reitling has set itself the task of making luxury more sustainable with the launch of its first traceable watch. The Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins comes with a blockchain-backed provenance record that details the supply chain for the artisanal gold and lab-grown diamonds that went into its production.
Since his appointment as CEO in 2017, Georges Kern has taken a series of measures to establish Breitling as the standard-bearer for “new luxury” in the watch segment, with greater casualisation and increased social responsibility, all the while moving upmarket. In this latest announcement, the brand has made it known that as of 2025 it will use only lab-grown diamonds and artisanal gold from accredited suppliers.
- The Breitling Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins is cased in traceable 18k red gold from an artisanal mine in Columbia that is accredited by the Swiss Better Gold Association. The bezel is set with lab-grown diamonds.
Breitling has also announced its commitment to enabling full traceability. Even when adhering to best practices, it is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to trace the origins of precious metals and stones. The gold and small ”melee” diamonds used in the watch industry come from multiple mines whose production is mixed together. Their origin is therefore, quite literally, lost in the mix. Breitling’s response is that it will completely drop mined diamonds, replacing them with lab-grown diamonds for its Super Chronomat Origins. These type IIa single-crystal diamonds are produced in Gujarat, India, and set by Salanitro in Switzerland.
The gold for the Super Chronomat Origins is sourced from a single artisanal mine, the Touchstone mine in Colombia, which meets Swiss Better Gold Association (SBGA) criteria. For every gram of gold it purchases, Breitling contributes to projects that support local communities. Breitling’s partners in Switzerland are the MKS PAMP and Argor-Heraeus refineries.
- Aurelia Figueroa, Global Head of Sustainability at Breitling
We talked to Aurelia Figueroa, Global Head of Sustainability at Breitling since 2020, about the implications of this milestone in the brand’s sourcing strategy. Under her stewardship, Breitling recently published its second Sustainability Report (read it here). “The first thing I did on taking up my role was an evaluation of the company’s sustainability impacts. This produced a list of 138 points that could all fall within the scope of our ESG strategy. Obviously we couldn’t address each one so, working with in-house and external specialists, including representatives of WWF, SECO [the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs] and the SBGA, we identified the ten points you’ll find in our Sustainability Report. They cover the five pillars of Product, Planet, People, Prosperity and Progress.”
Europa Star: Breitling has announced that from 2025 it will only use gold from artisanal and small-scale mines (ASM). What prompted this decision?
Aurelia Figueroa: This is actually happening in two stages. Firstly to purchase only ASM gold by the end of the financial year, then to achieve 100% traceable gold by 2025. Given the amount of gold we use – 600 kilos in 2021 – we knew we could take action in an area where our social and environmental net impact is greatest. Around 20 million people are employed by these artisanal and small-scale mines, so the potential social impact is huge. We’re fully aware that these mines can have a disastrous impact on the environment. Supporting the [ASM] system can have a far greater positive net impact than using recycled gold, which simply maintains the status quo with no means to identify the gold’s origin.
- All the gold that Breitling uses for the Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins comes from a single artisanal mine in Colombia that meets the criteria of the Swiss Better Gold Association (SBGA). The SBGA improves working, living and environmental conditions for the communities who rely on artisanal and small-scale mining for their livelihood.
In another key announcement, Breitling has declared that by end 2024 it will only use lab-grown diamonds. Can you tell us more?
It’s a slow process. Our objective is to use only lab-grown diamonds from accredited and traceable sources by 2024. Our direct suppliers have never worked with lab-grown diamonds, hence they also have to put a sorting system in place. SCS Global, a certification body that applies quantified scientific benchmarks, has certified Breitling, as an entity that handles the diamonds. The procedure has been finalised for large stones and is in progress for smaller stones.
- The lab-grown diamonds on the Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins are produced by adding gas and heat to a diamond seed in a vacuum chamber. The heat transforms the gas into a cloud of plasma that enables the diamond to crystallise and grow. Lab-grown diamonds have identical physical and chemical properties to natural diamonds and are subjected to the same quality controls. By 2024 Breitling will have switched to using only lab-grown diamonds for all its products.
Lab-grown diamonds take a lot of energy to produce. Are they really more sustainable than mined diamonds?
Any comparison of lab-grown and mined diamonds must take a range of factors into account. We can confidently say that our lab-grown diamonds are traceable and more environmentally sustainable than their mined equivalent whose impact on the climate, biodiversity, and air and water pollution is well documented. For our new Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins, emissions are estimated at 224.74 kilos CO2 equivalent per carat and these emissions have been fully offset. Fenix, our supplier, is in the process of switching to 100% solar energy, which will significantly reduce its carbon footprint in the near future.
Even so, your sustainability report indicates a substantial increase in Breitling’s carbon emissions in 2022.
We are completely open about our results and objectives, which are published in our 2022 Sustainability Report. There are several reasons why our emissions increased from 9,089 tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2021 to 17,728 tonnes CO2 equivalent. Firstly, the previous report covered the financial year from April 2020 to March 2021, during the Covid pandemic, hence the baseline is very low compared with a normal level of activity. Secondly, calculations now include US and Canadian logistics (+370 tonnes CO2E) and global employee commuting (+2,277 tonnes CO2E). Thirdly, increased production volumes have resulted in more purchases of energy and services (Scope 3) and more travel (+5,201 and +454 tonnes CO2E respectively).
The transition from recycled gold to ASM gold also has a substantial impact on our carbon emissions. It’s about making the choice to have a stronger positive social impact and an environmental impact. An ESG approach is a wide-reaching process that begins with an uncompromising and transparent evaluation of emissions and measures taken to reduce these emissions. We’ve laid the groundwork and are confident we have the capacity to achieve our objectives.
- The Touchstone artisanal mine in Colombia supplies the gold for the Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins.
Breitling is also committed to 100% recycled packaging.
That’s right. We’ve introduced a recyclable box made from upcycled materials. Sustainability is clearly important to customers, judging by the positive feedback we’ve had. Making this change has halved our logistics carbon footprint.
You conducted a carbon footprint assessment for the Navitimer B01 Chronograph 46. Do you intend to do the same for all your products?
That’s the plan! [see the 2021 Sustainability Report]. We’ve put our carbon accounting “in order” this year. This is a big step forward, considering it takes several months to compile annual data. If we have to, we’ll use secondary data. The process is the most important. Carbon accounting is constantly evolving. We identified our gold supply chain as the priority because it represents more than half our Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. This is where changes will be felt the most.
- Owners of the Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins receive a provenance record for the watch’s gold and diamonds in a blockchain-backed NFT. Breitling has issued a digital passport for each of its new watches since 2020. The value chain for the Super Chronomat Origins is documented end-to-end by the owner’s NFT and publicly on an online sourcing map. All information is independently verified.
What progress have you made towards your Science Based Targets objective for global emissions?
We aim to reduce 100% of our Scope 1 and 2 global emissions by end 2023. We are still implementing projects for renewable energy procurement globally.
What about your goal to eliminate plastic waste?
We produce seven tonnes of plastic waste each year. This is a startling amount when you think about it, considering we have nothing to do with plastic, and illustrative of the scale of the problem today. Our goal is to generate zero plastic waste across operations by 2025. We’re also aiming to eliminate plastic entirely, which is a huge challenge. The solution lies in finding reliable alternatives, such as for the little plastic trays when sending movements to the COSC. Cork was one possibility but it collects dust, so we’re looking into other materials. In the meantime we’re trying to “think circular” as this will be the most powerful lever in the long term. Education is another vital factor. When we drafted our latest report, for example, we organised an information event on plastic for employees and suppliers.
Breitling fully offset its 17,728 tonnes of carbon emissions in 2022. Critics of offsetting say it is used as a substitute for actual emissions reductions. Can you at least be sure that offsetting measures are effective?
I agree that offsetting is the bare minimum. It isn’t the main part of our programme, but we have increased our shadow price on carbon from CHF 30 to CHF 40 per tonne so we can build up a substantial carbon fund. Part of this is used to finance tried and tested projects such as Concosta REDD+ in Colombia or The International Small Group & Tree Planting Program in Uganda, for the most recent offsetting cycles. The rest goes towards fundamental projects such as the transition from recycled gold to ASM gold, or to shift our energy supply. We continue to endow the fund for future projects.
Can you give examples of Breitling’s commitment to ocean conservancy?
In 2018 we teamed up with the Outerknown clothing company to produce ECONYL® straps from discarded fishing nets, with the aim of raising awareness of ocean plastic pollution. We organise regular coastal clean-ups with our teams around the world. Obviously they can only pick up a tiny amount of the waste that pours into the ocean each year [8 million tonnes] but these events not only get people talking about the wider topic of environmental protection, it gets them doing something, and that’s what counts.
- Breitling employees taking part in a beach clean-up
Prosperity is one of your ESG pillars. How do you reconcile a growth-driven business model with sustainability? Doesn’t it take a complete paradigm shift?
It’s something I think about every day. Just to give you some background, I trained as a development economist and spent many years at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability before entering the watch industry. This question has been nagging me for a long time. My personal opinion is that luxury is a symptom of global socio-economic inequalities. The desire for status – a zero-sum game – is beyond our scope of influence.
Having said that, the necessary transition towards greater eco-responsibility must come from governance. That’s where I see the value of what we do. I’d like to see changes in how we define social status. Wearing a CHF 20,000 watch can certainly say something about what I’ve achieved, but if that watch was responsibly produced, it tells a whole other story. It’s about moving from “owning more” to “meaning more”. It’s a tiny step but at least it’s in the right direction. Also, by engaging our suppliers against child labour, towards increased traceability and more responsible practices, we’re contributing to healthier labour economics.
- Materiality matrix showing priorities identified in Breitling’s sustainability report
What opportunities have you identified for extending the scope of your action?
We just entered into a partnership with SWISS to purchase Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) for our flights with the airline, thereby reducing our flight-related carbon emissions by 80 per cent. We are offsetting the remaining 20 per cent at CHF 600/tonne which is a substantial figure. I think a lot more can be done through continued innovation that will make our operations and energy consumption more efficient. We’re also extending the scope of our measures so that carbon reductions cover the widest possible base.
How are customers responding to these initiatives?
When we launched our new packaging, retailers were up in arms. Their immediate reaction was, “We can’t sell a luxury watch in a recycled box.” Customers, on the other hand, were perfectly happy. Whether in Europe or Asia or the United States, customers are willing to make these changes. The public know that change is the way towards a more sustainable world.