WeWood’s Jupiter model (left) and one of Sprout’s 80 styles
Wood works: WeWood’s Jupiter model (left) and one of Sprout’s 80 styles

It was just a matter of time before ecology touched the watch industry. With nearly 15m watches sold in the US alone in 2012, several new companies are trying to make the business a bit greener with biodegradable and natural material watches.

In 2008, Marcella Maselli became troubled by the plastic watch trend. Michael Kors had entered the marketplace with plastic bracelet timepieces, and the Italian company Toywatch was experiencing enormous success.

Ms Maselli, director of product development for E Gluck, the company in charge of the Armitron and Anne Klein licences, says: “Everywhere I looked, I saw plastic. I wanted to make something with the look but not the environmental impact.” She started working on a line called Sprout, which would be based in New York, and be biodegradable.

But it was not quite as easy as she had hoped. Traditional plastics are oil-based, and therefore not biodegradable. Finally the company used polymer polylactide, extracting starch from corn, converting the sugar into lactic acid, and turning it into pellet form, which then became mouldable and injectable corn resin.

Made entirely of plant-based feed, corn resin watch bracelets break down naturally over time. Sprout could not figure out some of the elements: the hands, the crown and movement had to be traditionally made. However, the crystal was replaced with one that a biodegradable mineral, and the traditional watch battery with a mercury- and lead-free option.

The result was a watch that would biodegrade by 80-93 per cent in a landfill in an estimated three years, with decomposition speeding up in a compost environment. During the process, the watch would not leak toxins or chemicals, which is the biggest problem with traditional plastics.

There are some style limitations to the Sprout eco-friendly watches. “Because of the nature of the materials, you cannot do everything with corn resin,” says Ms Maselli. You can’t make a gold watch or a silver-plated watch.”

Not being able to take on every trend has not hampered the company. Sprout has expanded to 80 styles carried in 1,000 sales outlets, including the US department store Nordstrom, where new models such as cork and bamboo variations are introduced five times a year.

Also chasing the alternative material option is WeWood, a company that started making watches in 2010 with wooden bands, and cases that had not been treated with chemicals, ideally using already harvested scraps.

Historically, wooden watches have not fared well. If the wood had not been treated with chemicals, insects consumed the material. With other watches, wearers discovered the wood would simply deteriorate over time. And some cost thousands of dollars.

Based in Florence and Los Angeles, WeWood makes no secret of the difficulties. Neither of the two founders, Daniele Guidi, an accessories distributor, and Alessandro Rosano, a shoe designer, had any experience.

“From when we made the first sample, to understand what was going wrong, to make things work well together, [was] a work in progress. [From] that first watch to today, the failure [rate] has been reduced drastically,” says Mr Guidi.

The company found its test groups by tracking the way the watches they sold fared in an increasing number of climates and locations. Wooden watches had existed for some time through other companies such as Tense, Martin & MacArthur, AB Aeterno, and SpringBreak, but WeWood’s reclaimed message, wide variety of styles and modest prices seemed to resonate.

Made primarily in Indonesia and China from maple, black wood, recycled teak and rosewood, WeWood’s pieces, which retail for between $120 and $140, and weigh just 1.5 ounces, became popular with consumers. Singers Rihanna and Ke$ha, and pop group the Black Eyed Peas, are fans and the company ships to more than 30 countries.

WeWood plans to make a watch with entirely ecological movements. Only the springs would be metal. But to make this a reality, the cost would be astronomical, at $20,000-$30,000 each.

“This sort of thing appeals to the 20- to 25-year-olds, says Katie Nadler, chief executive of the fashion recommendation engine, TopShelf. “The ‘millennials’ became aware from a young age of the potential long-term environmental damage of everyday actions. It’s a thoughtful approach on what they wear.”

However, TopShelf, which makes about 100,000 monthly purchase recommendations to its subscribers, says that, despite a growing number of requests, eco watches are still a very small percentage of the 10,000 to 15,000 watch purchases that it recommends.

“The major catalyst for volume growth in eco-friendly watches will come when industry giants such as Fossil start to focus on it,” says Ms Nadler.

An industry analyst who asked not to be named noted: “There’s just 11 brands that surpass $100m in sales each. It’s absurd for a start-up watch company to try to take them on.” WeWood admits it struggled initially with low production numbers and a lack of resources.

Some feel that ecologically focused watch companies are simply riding a larger trend for anything green. According to LGI Network – an NPD Group company that tracks 72 watch brands – although 90 per cent of the market is battery-driven watches, the trend is just a matter of marketing.

Fred Levin, president of LGI, says: “When you look at how much energy we use elsewhere in our daily lives, your watch is such a small part – the battery even smaller. It lasts for three years and is one of the most efficient sources of energy …This is a non-event. It’s just that marketers always focus on ways to appeal to consumers.”

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