The inspiration for this rather conspicuous and hefty section is the WWF Watch and Jewellery Report 2018. It has been long enough since the original publication of the data and recommendations that the shock value has passed, but the import has not. Indeed, the intention of pursuing the stories in this section was to examine, with a degree of uncertainty, the claims in the report, and the implications for watchmaking. First a word about that uncertainty and our interpretation of the WWF report’s (see Part 1) findings. Transparency is the central problem hobbling the report’s conclusions, and casting aspersions on the watch and jewellery trade. The report itself mentions that a lack of transparency in the supply chains of watch and jewellery firms is hurting the trade’s sustainability credentials. This is a longstanding problem, and we agree that the industry has to get ahead of it. We will have more to say about this in a moment.
Unfortunately, a lot has happened since 2018, which will now be known to us as the Before Times. The epoch-defining COVID-19 pandemic will shape generations to come, and potentially shift the course of current ones in unexpected ways. Those who doubt it need only look to past global disruptions and take no comfort from what they find there. Sustainability is no exception, but it will take some years to examine the impact of a crisis that has not yet passed - you will be reading this issue at least a month after it was written but we are confident that COVID-19 will remain a clear and present danger.
Returning to the 2018 report, the main concern for the watch industry comes from the sourcing of raw materials. The watch and jewelry industries use around 50 percent of the world’s gold and 67 percent of its newly-mined rough diamonds, and yet when asked where their raw materials come from, most are incapable of answering, blindly trusting their suppliers to be responsible on their behalf. The WWF says that organisations such as the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) verifying standards for watch brands is a problem because that organisation itself is not subject to any binding authority. Here is the problem verbatim from the report: “this (RJC) certification does not allow a third party to assess whether a company is sourcing responsibly, and more proactive, transparent communication should therefore be implemented.” So whose authority should everyone accept anyway…
A WORK IN PROGRESS
According to the RJC in 2019, it is indeed third-party audited, and this is noted on the organisation’s website. Perhaps what is disputed is what sort of third-party accountability is needed. An audit requires trust, and someone to make certain that everything is as it should be. Kosher or halal, in other words, which is a system that describes well the authority needed to establish the standard. If, on the other hand, the WWF report recommends real-time access to raw data, to be able to jump in at any time and see what’s happening in any given company, that is a big ask. So what does this all mean?
Well, it depends on whom you ask and when you ask, which is as good as saying the current standards are still not meeting the expectations of sustainability activists. But it is more than that. ESG remains a work in progress, and standards are currently not widely agreed upon. Many of you, dear readers, will be familiar with ESG challenges in your own fields so make of this what you will. Bear in mind also that the Swiss Made statute, which mandates what a threshold percentage the value of any given watch has to reach before it can be called Swiss Made, is not well understood by most people (this is our contention, not a global consensus - Ed). But it goes without saying that when you buy a watch that has the words Swiss Made on the dial, you do not wonder if it really was made in Switzerland. We conclude that the words Swiss Made have a great deal more clout with consumers than any current sustainability conventions. We will return to this subject towards the end of this story, in our inevitable exhortation for the trade - we know you read this magazine.
Some of this boils down to information presentation, the lack of communication on certain standards in watchmaking, and a general reluctance, for undisclosed reasons, to discuss realities behind-the-scenes. For example, typical steel features some percentage of recycled iron - it goes up to 97% in some instances. This is a well-established fact that can be verified easily. Despite this, no one can reliably tell you what the percentages are in Swiss watchmaking. Indeed, some collectors may be surprised to learn that there are recycled raw materials in use in the world of fine watchmaking.
This brings us to why this subject is complicated, because when it comes to gold, there is such a thing as recycled gold, but it is a dicey subject. This is mainly because industry experts do not agree if recycled gold can be fairly branded as ethical. Again, this has to do with standards, or the lack thereof. The RJC does have standards, to be sure, but these are sometimes at odds with Fairmined and Fairtrade gold supporters, and those campaigning for a better deal for artisanal miners. This is a little beyond the scope of this article, but we suggest you look into this and be ready to go down a rabbit hole.
Speaking of which, we must also briefly address organic matters. Of course, the leather straps the watch industry uses also comes in for some scrutiny, as we indicated in issue #60. We will revisit the relevant portions of that discussion in another sidebar, adjacent to this story.
Zeroing on why sustainability is relevant in watch and jewellery, accountability standards aside, the WWF report notes that approximately half of the largest luxury watch brands are Swiss, and that between 60% and 70% of globally mined gold passes through Switzerland to be refined (2,400 tonnes in 2017). Of this amount, more than 2,000 tonnes are used in the global watch and jewellery industrial complex - the report itself contradicts this figure more than once, by not identifying sources properly, or just poor information management and presentation. Once again, do recall what our own position is on this.
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