In this article, we ask ‘what is pull up leather?’ investigate why this property of high-quality leather watch straps complements almost any watch.
What is pull up leather?
And why it’s the key to quickly having a beautifully distressed leather watch strap…
Whether you wear a pilot watch, classic cushion-case diver or 1970s-style racing chronograph, you are part of the tradition of wristwatch wearing. However, that tradition is still less than 150 years old. That’s nothing compared to the heritage of leather watch straps…
Put a leather watchstrap onto your new Rolex Explorer or Omega Seamaster and you’re participating in a tradition going back thousands of years – wearing leather clothing and accessories for practical and aesthetic reasons.
Modern pull up leather is an oil and wax-rich leather that, changes colour slightly due to to its oils and waxes being mobilised when it is pulled up, flexed or scratched. (It’s also referred to as ‘pull up effect leather’, ‘oil wax leather’ or ‘oil pull up leather’). Whatever name you use, pull up leather gives you one of the most character-packed types of leather watchstrap available. There aren’t many kinds of leather that beat a nice ‘pull up’. That’s especially so when you can buy stunning quality, to complement watches costing anywhere between £90 and £900,000, for the price of a good lunch at a traditional Gloucestershire country pub!
Before we explore pull up leather in more detail, let’s remind ourselves about leather in general…
Leather – valued for thousands of years
At the beginning of their excellent book about the leather industry (L for Leather, 2015), Paul McElheron and Mike Mirams tell the story of ‘Otzi’, the 5000-year-old ‘mummy’ found in the Austrian Alps in 1991.
Otzi wore an early form of leather when he died. Why? Almost certainly because his society recognised the durability, practicality and versatility (and maybe even the luxury) of this natural material. They’re the same reasons for wearing a leather watchstrap today, particular one crafted from pull up leather.
If there’s a watchstrap leather that prompts more questions to strap specialists like us, it’s probably pull up effect leather. What is pull up leather, how do I care for pull up leather and why is it called “pull up” leather? These are the questions that we’re regularly asked. Maybe you’re reading this because you Googled ‘what is pull up leather’ or something similar.
So here’s the answer a brief introduction to this most appealing of watchstrap materials, to its attractions, benefits, origins and care. And to a few of our team’s suggestions for great combinations of mechanical watches and ‘oiled pull up’ leather.
Pull up leather definition
As you’ll realise if you read their book (recommended if you have the slightest interest in leather, its history and its production), McElheron and Mirams know a thing or two about this material. Because of this, it seems appropriate to quote them for an initial definition of pull up leather:
They define pull up leather as: ‘…a leather that has additional oil added to it during manufacture and then sprayed on the surface together with wax as part of the finish operation…The finish is designed to lighten when stressed or stretched which results in an interesting worn in effect.’
Characteristics of waxy pull up leather
During tanning and finishing, many leathers are treated with fat liquoring to enhance their inherent characteristics and replace, in a controlled way, the natural lubricating oils and fats removed during tanning.
Anything between 3% and 15% of shaved weight is typically added back in the form of emulsions. These coat (or recoat) the leather’s collagen fibres (collagen is the main structural protein found in skin and other connecting tissues and holds the whole body together).
As well as the amount of oils, fats and waxes applied during tanning and finishing (pull up leather is at the high end), the type of leather and method of application help determine the final properties of the finished product including these:
- Water repellence
- Grain tightness
Stylish in a rugged way
Because of its high oil and fat content, pull up leather is often described as having a ‘dark, almost “greasy” look and feel’, Despite how it sounds, this is attractive and rugged. It’s a worldly, outdoor look that perfectly complements tool watches. At the same time, like suiting and booting Harrison Ford or Sylvester Stallone for an awards ceremony, leather watchstraps made from this material have the style and elegance to complement the most refined dress watches.
Just as your watch picks up scuffs and scratches through use, your oil pull leather watch strap will do the same – and you’ll love how it looks as a result! With time, both watch and strap will become a treasured aide memoire of your shared history: the scratch on the bezel from that hiking trip in the Methow Valley; another on the case from a diving holiday in the Maldives; or the scuffs from the day you finally got that classic MGB going again.
As scars on your body, or witness marks on your watch, tell their – your – story, so scuffs, scratches and discolouration of your pull up leather watchstrap do the same. It’s hard to beat pull up leather for its ability to quickly pick up character. So what adventures have you got planned for your favourite watch and strap combo? And if you haven’t, why not?
Pull up leathers are associated with quality
Because leather pull up effects indicate depth of treatment, these leathers are strongly associated with quality, style and durability.
Genuine pull up leather is a very classy watchstrap material indeed. It’s a leather type that can lift an affordable watch or complement an expensive luxury watch with equal flair. And it costs a pittance compared to the cost of even an affordable automatic diver or pilot watch.
Whether designed to ‘pull up’, or discovered by accident, this leather’s defining characteristic of lightening when stressed or stretched adds additional character to an already luxurious watchstrap material – usually aniline leather, but occasionally nubuck or suede.
It’s easy to enhance this leather’s natural qualities
If the natural characteristics of your pull up leather watch strap aren’t sufficiently ‘worn in’, distressed or character-rich for your liking, you can quickly change things. It only takes a few minutes of flexing, twisting and working with the fingers to mobilise the oils and fats in the leather and give your watch strap an instant lived-in look. You can do this with the strap on or off a watch head. A good quality pull up leather won’t protest and will only reward you for your efforts.
As with nubuck and suede, pull up leather doesn’t have an applied protective surface coating. Because of this, subtle colour changes – for many wearers an appealing characteristic – are possible, indeed probable. Occasional colour transfer is also possible with some pull up leathers, though much less likely to be an issue with watch straps than with large leather accessories such as satchels.
Although we’d never advocate immersing a pull up leather strap in water, the resistance of this material to accidental splashing is inherently better than for many leather types.
Advantages and benefits of pull up leather
Any good grain or top-grain leather should perform well as a watch strap. However, pull up aniline leather, usually manufactured (as its name suggests) by application of aniline dyes impregnated with natural-based oils and waxes, is renowned for performing particularly well in this role.
Care and maintenance
The high concentrations of oils and fats in pull up leather make it harder for dirt and other contaminants to penetrate the leather, because of this you don’t need to clean your watch strap as often as you might with other kinds of leather.
The same applies for routine conditioning. Most pull up leathers only need conditioning once or twice per year.
The pull up effect also means your watchstrap quickly acquires the naturally worn in, or ‘broken in’ effects that the authors of L for Leather refer to. If there’s one leather that demonstrates so effectively the adage of ‘oil plus leather plus time equals patina’, it’s this one.
And guess what! A stylish high-quality oiled pull up leather watchband perfectly complements vintage Universal Genève, JLC or Blancpain dress watches. Yes, really! It’s a reflection of the leather’s versatility and raw, timeless, style that it works so well with anything from affordable homage watches to A. Lange & Söhne timepieces costing as much as a Bentley!
Some sources describe pull up leather as being resistant to scuffs and scrapes. More accurately, pull up leather accepts scuffs and scrapes and uses them to enhance its character as they accumulate over time.
US-based leather-care specialists, Chamberlain’s Leather Milk, say it well on their website: ‘…pull up leather…is an atomic bang for your buck. It can take hits and shake them off like a waking grizzly bear shakes off the sweet morning dew.’ You get the picture, right?
How pull up leather gets its name
The great granddaddy of the family of aniline and chrome leathers known as pull up leather is Horween’s Chromexcel® from the 1920s. Since then, the term pull up leather seems to have been widely adopted and doesn’t appear to be trademarked or protected in any way. So where does the name come from? We’ll warn you now that If you’re hoping for something romantic and steeped in the rich tradition of tanning and leather working, you’ll probably be disappointed. Cordovan leather (‘Shell Cordovan’) gets its name from the Spanish city of Cordoba, where it was first worked by the Vizigoths, and later the Moors; that’s pretty romantic. Then there’s suede, so named, we understand, from the mid-seventeenth-century French term: ‘gants de Suede’, meaning ‘gloves of Sweden’ – oui, c’est romantique aussi!
A rather prosaic origin
Alas, the origin of the name, or should we say, the descriptive term, ‘pull up leather’ is much more prosaic. That’s a shame given the material’s innate style and ‘personality’ for leather watch straps.
The obvious explanation is that this leather is so named because, if you pinch or ‘pull’ the leather up with your fingers, or flex your watchstrap, it displaces oils and waxes. This causes distinctive ‘leather pull up lightening’, or ‘bursting’ on the leather’s surface.
It’s the same if you gently scratch the surface of your leather watch strap with your fingernail – or flex the strap tightly between thumb and forefinger. The same characteristic gives pull up leather its ability to absorb the scuffs and scrapes of life on your wrist and be low maintenance.
Another theory is that, as you stress the leather by flexing, scratching or pressing it, the effect is to lighten or ‘pull up’ the colour. By the way, just as it’s easy to do this, it’s equally easy to rub the surface and restore the original darker colouring.
It’s a great characteristic for hand-sewn leathers, because this property complements the effects of stitching to add additional character around the stitched areas.
Pull up leather in other languages
We warned you that pull up leather doesn’t have a particularly romantic or exotic name, and this isn’t any better in German or French. In fact, both languages seem to have adopted the loan term ‘pull up’. Thus, in German, ‘pull up’ combines with the German ‘Leder’ to give us ‘pull up Leder’ (sometimes also referred to as ‘fett leder’). Somehow, the literal translation ‘hochziehen leder’ just doesn’t do it!
In French, ‘Le Cuir Pull up’ reflects a similar lack of ingenuity as does Swedish ‘pull up läder’, Norwegian ‘lær Pull Up’, Italian ‘Pelle Pull up’ and Spanish ‘Cuero pull up’. If you know different for these or any other languages, we’d love to hear from you!
Tests for genuine pull up leather
As with everything good and genuine, some products may superficially look like real pull up leather while being very poor substitutes – whether they’re being presented for what they are, or being passed off as the real thing.
When you choose pull up leather, take care not to confuse it with inferior-quality polyurethane-coated split leather ( ‘PU leather’ or ‘bicast leather’). Superficially, these ‘leather types’ may look similar to authentic ‘pull up’. But on closer examination of your leather watch strap, it won’t have the same richness and quality of appearance – or similar performance. What’s more, with these materials, you’re unlikely to get the genuine patina that time and wear brings to genuine pull up leather. Just like the pirated €75 ‘Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean’ replica that you were offered on holiday, faux pull up leather just doesn’t ‘do it’ like the real thing. That’s because it isn’t the real thing! And when you can buy a gorgeous pull up leather watch strap for a fraction of the cost of that fake Omega… Why would you choose anything else?
As well as the characteristic look and feel of pull up leather, three tests help you when you are trying to distinguish between what is pull up leather and what isn’t. Not surprisingly, they relate to the properties we’ve been discussing:
Firstly, there’s the characteristic ‘satiny’ or ‘semi-gloss’ appearance of pull up leather, especially when buffed up with a clean, dry cloth. Even ‘out of the box’, pull up leather may have marks, some surface distressing, lighter and darker areas and maybe even a bit of residual scarring from the original hide. That’s all good and it’s part of the character that begins with manufacturing and just keeps on growing as the watchstrap shares life’s adventures with you and your chosen watch head(s).
Secondly, there’s the ‘stretch’ test. Try flexing the watchstrap, bending it together and pressing between finger and thumb. Look for the lightening or ‘pulling up’ of the colour as the oils and waxes are mobilised.
Thirdly, scratch the watch strap gently with your fingernail and look for faint whitening on the surface of the leather – for exactly the same reason.
Caring for pull up leather watch straps
So you’ve bought a beautiful pull up leather watchstrap. We commend your good taste! Of course, by buying from a reputable watchstrap specialist, you can be sure you are buying genuine.
If there’s one leather type that has the potential to outlive its owner and become a heirloom, it’s probably pull up leather, with its durability, aesthetic appeal and intrinsic ability to gain character (and that uber-desirable patina) with the passing of time.
Within reason, the harder you treat pull up leather, and the more you use it, the more character it attains. Think of it as the Michael Palin or Richard Attenborough of watchstrap leathers. No wonder the Germans often refer to pull up leather as ‘vintage leather’. We’ll second that.
The first care tip is to avoid immersion in water, or any prolonged contact with water. Because of its high oil and fat content, pull up leather may be one of the more naturally water-repellent leathers. But that doesn’t mean it will enjoy being worn for swimming, showering, bathing or even immersion in washing up water.
Even if your watch is seriously water resistant (maybe you’ve put a pull up leather watchstrap on your Rolex Sea dweller – water resistant to 1220 m), removing your watch and strap before showering or bathing gives the leather a vital opportunity to breathe – and makes sure you wash all over too!
On the subject of immersion in water, seawater is one of the cruellest tortures for all leather types. Please avoid doing so at all costs. Even so-called water resistant leathers will eventually deteriorate with regular prolonged immersion.
Wherever possible, avoid staining with inks or dyes. As a treatment of last resort, some sources suggest using a paste of water and bicarbonate of soda to remove persistent stains – rinsed off thoroughly and followed by a usual leather-care treatment.
Although scuffs and light abrasion will enhance pull up leather’s character, deep cuts, scratches and gouges will be hard, if not impossible, to remove.
Periodic conditioning, preferably with a little high-quality leather conditioner, aniline cream or gloss cream (depending on the finish) will help care for your watchstrap. Other sources swear by a little judiciously applied olive oil or moisturising hand cream.
Creams are generally preferred to liquid care products. Always buff up your leather watch strap with a clean, dry cloth afterwards and allow it to air dry before wearing.
Once or twice a year, give your leather watchstrap a more thorough clean up, ideally after removing the strap from the watch head. Investing in a decent spring bar tool won’t break the bank and will quickly pay for itself against the time and cost of visiting a jeweller for this. If you don’t have a spring bar tool, you can buy one here.
Giving your strap a good clean up off the watch head is another good reason for building a collection of pull up leather watchstraps. While one is enjoying a bit of well-deserved conditioning, you’ll always have another to wear.
Good quality saddle soap or leather wax will give your watchstrap a great annual treat. As with all leather treatments, it’s important to make sure you choose a treatment that’s suitable for the specific leather type. And it’s always advisable to test it on a less obvious part of the strap.
If possible, don’t wear your pull up leather watchstrap 24/7 (or any leather strap for that matter). Like you, it needs a rest from time to time – and the opportunity for the leather to breathe. For the same reason, avoid wearing your watch strap too tightly on your wrist. As well as exacerbating staining, doing so may also accelerate physical wear of the strap. Wearing your strap slightly loose also helps avoid the risk of circulation problems.
Regular cleaning of your watch strap is good practice to remove dirt, stains and perspiration. Okay, there’s a balance to be achieved between keeping your strap in pristine condition and enjoying the character that pull up leathers gain with time. Personal taste comes into this, but no one wants a thing of beauty to turn into an unpleasant, malodorous appendage.
Which watches go well with pull up leather straps?
From experience, pull up leather straps are one of the most versatile complements to a wide range of watches.
Whether yours is an ultra-budget Alpha ‘Daytona’ lookalike, a mid-price affordable homage watch such as the WatchGecko K-01 Fliegeruhr, a £1500 TAG Heuer, a £7k Rolex Submariner or a super-luxury Chopard, few watches won’t look great and wear beautifully on a carefully matched pull up leather strap.
As part of the research for this article, we asked some of the WatchGecko team for their suggestions:
Rolex and pull up leather – perfect
Not surprisingly, managing director Jon (a longstanding Rolex fan) unhesitatingly matched virtually any Rolex (and the Explorer in particular) with WatchGecko’s handmade Italian leather ‘V stitch’ watch straps.
Copywriter Al praises the ability of the same strap type to work with a vintage 1960s Universal Genève Polerouter Super dress watch in 18ct gold.
Over in the design department, Matt argues the case for the Omega camp, with his passionate enthusiasm for the putting the Speedmaster Pro ‘Moonwatch’ on gorgeous tan pull up leather.
Our photographer Alice waves the WatchGecko flag by reminding us how well tan pull up leather works with our own blue-sunray dial Geckota K-01.
Meanwhile, design-lead Ben likes the idea of TAG Heuer’s Aquaracer on pull up leather too – but not for sub-aqua work, of course. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘a stylish choice in a dressed down business or weekend leisure environment – or the perfect strap for a Heuer-wearing “desk diver”.’
For the more affordable end of the market too
At the more affordable end of the market, the forthcoming Geckota Racing Chronograph just asks to be matched with the hand-stitched and perforated Geckota Racing Vintage watchstrap – in pull up leather. Equally, something like the hugely underrated Seiko 5 SNZG15K1 ‘tactical’ pilot’s watch looks amazing on Geckota handmade Italian leather – as does Invicta’s black ProDiver. And on the subject of ubiquitous Seiko self-winding divers, who doesn’t have a black SXK007 that would look stunning paired with a Zuludiver USA leather military strap.
Why does pull up leather work so well?
Of all the leather types available for watch straps, why do so many different timepieces work well with pull up leather? In many cases, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s because, regardless of the watch brand and style, rugged leather either contrasts with or complements the watch – you only win with pull up leather.
It’s always been so with leather, which is why aerospace-orientated Breitlings and IWC pilot watches look so good on leather straps. And why super-luxury timepieces such as the Patek Phillipe World Time Ref. 5110, Breguet Type XX or A. Lange & Söhne's 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar don’t look out of place on pull up leather as a dress-down alternative to their exquisite ex-works straps – in the case of the Lange, hand-stitched brown alligator leather.
We’re in an age where, increasingly, precision engineered analogue watches (probably mechanical) provide a refreshing counterpoint to the digital technology around us. Equally, for so many watches that come from the atelier on a bracelet, the addition of some ‘Otzi-tech’ provides the reassuring warmth, durability, timelessness and sheer usability that so many of us crave – if not every day, for more casual occasions.
Which pull up leather strap for you?
So there we are: hopefully we’ve answered the question ‘What is pull up leather?, and shown you why it works and why you should try one of these watch straps if you haven’t done yet.
To wet your appetite, here’s a selection of pull up leather watch straps from the WatchGecko collection: