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Humble Beginnings: Luxury Watches & Sustainability

By Robin Swithinbank | 8 minute read

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Luxury watches and sustainability. Not very long ago these words were unlikely to feature in the same sentence. Now, however, the world's finest watch brands are embracing 'eco' and even creating watches from surprising recycled materials.

It wasn't so long ago that luxury, in its truest sense, could be defined in narrow terms: exclusive, expensive, often esoteric. A lot of 'e's. You could only step behind the velvet curtain if you had the means and the network. And it was, as a consequence, seen as rather uncaring, too.

But definitions can change. With increasing pace, luxury is becoming inclusive and casual. Cuddly, even. More than that, it's becoming sustainable - concerned about the planet and its people. Why? That depends on how generous you're feeling. Some would say luxury has helped move the shifting sands. Others that it's been moved by them, with luxury obliged to fall in line by a new generation of eco-conscious consumers. Either way, many luxury brands are now driven by a sustainability agenda - especially luxury watch brands.

Over the past few years, some watchmakers have almost weaponised the term, so much so that brands are now increasingly divided down a sustainable fault line - those affecting a seismic shift, and those caught unawares by it.

One story signals the acceleration. Two years ago, I sat opposite Panerai chief executive Jean-Marc Pontroue and listened as he explained that, within five years, he wanted to deliver a recycled watch. His ideas sounded worthy, but were they realistic? After all, if assumptions of luxury are that it's pure and virginal, would anyone want a luxury watch that began life as a saucepan?

In April of this year, less than 18 months after that conversation, Panerai unveiled a watch it claims is 98.6 per cent recycled by weight. It didn't even bother with a concept. The 'EcoTitanium' Submersible eLAB-ID went straight to market, albeit as a limited edition. Even its silicon escapement was recycled. Alongside it, Panerai launched the Luminor eSteel collection - 58.4 per cent recycled by weight thanks to its case and dial, which are both made from second-life steel.

Panerai's quick-footed response to changing mores is just the tip of the iceberg. Oris recently announced it had been certified climate neutral. While it's offsetting its carbon emissions for now, it's also making radical changes to its products and factory to reduce its future carbon output. The symbol of this is its Aquis Date Upcycle, a version of its 300-metre dive watch with a dial made from recycled PET plastic and available in 41.5mm (pictured) and 36.5mm case sizes. As the recycling process brings colours together at random, no two dials are the same, in effect making each watch unique.

PANERAI LUMINOR MARINA ESTEEL

Brushed eSteel'" 44mm case, automatic movement, approximate three-day power reserve, polished blue gradient eSteel™ dial, date window, small seconds, blue rubberised crown, recycled PET blue strap, water-resistant to 300m, limited to 500 pieces.

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Breitling has done a similar thing. A year ago, it announced watch boxes made of recycled plastic bottles. To further compensate the impact of transporting such objects around the world, these would be flat-packed, it said, all but doing away with the volume-issue, prefabricated, carbon-footprint­heavy watch boxes we're used to.

Breitling also has watches that reflect its aspirations to sustainability. Its Superocean Heritage '57 Outerknown is a surf-culture-inspired piece, and fittingly it comes on a single-piece yarn strap made of a material called ECONYL that's based on ocean nylon waste - fishing nets, mainly.

Sticking with that idea, Ulysse Nardin has caught on, too. Its latest, the 42mm blackened steel Diver 'Lemon Shark', is set on an 'R-STRAP' - a band made of recycled fishing nets gathered from the seabed along the coast of France. As the 300-piece watch's name makes clear, its purpose is also to highlight the threat to the Lemon Shark - hence the zippy lemon-yellow detailing.

ULYSSE NARDIN DIVER LEMON SHARK

DLC-coated stainless-steel 42mm case, automatic movement, approximate 42-hour power reserve, black dial, black R-STRAP, water-resistant to 300m, limited to 300 pieces.

BREITLING SUPEROCEAN HERITAGE ’57 OUTERKNOWN

Stainless-steel 42mm case, automatic movement, approximate 42-hour power reserve, bidirectional rotating ceramic bezel, brown dial, ECONYL® yarn strap, water-resistant to 100m.

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ORIS AQUIS DATE UPCYCLE

Stainless-steel 41.5mm case and bracelet, automatic movement, approximate 38-hour power reserve, unidirectional rotating ceramic bezel, recycled PET plastic dial, date window, water-resistant to 300m.

CARTIER TANK MUST 'INNOVATION'

With a steel 29.5 x 22mm case (also available in 33.7 x 25.5mm) and silvered dial, this looks like a Cartier. But this version contains a 'Solarbeat™ ' photovoltaic movement that recharges in the sun, and the 'leather strap' is actually made from apple waste.

OMEGA SPEEDMASTER 38 ORBIS EDITION

OMEGA has been an avid supporter of Orbis International and its Flying Eye Hospital since 20 I I. A portion of the proceeds from this handsome 38mm steel chronograph with sun-brushed blue dial will go to the foundation.

CHOPARD ALPINE EAGLE

Chopard has long been using ethical gold and fair-mined diamonds. Now it can add wildlife conservation to its CV with the launch of the new Alpine Eagle collection in support of the Eagle Wings Foundation.

Not all are being so colourful in their bid to alert us to their sustainability credentials. Cartier's Tank Must Innovation elegantly conceals its signature eco-feature: a 'Solarbeat™' movement with a photovoltaic cell that's powered by light that can only penetrate the watch's dial through its numerals. Astonishingly, the battery is said to offer 16 years of autonomy before it needs replacing, compared with the two or three years expected of a standard quartz watch battery. Rounding out the story is a strap made of non-animal leather.

Clearly, this fresh crop of watches have sustainable stories to tell. By moving on from traditional materials, these brands have introduced a type of new 'luxury' into the mix and are they are up to par? In this reviewer's eyes, absolutely. They retain the values of luxury: obsessively and expertly created, and designed to bring a lifetime of enjoyment. Only now they care, too. Better than luxury, then.

Discover a luxury watch that embraces sustainability here at Watches of Switzerland.

Robin Swithinbank is a former editor of Calibre, and now writes for The New York Times, British GQ and the Financial Times.

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