Recycled straps: the green lab of Watchmaking
To create more sustainable watches, brands are turning towards eco-friendly materials. Several innovations concern straps, a component with low risks that do not impact the watch in its entirety. Our analysis.
By Yannick Nardin04 juillet 2023
Who remembers the corn-based plastic watches from the 1990s? For one summer, this model with Minnie's big black ears created a sensation, despite its low durability. The success didn't meet expectations. Swatch, in fact, explained that at the time, they had explored this material from an industrial perspective rather than an ecological one (even though experts were already raising red flags). Today, the situation has changed significantly. Gen Z appreciates luxury but also cares about the fate of the planet. In parallel, regulations are becoming stricter regarding due diligence and transparency, with possible sanctions for greenwashing. As a result, watchmakers are exploring the world of social and environmental responsibility (CSR), embracing the expected, exemplary value of a high-end and/or Swiss Made product. And innovations—such as metal and plastic recycling, as well as the use of coffee grounds or plant-based waste—readily involve the bracelet component, which has no impact on what is referred to as the "watch head."
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Straps: a doorway to sustainability
What matters is the message to consumers: 'Give objects a second life.'
Rolf Studer, CEO of Oris, a luxury watch brand committed to sustainability
Precision and reliability, the essential virtues of a high-quality mechanical watch, make using new materials, such as recycled ones, more complicated. Among the few brands daring to undertake this challenge, Panerai introduced the Submersible eLAB-IDTM in 2021. Composed of 98.6% recycled materials by weight (including titanium, SuperLuminova, and even silicon), this concept watch resulted from significant investments. "We had to start from scratch, create an entire supplier network, and develop the materials. In the second phase, when recycled steel is used for all our watches, we can expect a return on investment," explains the brand's CEO, Jean-Marc Pontroué. Panerai, just like Chopard - a forerunner in the field of responsible gold, plans to exclusively use recycled steel for its watches (with a content of 90 to 95% recycled steel, depending on the respective alloys) by 2025.
In this challenging and costly quest, the bracelet lends itself more easily to boldness than any other component. With no influence on the watch's functionality, these are often designed to be changed by the consumer to vary the look. "Eco" materials offer more creativity, sometimes transformed into talking pieces. Similarly, watch boxes and packaging are increasingly adorned with recycled materials, with the main challenge being to uphold the expected luxury experience for customers, just like with bracelets. For example, Breitling has developed packaging that is not only entirely made from recycled plastic bottles but also foldable, reducing its carbon footprint during transportation. As Jean-Marc Pontroué points out, "the product is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire production chain matters, including transportation and packaging." This implies a profound revolution for most companies, encompassing both CSR aspects and underlying issues.
Plastic not fantastic
One of the scourges in the face of overconsumption is plastic. From being very convenient, it has rightly transformed into a public enemy. It is invading the planet in the form of waste and microplastics. André Bernheim, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Mondaine, a brand searching for sustainable alternatives since the 1990s, explains that a recycled plastic bracelet launched in 2013 initially generated little interest. "This changed in 2016 when we introduced a watch made from recycled steel from the Gotthard locomotive. The public was ready."
Two solutions are emerging to meet the new ecological awareness in the face of the plastic surge: do without or recycle. As a partner of many watchmakers, Tide Ocean collects PET from the oceans and transforms it into "rPET Tide Ocean" granules. This high-quality material lends itself to various watch applications (such as weaving bracelets with thread or creating highly resistant composites when combined with fiberglass, as seen in Maurice Lacroix watches). Breitling is also pursuing a similar perspective with its Econyl bracelets, made from fishing nets retrieved from the seas and endorsed by Ambassador Kelly Slater.
Espresso on your wrist
the product is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire production chain matters
Jean-Marc Pontroué, CEO of Panerai
Recycling extends to many other materials, including metals such as steel, titanium, and gold, with significant challenges in terms of quality for the former and traceability for the last. Numerous niche innovations are also emerging. The brand ID-Genève has an ID-Lab where it co-develops sustainable materials for watchmaking purposes. These efforts have resulted in packaging made from mushrooms (industrially compostable), algae (compostable in your garden), and even a bracelet made from green waste from London parks. Continuing in the "food" realm, Swatch offers to packaging made from potato starch and tapioca and has developed a bio-based plastic made from castor oil. Additionally, Hublot recently launched fabric or rubber straps that contain small amounts of Nespresso coffee grounds. The watch case, bezel, crown, and pushers contain 28% recycled aluminum from Nespresso capsules.
In the realm of high-quality watchmaking-grade recycled steel (specifically surgical steel), a revolution is revolutionizing in the Jura region with the company Panatere. Scheduled for 2025, a solar furnace located at the heart of watch production will further limit the environmental impact of this metal by reducing transportation needs. The estimated output of 100 tons of steel could cover a significant portion of the annual Swiss watch production in steel, amounting to approximately 6 to 10 million watches! These are excellent prospects for the "new gold of the Jura," as described by one of its early adopters, Nicolas Freudiger, co-founder of ID Genève, a Swiss Made circular watch brand.
While watch quantities may reach millions, the volumes remain small in the grand scheme, and the industry is not among the most polluting. Nevertheless, such initiatives embody the luxury sector's pursuit of exemplarity and bring visibility to innovations. As emphasized by Rolf Studer, CEO of Oris, a brand highly committed to sustainability: "What matters is the message to consumers: 'Give objects a second life.' Not long ago, luxury was synonymous with overconsumption. Today, we can promote environmental preservation and contribute to changing mindsets." And what better way to consume than to consume less but choose wisely?
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