In 2022, sustainability was the biggest conversation starter across the luxury watches segment.
In 2022, sustainability was the biggest conversation starter across the luxury watches segment.

It's been six months since a privileged group of retailers, journalists, and collectors descended on Geneva for the physical Watches and Wonders trade fair that we’d been deprived of during the pandemic. And yet it feels like yesterday that we buzzed around the booths, getting up close and personal with the latest launches. This is practically the only time we get our hands on limited editions (which often sell out by the time the week-long event wraps up), prototypes for innovations, and high-jewellery watches that may never reach the South African market. And it’s also the event that sets the trends for the year.

In 2022, sustainability was the biggest conversation starter. The State of Fashion Watches & Jewellery 2021 report by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company highlights the potential for executives to embrace sustainability as a brandbuilding exercise while pursuing responsible business practices. It’s a big issue for Gen Z, with 58% of younger consumers of luxury goods in 2019 saying that sustainability was an essential consideration in their purchase. “If a brand claims to be sustainable, it will need to show that this indeed is true in the court of public opinion,” says Gaetano Cavalieri, president of CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation. “Those brands that can convince their consumers that they are honest, above-board, and ready to change will be the ones that win consumer confidence and loyalty.”

Lelio Gavazza, Bulgari’s executive vice president of sales and retail, agrees in an interview. “We [aim] to trace as much as possible; when we do not do that, we are out of business,” he says. Bulgari sources gold certified against the Chain-of-Custody Standard of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) and, in 2019, the company exclusively sourced recycled gold.

Collaborative action

Chopard has been committed to 100% responsibly sourced gold since 2018, but now intends to increase the proportion of gold sourced from its artisanal mining partners from 40% to 60%. Patricia Evequoz, Chopard’s head of corporate sustainability, tells the report’s authors: “It’s not just philanthropy. Of course, we pay the premium [to the gold miners] because it is 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. It’s crucial for us that this project continues.”

There have been various relevant industry-led initiatives. In 2005, the RJC was founded to determine standards for social and environmentally sustainable practices in jewellery supply chains. In 2013, the Swiss government developed the Better Gold Initiative with the Swiss Better Gold Association to build responsibility and transparency in the gold supply chain and so prevent conflicts around gold and minimise mercury emissions from mining. In 2021, the official standards-development body, SCS Standards, released the Certification Standard for Sustainable Diamonds to present a unified transparency framework for assessing and certifying mined, lab-grown, and recycled diamonds.

For every nine grams of gold mined, 20 tonnes of waste are generated

And Cartier and Kering launched the Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030, which aligns with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development and encourages industry collaboration towards achieving best practices in this arena.  “If you really want to talk about a responsible supply chain, you need everyone along that chain to join hands [instead of] a lot of isolated efforts. [Going forward, the] movement needs to accelerate, [which is why] we call this the decade of action,” says RJC executive director Iris Van der Veken.

Environmental impact

By 2025, around 20-30% of global fine-jewellery sales (equivalent to $70-$110 billion) will be influenced by sustainability considerations, ranging from environmental impact to ethical sourcing practices. The report puts things in perspective. “An estimated 250 tonnes of earth are shifted for every carat of diamond extracted — which will equate to 1.5 times the weight of Mount Everest over the next five years — by miners who make as little as $3 a day in some regions.

Meanwhile, diamond polishing emits 160kg of CO2 per carat. Unmitigated, this would translate to 160 to 170 megatonnes of CO2 emissions in the next five years — the equivalent of the yearly emissions from Singapore.” Gold is also an issue, adds Damian Oettli, head of markets at the independent conservation organisation WWF. “In the Amazon and African regions, really large stretches of ecological systems are being destroyed through… gold mining activities, both industrial and artisanal.” For every nine grams of gold mined, 20 tonnes of waste are generated. And mining companies are dumping 180 million tonnes of hazardous waste into water streams annually. That’s more than 1.5 times the waste US cities send to landfill each year, the report states.

Oris achieved carbon-neutral certified status in 2021 and plans to reduce emissions by 10% annually. While several brands showcased environmentally friendly options for their timepieces at the fair, such as straps made from recycled plastic or plant-based leather alternatives, Oris co-CEO Rolf Studer says these initiatives are not enough. “You don’t get there by using recycled materials with watches,” he says. “The biggest factors for us, for example, are flights, people commuting, packaging, weight, and freight. These are the things we need to look at.”

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