Precious materials Ethical obligations, a new sourcing constraint
Individual brands are having to show an increasingly extensive and cleaner bill of moral health. When it comes to the supply of precious materials, the possibilities are extremely limited and the expectations are huge.
Even within the watch industry, brands are no longer immune from this phenomenon. In a world increasingly polarized around moral values, they must flaunt their credo and take a stance on social issues far removed from their field of activity. This is not just a matter of supporting various causes and association. Weaving a brand into philanthropic storytelling that reflects its nature, which often means preserving the ocean and/or the environment in general, is no longer enough. Basically, watch brands can no longer buy themselves a good conscience; they must have squeaky clean hands and watches to match. While gold is more or less on the right track, diamonds and other gems are not really keeping pace. High expectations in this respect are hardly likely to be met for the time being, especially when it comes to the watch industry.
Frequently under pressure from American customers, brands are increasingly driven towards transparency. The United States has indeed long since understood that, when it comes to non-electoral matters, it is effective to vote with one's wallet and to make such a move known. It was under American pressure that a de facto embargo had been placed on the use Burmese rubies, embezzled by the governing junta. These stones have thus all but disappeared from the ornaments created in the West, to the delight of Chinese and Indian merchants.
Thus, in order to maintain, win over – and in fact convince – this vast and choosy clientele, brands are revealing what makes them tick. In particular, the traceability of resources is a central issue. After all, if you want to know where that chicken you eat was raised, or the origins of that coffee you drink, and whether they stem from industries that meet your moral standards, it makes sense that the same should apply to the elements composing a watch. The key materials here are gold and diamonds. Because of their value, they are the most controversial. Given the parts of the planet where they are produced, they are the most likely to be dodgy. The notions of fair trade, respect for the environment, appropriation and diversion of resources and corruption have become consubstantial requirements for the exploitation of mining resources. The congress organised by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which has just been held in Geneva, was a powerful reminder of this.
The pressure is all the greater in that the watch industry has its eyes, brain and strategic direction firmly focused on millennials, a very loosely labelled category of individuals in terms of age, localisation and aspirations – but for whom it is clear that the ethical dimension of production and consumption is essential. A closer look at the environmentally responsible models offered by Baume, the new entity launched by the Richemont group and an offshoot from Baume & Mercier, shows that this brand is doing everything it can to meet the expectations of this demographic. Its ethos includes straps made from natural and upcycled materials, along with donations to various charitable associations. Another stakeholder that has taken a firm stance on one of these subjects is Chopard, which is steadily increasing the use of Fairmined certified ethical gold. The switch to 100% ethical gold was announced for July 2018. It represents an initiative that is unique in terms of both its timing and its scope.
In actual fact, ethical gold accounts for barely 10 to 15% of worldwide new metal production. And the industry also uses recycled metal, which is by definition a heterogeneous melting pot. There is therefore nothing straightforward about sourcing gold that can be certified as not originating from a problematic open-air mine using mercury or exploiting its employees.
However, apart from this initiative, very little is being done, especially when it comes to gemstones. Most watch brands proclaim their commitment to the principles of the Responsible Jewellery Council. This entity partially took up the role played by the Kimberley Process, created in the wake of the scandal surrounding blood diamonds from Angola and Sierra Leone. But like its predecessor, its collegial decision-making process and the limited scope of its standard-setting role, along with the nine-figure numbers involved in this industry, all contribute to making it a somewhat unsatisfactory player, particularly with regard to the demands arising in recent years. The message was further blurred when stones from Mozambique, temporarily excluded due to the nationalisation of mines undertaken by the then president Robert Mugabe, were reincorporated into the RJC without the slightest change in this grotesque dictatorship.
It is thus impossible to know the origins of a gemset bezel. Simply impossible. The structure of the diamond chain classifies gems according to their mineral properties – cut, clarity and colour – but not their origin. Some brands are attempting to promote traceable stones such as those from the Alrosa mining company. To win over American customers, it highlights its mine to market programme and boasts of producing diamonds exclusively from Russia – a country whose ethical positioning is hard to defend and currently subject to international sanctions. The sheer opacity of the precious metals supply chain is such that it is constantly biting its own tail. All of which means that today more than ever, synthetic diamonds represent a neutral and clean alternative. And this despite an inexistent or unfavourable image doubtless reflecting the saying that the heart has its reasons which reason ignores… In total, the Laureato Summer Edition 2018 collection has ten variations, limited to 75 pieces each.
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