The circular interview with Cedric Bellon, founder of the CB Sustainable Tool Watches brand.
We all know that sustainability is a social and consumer trend and that companies are frantically trying to find a way to respond. In your opinion, how is the watch industry doing at this level?
People are more and more aware of the consequences human activities have on our environment, but industries are organized and structured in such ways that they cannot easily and quickly change.
Small brands, independents, start to move, they are more agile, they can adapt the way they want to run their businesses according to new guidelines.
Some big brands and groups try to insert a light green approach by offering recycled straps, communicating on one special component, supporting associations or ambassadors involved in environmental processes… Roughly that’s all they are able to do now. At the moment they cannot really go deeper and question their own processes and organizations at a reasonable cost.
Institutions do not really help they do not support that kind of movement, probably because they ignore how to do it, and they are not documented enough.
For all of them — including me — it starts by creating awareness and by promoting a culture of sustainability and afterwards culture creates action.
You make sustainable watches, but do you also practice what you preach in your daily life?
I am slowing down and decreasing my environmental impact since years and will continue to improve my way of life in that direction.
Among many other things I live in a village where I move preferably by feet or with an old bicycle, I grow food in my garden, I recycle water for the garden, I use natural products and avoid appliances to clean the house, I work at home, I very rarely use air travel and when it’s really necessary, I prefer to move by train, I use a wooden stove in winter to heat the house and cook in the same time, I eat mainly local, organic and fresh food, I buy second-hand items for the house and dress with second-hand clothes, I buy rarely products with packaging (not zero-waste but it’s in progress), I have no TV, no TV box, no streaming subscription…
All these things seem like efforts, sacrifices, and far from modern comfort, but in fact it’s quite easy and satisfying to live more and more simply, even more in such a complex world. And let’s be honest, I was born, and I live in France, where I never was cold, afraid, and hungry. Then I am aware to live in very good conditions.
Now with CB watches I also try to do my job in a more virtuous way too, closer to my way of life.
Is there a contradiction between sustainability and beauty in terms of watches? If yes, how do you think this can be resolved?
Beauty is suggestive and sustainable guidelines — and how far they are pushed — can influence the aesthetic of a watch. The point is: how to make them an asset, a brand signature? Then it is a question of choices.
A more sustainable production means less processes, energy and chemicals. Such guidelines don’t allow to do all the marvels watchmaking is able to produce.
According to my sustainable principles, it induced to create solid watches that are rawer and evoke durability. That’s why I choose tool-watches and that’s why they initially have “naked” stainless steel dials.
Simple and robust watches = less machining, no chemical, less finishing, less processes, more made in-house. It’s the CB’s aesthetic postulate.
Why do you think your CB01 has been a success?
It was in 2006 when I first tried to produce sustainable watches. At that time was too early and I failed. Now things are changing, CB watches fit with the time. I think that my watches have encountered the favour of watch enthusiasts because of three elements.
Firstly, through the design. CB watches are simple, raw, timeless but different. Once you know the classics, you can like micro-brands and non-conventional projects.
Secondly, by addressing environmental concerns in a pragmatic and way and by documenting and proving the approach. Even through an industrial product we can talk about environment, nature, simplicity. I was surprised by all the testimonials about environmental issues and questions people sent. It really starts to matter.
Thirdly, the price. The Watch Angels’ crowd manufacturing system, my industrial partner, helped me to build my sustainable supply chain and offered me quality watch components at a fair price. And then, by selling the watches from the factory directly to the community, also the customer got a great price. It really helped a lot! For comparison, other sustainable watches in the CB quality category are much more expensive. In my opinion affordability is directly linked to sustainabilty and is necessary to build a sustainable watch industry. Sustainable watches must be for the many, not the few, for the industry to become sustainable, otherwise it is a self-defeating exercise.
I quite like this collective aspect. It fits nicely with the idea that we all are concerned by environmental questions. Everything is quite young, nothing is perfect, but we are working to consolidate the project, we learn daily how to do it.
And finally, the community. People can talk to me directly (I try to, but sorry if I don’t answer to all the messages, especially the DM!) and I talk with my own voice instead of a brand speech. I guess they appreciate this casual way.
What is a sustainable product for you? At what moment do you consider it sustainable?
There is no sustainable product. Not one. Because producing items requires tools and energy to extract resources from the ground, then to be transported to a first place to be transformed in a usable material, transported again to other factories to be transformed again, assembled, controlled, packed, and shipped — at least. The amount of energy, materials, tooling and infrastructures, chemicals, transport it needs doesn’t make it FOR SURE sustainable. Even products made from natural and cyclical materials (clay, wood, weed…) need to be harvested, transformed, transported.
However, in my mind, here are some assets to consider a product as “more sustainable”. Long-life, simple, reliable, repairable, dismantlable, locally produced, with a limited quantity of energy and chemical, with as neutral materials as possible, handcrafted as much as possible, and usable without artificial power source. For example: hand tools, bicycles, mechanical watches. Less is better and may allow us to reach the right equilibrium.
What are the biggest constraints in designing and producing a sustainable watch?
In the first place to decide to do it, to work alone, to go out of the comfort zone (so many things I cannot do because of their level of environmental impact!). Then to design it for that purpose and keeping it attractive to make the project viable, to find partners able to change their mindset in an old industry, to source locally the right suppliers, adapted materials and components…to explain everything to suppliers, medias and to the public, to feed social medias without being too digitally-impactive for the environment, to avoid being opportunist and doing green-washing by ease or comfort, to DIY as much as possible and to find an audience.
Maybe the most challenging is to make and accept choices. In the end I had to start somewhere. I had to accept that I could not do all I initially expected to. If I want to see it grow reasonably to be profitable for everyone, remain sustainable, and be persistent, I have to make compromises.
Nothing is perfect, but I will perpetually improve the whole project.
What is a customer really buying when he buys a circularly produced watch?
A cool watch! A watch mainly produced locally out of recycled or neutral materials, with modern tooling, repurposed components, standard components (then repairable with available spare parts), with a minimum of chemical processes, designed for a minimum of machining, of energy needs. A watch that is expected simple, reliable, functional, that will age well.
They also buy a piece of passion, of special design, of handcrafting, expertise, skills, cooperation, know-how…
Do you think consumers are prepared to pay more for a sustainably made watch?
Ironically, traditional watches are often too expensive due to the watchmaking organization and all the marketing, the communication brands have to produce aside to remain visible and to exist.
The way we produce CB watches avoids a big part of it to offer timepieces at a reasonable price. But I am confident with the fact that people buy less and less only for consuming or spending money.
When I started to buy organic food, I did it first for health reasons. It made sense for me and my family. Then I removed packaged food (then avoid organic food from supermarkets). It made sense too for other reasons (less material, less chemical, less waste, less pollution, fresher food…). Then I searched for local sources. It made sense also to support local producers and communities, to avoid transport. In fact, I started do move for me, but then did it more and more for what and who is around. These choices have a cost because I don’t consume industrial items. Industries make cheap product thanks to the quantities, which means it has a cost for me and it requires more time. But there’s a reward. I didn’t expect the satisfaction this path would generate. I feel more healthy, reliant, I need less comfort, less consumption. I have less and less items around me, and they are beautiful, useful, solid.
Finally, depending on your priorities, you will feel good by buying less but better, which means sometimes a bit more expensive.
When will the watch industry really become sustainable? What will it take in your opinion?
Hard to predict. Cynically, I would say that if there are big profits to be made fast, it will be soon!
Honestly, I think the industry will work more sustainably because of materials and energy costs increase. It has started. When gold became too expensive, stainless steel watches raised. Today stainless-steel price grows fast and is much harder to order, there is only a short-term vision for sourcing. It is one example of the issues suppliers and manufactures will have to face more and more.
Then the industry will have to re-invent itself: how to produce with a scattered gluttonous and inter-dependent production (material, energy, chemical, transport…)? How to communicate out from the clichés (status symbol, success, fashions trends, appearance…)?
First, we will see plenty of green washing. Then we’ll see what people will trust. Hopefully not only brands image.
The watch industry gives out many prizes but there is no prize yet for a circularly produced watch, why do you think there is still a lack in here?
Cause I must lobby it first ;). Probably because the interest is not clear yet, because there is a lack of knowledge, because it is only the beginning…
In which direction do you think watch design is going in 2022 and beyond?
On long-term, if we let aside smartwatches or radical evolutions such as transhumanism, traditional wristwatches will still be worn on the wrist because we have wrists and it’s the most convenient place to wear one if we consider watches useful in a digital world where time is everywhere. Then watches will remain big enough to be readable, small enough to be comfortable, nice enough to be salable…For the next 2–3 years I don’t expect a revolution. Classics will remain classics, same with icons. Generally, watches will have to show more and more off to offer more experience to medias and customers. Afterwards, watches will have to be more creative to offer clear and strong brand identities. Downsizing will be a trend after 2 decades of bold watches, and because even stainless steel is becoming rarer, then more expensive and long to source. New materials, from plastics to bio-sourced ones will be used and offer new possibilities of textures, colors, production processes… Let’s keep in mind that watches could not remain watches as we know them, who knows?
What would be your dream challenge as a designer, is there anything you would design which you have not done yet?
A wooden stove made from natural materials (clay), buildable by hands without complex tooling or technic, and able to burn one or two pieces of wood to heat a room and cook. Opensource plans.
A collection of basics in clothing. Simple basic clothes and underwear made to be worn and age for decades, made out of natural materials, fairly and locally sourced.
In watchmaking, I would love to work on a hand-made watch project with an independent watchmaker able to produce (almost) all the components.
What are the biggest influences in watch design today?
Branding, marketing managers, sales managers, narcissism, reputation, but, fortunately, passion too!
Cedric Belon is a freelance designer for leading watch brands, a sustainability activist and the founder of the Cedric Bellon Sustainable tool watches brand.
Cedric Bellon is currently working on his second model, the CBO1 GMT