Watchmaking and the environment


Watchmaking and the environment: on the front line

INNOVATION

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January 2021


Watchmaking and the environment: on the front line

Future customers will necessarily be more attentive to the environmental impact of their purchases. A few established watch brands stand out for their initiatives, but it remains difficult to modify well-oiled industrial circuits. New watchmakers, supporters of the concept of the “circular economy”, share possible avenues of innovation in terms of sustainability, recycling and closed loops. But these are not without certain contradictions, which are still very complex to overcome.

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n 2018, the WWF presented a study on the environmental impact of Swiss watchmaking. As only six of the fifteen largest brands took part in the survey, the biggest takeaway was the industry’s lack of transparency in this area; given the climate of secrecy within the sector, it was based on relatively little public information. Unsurprisingly, brands that had been most active in communicating their environmental initiatives, such as IWC, were at the top of the list. But none of these watchmakers ranked as a “visionary” or “pioneer”, according to WWF criteria.

In fact, the pioneers of “eco-responsible” watchmaking are to be found among certain start-ups, unconstrained by heavy industrial apparatus. Some of them are even seeking to make sustainability a distinctive feature of their brand. They have the advantage of starting from a blank page. In fact, as in online sales or the use of social networks in watchmaking, the pioneers of the genre are not necessarily the brands at the forefront of the scene. Nevertheless, their work will clear the way for even the best-known players. This is precisely how a healthy industrial ecosystem works, feeding on innovation from below.

The pioneers of eco-friendly watchmaking are not necessarily the brands at the forefront of the scene, but their trailblazing work will later be useful to even the best-known actors.

 The Awake.01 model is made from re-engineered, biodegradable and bio-sourced materials. The housing is built from RE:FN-S1®, made from processed fishing net plastics. The bracelet is made from a bio-polymer from castor oil.
The Awake.01 model is made from re-engineered, biodegradable and bio-sourced materials. The housing is built from RE:FN-S1®, made from processed fishing net plastics. The bracelet is made from a bio-polymer from castor oil.

After a year in which the whole sector was fundamentally challenged, ecological awareness among the watchmaking industry seems to be on the rise. According to the annual dedicated Deloitte study, nearly 90% of the managers surveyed believe that supply chain sustainability and transparency are “important for the sector”, and more than 50% of the consumers polled “take sustainability into account when buying a watch.”

Mass market primarily affected

Given the volumes involved, entry-level watches are the most directly affected by ecological concerns. As a sign of the times, last year two giants in the segment announced new environmental initiatives. Ice-Watch has presented a series of new solar-powered models, and Swatch has introduced watches made from bio-sourced materials extracted from castor beans. Richemont’s experimental brand Baume also focuses on sustainability.

As a sign of the times, last year two giants in the accessible segment, Swatch and Ice-Watch, announced new environmental initiatives.

Last year Swatch introduced the 1983 collection using bio-sourced materials extracted from castor beans.
Last year Swatch introduced the 1983 collection using bio-sourced materials extracted from castor beans.

In the luxury goods sector, a number of local initiatives have seen the light of day in recent years, such as the installation of solar panels on factory roofs. Some brands provide often considerable support for associations working for the environment. Rolex, for example, is very active through its Perpetual Planet programme; Blancpain has its Ocean Commitment, Oris supports coral protection and Carl F. Bucherer works with the Manta Trust.

But in terms of the product itself, we have yet to see any large-scale environmental revolution, although there have been limited series or actions. Examples include Ulysse Nardin, which in 2020 presented a concept for a sustainably designed model, the Diver Net, and Breitling, which uses Econyl®, made from recycled nylon, for watch straps.

Last year, Ice-Watch showed a willingness to evolve its brand image, by introducing a line of solar-powered models.
Last year, Ice-Watch showed a willingness to evolve its brand image, by introducing a line of solar-powered models.

In a recent article in the Luxury Tribune, Cartier’s President and CEO Cyrille Vigneron outlined a vision of a future that reconciles luxury and environmental concerns: “We must reduce our carbon footprint, eat less, avoid wastage. This existential question applies to everything, including luxury in its opulent forms. But luxury is not only opulence. Luxury can be frugal, durable and sustainable.”

In collaboration with Outerknown, Breitling offers straps made from Econyl®, a material sourced from nylon waste recovered from fishing nets, among other things.
In collaboration with Outerknown, Breitling offers straps made from Econyl®, a material sourced from nylon waste recovered from fishing nets, among other things.

The environment is more and more present in the discourse of the major watch brands. At the same time, we have recently seen the emergence of several watchmaking start-ups whose very brand concept is based on ecological thinking. Their innovations make it possible to test solutions to improve the sourcing, durability and lifecycle of materials in particular. These experiments could serve as a catalyst for deeper changes.

We have recently seen the emergence of several watchmaking start-ups whose very brand concept is based on ecological thinking.

Applying the principle of “upcycling”, last year Ulysse Nardin presented the Diver Net concept model, whose case, caseband, back cover and bezel are made from recycled fishing nets.
Applying the principle of “upcycling”, last year Ulysse Nardin presented the Diver Net concept model, whose case, caseband, back cover and bezel are made from recycled fishing nets.

Recycling plastic, a mere band-aid

One of them is the French brand Awake. Its founder Lilian Thibault received a media boost from Emmanuel Macron: at the opening of the G7 in Biarritz in 2019, an event dedicated to the protection of the oceans and biodiversity, the French president introduced Awake’s “La Bleue” timepiece to his counterparts as an example to follow in terms of innovation in sustainability.

The special feature of these models is that they are equipped with solar-powered movements, and their case and strap are made of recycled PET plastic from the fishing nets that pollute the beaches. “When I was introduced to watchmaking in 2017, there was almost virgin ground in terms of environmental protection,” stresses Lilian Thibault. “It wasn’t just a rather vague concept that appealed, but a capacity to innovate in terms of the materials used.”

Lilian Thibault, founder of Awake Concept, whose watches were presented by Emmanuel Macron at the G7 in 2019 as an “illustration of what France wants to do in terms of sustainable innovation”.
Lilian Thibault, founder of Awake Concept, whose watches were presented by Emmanuel Macron at the G7 in 2019 as an “illustration of what France wants to do in terms of sustainable innovation”.

The brand’s price positioning is around 300 euros, which is very affordable in watchmaking terms. Some customers nevertheless expected cheaper products, since they are made, after all, from... waste. “Recycling is a small industry. It is more expensive to source from this segment than from standard plastics. It’s a bit like the organic vegetable market,” replies Lilian Thibault. The entrepreneur continues: “I don’t just want to talk to people who are already ecologically aware, but to all those who consume without thinking too much about it, with an object that is both beautiful and innovative.”

“Recycling is a small industry. It is more expensive to source from this segment than from standard plastics. It’s a bit like the organic vegetable market.”

Awake’s founder is also aware that, rather than being a permanent solution, recycling plastic is more of a temporary band-aid. In the long term, proponents of the circular economy aim to completely eliminate the use of materials derived from fossil fuels such as plastic.

 Turning waste into resources: fishing nets are recovered and recycled by the French brand Awake. “We are aware that plastic recycling is only a temporary band-aid,” says founder Lilian Thibault.
Turning waste into resources: fishing nets are recovered and recycled by the French brand Awake. “We are aware that plastic recycling is only a temporary band-aid,” says founder Lilian Thibault.

For Awake, the future lies in “bio-manufacturing”, which replaces fossil fuels with plant-based materials. “This is a tricky exercise, because the potential varies greatly from one material to another,” says Lilian Thibault: “For example, a leather strap made from pineapple could in fact contain a lot of fossil and chemical additives to make it usable.”

As an experiment, the start-up has opted to develop bio-materials from castor oil. A first range, which it has just launched, uses this injected raw material to make the case and strap. “It is the plastic of tomorrow, entirely biodegradable. It is possible to calibrate its degree of flexibility or hardness, which paves the way for applications outside the watchmaking industry as well,” says the entrepreneur.

The producers of this material are registered with the Castor Initiative, which guarantees “the maintenance of soil fertility, a significant reduction in water consumption and carbon footprint, and fairer remuneration for farmers.”

For Awake, the future lies in “bio-manufacturing”, which replaces fossil fuels with plant materials.

The independent brand Oris has been leading environmental initiatives for many years. It has been working with the Coral Restoration Foundation since 2014. Here is the Carysfort Reef Limited Edition.
The independent brand Oris has been leading environmental initiatives for many years. It has been working with the Coral Restoration Foundation since 2014. Here is the Carysfort Reef Limited Edition.
Oris

Reusing local steel

Another watchmaking start-up, ID Genève, is launching a bio-material bracelet made from grapes. Founded in 2020, the company has just finalised a launch campaign on the Swiss crowdfunding platform We Make It, which enabled it to raise more than 270,000 francs. “We preferred a local solution to a giant like Kickstarter,” explains its co-founder Nicolas Freudiger. “One of the precepts of the circular economy is local investment.”

Increasingly unusual bio-materials are appearing in watchmaking R&D: ID Genève makes watch straps from bio-materials including grape pomace.
Increasingly unusual bio-materials are appearing in watchmaking R&D: ID Genève makes watch straps from bio-materials including grape pomace.

ID Genève watches are delivered in a biodegradable box, which can be composted in the garden, and their movements come from unsold stocks. But the start-up’s focus when designing its first Circular 1 model was recycled steel. “Switzerland is a world champion in gold foundries, but there is no longer a single industrial stainless steel foundry in the country,” stresses Nicolas Freudiger. “The last one closed down several years ago. We contacted metal dealers in Switzerland and soon realised that this industry is even more opaque than watchmaking.”

 Nicolas Freudiger, co-founder of ID Genève, a watchmaking start-up active in sustainability research
Nicolas Freudiger, co-founder of ID Genève, a watchmaking start-up active in sustainability research

ID Genève finally turned to a company that had set up a local steel recycling network in the Jura. The company Panatere collects and recycles waste from some forty factories in the Swiss canton. “Most of them are active in watchmaking and medical tools,” says Nicolas Freudiger. “Our partner produces a very high quality 4441 steel. The same grade of steel is used for the production of scalpels.” The steel is melted on the French side of the border and then upgraded before being used in watches. Its carbon footprint is certified ten times lower than that of a standard steel by the specialist company Quantis, based at the EPFL.

The company Panatere collects and recycles waste from some forty factories in the Swiss canton of Jura to offer recycled steel.

 The first model from ID Genève, called Circular 1, was launched through the Swiss crowdfunding platform We Make It.
The first model from ID Genève, called Circular 1, was launched through the Swiss crowdfunding platform We Make It.
Image: Daniela & Tonatiuh

The brand‘s prototypes are made from 98% recycled steel, but Nicolas Freudiger says that future models, to be sold for 3,500 francs, will contain 100% recycled steel: “One of the pillars of the circular economy is to identify, isolate and recycle the most high-quality materials. I have realised that many watchmakers work with recycled steel from Asia. Given the carbon footprint, this makes no sense and only displaces the problem. We need a global view of sustainability, otherwise we end up with nothing more than greenwashing.”

“Some watchmakers are working with recycled steel from Asia. Given the carbon footprint, this only displaces the problem. You have to take a global view of sustainability, otherwise you end up with greenwashing.”

 ID Genève intends to use 100% recycled 4441 stainless steel from the Jura region, in partnership with the recycling specialist Panatere SA.
ID Genève intends to use 100% recycled 4441 stainless steel from the Jura region, in partnership with the recycling specialist Panatere SA.

A circular production system

Cédric Bellon is also aiming for 100% recycled steel. Active since 2005 at the head of his own watch design studio (working among others for Bell & Ross), the Frenchman has joined forces with Watch Angels, a new watchmaking incubator backed by a Swiss subcontracting group, FM Swiss Logistics, which has just introduced a “crowdmanufacturing” concept (read our detailed account), to launch his own sustainable brand of watches at the beginning of this year.

“Very quickly, while working on this launch, we realised that a truly sustainable project is about much more than just using sustainable materials,” underlines Cédric Bellon. “Everything has to be optimised. So we created a completely circular, integrated and local manufacturing process.” For the development of his tool watch, the entrepreneur was able to rely on the production facilities and supply chain of Watch Angels, led by Guido Benedini, ex-CEO of Alpina.

The production cycle, which aims to be “as direct as possible” between the designer and the customer, also guarantees a very competitive price. The Cédric Bellon model is offered in two versions: with a reconditioned Dubois-Dépraz movement (995 CHF) or a calibre from a pre-series by Soprod (695 CHF). The dial, case and bezel are made of 100% recycled 316 L stainless steel, “PuReSteel”, a pioneering process developed in collaboration with the German industrial group ThyssenKrupp.

 Cédric Bellon has headed up his own design studio for more than ten years. His sustainable watch concept is the first product to be launched by the new Watch Angels incubator.
Cédric Bellon has headed up his own design studio for more than ten years. His sustainable watch concept is the first product to be launched by the new Watch Angels incubator.

“I had imagined a watch project using recycled materials some fifteen years ago, but the sector was not yet open to this theme at the time,” explains Cédric Bellon. “From a design point of view, I chose a form of simplicity, that of a tool watch, which is very legible and functional, and which is also more durable and timeless than models with overly marked designs, which go out of fashion more quickly.”

The case and bezel of the first CB model (for Cédric Bellon) are made of 100% recycled 316 L stainless steel, “PuReSteel”, produced in collaboration with ThyssenKrupp.
The case and bezel of the first CB model (for Cédric Bellon) are made of 100% recycled 316 L stainless steel, “PuReSteel”, produced in collaboration with ThyssenKrupp.
Two variants of the 40mm CB model are available: with a Soprod P024 automatic movement and date, or with a Dubois-Dépraz movement and small seconds (based on the Sellita SW300 calibre).
Two variants of the 40mm CB model are available: with a Soprod P024 automatic movement and date, or with a Dubois-Dépraz movement and small seconds (based on the Sellita SW300 calibre).

For the designer, the subscription-based production model offered via the Watch Angels platform also makes it possible to better calibrate supply and demand in order to avoid excessive inventories and unsold items. By cutting back on expenses connected with third-party distribution, and thanks to the industrial apparatus backing it up, the watchmaker can offer models at factory prices.

A subscription model means production is calibrated to orders, avoiding excess inventories and unsold stock.

Bellom

“Humbly changing the status quo”

These three startups, which are fighting to create a new segment of sustainable watchmaking, also say they hope that bigger players will follow them. “It is our role as a watchmaking start-up in 2021 to try to change the status quo in the face of the environmental emergency,” stresses Nicolas Freudiger of ID Genève. “We do this very humbly, through innovation, without wishing to lecture. We are very proud of this industry, but we can push the envelope even further, especially in terms of choice of materials and the circularity of operations.”

“We are very proud of this industry, but we can push the envelope even further, especially in terms of the choice of materials and the circularity of operations.”

Carl F. Bucherer has supported the Manta Trust, which works for the protection of manta rays, for several years. Here is a dedicated model from the Patravi ScubaTec line.
Carl F. Bucherer has supported the Manta Trust, which works for the protection of manta rays, for several years. Here is a dedicated model from the Patravi ScubaTec line.

For Nicolas Freudiger, watchmaking has an opportunity to seize: “Today, the watch has become above all an extension of personal values. Nowadays, environmental and sustainable designs are becoming more and more important. If well thought out, the watch can also be a strong vector of identification with these values.”

He himself comes from the antipodes of the sustainable start-up, since he worked at Coca-Cola Switzerland before launching ID Genève. “There, I observed the influence that start-ups can exert even on large companies. Already, after we visited certain watchmaking suppliers, development cells have been created for recycling materials. We asked some very specific questions, and a few of them are ready to think further.”

Awake

At Awake, Lilian Thibault has set up a laboratory dedicated to sustainable innovation in horology: “We are pleased to see the big names in watchmaking now adopting, for instance, recycled PET from fishing nets, even if this is only a temporary solution. We don’t patent our innovations, precisely so that other brands can adopt them. This obliges us to constantly innovate to try to maintain leadership in sustainable watchmaking. We also want to adapt our materials for other industries in the longer term.”

The influence can also work in the other direction, underlines Cédric Bellon: “Ready-to-wear is extremely influenced by luxury practices. Similarly, if high-end watchmaking starts to develop more sustainable solutions, the entry-level segment will follow. It is not necessarily a reduction in consumption that is taking shape for watchmaking, which is already a small-scale industry, but rather, more virtuous ways of doing things.”

“If high-end watchmaking starts to develop more sustainable solutions, the entry-level segment will follow.”

The impact of Covid-19

Willingly or unwillingly, the watch industry’s ecological awareness has certainly been accelerated by the lockdowns caused by the pandemic crisis last year. This slowdown in globalisation is forcing a reconsideration of the global supply chains.

“This event, coupled with ever greater transparency in the digital age, and ever greater media coverage of climate issues, is making people think about their purchasing decisions and consumption patterns. We can also see this with the boom in local agricultural products,” says Nicolas Freudiger, winner of a “Circular Economy Award” for his brand ID Genève.

But this “return to local”, against a backdrop of a more moderate carbon footprint, is not evident in practice, as Lilian Thibault of Awake points out: “Our solar-powered movements come from Japan, because there is no local alternative. In addition, we source our recycled fishing nets from Denmark. So we end up with globally dispersed components and limited room for manoeuvre in terms of carbon footprint.”

The supply chains for sustainable materials often span the entire planet, which has a negative impact on their carbon footprint. This creates a tension between innovation and sustainability.

The brand has two assembly centres: one in Besançon, France, for distribution in Europe, the other in China for the rest of the world. “If we had a Made in France label, that wouldn’t necessarily improve our carbon impact. In fact, it would be worse if we were to bring models equipped with Asian movements back to Europe, and then resell them in Asia.”

The entrepreneur, who is aiming for a B Corporation certification, acknowledges that this is where some serious thinking still needs to be done. How can this paradox, where innovation and sustainability are sometimes at odds, be resolved? “Some brands like Patagonia have managed to build on these two values. But there’s no miracle recipe, we’re constantly on the hunt for the carbon footprint. When you move one parameter in favour of sustainability, another parameter can move in the opposite direction.”

It is to nature that Lilian Thibault returns to try to solve this equation: “The future of innovation and sustainability lies in biomimetics. Nature is the most wonderful of designers and an inexhaustible source of inspiration.”

“It’s a never-ending quest. When you move one parameter in favour of sustainability, another parameter can move in the opposite direction.”