December 5, 2021

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One Way to Reduce Ocean Plastics: Make a Wristwatch

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While there is no way of determining precisely how much plastic ends up in the ocean each year, the Pew Charitable Trusts’s Preventing Ocean Plastics project said it is about 13 million metric tons — the equivalent of a garbage truck emptying into the ocean every minute.

“If you are an innovator, you are thinking: ‘Jackpot, let’s figure out how to collect, use and sell it’,” said Dune Ives, chief executive of Lonely Whale, an ocean conservancy foundation.

But that innovator certainly is thinking about consumer attitudes, too. “People of all ages care about the environment,” said Reginald Brack, a watch industry adviser and NPD Group’s former watches analyst. “But I think the younger luxury consumer is now expecting more than just company messaging. Zero carbon footprint, upcycling and a reduced waste goal are all great, but the consumer wants to know, what as a company are you actually doing?”

Among watch brands, the response has been not only to incorporate ocean-bound and ocean plastic in timepieces, but also increase their use of other recycled and upcycled materials.

“I love the idea that by producing these timepieces, we are not only helping clean up the ocean, but we are permanently removing and preventing plastic waste from ever going back into the ocean,” the fashion designer Tom Ford wrote in email, adding, “And creating a product that in a sense communicates the concern of the wearer for the environment.”

The case, braided strap and even the packaging of the Tom Ford 002 Ocean Plastic watch is made with ocean plastic — with each timepiece removing the equivalent of 35 bottles of plastic waste from the ocean, the company said.

The black 40-millimeter timepiece, with white Super-LumiNova-coated numerals and diamond-cut hands, debuted in November 2020 and quickly sold out worldwide. “We had to place a reorder almost immediately, before they even shipped to the stores,” Mr. Ford wrote. The watch has been added to the brand’s collection — and a second timepiece, a sport model in multiple colors with an automatic movement, is scheduled to be introduced in the spring.

“Every new timepiece we create, color of strap or interface, is an evolution and a continuation of my dedication to the cause,” Mr. Ford wrote. That dedication has included the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize, a competition in partnership with Lonely Whale to find packaging alternatives to thin-film plastic that closed submissions late last month. Three prize winners will share a $1 million purse, and brands including Stella McCartney, Herman Miller and Dell Technologies have pledged to try the materials.

Watch companies have long understood logistics; assembling a timepiece requires many dozens if not hundreds of different parts, often sourced from around the globe. But as horological brands commit more broadly to environmental responsibility, efforts include inventing new materials, re-engineering chemical processes and even collaborating with sectors previously untapped by the watch world.

“Sustainability is not just an exercise you can perform with a single product or something you can buy your way into with carbon offset credits,” said Oliver Müller, founder of the Swiss-based watch consulting firm LuxeConsult and watch market analyst for Morgan Stanley.

Carlo Giordanetti, creative director at Swatch International, a brand known for its plastic watches, said he certainly understood that idea.

In 2013 he introduced the Sistem51 mechanical movement, with just 51 parts, but Mr. Giordanetti said he still wanted to “shake the industry a little bit — this time by taking responsible actions and thinking about what we do from a production and materials standpoint.”

After years of research, he and his team came up with bio-sourced plastic, made with oil from the castor plant. “We take bio-sourced plastic, but we bring in 60 percent ceramic powder, basically an organic material, and manufacture it,” he said. “That’s bio-ceramic,” he said.

The Swatch Big Bold collection in bioceramic was unveiled in April and featured a handful of 47-millimeter watches in five pastel colors. In August, the brand extended that treatment to the Gent and New Gent lines, followed in September by its 1984 Reloaded models.

Forty-nine percent of Swatch’s collection is now made of bio-sourced plastic and bioceramic, and those watches range from $80 to $125. But Mr. Giordanetti said he was not finished.

“How do we become the smartest mixers in the watch world?” he said. “How do we invent new languages? It’s an attitude and a vision for the future more than just a product move.”

Tom Ford and Swatch are not the only companies talking about their sustainability efforts. Ulysse Nardin, Oris, Bulgari, Cartier, Omega, Shinola, Breitling and Panerai are just some of the brands that have emphasized recycling, upcycling or environmental responsibility in their watch introductions throughout the last year.

Breitling, for example, has partnered with the sustainable surf brand Outerknown for three watches, the most recent — the Superocean Heritage ’57 Outerknown Limited Edition — released in November 2020 ($5,225). Available in stainless steel or 18-karat red gold, the 42-millimeter watch includes a NATO strap made of Econyl yarn, created from recycled nylon waste including discarded or upcycled fishing nets.

Panerai’s addition was even more unusual. “There are no norms when it comes to sustainability,” said Jean-Marc Pontroué, Panerai’s chief executive, adding, “we had to create our own, which shows that none of us before took the environment in a serious way.”

The result was the Submersible eLAB-ID, introduced in April, which the brand said was 98.6 percent recycled-based material, the most ever used in a timepiece. The 44-millimeter watch, priced at around 60,000 euros (around $70,000), took three years to develop and has been limited to 30 pieces.

In addition to the innovative materials, the watch also heralded a different approach to the brand’s production norms. When Mr. Pontroué premiered it at the virtual Watches and Wonders Geneva fair, he named the nine companies that had been involved, a very unusual move in an industry long known for tight-lipped secrecy about suppliers and materials. “We will be very happy if all our peers in Switzerland and around the world get in touch with the same suppliers to use the same materials,” Mr. Pontroué said at the time.

As brands continue to develop what Mr. Giordanetti of Swatch described as “an attitude and a vision for the future,” they seem to trust that buyers will respond.

“To know that you are not only wearing a high-quality product, but by simply owning the product you are also taking direct action to improve the planet is incredibly appealing,” Mr. Ford wrote, referring to his Ocean Plastic, adding, “our customers are sophisticated cosmopolitan customers with a heightened awareness of the issues facing our planet and the responsibility we have to protect it.”

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