What Impact Does A Watch Have On The World?
It appears there has been quite a sea change recently if you are watching the mainstream media. We have gone from issues around COVID-19 and have swung towards climate change and in the financial world towards ESG. So what is ESG? The acronym stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance, and sets the standards that large companies need to meet to show that they are acting responsibly.
Here at SNGLRTY, we do not have a vast organization to manage, so we can strike off two of these issues relatively quickly. Governance is easily covered because that is the responsibility of Daniel and me to have good governance for the company – which we own. I think we can look after ourselves!
Next up, we have Social. I like to think about the “social” aspect of the ESG trio as treating others as we would like to be treated. Being socially responsible is particularly difficult to manage as various societies around the world have different customs and expectations on how we should treat each other. Both Daniel and I have spent a large portion of our lives in the Far East, those experiences bring those differences into focus.
Let’s Talk Environmental
For a small business like SNGLRTY, with neither Daniel nor myself being based in Asia, the cost advantages of buying in Asia are quickly eradicated by the shipping costs – especially if something happens to go wrong. So over time, our suppliers have become more and more focused in Europe. Gravitating to Europe has had several significant benefits. First of all, everyone is in the same time zone – you cannot underestimate being in the same time zone. Having conference calls at 11 pm to go over design drawings is never ideal! But also, all the delivery headaches are removed.
You may be scratching your head about what I am talking about exactly, as all SNGLRTY watches have “Swiss Made” printed on them. This moniker means that only the crucial bits are Swiss-made, which means the watch head itself. Interestingly, for SNGLRTY, over 90% of the watch head is Swiss-made, which is high for Swiss-made watches!
It is all the peripherals that we have manufactured outside of Switzerland. The next question is usually, “what are the peripherals?” That is pretty much everything, excluding the watch head itself, so watch bands, buckles, tools, and packing materials.
Where We Go Shopping
As our procurement of these items has moved from Asia to Europe, our concerns about social responsibilities have been eliminated. There have been some other advantages too, such as we can communicate more easily (well, Daniel can). Everything is in the same time zone, shipping is shorter and cheaper and communication is easier.
Where we do have to think more critically is when it comes to environmental impact. Not because we believe that making watches is a significant pollutant, but we do not want to squander the earth’s resources or leave a horrible legacy for the next generation. In my previous blog touching on this subject, I went into detail about plastics and why we aim to avoid them as much as possible. There is work for us to do there but setting the direction of travel for a small business like ours is very important. Understanding the life cycle of a watch, from beginning to end, provides a unique perspective.
A Watch’s Life Cycle
As usual, we need to go back to first principles, whether it is trying to understand how a watch works, how to start designing a watch, or understanding the inspiration behind SNGLRTY. So what should we be considering in the creation of a watch and its environmental impact? This is how I break it down.
Three distinct phases of owning a watch impact the environment. First, there is the production of the watch and the ancillary pieces (packaging, etc.) Then there is the impact of actually using the product, and finally, there is the impact that disposing of the product will have on the environment.
The Impact of Manufacture
For brevity, I will focus on the impact of the watch itself rather than the packaging or the leather watch bands. I plan to cover leather watch bands separately in the future because they are worthy of an entire blog post.
So, what is in a watch? The vast majority of the watch, by weight, is steel. And of that, it is predominantly stainless steel. There is some brass and plenty of aluminum oxide, what with the crystal (if there is a sapphire crystal). Not to forget the jewels and any Swiss Super-LumiNova, which is also predominantly aluminum oxide. Of course, if you have a mineral glass, then that will be primarily silicon dioxide – sand!
That is the majority of the watch case and the movement, but there may be a few more esoteric materials for the watch face and hands. For example, we use rhodium for the hand and aluminum for the rings and discs that complete the SNGLRTY watch face.
The interesting part of this is that all these materials fall into two distinctive categories. The first is the metals, and the second is the oxides.
All metals are made through the same basic chemical process. Each though, when manufactured, may be implemented through different processes. Metals in their elemental state are created through “chemical reduction.” Chemical reduction is the technical term for removing oxygen. Essentially the ore is forced into a chemical reaction that removes oxygen, and the metal is a product of the chemical reaction.
In the case of steel, iron is the primary element needed. The iron ore is heated to high temperatures with carbon, which reacts with the iron ore’s oxygen to create carbon dioxide and leave the steel (or, more accurately, the pig iron). To arrive at the final steel or stainless steel used in a watch movement or watch case, the pig iron needs to go through several additional steps.
On the other hand, aluminum is produced by passing a large electric current through the molten aluminum oxide. This may seem a very different process to creating iron, but these are both examples of chemical reduction reactions.
Where Is The Commonality?
The common aspect for creating all these materials is that the transformation from ore to finished product is very energy-intensive. For the manufacture of steel, there are at least two processes, if not more, that require the metal to be heated until it becomes a liquid. The aluminum ore is held as a molten liquid while an electric current is passed through the liquid to isolate pure aluminum as molten metal.
Whichever way you cut it, this will create a great deal of carbon dioxide, whether through heating the ores by burning fossil fuels or from the chemical reaction itself. In both chemical reactions, the oxygen is removed from the ore and combined with carbon to create carbon dioxide. Even if the energy to heat the process is produced from wind or solar, this carbon dioxide can never be eliminated.
The crystal oxides
These are simpler, but unfortunately not much more carbon friendly. To create a sapphire crystal for a watch, bauxite (the same ore that aluminum is produced from) is initially purified. The refined ore is heated until molten and then cooled in a very controlled manner so that a single crystal of aluminum oxide forms. This crystal can then be cut and polished to create a watch crystal of the desired size or for the jewels of the watch movements.
For a mineral glass, silicon dioxide (sand basically) is heated to a molten liquid with certain minerals (hence mineral glass) and then cooled. In this case, mineral glass is not a single crystal but an amorphous solid.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line here is that making the various materials necessary to create a mechanical watch requires much energy. This inevitably leads to the release of carbon dioxide.
Operating The Watch
Thankfully wearing an automatic watch is very ecologically friendly. As we all know, it winds itself up as we move through our day. It is probably the ultimate in harvesting and then deploying energy in an eco-friendly manner.
At The End Of The Day
The final step to consider is what happens when the watch has reached the end of its useful life? I have a particular way I think about products when they get to the end of their useful life. It is not particularly scientific, but it provides a simple framework to consider each aspect of the product and how easily our world can “reprocess” it.
Here is what I do. I consider whether the item will sink in seawater; if it does not, there are many other questions. Thankfully a watch will sink in seawater, so we do not need to consider the other aspects.
Next, I consider the item on the seabed and consider how long it will take for the movement of the sea to dissolve the item into unidentifiable bits. The critical criterion, though, is if a fish were to live in that area. Feeding and circulating the water from the area where the item was being decomposed by the sea action, would you be willing to eat that fish at the end of the decomposition of the watch?
Let’s Run The Thought Experiment
My best guess, and it is a guess, is that it would take between 5 and ten years for the watch to be subsumed by the sea action. I could be wildly wrong in this, but I have not found any reasonable way to test it. If anyone knows how to test this, please let me know – I will provide the watch for testing!
I would estimate that the watch case would fail first as steel being abraided by the sand movement would erode quickly, probably a year or so. Once the water got into the case, the seawater would start to corrode any brass and steel pieces pretty quickly. Soon after the seawater entered into the watch case, sand would follow, and then, with the movement of the sand over time, the internal parts of the watch would be braided away. My guess is this would take us to around year 4 or 5.
The pieces that would take the longest to decay would be the sapphire crystal and the jewels. I believe that these would be abraided into a powder over time, and this is where my ten-year guess could be wildly wrong because it could perhaps last centuries as the sapphire crystal is hard and very inert.
Would I Eat The Fish?
Yes, definitely. This is pretty easy because the watch will decay into iron oxide, aluminum oxide, and other mineral oxides already available on the sea bed in abundance. No strange chemicals are being released from, for example, batteries or printed circuit boards. The fish should be immaculate and healthy and hopefully tasty!
So Should We Be Concerned?
My view is that if we consider an excellent old-fashioned automatic watch against any smartwatch from this perspective, we can own 10 or 20 mechanical watches for each smartwatch. And let’s not forget that the lifespan of a smartwatch is a fraction of that of a mechanical watch.
The worst that anyone can say against a mechanical watch is that it caused more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but the trees and grass will thank you for that. And if you feel that we should pay penance for feeding the trees and grass, then I suggest you plant a tree. My choice is an orange tree; this is to have fresh orange peel with my negroni of an evening as I consider my collection.