Style / World of Watches (WOW)

The WOW Conversation: Sustainability in Watchmaking

Picking up from our sustainability special last issue, the editors of WOW Singapore and Thailand address the subject as collectors themselves.

Jan 28, 2022 | By Ashok Soman
tudor watch
Tudor Black Bay Ceramic with fabric strap and hybrid rubber/leather strap.

Sustainability is a hot topic, and the conversation is getting a little shrill in the wake of COP26 and a variety of dire warnings from experts. Watchmaking is only a tiny part of this, and yet there is no question that brands want to be on the right side. In our previous issue, we spent a lot of pages getting into the meat of this subject, and we are unlikely to leave it at that given the continuing topical relevance of sustainability. In other words, this is a developing story with generational reverberations. There is no telling when the last word will come.

For us, the media and watch collectors, our part remains to ask questions; we cannot afford to hang back when our readers have questions. One of those questions is why give so much play to this issue when the issue of flipping and the grey market may be more directly relevant. This is a fair point, and is part of what the editors of WOW Singapore and Thailand get into. Of course, the pre-owned market plays an important role in keeping watchmaking sustainable, and we may yet get into this more directly. Stay tuned!

For now though, sustainability is a richer subject because right and wrong seem like open questions. To use the subject of flipping watches by way of contrast, we can all agree that when watches appear on the pre-owned market complete with factory seals and stickers, something is very wrong. One might even say it is unacceptable. What is the equivalent in the area of green, clean and ethical watchmaking? As far as we know, no brands are using forced labour to make watches, and wristwatches continue to tick without any emissions of any sort.

Even as watch brands continue to try to stay ahead of the game, there are troubling signs that all of us are failing to read the room. The World Wildlife Fund report we cited raked many brands over the coals mainly because watchmaking brands are far from ready for tough questions. At the same time, far too many brands are busy singing their own praises, seemingly oblivious to the fact that even their Wikipedia entries have been darkened by that 2018 report. WOW Singapore and Thailand try to get this subject out of the dark by having an open discussion.

Ruckdee Chotjinda: I can’t believe it has been three months! I always look forward to this conversation series of articles. In fact, it is probably the most enjoyable piece of writing in each quarterly print issue of mine. We find a subject we are either passionate about or find worthy of discussion in public. And so here we are, exchanging thoughts on this trend of sustainability in watchmaking.

Ashok Soman: That is indeed what I am proposing… and yes I do enjoy these little chats. I’m told the readers like it too, so let’s not disappoint! No pressure. To be fair, I started on this controversial subject last issue in Singapore, but have been planning for it since earlier this year. Before you say it, it was not the Panerai e-LAB ID that triggered it!

RC: Why do you say that the subject of sustainability is controversial? Or do you mean it is controversial from the marketing standpoint? 

AS: Probably a little of both, but first I must thank you my dear friend, because you inspired this discussion… in particular our roundtable discussion with a certain CEO. 

RC: Me? How? When? I am hardly an environmentalist, just a regular guy who tries to reduce waste here and there. 

AS: Let’s backtrack a little then because I think this gets to the heart of the controversy bit, and why I even had reservations about exploring this topic. So, the CEO in question was of course none other than Francois-Henry Benahmias, and it was on the occasion of the launch of the Black Panther watch. Remind me of the question again. 

RC: Ahhhhh… that day. I remember asking a question about actions Audemars Piguet might consider to correspond with the trend towards sustainability in watchmaking. The question could have a slight bit of political correctness and Millenial angle in it. It came to me on the spot so I don’t have it in writing. I’m sorry. 

AS: The answer was quite pointed, but the part that sticks with me is Benahmias’ assertion that young people (presumably those interested in watches) would not forgive us if we didn’t act in good faith with regards to our fellow humans and the planet. Is that a fair interpretation? 

RC: I wish we had a video replay of that session so we can quote correctly, but it was something along that line. What I remember better than the wording was the level of swiftness and assuredness of his response. 

AS: While you consider that, it raised for me the spectre of what’s called greenwashing, and the simple claim in traditional watchmaking that mechanical watches are inherently sustainable. I know, that is a bit of a tangent from the charitable effort Audemars Piguet was promoting then, but it is related, in the sense of watch companies doing good in general. And then you suggested we discuss Only Watch, and that sealed the deal for me. As in there is enough material here to get into a pretty interesting dialogue. 

RC: Excellent. Where I lack knowledge, I compensate with curiosity. That probably works in our collective favour I guess. 

AS: Curiosity is part of the job! There’s room for plenty of perspectives with regards to sustainability of course, but I think the first thing watch companies can do is recognise that questions from people like us are genuinely about the good of the trade. I mean, we are not climate activists or business transparency advocates. As I often say, climate change and sustainability are not science topics; the science is decided, it is only people who are not. How companies address these sorts of doubts can be a big deal. 

RC: Very well said. So, where do we go from here? 

AS: So a couple of things. One is the infamous WWF 2018 report about sustainability in watch and jewellery (you would have been at the SIHH that year, I was not), and the second is your own perspective on the same subject. I never asked any of the other editors their specific points of view, but I noticed that everyone from the New York Times to Revolution has jumped into this business of discussing if watchmaking can be sustainable. 

RC: OK. First of all, I think we need to look at the big picture and separate the two layers of reality from each other. All businesses need to try and minimise environmental impacts on nature, and they need to make sure consumers know that they are complying with the expected norm in order to secure their business with them. 

Watch companies need to strike a good balance here, in order to appear sincere. As you mentioned, it is very easy indeed to seem as if one is just greenwashing. Having said that, the straps were a good place to start for the watch companies, both in terms of real needs and marketing. There is scientific latitude to play with. It is external to the watch. And, unlike the case or the dial, the straps need to be replaced from time to time. 

AS: Replacing straps is an important consideration in our markets, as we noted in our other chat about bracelets! That nice alligator strap is going to come apart, sooner or later. 

Straps are also one area that watch brands are coming up with innovative solutions. I congratulated IWC in print last issue for its new straps, and for being ahead of the game in suggesting that watchmaking could be truly green. To be specific about the straps there, that is a reference to the TimberTex straps that are made of 80 per cent natural plant fibres from sustainably managed forests. Richemont in general is making a lot of waves in this area, with Cartier offering its own take (in their case, straps made of 40 per cent apple fruit waste in the Tank Must Solarbeat). The group is also the only one, amongst the big luxury groups, to have issued a third-party audited sustainability report. 

RC: Oh, I think I need to pay more attention here. I have not read that report myself. 

AS: You know those readers I mentioned? Well the Richemont CSR/ESG Director got in touch with me via LinkedIn about the sustainability feature once I published it on LUXUO. His thoughts aside though, I wonder what you think of this business with straps, since we have had so much news in the last couple of years about this. 

RC: I am open to new, greener possibilities, even if they come with slightly higher cost. When Panerai, Ulysse Nardin or Breitling introduced their synthetic straps from recycled or upcycled materials, I applauded. When Greubel Forsey announced their straps will be animal-free from 1 January 2022, I applauded. 

Sustainability aside, I am in favour of killing fewer animals. I am a gun enthusiast but I have zero interest in game hunting. I may even become vegetarian one day when I am older. So if they can make alligator pattern straps from plants, I will be happy to buy them. I just need the alligator look because I am accustomed to that, because I was socially conditioned to have this expectation with certain watch styles. I won’t wear my more expensive watches — and certainly not my slimmer dress watches — on an obviously canvas-looking strap. 

And I will not respond kindly to individuals who dictate how one should not use animal-derived products if they themselves are not completely vegetarian. Let’s say I am a consumer who appreciates the need to change, and am even willing to change. But I will not submit to the practice of extreme political correctness, so to speak. 

chopard luc xps twist qf fairmined
fairmined gold foundry
Chopard uses 100% ethical gold and has done so since 2018. Image: Chopard

AS: I’m with you there, and I do find that political correctness is the opposite of what’s useful. For watches, if we can discuss what sorts of straps are appropriate for, let’s say, a minute repeater or a grand complication, that would be useful. What I mean here is that for watches of a certain standard, the look and feel is important — and should not be held hostage by activist points of view. 

On the other hand, I also think that sustainability itself might become a status thing. As in, my watch is greener than yours… which I’m not sure is a good thing. You can almost feel this coming in future advertising materials… You can just imagine the scenario: “My watch uses Fairmined ethical gold… I even got it with a matching bracelet to support the artisanal workers. And yours?” 

RC: That shift in advertising is more likely I guess. With younger people joining watch companies, and with customers our age exiting the buying arena, many things will have to change in order for the watch brands to remain in favour of the next generation of buyers. Once again, it is up to them to ensure a good balance and not venture too far into the field of smoke and mirrors. 

AS: Code41 is the best example I can think of where a brand makes one of its virtues — transparency in this case — a selling point. This is as opposed to, say, Greubel Forsey or A. Lange & Sohne talking up their finishing techniques. I’m very comfortable discussing finishing, and I think it can make a real difference in the value of a watch. I’m not so comfortable making the same case for transparency, and I am a big advocate of transparency in watchmaking. It is more like a useful thing that all brands should do, rather than some kind of special trait that might have a marketing use. 

RC: You are right. Transparency should come as a standard. And even when and where it is lacking, the collective force of the consumers will weigh in to provoke positive changes. 

AS: Also, who’s exiting the buying market? Are you pretending again? In our other story about celebrating time, we both talk up watches we bought this year! 

RC: Ha ha. You got me there. Well, I retired from watches once around 2005 because I got all the pieces I wanted and could afford. The ones I could not are possible now but not feasible, considering aging parents and other responsibilities in life. But the joy of lifelong watch collecting is the subject of our next conversation piece, maybe? So, back to sustainability for now. 

AS: Every one of these chats is about the joy of collecting, somehow, but I digress. So, what does sustainability mean to buyers? Well, to begin with, on the practical front, it probably means higher prices. There is a cost to going green, not including any potential carbon tax or anti-consumption tax, and it is likely that all of it will be borne by the public. Personally, I don’t mind paying a little more for a watch, if the reason for doing so is transparently evident. 

On that note though, transparency is something buyers already appreciate, as we already pointed out, but probably do not want to pay more for. To be specific, IWC prices have been creeping upwards for the longest time, and this makes people unhappy enough, without them ever hearing the Richemont’s ESG programmes are responsible. My research shows that if one uses ethical gold, for example, it costs maybe 10 per cent more on average than regular gold. 

RC: I am happy to pay 10 per cent more without fussing if the watch company in question can give me concrete evidence on what or who is helped by that 10 per cent, despite the fact that I am buying the watch for my personal enjoyment, not to support a cause. I don’t typically buy a product because it contributes to something noble. If I want to help with a situation, I make a direct donation to the organisations or people on the frontline. 

AS: For source materials, it is kind of down to third parties such as the RJC, or whoever manages the certification. This does not establish price, but it does regulate demand; the RJC says a source is clean and good so all brands who need the certification pile in, kicking up prices. Watch brands have not even been decent at explaining the basics of their pricing strategy so I’m not confident they will handle it well; in fact the opposite probably! Even now, brands are really bad at explaining their market position, and they struggle to talk about price in an open way — I guess for me it is all down to how watchmaking handles transparency, which is a point I keep coming back to. 

This is why I suggested that the Swiss government can enter the picture, and incorporate sustainability requirements into Swiss Made. For sure a number of brands did raise prices when the law changed in 2017 to raise the percentage of the watch’s value that has to be from Switzerland, but they do not say that unless you ask them. So, I suppose the brands will also have to proactively address issues… the prospects of which I am not upbeat about. 

omega manufacturing buildig
The new energy-efficient manufacture building of Omega.

RC: Interesting. That is pretty deep, about integrating sustainability requirements at the Swiss Made law level. I thought a separate, co-existing certification may be easier to comply with for the watch companies, and may even result in less significant price increase for the consumers. We probably have to go check how often the Swiss Made law was revised in the past and that may give us an idea of the likelihood of what you are suggesting right now. 

Regulations aside, we still have to think about public pressure. Do you think it will come to a time when the majority of watch buyers decide against less green or less sustainable products? After all, we are talking about very diverse customer demographics here with dynamics of age, education and conscience at play. We can see already that the younger buyers pay more attention to the production or logistic practices of the makers of non-watch products, or how they are limiting waste. Surely, this lens will be applied to watch companies in due time. 

AS: Well, I guess that is part of what Benahmias was talking about, and something Cartier CEO Cyrille Vigneron mentioned too — managing the expectations of the buying public. We also published a related story in our last issue, with former F1 champ Nico Rosberg talking about sustainability in yachting (his new endeavour), and he too pointed out that these products will turn people off when they learn that either people (the workers) or the environment is suffering because of how the products are made. That is bad because, in his view, one of the reasons to have such things is to impress others. 

RC: That reminds me of when a US senator proposed space tourism tax to offset the pollution it caused. It made sense in principle, but it too can be heavily influenced by various agendas in real life. 

AS: Now, I do not necessarily think we all buy watches to impress, but it is part of the price tag. I mean, we all understand that the cost of marketing is included in any given watch’s retail price. Once again, this is all easier to accept if we all accept broad standards, which is why I come down on the side of regulators setting official rules. Relying on the market to police itself is a recipe for disaster — look at social media! 

RC: Ha ha. Talk about the complexity of the human minds! 

oris aquis date upcycle
The Oris Aquis Date Upcycle comes with a dial made of recycled plastic. Image: Oris

AS: Going back to taxes, these can be onerous for sure! Any sort of rich people tax is going to play out badly — not just because of the buyers. Again, this is why standardised rules help, especially for legacy trades like watchmaking. Unlike space tourism, traditional watchmaking is already really close to being sustainable, relative to the new business of making smartwatches. There will probably be a sales pitch pitting the green values of the traditional watch against the inherent disposable nature of the smartwatch. Our favourite watchmakers just have to play their cards right and not mess things up. No scandals in watchmaking yet, but the WWF report is already reflected in the Wikipedia entries of all the brands noted there. 

luminox eco
Luminox Eco #TIDE made from plastic recovered from the Andaman sea.

RC: I anticipate that one day some groups will come out and say that mechanical watches are obsolete, and that the processes involved are unnecessary burdens to the environment. They will say you can check the time from your phone and other wearables. It will be very puritan like the whole objective of life is to preserve the earth, not to have some kind of joy in life. 

AS: That sounds like the Greta crowd! Reduce and reuse, and so on. That is fine, and maybe people should buy fewer watches overall and focus on better quality… there are murmurs about that already. This would solve the issue of flipping, and yet will do nothing to help overcome the apparent Rolex-stealing crime wave in Europe! But the point is that people will not stop doing something they like totally, and the mainstream argument is only that no harm comes to anyone in the making and selling of goods. That is what I subscribe to, certainly. If any watchmaker is found to be employing child labour, that would be unacceptable, to revisit one example I used. It is also the reason I asked every CEO I could find how they handled the pandemic — because demand might be hot, but if anyone at the manufactures got Covid and suffered for it, I would feel very bad about that. 

RC: Well, the flexibility practiced by employers large and small throughout 2020 must have helped carry everyone along. I am sure that any pent-up demand was quickly satisfied once people received their vaccination and returned to their workplace with relative safety. 

AS: As far as agendas go, there are relatively few when it comes to the very niche world of watches and jewellery, but I’ll take the opportunity to clear something up here as far as my agenda goes. I noted in the sidebar to the story that all 15 brands cited in the WWF report were watchmaking names. This does not mean that no jewellery brands are included. If I take issue with anything, it is only that no brand that primarily makes jewellery was included. This is easily explained as far as this report goes because not many jewellery brands make their wares in Switzerland. So ends my caveat emptor segue. 

RC: I did not study that report in detail until I knew I would be writing about this subject today. I consider it a solid starting point where accountability and transparency are concerned, but it should not be considered a final word on anything yet. Half of the brands cited are not ranked in favourable positions, and even listed as non-transparent, because they did not actively participate in the evaluation process. But now that eyes are on them, and that most of them received poor ranking in the first study, the brands are more likely to furnish the required data on the next occasion in order to improve their scores. 

oris clean up day 2021
Oris Cleanup Day 2021 in Shanghai.

AS: How do you feel about sustainability pressures then? I raised all kinds of points in the section you are running after all! I mean, we all kind of chuckled when manufactures started announcing being carbon neutral in their new buildings maybe 10 years ago… 

RC: I have many feelings about the situation. Quite often, I feel that watchmaking companies may be spending more time than necessary to please everyone with regards to these matters that there is less real watchmaking going on! 

Without sustainability pressures, the watch companies need not worry so much about awareness. If they can find ways to reduce their carbon footprint, they are already making impactful changes to the future of mankind. But, of course, a product made of some innovative, recycled or upcycled material is always more tangible and likely to be picked up by the media than, say, a thermal energy system installed in a nondescript building. So I understand their needs to do what they do: produce timepieces with mass appeal. 

AS: I guess selling virtue is the toughest pill to swallow, meaning I can’t quite bring myself to cheer shallow moves. I don’t feel the need to criticise, but I really don’t want to be patting people on the back for merely doing what is decent! 

RC: Agreed. And to have to do something because it is expected by the masses is equally sad. 

AS: Indeed, when I hear of some brand doing some little act of whatever for whoever, and then the PR company sends me a release and suggests how timely and relevant it is, well I roll my eyes so hard I worry that they will fall into my skull! 

RC: I can imagine your face from right here in Bangkok. And we are talking about just one industry in the whole wide world of businesses. 

AS: So yes, I am definitely on your side about virtue-signalling. I mean, I prefer wealth-signalling to that! For heaven’s sake, do not wave your watch in someone’s face and tell them how good you feel that you are making a positive impact in the world. Make your impact and let the watch speak for itself, for those who care. 

moser nature watch
The H. Moser & Cie Moser Nature watch was ahead of its time but the satirical take on green watchmaking remains both relevant and cutting. Image: Moser

RC: That makes me think of a future where someone brags that their watch is greener than the next guy instead of the typical their house is bigger or car is flashier of bygone days. 

AS: This is where greenwashing comes in, and I think plenty of watch brands are going to fall into this trap. Everyone made a big deal about recycling and upcycling at Watches & Wonders but H. Moser & Cie CEO Edouard Meylan smirked and noted that transparency and being responsible about the supply chain are what is important. Those things are hard to get credit for, or use in marketing campaigns though. Again, I hope brands really are looking at Code41 and watching how that pans out. 

RC: It is up to journalists like us then to shine more light into the less visible areas of the industry, so that more consumers can decide for themselves where they stand in this whole scenario. 

AS: Hopefully someone will pay us to do that! Honestly, all the coverage over many years has not uncovered serious wrongdoing, and this is where traditional watchmaking has an opportunity. Don’t get me wrong — there is plenty of criticism of wrong thinking and evidence of the same in watchmaking. I like to think that is part of what we are doing right now! I will continue to transparently advocate for transparency as the minimum position in watchmaking. It is not even the radical transparency of Netflix that I am suggesting so I think the bar is low enough to suit everyone. If we don’t take the opportunity now, other forces will raise the bar. 

RC: You paint a very convincing picture indeed. And I will help do my part from Thailand! Thank you for your time and thoughts on this matter. This is certainly a very different “conversation” from the ones we had before. 

AS: I have put you in the uncomfortable position of questioning sustainability in watchmaking, taking the role I played in our major section on this! No doubt we will revisit this rich topic because we are far from ready for the final word. I guess the word sustainability itself indicates that, like a mechanical watch, things will wind down and get wound up again! Next year in Geneva!

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