No time to waste

Sustainable practices are no longer a risk-mitigation topic for the watch and fine jewellery industries. They are a must-have for those intent on setting a new gold standard

By Debbie Hathway
Chopard L.U.C Quattro Ⓒ Supplied

With the festive season rolling in, chances are you’re considering a gift of a luxe watch or piece of fine jewellery. Brand, price, colour and materials may have been the drivers behind purchasing decisions in the past – but today, sustainability is key.

Straps of the Ulysse Nardin Ocean Race collection, including this diver’s watch, are made from upcycled fishing nets

Google searches for a combination of “fine jewellery” or “fine watches” and “sustainability” have skyrocketed, as per the 2021 State of Fashion: Watches and Jewellery report released by Business of Fashion and McKinsey. Sales of fine jewellery influenced by sustainability are expected to more than triple in the future, according to the report. “To show consumers that they are sincere about driving environmental and social progress, companies will need to establish more transparency and traceability in their supply chains and move beyond the performative marketing that has plagued the industry in the past,” states the report.

With combined annual sales of over $329 billion in 2019, as estimated by McKinsey, fine jewellery ($280 billion) and watches ($49 billion, excluding smartwatches) can get “some of their sparkle back” post-pandemic by taking on a new set of rules. Sustainable practices are high on the agenda. Says the report’s co-author Alexander Thiel: “If the brand doesn’t have a sustainability agenda or sustainability credentials, then for many consumers – millennials in particular – it will just not be viable.”

So which Swiss watchmaking brands are stepping up to the plate? In 2018, a WWF environmental rating and industry report rated the “environmental stewardship” of the 15 biggest Swiss watch companies. Richemont Group brands (Cartier, IWC, Jaeger- LeCoultre, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin) scored best. However, Chopard, TAG Heuer, Omega, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Longines, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Swatch and Tissot did not participate in the survey, leaving researchers to rely on public information and report lacklustre findings. “Maybe this is a good part of the internet and all the communication we have – there is much more on sustainability than there was before, especially in our business. It was a closed subject, and nobody questioned anything. Now everybody is talking about it,” says Chopard co-president Caroline Scheufele.

Chopard uses 100 percent ethically produced gold Ⓒ Supplied


But just because they weren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean they weren’t doing anything about it. Chopard’s Journey to Sustainable Luxury, which led to a 2018 commitment to only source ethically produced gold for its watch and jewellery production, began with a conversation the year Colin Firth CBE accepted the Oscar for The King’s Speech with a Chopard L.U.C XPS watch on his wrist. His wife Livia Firth (the couple are now separated) was telling Caroline about her engagement in sustainable fashion (she is co-founder and creative director of Eco-Age, a consulting and creative agency specialising in integrated sustainability) and asked her where their raw materials originate. Caroline realised she didn’t have the answers.

“This was the push button. We were the first really to say, ‘Okay, we are going to engage in this journey.’ It takes you around the planet into different countries where these raw materials come from, but also because it is a journey in time – you can’t change something in one day. It takes education. You have to change the way you work; you have to convince people that this is the right way. Sometimes, governments block you because they don’t care. But we’ve come a long way because already all our gold is ethically sourced. Every year we’re tackling a little bit more of the coloured stones. We’re trying to add semi-precious stones to the map. It’s challenging,” she says.

The most recent commitment to positive change in the sector is the Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030 signed earlier this year by Cartier, delegated by parent company Richemont, and Kering, the owner of Boucheron and Pomellato. The initiative is guided by the Ten Principles of the United Nations Global Compact and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Members include Chanel Horlogerie, Chanel Joaillerie & Bijoux, Montblanc, Rosy Blue, Swarovski, Gucci watches, Boucheron, Pomellato, Dodo and Qeelin.

Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe; Blancpain’s backing supports science-based marine management Ⓒ Supplied

IWC, the first in the industry to publish a sustainability report, has set 25 sustainability targets for March 2023. Achievements to date include purchasing 100 percent renewable energy globally, being the first industry brand to be RJC chain-of-custody certified, and attaining equal-salary certification in Switzerland. “Sustainability is more than surface level at IWC. We don’t throw around pledges of progress without backing them up or asking ourselves the tough questions,” says IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr.

The Omega Speedmaster X-33 Marstimer tracks the rhythms of the red planet © Supplied

The release of Breitling’s second annual sustainability report coincides with the launch of the Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins – the beginning of Breitling’s mission to source Better Gold and diamonds and the introduction of end-to-end traceability. By 2025, Breitling’s entire product portfolio will feature artisanal gold and lab-grown diamonds, sourced from accredited suppliers. “Breitling is on a mission to create beautiful products with better materials and manufacturing,” says Georges Kern, Breitling CEO. Breitling uses watch boxes made from upcycled PET plastic and works with sustainable clothing brand Outerknown to make watch straps from upcycled nylon.

Meanwhile, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry notes that Switzerland exported a total of 13 780 million watches in 2020, more than half made of steel. The need to reduce the ecological impact of sourcing and transporting the metal from China led Panatere, a watch-component manufacturer based in Switzerland, to recycle steel locally via a solar-powered furnace in France.

According to The New York Times, the world’s first block of recycled steel – composed entirely of chips collected in Watch Valley and melted down by Panatere last year using solar energy – will be displayed at the town’s Musée International d’Horlogerie, all “alongside watchmaking memorabilia and vintage timepieces by legends like Antide Janvier and Abraham- Louis Breguet”.

This article first appeared in the 2022 annual special edition of YourLuxury Africa.

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