Recycled Steel in Watchmaking: A Minimal Impact?
The world of watchmaking is increasingly embracing recycled steel. But what does "recycling" really mean, and what is its true impact on the planet? Let's take a closer look at this complex issue, especially in the context of watchmakers.
By Yannick Nardin02 novembre 2023
Swiss steel watch exports in 2022
Annual imports of 316L steel in Switzerland
Panetere's annual production target for recycled steel
It's strong, it's beautiful, and it's almost all "iron." Watches love it! The list of qualities of steel, an iron-based alloy, is as long as it is versatile: stainless, unbreakable, affordable, polishable, satin finishable, malleable, naturally gray, or colored after treatment. Furthermore, brands have the option to develop their own formulas to meet their quality, property, and shade requirements, as exemplified by Chopard's Lucent Steel and Rolex's Oystersteel. In 2022, nearly 9 million Swiss watches exported had steel cases (out of a total volume of 15.8 million watches of all materials – source: FHS). Therefore, it's no surprise that this versatile metal has become one of the "hot topics" in the world of sustainable watchmaking, particularly in the context of recycling. Especially considering that the Swiss company Panatere has ambitious plans to start producing 100% recycled steel collected from the region in a new solar furnace in La Chaux-de-Fonds starting in 2024.
The Recipe for Recycling
As far as we are concerned, recycled steel is not the right focus. The amount of steel we use per year – 9 tonnes in 2022 – in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to three business-class flights from Europe to Los Angeles
Rolf Studer, CEO of the brand Oris
Firstly, a "fun fact": all steel already contains between 40% and 60% (or even more) recycled steel, even though it may not be labeled as "recycled." Foundries have incorporated this practice for the past 10 to 15 years as a means of cost savings and source optimization. But that's not all: there are actually not one but two types of recycled steel. The first type consists of scraps generated during the production process (for example, the remnants of machined plates during the manufacturing of a watch case), while the other gives a second life to waste from consumer items.
Voestalpine, a major supplier to the watch industry, uses both scraps and waste but doesn't disclose the respective proportions. However, they state that they will "focus on recycling scraps" in the future, which are presumably easier to sort and valorize, and are also working on constructing less energy-consuming electric arc furnaces. On the other hand, Panatere specializes in recycling only production scraps from companies in the Jura region. This is a significant opportunity, as 1,500 tons of 16L stainless steel scraps are discarded each year, and Switzerland imports 140,000 tons of 316L steel annually, while 51,800 tons of waste are sold for export. Panatere has established stringent steel-grade sorting processes in these companies. In the end, the effort seems to be worth it, as Panatere's 100% recycled steel is a reality. ID Genève, a champion of circularity, already uses it for their Circular S models. For now, high-end watch brands are still testing the formula, and it is said that 98% could be the maximum to guarantee the required quality.
Why not recycle more metal waste? Mondaine, famous for the iconic design of the Swiss railway clock, produced a watch in the 1990s made from brass that could be certified as "100% post-consumer recycled metal." André Bernheim, co-owner of the group and a sustainability pioneer, explains, "I wanted to repeat this innovation of 100% recycled steel from consumer waste with 316L steel, rather than using production scraps, which is the norm today. I found a collector of metal waste and a foundry. However, no company was willing to produce bars or plates in a format suitable for stamping. Small businesses seem to have disappeared, and the volumes used for watch production are not interesting enough for large companies."
The Challenge of Transparency
Chopard is making efforts in this regard and has implemented a strong waste circularity [returned to its supplier Voestalpine], which also ensures traceability
Pauline Evequoz, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Chopard
Traceability of recycled steel's origin is currently a challenge for brands that calculate their CO2 impact using average values. However, resolving this issue is crucial because the exact calculation of greenhouse gas emissions (according to the three scopes – three types of greenhouse gas emissions in the Greenhouse Gas Protocol) also depends on the origin of recycled steel. Chopard is making efforts in this regard and has implemented a "strong waste circularity [returned to its supplier Voestalpine], which also ensures traceability," explains Pauline Evequoz, Head of Corporate Sustainability.
Panatere addresses this challenge through its sorting system at the collection site. Raphael Broye also explains that they have been able to recycle steel up to eight times without any loss of quality. However, this post-use sorting doesn't solve the traceability of recycled steel upstream – a challenge reminiscent of the significant issues posed by reusing gold production scraps.
Recycled Steel in Watchmaking: A Minimal Impact?
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