Watch Brands Increase the Use of Responsibly Mined Gold

Gold has been a symbol of opulence, decadence, wealth and beauty ever since humans started to use it for decoration, which, according to the National Mining Association in Washington, was 4000 B.C.

And when it comes to watches, statistics from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry seem to indicate that watch lovers have had a continuing desire for the precious metal since the Pomander gold and copper timepiece, a German creation from around 1505 that many have described as the first watch.

Today, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin and Cartier Tank Louis Cartier are among the many watches illustrating two current trends: the demand for watches in precious metals, which has been increasing since 2020, and the resurgence of consumer interest in yellow gold.

There is a third trend, too: As part of their corporate responsibility programs and in response to growing customer concern, watch brands are increasing their use of responsibly mined gold, taking steps, for example, to reduce pollution and improve working conditions for miners. One major goal is eliminating the use of mercury by uncertified and unregulated miners to separate gold from other minerals. Exposure to mercury can be extremely harmful to the health of both humans and animals.

But given that the mining industry worldwide produced a little more than 3,000 tons of gold in 2021 — and one watch case requires around 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of gold — what difference could it possibly make for customers to seek watches whose gold has been certified [and marked accordingly] by Fairmined, Fairtrade, Swiss Better Gold Association, Responsible Jewellery Council, Alliance for Responsible Mining, CRAFT or similar organizations?

“That is difficult to answer, since unmarked gold comes from a mix of sources,” said Ludovic Bernaudat of the United Nations Environmental Program, where he manages planetGOLD, a program trying to make small-scale gold mining safer, cleaner and more profitable. Today responsibly mined gold from small-scale miners is only a fraction of what is used in the watch industry, but more and more brands want to use it, as it reduces the environmental impact and strengthens mining communities.

But the ethical sourcing of even a small amount of gold does have some impact. If a watch case’s 40 grams of gold were mined in completely unregulated circumstances, with mercury used to access the gold, approximately 72 grams of mercury would seep into the environment through waterways and vaporization, according to the latest estimations made by the World Wide Fund for Nature, commonly known as the WWF.

“That would be a worst-case scenario,” Mr. Bernaudat said. “But what I find interesting is that the watch industry is improving, and thanks to that, some miners are not using mercury anymore. A lot of miners, brands, refiners and organizations are taking important steps together.”

Mr. Bernaudat also noted that his group has been showing artisanal and small-scale gold miners that other methods will produce better yields, and bigger revenues. “If you want somebody to change their practices,” he said, “they must earn more money with the practices that you introduce — otherwise it won’t work.”

On a global scale, artisanal and small-scale mining generally produces about 20 percent of the total annual production of gold — or about 600 tons in 2021. And today, about six of those tons — which would fill 312 one-liter milk cartons — are certified or regulated by some organization.

On top of that comes the amount of gold passing through the 1,681 members of the Responsible Jewellery Council, co-founded with Cartier in 2005. But, the scope of the council’s work is unclear, and one of its managers wrote in an email that the council does not know how much gold is used by its members.

Among watch makers, the nonprofit Swiss Better Gold Association is a growing player in the field of responsible gold, controlling the supply chain from mines in South America to its 26 members, which include the Richemont group and Cartier, one of its brands; Audemars Piguet; Breitling and Chopard.

In 2013, when the organization was founded, “we exported 27 kilograms (59 pounds) of responsible gold to Swiss refiners,” Diana Culillas, its general secretary, said in a recent phone interview. “Today we are at three tons and want to reach five tons in the coming years.”

However, she noted, the organization cannot reach all small-scale operations because many are informal and may be working outside the law. “For instance, 70 percent of Colombia’s total gold output is mined illegally,” she said. “We don’t work with informal or illegal miners, as it would be impossible for us to control the operation and the supply chain.”

Since 2018, Chopard, owned by the Scheufele family, has said it uses only responsibly sourced gold: approximately 60 percent obtained from artisanal and small scale mines through the Swiss association and 40 percent, recycled.

“As part of an industry with excellence as core value, that makes so many people dream, it is highly important to act on these topics,” Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the house’s co-president, wrote in an email. “This is the reason why we need to collaborate with our peers and suppliers to act as efficiently as possible all together towards responsible and sustainable sourcing.”

Breitling joined the Swiss association in 2020, the same year that Aurelia Figueroa became the brand’s first global head of sustainability. And last month it released the Super Chronomat Origins, a watch made of gold from the small Touchstone mine in Colombia, an arrangement made through the association.

“Breitling is now the sole buyer of Touchstone’s annual output gold, which was approximately 300 kilos in 2021,” Ms. Figueroa said in a recent phone interview. “As a Swiss Better Gold member, we pay $1 extra per gram,” which the miners use for everything from processing improvements to the construction of a kind of community center.

Ms. Figueroa added that the brand prefers to work with small mines. “Large-scale mines don’t cut it,” she said, “their environmental impact is too large, and their social involvement is too small.”

But Touchstone’s output is only 10 percent of Breitling’s annual need for three tons of gold, so the brand now is seeking more suppliers in an effort to use only responsibly sourced gold.

That quest actually may be more difficult than it sounds. There are 20 to 30 small-scale mines that meet Breitling’s standards, Ms. Figueroa said. “There are programs suggesting 800 available mines,” she said, “but that to me sounds like a mockery of traceability — let’s be realistic about due diligence.”

Georges Kern, Breitling’s chief executive, wrote in an email that the brand is committed to the goal. “The Super Chronomat Origins is a proof of concept, but by 2025 our entire product portfolio will feature artisanal gold and lab-grown diamonds — responsibly sourced from accredited suppliers,” he wrote. “There is no doubt that we will all become more and more conscious about our consumption and lifestyle. Take the advance of electrical cars. The lack of responsibility, be it of companies or consumers, will be increasingly embarrassing.”

But what about recycled gold?

In its 2018 report about gold in the watch industry, the World Wide Fund for Nature made a strong push for recycled gold. But since then, the organization has refined its views.

“There is no industry standard for what ‘recycled’ is composed of,” said Damian Oettli, the organization’s head of markets, noting that “too often what is called recycled gold has only been freshly mined, partly refined and marked as recycled in the final refining process. So it is still part of the problem with irresponsible mining.”

So how should a customer shop for a gold watch?

“At a bare minimum, ask questions about the origin of the gold, as it could originate from areas of conflict or environmental degradation,” Ms. Figueroa of Breitling said. “As humans we seek to show status but what values do we associate with it? Remember that we can include sustainability and responsibility in our concept of status.”

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