Ulysse Nardin ceo Patrick Pruniaux

PARIS — Ulysse Nardin is building a sustainable innovation lab to root out materials for watches and jewelry that carry a lower environmental impact than traditional ones, with plans to serve fellow, Kering-owned labels and spark interest from the industry.

Drawing on experience from its parent company, which established a materials innovation lab in 2013 in Italy with a focus on fabrics and leather alternatives with a sustainable bent, the new set-up fits Kering’s approach to environmentally minded efforts. The fashion and luxury group leans on an open source environmental profit and loss account system it devised to identify key areas where improvement is needed, and then calls on scientists and industry experts to help it tackle specific subjects.

“It makes a lot of sense to do it now, we had the RJC [Responsible Jewellery Council] — the responsible jewelry — for quite some time and we knew we had to go further and use some innovative materials for our watches,” said Ulysse Nardin chief executive officer Patrick Pruniaux, speaking to WWD.

The idea is to find new materials for Ulysse Nardin watches, serve Kering labels like Girard-Perregaux, another watch brand headed by Pruniaux, as well as jewelry brands Boucheron, Qeelin, Pomellato and Dodo, but also to nudge the industry by talking about some of its innovations.

Based at Kering’s watchmaking campus in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, the focus will be primarily on carbon, steel and recycled materials, and will likely include subjects like finding an alternative to lead for ceramic-making or new glass-making methods.

“Our intention is not to be only the first one to do it and just brag about it, it’s rather to demonstrate to the industry that some of the technology that we are using…to spearhead what can be done in the rest of the industry, and if it inspires some other watch company to do it, very good,” he said.

“We would be very happy for the technology to be sort of ‘open source,’ because it’s good for everyone, and we’ll be very open about how we do it or the type of partnership we have to produce some of the material,” added the executive.

Plans for the facility were initially drawn up a year and a half ago, by Marie-Claire Daveu, who heads the group’s sustainability efforts. An engineer has been recruited to lead the project, and the company is currently building the team.

One of the key goals of the project is to be able to verify claims from suppliers — an important challenge for many areas of the fashion and luxury business, as Daveu has pointed out.

“We want to make sure that there is a right level of expertise at the moment to challenge what the supplier says as a statement,” he said, citing, as an example, being able to identify the sustainability dimension of a type of carbon. 

“You want to make sure that you’re being very honest when you make a statement about some of the benefits of the watches you are producing, whether it’s in a movement or the materials you used for the cases, for instance,” he added. 

“We needed that expertise — we had some expertise internally, but we needed to go beyond that,” he continued, noting the overarching goal was two-fold — serving both to find new materials and to work toward sustainability.

To lead the project, the watchmaking label recruited an engineer specializing in advanced mechanics who had worked for Audemars Piguet before setting up his own business specializing in composite materials, and whose interest in car racing led to a focus on materials early on, said Pruniaux.

The biggest challenge was finding someone with experience both in materials and the watch industry, but also with a broader curiosity about other industries, according to the executive.

“This is only one dimension, but an important one,” he said, referring to the sustainable innovation lab, and ticking off other efforts including reducing the carbon footprint and waste. 

“We have a list of projects — it’s an Excel file with so many lines, about every single thing we could be doing to reduce our waste — and we’re tackling all of it, and it goes from the packaging to the end consumer,” he noted.

“You have to be consistent from the beginning to the end,” he added. The label has had a sustainability manager for several years, for example, but Pruniaux has broadened her leverage.

“I gave her more means, including the means and the power to be a pain in the neck with everyone in the organization,” he said, noting that there is generally a high level of interest and willingness from staff members to support initiatives to improve the label’s environmental track record.

Ulysse Nardin focuses on the sea when it comes to supporting ecological efforts and recruiting brand ambassadors, supporting shark tagging, for instance, and free diving underwater photographer Fred Buyle, free diver Alessia Zecchini and professional kiteboarder Alex Caizergues.

When it comes to other ecological efforts, beyond contributing profits to organizations helping the environment, the watchmaking industry could be “more demanding” when it comes to industrial processes, noted Pruniaux.

Before the end of this year, the label has plans to launch a new watch model with a strong emphasis on recycling, noted Pruniaux, declining to elaborate further.