if they ask when it was first created, we tell them it was about 100 years ago. When we talk about things that are truly transcendental, we always arrive back at design and beauty, and following a global crisis, this is what we need more than ever to uplift us. This is the necessity of beauty. When watchmakers focus too much on function and not enough on design, they are in some ways missing what we are yearning for today. Beauty is the key to being timeless yet timely.”
The timeless beauty inherent in the Tank isn’t enough for Cartier — the brand’s 2021 releases demonstrate that Cartier is serious about making the tangible changes required to move towards a more sustainable vision of luxury. The watch that most epitomized this was the innovative SolarBeat Tank Must, a new accessible entry-point into the world of Cartier’s watches.
Given that this is a watch aimed at a younger audience, it should come as no surprise that the Tank Must is where Cartier is choosing to showcase their green credentials. What is a little surprising is just how green it is. Instead of calf, the straps on this series are made from non-animal leather. The black, blue and green straps are largely comprised of apple, sourced from food industry scraps. If this reframing of upcycled bio-waste into the luxury segment wasn’t eyebrow-raising enough, there’s the fact that this watch is, in fact, solar-powered. Not that you’d know it from the dial, which is classic Cartier, right down to those famously stylized Roman numerals. Only here the numerals don’t just serve as indicators of the hour, they are, in fact, photovoltaic cells, placed behind the dial. These cells are effective enough to suck up natural and artificial light to power the SolarBeat movement.
This smart tech not only makes the SolarBeat Tank Must a perfect “set-and-forget” daily wearer, but also offers significant improvements on existing quartz movements. Cartier claims owners can expect around 16 years of running time before a service is required. At this service, it can be assumed that the power cell will be replaced and recycled. It might not be a closed loop, but there’s a lot less waste involved than in a traditional quartz movement which would have required at least three batteries in the same amount of time. You can be sure that SolarBeat technology will filter its way through other Cartier collections and, in due course, other Richemont Group brands, representing a marked improvement in the efficiency of quartz technology. For Cartier, it represents where beautiful design meets sustainable technology.
Chopard and Material Change
Few luxury brands have been so visible and consistently dedicated to improving their own sustainability as Chopard. The family-owned house is an industry leader when it comes to responsible business practices and advocacy. Gold is the precious metal upon which much of the luxury watch and jewelry business is built. Getting the raw material out of the ground though is, more often than not, a damaging, environmentally dirty business. Extracting gold is energy-intensive, involves the extensive use of cyanide, as well as other heavy metal pollutants and massive amounts of waste. It’s estimated that to produce enough raw gold for a single ring, some 20 tons of mineral waste is created. And while the jewelry industry isn’t the only user of gold — it’s significant in electronics and investment, for example — it is a major consumer of the resource.
The problematic production of this precious metal isn’t news to the Swiss industry, with many groups working to responsibly and transparently source raw materials like gold and gems. Few, though, have worked to transform their business practices as effectively as Chopard.
As of 2018, 100 percent of gold used by Chopard in their watches and jewelry was ethically sourced, either through small-scale artisanal freshly mined sources or responsibly extracted gold. In 2022, Chopard aims to source 60 percent of its gold from artisanal and small-scale producers. Gold sourced in this way has a smaller environmental footprint and more positive socio-economic impacts. Chopard takes the same care with its diamonds and colored gemstones, working with peak industry bodies to ensure integrity and a transparent supply chain.
In the world of sustainable luxury, precious metals and stones have a high profile, and rightfully so. Chopard’s commitment to better practices goes even further, into the seemingly pedestrian world of steel. In 2019, Chopard re-entered the competitive world of the integrated steel sports watch with the Alpine Eagle. While much of the discussion around the watch was focused on its design and heritage dating back to the ‘80s sports watch hit, the St. Moritz, the type of steel the Alpine Eagle was made from was also remarkable. The alloy is known as Lucent Steel A223, which, in addition to offering material benefits like improved hardness and greater lustre, is also a recycled alloy.
Karl-Fritz Scheufele, son of Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich, spoke about the importance of this alloy in the context of the Chopard family’s business ethics: “From a young age, my parents have always instilled this idea in my sisters and me, even when we were really small. They were like, ‘guys, we only have this planet, I don’t think we’re going to go on another one so we have to take care of our business, and the way we live.’ When we started creating the watch, this was a question we asked ourselves. We had to find a way to work with ethical and sustainable materials — that’s something we had started doing with ethical gold. We had to bring this sustainability factor in. Thus the fact that we’re also partnering with Eagle Wings Foundation, that’s a sign of a strong commitment. On the technical side, there’s the Lucent Steel A223, which also took some time.” On the properties of the steel itself, Karl-Friedrich interjects, “It was a good coincidence. We had a project going on to replace our current steel with a more innovative and sustainable steel. The timing was perfect to start using it on the Alpine Eagle. Although in production, it is not an easy thing to do, as we had to gear up to using it. Looking back, I think it’s the greatest decision we took, to use this material for this collection.”
Chopard’s Lucent Steel is a valuable case study in the tangible benefits of sustainability. Not only is this alloy less wasteful, it’s 50 percent harder than more conventional steel used in luxury watches and brighter. It’s even hypoallergenic. Perhaps this unique alloy is enough to edge the Alpine Eagle into ultimate integrated steel sports watch territory.
Storytelling and Science
Aside from the intrinsic value and practical uses, watches are about stories. Over the years, watch brands have become very good at telling those stories and weaving them into the watches they make. Increasingly, those stories are about the planet on which we all live and how to look after it.
Oris, for example, regularly makes limited editions with philanthropic goals, with numerous limited editions aimed at raising awareness around the plight of coral reefs. According to the Coral Restoration Foundation that Oris partners with, these vitally important marine habitats that are home to 25 percent of all fish species have diminished by 50 percent in the last 30 years.
Or take Blancpain and their Ocean Commitment. It’s appropriate that the makers of the Fifty Fathoms — a watch worn by the master of environmental storytelling and science, Jacques Cousteau — have continued to play an active role in the conservation of marine environments. Ocean Commitment is a multi-faceted program that encompasses scientific expeditions (19 to date), actively expanding protected areas through Blancpain’s support of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Expeditions and awareness-raising activities including photography and film. Of course, Blancpain also makes some spectacular limited edition watches to tie into these themes, like the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Limited Edition Mokarran, featuring a stunning — you guessed it — green dial.
Limited editions like this certainly have a tangible impact on the world. Typically, a proportion of the sales from these watches goes to charity, and the sums we’re talking about are not insignificant. But perhaps the greater impact of these partnerships is the reach these luxury brands offer and the aspirational partnerships. For academics and environmentalists to get their message out to an audience of people willing and able to drop five-figure sums on a watch is important. Through programs such as Ocean Commitment, brands like Blancpain make studying our marine environment cool.
Straps, Boxes and Papers
Not every sustainable change has to be a complete overhaul of a watch’s fundamental structure. Incremental changes are worthwhile too. Have you ever considered the environmental impact of the traditionally oversized watch box and all the associated paperwork? Breitling has. In 2020, the brand announced that they were ditching the large, glossy wood boxes that invariably end up at the back of the closet in favor of smaller, eco-friendly packaging alternatives. Not only does this mean fewer materials used in production, but also much less energy required to transport that packaging around the planet. Breitling’s solution — in addition to having a smaller footprint — is flat-packable for even more transport efficiency. On top of that, the boxes are made from recycled PET plastic. In a similar vein, brands like Panerai have ceased supplying physically printed booklets with their watches, offering digital alternatives instead. It’s 2021; boxes and physical papers on a new watch simply aren’t relevant anymore.
This year has also seen a groundswell of change in the world of watch straps. We’ve already seen Cartier release a mainline product with non-leather straps. IWC has their own sustainable alternative to leather known as TimberTex, straps made from plant fibers that promise to deliver both a luxury aesthetic and long-term wearing comfort. For IWC, TimberTex isn’t going to see animal leather straps ousted from the brand catalog, but it’s an important and viable alternative for people who don’t want to wear a watch with a strap made from calf, alligator or another type of hide.
Greubel Forsey, makers of some of the most luxurious and perfectly finished watches imaginable, demonstrated that sustainability isn’t simply the preserve of large commercial manufacturers by becoming the first watch brand to only offer plant-based watch straps. On this change, CEO Antonio Calce notes, “The technical offer for plant-based straps is mature, and our clients are by nature forward-thinking and welcoming of innovation. We want to be in line with their world vision, and we are delighted to write a new chapter of responsible and sustainable high-end watchmaking.”
Panerai and the Quest for the Recycled Watch
This year, Panerai raised the recycled bar with PAM 1225, the Submersible eLAB-ID, an impressive, limited concept watch that is 98.6 percent recycled, down to the Super-LumiNova on the dial.
It’s a remarkable feat and one that had its genesis — appropriately enough for Panerai — in a boat rudder. A rudder shaft owned by veteran Panerai ambassador, explorer and environmental advocate Mike Horn. He explains: “I’m a bigger problem to Panerai than an asset. I don’t know why they still support me after 21 years. I’m not a luxury guy … I don’t need a lot, I just need things to work. I was changing the rudder shaft on my boat after 27 circumnavigations of the world. That rudder has steered that boat [the Pangaea] out into the world of exploration and safely home. That meant something to me. I took it out, and I was standing there with a piece of stainless steel, the stock of the rudder. I was thinking, this piece of metal has played such an important part in my life. And the life of science, and education and the protection of our planet. I can’t just throw it away. It’s got a story to tell. Straightaway I looked at my watch, and I said, ‘It’s stainless steel. It’s the same material.’ I called up Jean-Marc Pontroué [CEO of Panerai] and I said, ‘You’ve got to recycle this; you’ve got to make watches out of this metal.’ Straightaway, he was the right person to speak to. He got it. They could easily have said, ‘Listen, Mike, making five watches out of that piece of metal, it’s just not cost-effective.’ But because it’s a luxury goods segment — that’s where changes can be made, because it’s afforded.”
For his part, Jean-Marc Pontroué backs up Horn’s account: “For me, it was a crazy idea — he gave me this piece of metal, and I had no idea if we could reuse it. I’m not speaking to you like this was 20 years ago; this was three years ago. Finally, we were able to make five watches out of it — the recyclability process of Panerai as a manufacture started on that day. In 2021, at Watches & Wonders, based on this original idea we developed two concepts: the first is e-LAB ID, which is limited to 30 units and is close to 100 percent recycled, and the other one, which is a more volume-oriented line, has close to 60 percent recycled materials.”
While these two new products are laudable, they represent a fraction of the bigger change underway at Panerai. Not only is the brand working towards a model where all Panerai watches have a recycled element, Pontroué wants to share the lessons Panerai took years to learn. “I have been in touch with many of our competitors — I have told them ‘don’t lose three years like we did’ because, before coming to the eLAB-ID, we failed 100 times. We had to create a network of suppliers, some of them new to the watch industry. [I told them to] use what we’ve been doing. It is better if they use our system rather than lose three years to make it happen. Panerai alone will not save the world. If there can be a couple of us — major operators in the watch industry — going in that direction, it will create a critical mass that will have an impact on the new generation. We have regular visits to our manufacture from other watch brands, to whom we give our advice, our costs, our suppliers, our protocols — everything they want to know. They cannot copy our Luminor watch, but they can apply this approach of sourcing to any of their products. This year, we’ve started a new chapter, and we have to make it a long-lasting one because cleaning the oceans will take years.”
Make no mistake, there is a real urgency to this. There’s a reason that corporations like Richemont and the Swatch Group, as well as independents such as Greubel Forsey and Chopard, are setting clear and identifiable targets. It’s because the world’s climate is changing, and it is changing fast — something Mike Horn has seen first-hand. “In 30 years of exploration, I’ve seen the world change more radically and faster in the last 15 years than in the first 15. When I speak about changes, it’s because I’ve gone back to the same places twice or three times: I’ve got a comparison. The world is a pretty small place if you think about the fact that I’ve sailed around it 27 times, and I’ve walked around it three times. I’ve crossed Antarctica; I’ve crossed the North Pole. I’ve been up some of the highest mountains in the world; I swam down the Amazon. I keep on going back to places because it’s small. The moment you go back, maybe 15 or 20 years later, you can see the change. The polar regions show the most change. In 2006, I did the first winter expedition to the North Pole with Børge Ousland, leaving from Russia. When we got to the Pole, we measured the ice because we needed to make a landing strip for a Russian research plane. The ice measured 2.5 meters. In 2019, when I crossed the Pole, the ice measured eight centimeters.”
Unlike green dials, watchmaking’s green makeover isn’t a fad. It’s a significant structural change that is set not just to change how watches are made, but also what we value in them. The days of the over-the-top wooden display box are numbered, replaced with producers and consumers who recognize their place in the world and want to make that world better. A single watch might not change the world, but an entire highly influential and aspirational industry advocating for more conscious, less wasteful consumption? Well, that might make a difference.