Watches and Wonders 2022: Can a luxury timepiece create a better future for the planet?

Van Cleef & Arpels Livre Florae exhibition
Van Cleef & Arpels Livre Florae exhibition Copyright Mika Ninagawa
By Olivia Pinnock
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A number of watch brands showcased environmentally-friendly options for their products such as recycled plastic or plant-based leather alternative watch straps, but will that be enough to make a change?


Sustainability is top of the agenda at leading horology event Watches and Wonders in Geneva. 

Each day of the event, running from 30 March to 5 April, a panel addressed key issues including transparency, circularity and responsible sourcing for industry attendees. Meanwhile, the exhibitors, who include some of the world’s most prominent Swiss watchmakers and smaller boutique brands, were keen to share their vision for building back a better world post-pandemic as they gathered at the event for the first time in person since 2019.

“Something that was already there but that's been accelerated directly as a result of the pandemic is the importance of corporate social responsibility and social and environmental impact,” said Nicolas Bos, CEO of French jewellery and watch brand Van Cleef & Arpels. 

“That was already a part of the position but now it's definitely something that is here to stay. It’s for very good reasons that we build integrity, more and more, in pretty much everything we do.”

Mika Ninagawa
Van Cleef & Arpels Livre Florae exhibitionMika Ninagawa

Bos identifies the sourcing of responsible raw materials, such as metals and precious stones, using renewable energy and recycled materials as key areas the brand is addressing.

Bos says that the initiative to make more environmentally-conscious decisions is being driven by the teams inside brands. “It's doesn't come up so much in conversation with customers. I think it's a change coming from within [the company] and from the industry, and from team members for sure, who expect and want to participate in it,” he said. “I hate all forms of greenwashing which is why sometimes we want to be quite silent. We are doing a lot of things, but we know that we are not perfect across the board and the problems we are working on, they're not easy solutions.”

A number of watch brands showcased environmentally-friendly options for their products such as recycled plastic or plant-based leather alternative watch straps at Watches and Wonders, but Rolf Studer, co-CEO of Swiss watch company Oris, believes that these initiatives won’t solve the bigger problems the world faces. Oris achieved carbon neutral certified status last year and has a plan to continue to reduce emissions by 10% each year.

“You don't get there by using recycled materials with watches,” Studer said. “The biggest factors for us, for example, are flights, people commuting, packaging, weight and freight, these are the things we need to look at.”

Van Cleef & Arpels
The nature-inspired Lady Arpels watchVan Cleef & Arpels

In many ways, luxury watches have a much lower footprint than other industries, they produce in small quantities and longevity and repairs are inherent to the concept. Oris wants to go beyond lessening its impact and also be an active force for good. A number of their watches raise money for conservation projects and it has brought together its employees, customers and industry friends to do beach cleans.

“It's fascinating for me, and very satisfying to see that, as a luxury brand, we're able to bring people to our clean-up events around the world,” Studer said. “We bring them to beaches from Shanghai to Korea, to the United States to Switzerland and, instead of sipping champagne in a posh lounge, we say: ‘collect trash with us!’”

Another brand working on leaving a positive mark on the world is Swiss jewellery and watch brand Chopard. The company presented information about its ethical gold initiative at Watches and Wonders. The company works directly with small, artisanal gold miners in South America to provide a good livelihood to workers and has helped several of them achieve Fairmined certification.

Watches and Wonders
Concourse in Geneva showing the hubs of Chopard and TudorWatches and Wonders

Chopard has committed to 100% responsibly-sourced gold since 2018 through a mixture of Fairmined and recycled gold but is now on a mission to increase the amount of gold sourced from its artisanal mining partners from 40% to 60% as it believes this is where they can make the most difference.

Patricia Evequoz, head of corporate sustainability, said: “It’s not just philanthropy. Of course we pay the premium [to the gold miners] because it's part of the game but the point is really to incorporate that in the core business, in the strategy of the company. That makes it very powerful, that makes it sustainable. Philanthropy, sometimes, it's not really attached to the core business of the company and sometimes it stops. It's really crucial for us that this project continues.”

Chopard is also making efforts to source precious stones responsibly, reduce its carbon footprint and tackle a number of other environmental and social impacts. It is up front about its shortcomings but has imbued the brand’s business strategy with a sustainable outlook.

Evequoz believes that watch brands are well positioned to help educate consumers on these issues too: “The relationship that our clients have with our sales teams, with our boutiques, is a very direct relationship. It's very strong, and sometimes a long-term relationship. So we have this possibility to engage in a dialogue and take the opportunity to discuss about this topic.”

Luxury watches remain an exclusive product for a privileged few, but it’s exciting to see that through the need for sustainability, watch brands like these are reaching out into the wider world to make it a better place.

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