When you are seeking a replacement strap for a vintage watch it’s interesting to take a moment to think about how the watch would have looked when first released, the unique era aesthetics of its design and what straps the original manufacturer would have fitted. This may seem an obvious statement but in our business we regularly see questionable watch head/strap combinations. With a modern watch it is easier to push the boundaries but the older the watch gets the more we feel it can look a little odd if your strap change is too modern or radical.
Our chosen watch for experimentation today is a die-hard from my own collection. A 1999 Breitling Blackbird Chronometer ref: A13350. I had, and continue to, admire this watch as it represented one of Breitling’s early forays into more serious subdued military inspired designs. Named after the famous SR-71 Blackbird US spy plane this brushed rather than polished Chronomat really gave birth to some of the stealthy looks Breitling now freely embraces. A matte black dial and stark white hands complimented the cockpit instrument look. Classic ‘onion’ crown and pushers seem to channel propellers and from the side the watch looks like a vintage airframe. To me it is one of the quintessential Breitlings which really defined the early (and best) look of the brand. Older Blackbirds are not that hard to find but it still took me a while to source an example with the look I was after, specifically nicely beige patina batons. At 23 years old I suppose one could argue the watch is not exactly vintage but it represents a brand style which would never be made now and makes it a fascinating test case.
This watch is externally identical to an older non-chronometer Blackbird which came out in 1995, the A13050.1. As a piece of very 90s design there are elements of the model which make strap swapping a challenge. Although Breitling claim the diameter is 39.8mm it wears more like a 38mm due to the small dial. The case is a squat 14.8mm in height to house the Valjoux 7750 (Chronometer Certified Breitling Calibre 13) and the lug-to-lug is just 45mm. This small case is feels even smaller due to the very shallow lugs which results in spring bar pin holes extremely close to the case.
The A13050.1 and A13350 are fabulous watches which were so different in the 1990s Breitling catalogues they left an impression on me as a young man. However, that was before I became a serial strap changer and this Breitling of old has proven to be a tough nut to crack!
The OEM rubber Diver Pro strap the watch originally came on is almost as legendary as the watch. It famously says BREI on the long half and TLING on the buckle half. The buckle is even today of superior design and is embossed with the winged B. The Diver Pro is a hugely durable strap and mine amazingly shows little signs of wear but it does look a bit dated now. There is something very 90s about having BREITLING in huge letters around your wrist. It’s a bit “in your face”, like having TURBO written in bold letters down the side of an XR3i. For me, it just doesn’t quite gel in 2022.
As a result I have put some effort into finding a collection of straps which really work well on the Blackbird. Each one brings out a part of its character and critically they all look like they could have been issued with the watch back in 1999. This recommended list is by no means meant to be exclusive to the Breitling. If you are lucky enough to own a classic 20-30 year old tool watch from a Rolex Submariner to an TAG Heuer 2000 then these straps will work very well as sympathetic and carefully considered alternatives to the manufacturers issue strap.
All images for this feature were taken by me whilst on a winter break this week in the Forest of Dean. I travelled with one watch and four straps, so there is no studio work, just unedited images of how the straps look on the Blackbird.
WatchGecko Vintage Highley Leather in Chocolate Brown - £68
The Vintage Highley is very much a staple in the WatchGecko range of leather straps and there are very few steel tool watches, let alone Breitlings, which do not look good on a vintage style leather strap. The Highley has proven to be very popular among customers and continues to be one of our top sellers. It is thickly padded (6mm thick at the lug end) and made from the very best Italian vegetable-tanned, full-grain leather. The supple pull-up leather is oiled and will age with grace, picking up patina as it’s worn. The strap features a cut edge, finished with colour-matched paint for a seamless finish and to help prevent moisture penetration and improve durability. Lastly, the Highley incorporates quick-release spring bars for easy strap changes.
WatchGecko Dedworth Distresso Cowhide in Black - £28
The Dedworth Distresso watch strap is made from genuine oiled cowhide leather, which has been given a timeworn distressed look and feel. Therefore it lends itself very well to a watch that has clocked up some years and no longer looks pristine. The matte colour of this strap also compliments the dial of the Blackbird.
The stitching around the outside of the strap is precise and a hot-stamp line detail is embossed which refines the edges. The sides have been hand-painted with matching soft feel paint. The strap is fitted with quick release springs bars making it easy to change watch straps.
These straps are shorter than our standard length, 115 / 75mm, so ideal for people with slimmer wrists.
ZULUDIVER 141 Nylon NATO in Black - £18
There is not much left to write about the classic 141 NATO, the true homage to the G1098. And it is no surprise that it looks amazing on one of Breitlings first military watches.
The rugged material offsets perfectly against the brushed case and dial. The satin metalwork on the strap matches the subdued metal finish of the case perfectly, as it would with a titanium watch.
For the watch that will never let you down, what else can you select but the strap that is bulletproof.
ZULUDIVER Maverick (MK II) Sailcloth in Black / Grey - £48
I confess my go-to for the Breitling and the strap it spends most of its time on. Our very best selling strap, the ZULUDIVER Sailcloth quick-release strap is made from premium PVC rubber and outperforms cheaper alternative sailcloth materials. This latest MKII evolution introduced in August 2022 is an improved version responding to customer feedback. The strap is finished with a remborde edge to ensure it looks as good as it is tough.
The buckle has been upgraded to our popular Sub-Aquatic, which is made from saltwater resistant 316L stainless steel, professional dual finishing, solid machined tongue and drilled holes for easy fitting or removal.