The Next Exhibit at a Swiss Watch Museum? Recycled Steel

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This month a block of steel is to be added to the collections of the Musée International d’Horlogerie, an institution operated by the watchmaking city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, in what Switzerland’s tourist authorities call Watch Valley.

To the untrained eye, the block could pass for a minimalist sculpture, an archaeological find or a polished meteorite mysteriously fallen to Earth.

But it is pure AISI 316L stainless steel — “the world’s first block of recycled steel composed entirely of chips collected right here in the Watch Valley and melted down using solar energy,” said Raphaël Broye, the owner of Panatere, a watch component manufacturer and steel recycling business based in nearby Saignelégier.

The steel, produced last year, is to be displayed alongside watchmaking memorabilia and vintage timepieces by legends like Antide Janvier and Abraham-Louis Breguet because it is “a key evolution in a new era of recycled materials used in watchmaking,” according to Nathalie Marielloni, the museum’s assistant curator.

The chips were gathered from Panatere’s production facilities and about 40 other companies — watchmakers or medical supply manufacturers, all operating within a 50-kilometer, or 30-mile, radius of Saignelégier — and then melted at the solar-powered furnace in Mont Louis in southern France.

“It was an experimental trial to see if we could melt steel using solar power,” Mr. Broye said.

Starting in September, Panatere intends to eliminate the ecological cost of the journey to France by using a solar furnace that it plans to install in the Watch Valley, developed in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It will be the world’s first solar-powered, industrial furnace capable of melting steel without fuel or electricity,” Mr. Broye said.

Measuring 9.5 meters high and 15 meters wide, or about 30 feet by 50 feet, the furnace would rely on mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto an area with a small diameter, known as the receiver, to produce heat as high as 7,230 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4,000 degrees Celsius. Steel, made of carbon and iron, melts at temperatures higher than 2,730 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1,500 Celsius. And stainless steel, which includes chromium, nickel, manganese and copper, has the same fusion temperature.

“Few people understand the power of concentrated solar energy,” Mr. Broye said, adding that it can melt a piece of steel 1.5 centimeters, or slightly more than a half inch, thick in three seconds.

When the solar furnace is operational, it will help Mr. Broye achieve another ambition: creating a model of a circular economy — gathering and then transforming trash into reusable raw material, all within a concentrated geographical zone. “What we want to do is the antithesis of globalization,” he said.

While Swiss watch brands often note that their products run on clean kinetic energy and can last for centuries, the industry itself has not had an exemplary track record on sustainability. In 2018, a report issued by the Swiss branch of the World Wildlife Fund analyzed what it called the “environmental stewardship” of 15 major watch companies, and concluded that sounder management was needed.

“There are significant gaps regarding the sourcing and use of sustainable raw materials, the setting of forward-thinking strategies and targets, and the provision of more transparency in this highly secretive industry,” the report said.

But now, a number of watch brands like Panerai, which in April introduced its Submersible eLAB-ID, marketed as made from 98.6 percent recycled-based materials, are touting their extensive use of recycled materials.

And Panatere has been working with ID Genève, a watch brand founded in 2020, in a kind of pilot project. It supplied recycled stainless steel cases for the brand’s Circular 1 model, which had straps and packaging made from compostable materials.

“We have also had interest from two large watchmaking groups, but they prefer to make their own announcement,” Mr. Broye said, although he noted that luxury industries actually use very little steel in total.

“To make 200,000 watches, we need 50 tons of stainless steel,” he said. “In a traditional industrial furnace, that quantity would take just 14 minutes to produce.”

Mr. Broye, a mechanical engineer by training, acquired Panatere, a supplier of assembled watches and Swiss-made components, a decade ago. It now has 40 employees.

A recurring issue with the company’s steel sourcing led to the idea of making recycled steel locally. “The steel we were buying was imported from Shenzhen,” a manufacturing city in southeastern China, and “it often had defects that could not be remedied in the polishing process,” Mr. Broye said.

Also, shavings “were sent back to China for recycling, which meant that the steel we used would make several trips around the world,” he said. “That made no sense.”

Steel sport watches have been riding a wave of popularity for some time now. In 2020, for example, Switzerland exported 13,780 million watches, more than half of which — 8,442 million — were made of steel.

The steel used in watchmaking arrives in 3-meter-long ingots, or bars, which are machined into smaller pieces that then are cut, polished and fashioned into watch cases, bracelets or buckles.

The process produces scraps, which Mr. Broye and his local partners now sort into recycling bins, “like you would separate cartons, papers and plastics,” Mr. Broye said.

In 2019, when Panatere was sending scraps to a standard furnace in France to be melted down, it was able get 50 tons of recycled steel. It hopes to increase that production to 200 tons a year with the new solar furnace.

“We have done a battery of tests to evaluate performance, anti-allergenic properties and biocompatibility of this recycled nuance,” or scraps, he said. “It is infinitely recyclable, brilliant and spotless in polishing, and without any reduction in performance.”

Panatere says its recycled steel now sells for the same amount as traditional steel — 20 to 25 Swiss francs per kilogram — and that subsidies from the Swiss government will allow it to sell its solar-recycled product at competitive prices, too.

In October, Panatere was awarded first prize in the Responsibility and Sustainability category at the Luxury Innovation Awards, an event in Geneva organized by the Luxury Venture Group, a Swiss-based incubator and venture capital investor for luxury start-ups, in partnership with Porsche and the Vontobel banking and finance group.

On Dec. 1, Panatere announced that it had succeeded in producing (in a traditional steel furnace, not a solar one), 200 kilograms of 100 percent recycled and recyclable Grade 5 titanium.

“We are not environmentalists in Birkenstocks and wool sweaters,” Mr. Broye said. “We want to produce raw material that is local, durable and profitable.”

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