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9th May
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Written by
Dubai Watch Week

Demands on luxury watch brands to behave sustainably are growing, but the industry has so far been slow to react. Dubai Watch Week asks whether sustainability is the next big trend in watchmaking

In May last year, a new watch brand was born. It promised a watch for the younger consumer, with customisation tools so those picky Millennials could choose the mix of case, dial and strap that best suited their feelings. Alongside it was a message of sustainability, the new brand promising it would be producing these watches in an eco-friendly manner – vegan straps and so on. The next generation, we’re told, cares deeply about polar bears…

But let’s not scoff. It’s all too easy to write off what matters to the next generation as a juvenile preoccupation, but as Baume, the new watch brand in question, has identified, what concerns those born in the last quarter of a century is not fast cars and holidays so much as the future of the planet, a compelling fixation that’s not going anywhere soon.

It’s also clear that younger generations have more impact on policy and social trends than their predecessors. They have hugely powerful tools to fire their passions no previous generation had access to, so when they believe in something or want something changed, they can make it happen much faster than young people were able to only a decade ago.

What does this mean for luxury watchmaking? Well, Baume becomes an interesting case study. It’s still small, by any measure, employing around a dozen people, but it has the backing of Richemont, parent company of Cartier, Montblanc and IWC. With its recent announcements of a wide range of entry-level mechanicals, straps made of Portuguese cork and a piece made from recycled skis, it’s making some noise.

Richemont, you’d expect, may not be seeing huge numbers from Baume any time soon (much of its collection sits within touching distance of the highly competitive smartwatch price bracket), but what it will be getting is useful information about how the next generation of shoppers buy watches, and a useful database. Baume sells online, direct-to-consumer, another fast-growing trend in luxury watchmaking.

Further up the food chain, others are starting to take sustainability seriously, too. At SIHH in January, Panerai launched the Submersible Mike Horn Edition. Its case is cast in ‘Eco-Titanium’, a trademarked metal made of recycled titanium first used in watchmaking by Panerai, and its strap is made of recycled PET plastic, the stuff used in the plastic bottles clogging up our oceans. Even the box the watch comes in is recycled.

Oris, one of the larger remaining independents, is ramping up its eco-friendly credentials. It’s long since made limited editions supporting worthy marine causes, and last year made a version of its Divers Sixty-Five revival piece on a recycled PET strap, beating Panerai to the punch. This year’s collection is dominated by ‘good cause’ watches, promoting ocean clean-up projects, coral planting and one brave soul who’s planning to swim across Lake Baikal this summer to make us think about the plight of water.

Carl F Bucherer and Mondaine have done recycled straps, too, as has the all-conquering fashion watch brand Olivia Burton. If a company selling a watch for under $100 can produce a watch with a serviceable recycled strap, why can’t a company selling a watch for $10,000?

Some brands are now starting to work with recycled materials in their packaging, an area of chronic waste in watchmaking. The average watch box is almost entirely superfluous, after all. But it’s a small step on a long journey.

The industry is going to have to speed up. Consumer demand for greater transparency will quickly drive luxury watch companies to approach their businesses with clearer, more ambitious sustainability goals. So far, we’ve seen little more than tokenism, but as the next generation’s influence and buying power grows, so too will pressure on brands to behave more responsibly.

When challenged, brands will often say a mechanical watch is inherently sustainable. It’s created using age-old techniques and designed and built to last a lifetime. What could be more sustainable than that?

But that’s a get-out that looks to absolve the industry of a greater responsibility. Watchmaking, as with any other industry, has a duty to behave more sustainably, if not for the planet, then for its own future. The next generation of consumers is already demanding it.

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