There are several things that Switzerland is synonymous with: chocolate, cheese, banks and, undoubtedly, watches. Earlier this week I had a unique opportunity to visit the Swiss capital of watchmaking, La Chaux-de-Fonds, where I had privileged access to the ateliers of some of the world’s most coveted watch brands. I was curious to find out more about the exclusive world of haute horlogerie and whether it is engaging in sustainability alongside the rest of the luxury industry.
Switzerland’s Watch Capital
Located at an altitude of 1,000 meters in the Jura mountains, just a few kilometers from the French border, La Chaux-de-Fonds is different to most Swiss cities. It was the first planned city in Switzerland, built “for and by the watchmaking industry”, which earned it a World Heritage status in 2009.
Today, La Chaux-de-Fonds is home to 38,000 people and dozens of watch brands, many of which are recognized and revered around the world: Cartier, TAG Heuer, Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux, to name but a few, alongside luxury brands such as Dior, Chanel and Louis Vuitton who have their watchmaking workshops there. Swiss watchmaking giants Rolex and Omega trace their roots to this town, which also happens to be the birthplace of two other illustrious names: the architect Le Corbusier and the carmaker Louis Chevrolet.
The watchmaking industry is steeped in traditions and secrecy. Any watch brand younger than 100 years old is pretty much regarded as a new kid on the block, and there were frequent mentions of industrial espionage in La Chaux-de-Fonds. So I felt like a lottery winner to be able to go behind closed doors of two legendary watch companies: TAG Heuer and Girard-Perregaux.
TAG Heuer: What are you made of?
Founded in 1860, TAG Heuer is today part of the French luxury group LVMH, and counts among its brand ambassadors two ‘green’ Hollywood stars: Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. However the company had been criticized in the past for not engaging in sustainability in a significant way. “Have things changed?”, I wondered.
As an LVMH brand, TAG Heuer is “strongly encouraged” to make steps towards reducing its environmental impact, I am told. It has recently built a new ‘green’ building for its operations and made eco-upgrades to its current headquarters, including installing solar panels on the roof and using recycled water for high-tech lasers used in the production.
It also joined the Responsible Jewellery Council back in 2005 and a couple of years ago stopped using python skins as their sustainable sourcing could not be guaranteed.
In the words of its brand ambassador Leonardo DiCaprio, “TAG Heuer is a company that gets it.”
Still, the company is open about the challenges it faces in making sustainability a part of its DNA. Packaging is one area where attempts to switch to eco-friendly materials such as cardboard and foam haven’t worked — mainly because consumers associate it with something cheap. So for now it is wood, albeit FSC-certified.
And what is TAG Heuer’s vision of sustainability? “To be still around in 150 years on a planet which is still in good health and has sufficient resources to produce watches for people to wear.”
Girard-Perregaux: 222 years old and still going strong
Unlike TAG-Heuer, which churns out 10,000 watches per month, Girard-Perregaux is a watch brand for the connoisseurs, producing just 12,000 pieces a year. I am taken on a tour of Girard-Perregaux’s renovated art-deco offices where complicated timepieces with a price tag to rival that of a Rolls Royce are being assembled.
I am expecting to see old, white-bearded master watchmakers hunched over their desks. I am therefore vastly surprised to find a 40-something, geographically diverse team of horlogers, men and women, who are working on exquisite pink gold and stainless steel Girard-Perregaux watches.
“Watchmaking is not a grandpa’s job,” chuckles my guide — himself a company veteran and more of a fit with my ‘watchmaker’ stereotype.
As a recent acquisition of the French luxury group KERING (formerly PPR), Girard-Perregaux is now having to catch up with KERING’s ambitious sustainability strategy launched in 2010.
I am shown the metalwork equipment where every last scrap of gold ( RJC certified) is being collected and recycled. I also learn that the rubies and sapphires used in the watch mechanism are today grown in a lab instead of being dug up from the earth. These are some positive signs that the sustainability thinking is starting to take root within the company, but is this also something that its discerning customers are asking for?
It largely depends on where they are from, comes the answer. Some markets are more sensitive than others to human rights or environmental concerns. But one thing’s for sure: the share of women clients is steadily on the rise, up from 5% just a few years ago to 35% today. And women don’t just want a pretty thing to put on their wrist, they want a truly complicated timepiece, an example of horological excellence. Could they also be the driving force for greater sustainability? Perhaps.
On my way out, my guide points to a beehive set up by Girard-Perregaux staff, who also get to enjoy their locally produced honey. “Today, not being a ‘greenie’ is a crime,” he reflects. “There are many simple things we can do in our daily lives.”
At the end of my day I stop by the International Watchmaking Museum, a real time warp if there ever was one. While admiring the museum’s extraordinary collection of 15th-century European town clocks, Napoleonic-era Breguets and 1980s Swatches, I ask the museum curator what he thinks the future of the watch industry looks like.
“The biggest worry of today’s watchmakers is whether their products will still be in demand 50 years from now. Today we have so many ways to tell the time that wrist watches have become largely an accessory or an investment piece.” A watch as an endangered species? Now that’s a thought!
As I leave La Chaux-de-Fonds and its horological treasures, I sense that the watchmaking industry has embraced the concept of sustainability. What I don’t feel as much, however, is a sense of urgency to get there. Perhaps, it is not in watchmakers’ nature to rush things but instead to get them right. Meanwhile, though, the clock is ticking.
The author would like to thank Fabienne Chalchat-Lambert, TAG Heuer, Willy Schweizer, Sowind Group, Jean-Michel Piguet, International Watchmaking Museum, and particularly Eric Tissot, City of La Chaux-de-Fonds, for their invaluable help in preparing this article.