A watch is many things. To the utilitarian, it is simply a tool for conveniently telling the time. But to so many men and women, a watch becomes a measuring stick for status and financial well-being, where the Casios and Timexs of the world aspire to reach the levels of Richard Mille and Patek Phillippe. With the ubiquity of iPhones and Samsungs and even the Motorola Razr before them, the real-life practicality of a watch began to wane, leaving the industry to cater more exclusively to those status-interested customers who viewed it as an accessory, not a tool. After years of this trend, younger generations are beginning to ask whether the manufacture of luxury brands is worth the environmental cost that inevitably comes with the purchase.
A few watchmakers began to notice this changing sentiment in recent years, but initial efforts to capitalize on it by offering sustainably sourced watches at a premium price tag were largely unsuccessful. “They expect [sustainability]; it’s not a reward,” says Rolf Studer, co-chief executive at Swiss watchmaker Oris. This statement was proven true after a sustainably made line from Richemont, 2018’s Baume, missed the mark with younger buyers. “Baume was a total flop sales-wise,” says Oliver Müller, whose watch consulting firm LuxeConsult estimated that Richemont had only sold about 1,500 watches at a price tag of $500-1500.
For Millennials and Generation Z, who have only known a world where cell phones were the universal method of telling time, it is quickly becoming a necessitating factor for deciding whether to even buy a watch. As chief executive of Baume et Mercier, which absorbed the failed Baume experiment, David Chaumet has taken the lesson to heart. “Soon, the question will not be how much recycled material you use, but why you’re not using any at all,” he says.
The case of Richemont’s Baume has only emboldened a growing number of watchmakers who used the company’s mistakes as a valuable lesson for re-evaluating how to approach sustainability from a marketing perspective. Brands like IWC Schaffhausen, which was rated the highest among Swiss watchmakers in a 2018 WWF sustainability report, sees a clean manufacturing process as a way to make a long-term public image investment with younger yet-to-be customers. According to IWC chief executive Christoph Grainger-Herr, that investment “is fundamentally important to build the right image” with young people, in hopes that those same people come back to IWC when they reach a level of financial independence.
Even today, environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes are almost the norm for most watchmakers. Panerai, Bulgari, Oris, and many more brands have introduced lines that are recycled or upcycled to some degree. Ulysse Nardin, in hopes of attracting new environmentalist customers, unveiled a watch with a case made from recycled fishnets. The move has been a smashing success, with retailer Watches of Switzerland reporting that their U.S. stores have seen sales of the Ulysse Nardin brand double last year. Last October, Breitling announced that their boxes were to be made from upcycled plastic bottles.
Both Panerai and Bulgari have made serious efforts to clean up their materials supply chains, with Panerai making a fully-recyclable watch and Bulgari utilizing blockchain technology as a tamper-proof method of tracing the origins of their raw metals through the Aura platform. At the top of the luxury echelon, even Hermes is joining the sustainability conversation, both by sourcing their steel more locally to reduce emissions as well as exclusively using gold from qualitative recycling instead of mines. “We’ll see a lot more of this in the near future,” says LuxeConsult’s Müller in a warning for those who refuse to adapt to the changing market. Time will punish the ones hoping for a miraculous status quo.”