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Even the Swiss watchmakers are going plant-based

Greubel Forsey is the latest luxury brand seeking to attract younger shoppers by going greener

The HO8 model of Hermes.
The HO8 model of Hermes. (REUTERS)

Swiss watchmaker Greubel Forsey is the latest luxury brand seeking to attract younger shoppers by going greener, in this case by eliminating animal leather from its straps.

The company, whose watches start selling at more than $200,000, will begin using plant-based bands from January, it said Tuesday, without specifying the material.

Watchmakers are jumping on a sustainability bandwagon that goes beyond packaging initiatives and sustainable sourcing as they seek to attract environmentally conscious consumers.

Also read: A Cartier, a Junghans and what makes a watch a design icon

They are joining other luxury companies in finding ways to cater to the growing affluence of Millennials and Gen Z, from ditching mined diamonds in favour of lab-grown ones to getting rid of animal fur.

“An increasing number of customers as well as younger generations are much more informed and conscious about what they buy,” said Bassel Choughari, a portfolio manager that focuses on climate solutions at Montpensier Finance. “Companies have to reinvent the way they do business in almost every industry and there is no reason why watchmaking should be the exception.”

Richemont’s IWC Schaffhausen started offering alternative straps for its Portugieser and Portofino models, made from a paper-based material and colored with natural dyes. Another Richemont brand, Panerai, established a new supply chain to create a watch that’s nearly completely made of recycled materials.

Luxury watches can be considered sustainable per se, because they can be repaired and are meant to last for several generations. But that’s no longer enough, according to Oliver Mueller, a brand consultant at LuxeConsult in Aubonne, Switzerland, which specializes in the local watch industry.

“The public pressure is the trigger for changes and watch brands have to comply with the expectations set by their existing or potential clients,” Mueller said. “Time will punish the ones hoping for a miraculous status quo.”

Here’s what some watchmakers are doing to stay ahead of the curve:

  • Swatch Group AG’s namesake plastic brand, which has been suffering from weak demand, last year introduced a collection that’s cased in bio-sourced materials extracted from the seeds of the castor plant. This year it followed with a series made of a mix of ceramic and bio-sourced plastic.
  • Breitling has teamed up with sustainable apparel brand Outerknown to create an econyl yarn strap that’s re-purposed from nylon waste pulled from the oceans.

Numerous other brands have announced plans to incorporate recycled and upcycled materials, even as questions remain whether these initiatives move the needle in protecting the environment.

“It’s a way to test various materials, but the impact is modest in the bigger picture,” said Christian Zogg, head of equity and fixed income at LLB Asset Management in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, which holds Richemont shares.

Greenwashing is always a risk, Montpensier’s Choughari said. Still, the initiatives are welcome as long as watchmakers actively work on improving their environmental footprint, he said.

Also, sustainability may not be the main concern for customers buying a $10,000 timepiece and Swiss watchmakers have a special knack for storytelling and wooing consumers.

Not all green initiatives work. Richemont developed Baume as an eco-responsible brand in 2018, aimed at younger, environmentally conscious Millennials. It replaced precious materials with recycled aluminum, cotton, cork or linen. While it was always an offshoot of Baume & Mercier, it was quietly absorbed by the larger brand to “reinvent its future and create a new outlook together” last year.

At Hermes Watches, the current focus is on reducing the carbon footprint during transport, by sourcing steel from Austria instead of Japan and ensuring the gold it uses doesn’t come from mines but from qualitative recycling.

“Rethinking has already begun,” said LuxeConsult’s Mueller. “We’ll see a lot more of this in the near future.”

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