Ulysse Nardin Diver Net watch

PARIS — As Swiss watch labels cast around for fresh ways to connect with consumers and generate interest amid lockdowns and travel bans, Ulysse Nardin took to Zoom on Monday to present a new concept watch made from recycled fishing nets — an online event that featured skippers preparing to set sail in the upcoming Vendée Globe, around-the-world, solo race.

Traditionally concept watch presentations are centered around an innovation inside a watch that will hit the market at a later stage, noted Jean-Christophe Sabatier, chief product officer. This time, however, it was more about the outside, he explained.

“This concept watch is a real achievement because even if it is not yet for sale, the content of this concept watch is the result of a difficult challenge,” he said, noting the idea was to explore sustainability.

The watch carries “several proposals,” with one of the most important being the use of recycled fishing nets to make the case, the case back and the bezel, he explained. The label worked with a Fil & Fab, a start-up based in Brest, France, that transforms discarded fishing nets into pellets of plastic.

“I’m 50 years old and it’s a pleasure for me to collaborate in a project with a young, 25-year-old businessman who took a risk to establish his own brand and also to establish this company with a mission that is totally new and with technical innovations that are also new,” noted Sabatier, nodding toward Yann Louboutin, codirector and product designer of Fil & Fab.

The strap was also made of recycled plastic from the ocean, and a transparent ceramic material was used in lieu of sapphire glass, which is commonly used for watches, as part of an effort to reduce the environmental footprint of the production process.

“When a label presents a concept watch, it’s a kind of commitment we will have to deliver in the future,” noted Sabatier.

“We believe if you want to break the rules, you have to find the right people to do that,” he added.

While the concept watch won’t likely change the paradigm when it come to recycling plastic with watches, it carries a message, he added.

“The idea is that proposing more than a product, we are proposing a message that is the following: If you are able to express luxury values and perception with a luxury watch, then recycling and recycled product is something that is possible in your day-to-day life when you make a purchase decision,” he said.

Alexia Barrier, who will be competing in the Vendée Globe sailing race, said she has embraced recycling.

“I think I am the queen of recycling because my boat is 22 years old and it did already six [tours] around the world for the Vendée Globe,” she said.

“It’s crazy to have such an old boat on this race, and I’m proud for that,” she added. The skipper noted she is one of six women taking part in the race — only six woman have finished the race in the past three decades, so there is a chance this year of doubling that figure.

“Let’s go, girl power!” she enthused.

Sebastien Destremau, a popular figure in France who was ranked last in a previous Vendée Globe race, said he was motivated to take part in this edition for the same reason last time. “It’s a personal challenge,” he said.

Cape Horn is the exciting part of the trip, he noted.

“When you reach Cape Horn, alone,” he said, with a long whistle. “It took me 89 days to go there,” he added, noting he was one of less than 100 people in the world to do so.

“It’s quite an achievement, especially for a guy like me — my career was about sailing at the top level for short races,” he said.

“You can have all sorts of fears, but they’re very short-lived fears,” he said, citing a few, like breaking bones, or breaking the boat.

He also stressed the sense of freedom, being on the ocean, 
“Especially this year, with everything that is happening, we will be free. OK, we’ll be locked down in our boat for several weeks, months, but we will be free, completely free, and we are so lucky we are privileged to do that,” he said, noting his boat is called “Merci.”

Asked who he would thank, Destremau replied, “The albatrosses.”

“At the end of the day, it’s the albatrosses that will let me go through the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and towards Cape Horn,” he said.

“They live there, it’s their own territory, it’s their place and their water and they’ll watch us on our boats and probably they’ll think what the heck are you doing there guys, you shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t be here, so if they let us pass through, I’ll thank them very, very deeply,” he said.

Benjamin Dutreux, another skipper, echoed the feeling of freedom.

“We’re confined to a boat but with full freedom — with a huge terrace and a fantastic view,” he said.

When it comes to urging older generations to consider environmental issues, he said the best ambassadors are children.

“When a child speaks to someone older, they go straight to the point, and the message is passed on well — children are often the best ambassadors to their grandparents or older people,” added Dutreux.

The skipper said he appreciated the watch label’s interest in making watches with recycled materials, noting the message was more “we managed to do it, so you can, too,” rather than emphasizing their role as doing it first.

The Swiss watch sector, already under intense pressure from the rise of the Apple Watch in recent years, has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, and luxury labels are struggling to prove their relevance with younger consumers, who tend to favor experience over accumulating stuff. Since the beginning of the year, Swiss watch exports have dropped 28.3 percent, with China as the strongest market.

Consumers of high end goods are asking increasingly difficult questions about environmental commitments from luxury labels, as well as looking for products that reflect expect certain values.

“What we are announcing today is something which is very dear to me, especially to my personal values but also to the values of the company,” Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive officer of Ulysse Nardin said, kicking off the Zoom event.

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