In 2017, when Karine Szegedi, a partner at Deloitte Switzerland, oversaw the company’s annual Swiss watch industry study, the hottest topics among brand executives were the strength of the Swiss franc, the Swiss Made label and smartwatches.
At the time, sustainability wasn’t “even a conversation,” Ms. Szegedi said on a video call last month.
Deloitte’s 2023 watch study, published in mid-October, said there had been a change: “Whereas in previous years brands have been investing in sustainability in response to external pressures — consumer behavior and considerations about brand image — our results this year show a positive shift in motivation. And it comes from within.”
“Finally,” Ms. Szegedi said, “the watch industry, or most of the larger players, have fully integrated sustainability into their strategy. It’s part of the executive conversation and no longer a part of the marketing department.”
To understand how the industry arrived at this point, The Times set out to trace the history of sustainability in the trade through a handful of pioneering wristwatches.
Just don’t consider this selection as a definitive history because many brands, such as IWC, prefer to address sustainability behind the scenes.
Rather than promoting their eco-credentials through specific timepieces, they are making progress on the science-based targets established by the Watch and Jewelry Initiative 2030, a two-year-old campaign open to jewelry and watch companies willing to commit to a set of environmental and social responsibility goals, said Iris Van der Veken, the initiative’s executive director.
Even Damian Oettli, head of markets at WWF Switzerland — a division of the international wildlife conservation organization that in 2018 published a report critical of the watch and jewelry industry’s progress on sustainability — noted a positive change.
“The first steps were scratching at the surface, like changing packaging or doing charity projects,” Mr. Oettli said on a recent video call. “There’s more movement now as companies start to address their own materiality issues within their supply chains.”
1970s: Solar Power
Industry observers often name the Mondaine Group, which manufactures the Mondaine, Luminox, M-Watch and Pierre Cardin brands, as the first Swiss watchmaker to promote sustainability because in 1973, it introduced a solar-powered analog wristwatch. (A solar model with an LED display, the Synchronar 2100 by the American engineer Roger W. Riehl, came out in 1972.)
But Andre Bernheim, board president and co-owner of the Mondaine Group, said that when his father, Erwin Bernheim, conceived the solar watch, he wasn’t making a statement about renewable energy. Instead, he wanted “the consumer to have a watch that doesn’t depend on a battery,” Mr. Bernheim said on a video call last month.
In 1976, the same motivation inspired the Japanese watchmaker Citizen to develop its sustainable light-powered Eco-Drive technology, which captures light and converts it into energy using an inbuilt solar cell.
Those early efforts helped illuminate the path for contemporary watchmakers such as Cartier, which in 2021 introduced the Tank Must SolarBeat, featuring a photovoltaic movement powered by a rechargeable battery with a life span of at least 16 years.
1993: Mondaine Ecoquartz SBB Official Swiss Railway Watch
Mondaine, founded in 1951, bolstered its burgeoning reputation as a watchmaker with an environmental ethos in 1993 with the introduction of the Ecoquartz and a similar model known as the Ecomatic, both housed in brass cases made of post-consumer recycled scrap metal and complete with the universal recycling logo on the case backs.
But the collection lasted only six years. “It cost extra money and extra time to have batches of metal melted just for us,” Mr. Bernheim said.
In 1999, Mondaine introduced another upcycled model, the reWatch, featuring a bezel made from used soda cans. And in 2015, the company began making its straps from materials such as felt, nylon, linen, cotton, cork and recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), made from recycled plastic packaging.
The group celebrated its biggest sustainability-related achievement in 2021: becoming carbon neutral across its supply chain, an achievement certified by E2 Management Consulting of Zurich. “When we started, it seemed much too difficult for a small company,” Mr. Bernheim said. “It was like Mount Everest.”
In hindsight, he viewed the effort differently. “I saw that it was a hill,” he said. “You just have to start walking.”
2010: Oris Great Barrier Reef Limited Edition I
Widely regarded by collectors and trade journalists as one of the watch industry’s most environmentally conscious brands, Oris first showcased its commitment to conservation in 2010 with the Great Barrier Reef Limited Edition I, the first of three limited editions it has made to benefit the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
At the time, such partnerships were a rarity. As the decade wore on, however, the practice of creating limited editions to promote environmental causes became commonplace. And Oris, according to a spokesman, has made more than 20 limited editions tied to sustainability.
Other watchmakers that have aligned themselves with ocean-related causes include Blancpain, whose nine-year-old Ocean Commitment campaign has supported National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative (2011-2016), the Gombessa Expeditions undertaken by the French marine scientist and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta and the annual World Ocean Summit.
And in 2020, Tom Ford highlighted marine conservation in the Tom Ford 002 Ocean Plastic watch, featuring a case, braided strap and packaging made with ocean plastic; the company said each timepiece removed the equivalent of 35 plastic bottles from the ocean.
That same year, Mr. Ford partnered with Lonely Whale, a London-based ocean conservancy foundation, to create the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation prize, a global competition to find biologically degradable alternatives to traditional thin-film plastic polybags.
2014: Chopard L.U.C Tourbillon QF Fairmined
In 2008, Chopard began working on a jewelry collection called Animal World, a menagerie of pieces inspired by wildlife, such as monkeys, tigers and polar bears, that Karl-Friedrich and Caroline Scheufele, the siblings and now co-presidents of the brand, sought to promote through a partnership with the WWF, the wildlife conservation organization.
During a meeting with a WWF executive, “he told us, ‘We’d be happy to collaborate, but what are you doing about sustainability?” Mr. Scheufele recalled during a phone interview last month. “And this was really a wake-up call. Both of us, Caroline and myself, said, ‘Yeah, what are we actually doing?’”
That conversation set Chopard on a path to find out where the precious metals in its jewelry and watches originated, which in turn led it to Fairmined gold, a quality label used to indicate gold that has been extracted from artisanal and small-scale mines according to standards set by the Alliance for Responsible Mining, a nonprofit organization based in Colombia.
Chopard debuted its first Fairmined jewelry in 2013, followed a year later by the L.U.C Tourbillon QF Fairmined (price on application).
In 2018, Chopard began using “ethical gold” in its entire collection. The label refers to pieces in Fairmined gold as well as gold certified by the Swiss Better Gold Association, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization in Tannay, Switzerland, that connects its members — including the watch brands Audemars Piguet, Breitling and Cartier — with artisanal and small-scale gold miners.
Diana Culillas, the association’s secretary-general, said the initiative aimed to foster more responsible mining practices by providing mines with steady demand and a premium price for the gold.
“Gold is gold,” Ms. Culillas said. “It will always reach the market so if we ask producers to do better, we have to compensate them.”
2021: Panerai Submersible eLAB-ID
Until recently, using recycled materials in luxury timepieces was considered anathema to high-end watchmakers.
“Luxury had to be brand-new, prestigious, shiny,” Julien Tornare, chief executive of Zenith, told The Times last year.
At the 2021 Watches and Wonders Geneva fair, Panerai proved how outdated that thinking was when it introduced the Submersible eLAB-ID, a 44-millimeter wristwatch built almost entirely from reused raw materials, including recycled Super-LumiNova on its hands, recycled silicon in its movement escapement and a recycled titanium alloy known as EcoTitanium on its case, the bottom layer of its dial and bridges.
Arguably more important than the message about recycling, however, was the brand’s transparency about where it obtained those materials. In the accompanying news release, Panerai named the nine companies that worked on the model, flouting the industry’s traditional discretion. “We would love to be copied and improved upon,” Jean-Marc Pontroué, the brand’s chief executive, told The Times before the introduction.
The open source approach worked. In 2022, the founders of ID Genève, another pioneer in sustainability, introduced a watch featuring recycled Super-LumiNova from a supplier it found through Panerai, said Nicolas Freudiger, ID Genève’s co-founder.
2022: Breitling Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins
Breitling first made its commitment to sustainability clear to consumers in 2020 with the introduction of a foldable watch box made entirely of recycled PET, a marked departure from traditional watch packaging.
But its sustainability credentials were burnished significantly last year, when it unveiled the Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins, its first “traceable watch,” featuring artisanal gold from the Touchstone Mine in Colombia, accredited by the Swiss Better Gold Association, and lab-grown diamonds manufactured by Fenix Diamonds in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Then, in September, it introduced the Navitimer 32 and 36, two more watches bearing its Origins label, indicating watches that adhere to what the brand calls its “better gold” and “better diamonds” sourcing principles.
Benjamin Teisseire, who covers sustainability-related topics for the Geneva-based watch trade publication Europa Star, said what impressed him most when he read Breitling’s third sustainability report, released in September, was the company’s carbon emission reduction strategy.
“Instead of offsetting, which is basically paying for the right to pollute, they are investing money to reduce their emissions,” Mr. Teisseire said. “It’s one of the smartest moves I’ve seen in the industry.”
2023: ID Genève Circular C
In 2020, Mr. Freudiger, Singal Depéry and Cédric Mulhauser, the men behind ID Genève, introduced their first watch, the Circular 1.
Mr. Teisseire called the brand “a real game changer” because of its commitment to circularity.
“They source refurbished calibers; they use 100 percent recycled steel; their straps are made from green waste; their packaging is made from mycelium and algae,” he said. “They really show what’s possible.”
Last month, ID Genève introduced its third model, the Circular C, whose dial, side decorations and bezel are made from a regenerative material, composed of recycled carbon fibers from wind turbine manufacturing waste and made by the Swiss company CompPair. “You can get scratches on it and when you heat the piece, in one minute, it comes back to its original shape,” Mr. Freudiger said. “It’s like alien material.
“I like to call it the new gold,” he added. “Imagine if all the boats, all the skis, all the bikes were made from this material. How long can we extend the life cycle of these products?”