Leather watch straps are timeless and stylish. In this article, read all about leather watch bands and get ideas for choosing, buying and using yours…
Padded watch straps
We won’t revisit the subject of Bund watch straps here, even though they could be described as ‘padded’. What we generally mean by ‘padded watch straps’ are those where two pieces of leather are glued and stitched around a core. Various core (or padding medium’) materials are used. These range from cardboard and cotton wadding to neoprene foam, fibreglass-reinforced synthetics or even leather. The result is that they give a strap a luxuriously contoured profile.
Padding vs. lining
Don’t confuse padding with the watch strap linings often incorporated into strap designs. Linings are typically soft, absorbent genuine leathers such as suede or nubuck. Alternatively, they may be high-performance synthetics such as Cordura. These ‘lining leathers’ help the long-term durability of the strap and its resistance to perspiration and other external influences. They are typically glued and stitched to the inside of the strap, or attached with proprietary seamless processes such as the Hirsch Rembordé method. Sometimes, genuine natural leathers are also used to line high-quality synthetic straps, for instance straps made of nylon. This results in a best-of-both-worlds alternative to 100% genuine leather straps.
The incorporation of padding in a leather strap bestows added ‘body’ and ‘substance’ between the strap’s stitching. This gives a particularly luxurious appearance and feel that’s well suited to super-luxury watches. A carefully chosen padded watch strap can also ‘lift’ your daily beater to another level. And with addition of a central stitch line, a distinctive double-padded profile is possible.
Breitling-style in the 1980s
Some commentators put the 1980s as the time when heavily padded watches hit the mainstream. Breitling are credited with being pioneers, hence the so-called ‘Breitling-style’ padded watch strap. These quickly became known for their luxurious padding and contrasting stitching – whether in alligator calf or water-resistant sharkskin.
You only have to look at a 1980s ‘Breitling-style’ strap to understand the quality and luxury exuded by such generous padding. For more examples, look at the hand-stitched strap on a Zeitwerk Striking Time in A. Lange & Söhne’s 200th Anniversary Book, or an incredibly expensive (and complicated) Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4. You’ll be left in no doubt what truly opulent heavy padding means. Even more-modestly padded straps, such as our own Padded Alligator Point (actually, alligator-embossed cowhide) has a different wrist presence compared with the much flatter profile of a standard strap.
Leather NATO straps
As we discussed in an earlier article on NATO straps, the NATO or ‘G10’ watch bands from the 1970s were officially specified as nylon, not leather. However, it’s little surprise that as their popularity extended beyond military circles, such a functional strap design would be made in other materials. So, of course, it wasn’t long before leather NATO watch straps appeared, followed by leather ZULUs.
As well as being very secure and practical, NATO straps are versatile and suitable for dressing up or down with your mood and your chosen ‘watch of the day’. No wonder so many watch fans keep a selection of NATOs in their watch drawer. Of course, there’s only so much you can do with even the brightest regimentally-striped NATO. Therefore, for many people, the time comes when they crave the functionality of a ‘G10’ and the sensuous appeal of genuine leather. That calls for a genuine leather NATO strap, a great-value accessory that looks good in formal as well as informal situations.
Leather NATOs go well with a wide range of watch heads
So it is that leather NATO straps (and ZULU bands) find themselves attached to all kinds of watches, from TAG Heuer Aquaracers and high-sitting Sinn chronos to Seikos, Omega Seamasters and various Fliegeruhren. They’re easy to fit onto a wide range of watch heads and versatile as anything. What’s more, the unique style of a genuine leather NATO strap means it’s simultaneously distinctive and timeless. Because of that, you can be confident that it won’t go out of fashion anytime soon. Today you may sport an Orient Mako 2 on a leather NATO strap. But rest assured that the same strap, with years of accumulated wear and character, will one day look superb on that Rolex you covet…
A good quality leather NATO really can be worn for almost any occasion: with jeans or a suit; to the beach or at a formal evening function. From experience, you’ll struggle to go wrong with a nice leather NATO in your collection. What’s more, and with one possible exception, which we’ll mention below, leather NATO straps wear very nicely – luxuriously even – as they conform comfortably to your wrist.
The purists’ view
Purists will argue that leather versions aren’t ‘genuine’ NATO straps (and technically, if you refer back to the Def Stan that defines the genre, they’re not). However, there’s an equally strong argument that if something works functionally and aesthetically it’s beyond criticism. So much in the watch world is about subjective personal opinions and the acceptability of leather NATO bands is no different. We say, if it works for you, then wear it with pride; if not, stick with that genuine, admiralty grey, nylon webbing NATO – you may actually have the last laugh on a very hot day because a traditional NATO may be a cooler wear than a leather strap in extreme hot-and-humid conditions. Similarly, if you regularly get your hands wet, the traditional ‘all terrain wet-dry NATO watch strap’ may outgun its leather cousin again. (But we still maintain that it won’t get close for sheer luxury!)
Why own several leather straps?
There’s a strong case to be made that watch straps are the most overlooked parts of watches. As watch fans, we focus on the appearance of the case, complications, accuracy, water resistance, movement and other aspects. Of course, they’re important. But remember how it was the strap that allowed the watch to make the seminal transition to being worn on the wrist at the end of the Victorian era. Though it may be hard to accept if you’ve just spent over £100 for Omega’s own black and grey-striped NATO, it’s still the least-costly part of your watch. Remember: without a strap, you’re back in the good old (bad old) days of pocket watches!
As with any watch strap, there are many reasons for owning a selection of leather straps. As ever, with the amazing ranges and value from large brands and micro brands alike, there’s no excuse for not having a decent selection to complement your mood and your watch collection. It doesn’t matter whether you won’t consider watches costing under three grand, or you specialise in sub-£150 timepieces, we say you can never have enough different straps.
Expand a small (or large) watch collection.
The first, and probably most obvious, reason for having several different leather watch straps is to expand your watch collection.
Let’s say, for example, that you’ve a couple of watches on metal bracelets. Add a nice perforated rally-style strap, leather NATO, dressy alligator-embossed band and a simple handmade Italian leather strap, in different colours and textures, and you’ve covered virtually every style, occasion and functional base. Best of all, with the right supplier you can do this for well under £100 ($131 or €118) at the time of writing.
Suddenly that Omega Seamaster 300, Certina DS Action or vintage Blancpain 50 Fathoms can be transformed from an impressive tool watch to a classy, more traditional, accompaniment to your business suit or evening wear. Changing the strap is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to radically change the appearance, personality and visual impact of the timepiece on your wrist.
Complement your watch
At any price point, a classic dress watch (such as a vintage Hamilton Intra-matic, IWC Portuguese, Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso or Seiko Shinobu Ishigaki SARB065) is well suited to an equally classic muted earth tone, or black grained, leather strap.
You’ll need to be brave or extremely confident to mix and match that ultra-conservative Omega or Longines with one of the more daring leather watch straps. But that’s the joy of experimenting with different watches and straps – and having the confidence to do your own thing when you find something that suits you.
Changing your strap works wonders
It’s not unusual to find that changing a strap works well, even when watch and strap are not contemporaneous. You might even surprise yourself when you experiment. For example, Martin Häussermann’s 1001 Wristwatches shows a 1945 Junghans calibre 88 with a blue leather rallye-style strap. The 1045 chrono looks supurb on the strap – yet, as we discovered when we checked with Junghans in Germany, as originally supplied, the watch would have come on a plain leather band.
Another example we saw recently, which complements a watch head beautifully, is the genuine suede leather stitched strap on Alpina’s stainless steel cased Alpiner AL-525N4E6 automatic. It just looks so Swiss, Alpine and, well inspired by mountain life in the writer’s favourite central-European Alpine republic. It’s an inspired and contextually perfect match.
Discover amazing ways to accessorise
The beauty of having such a wide range of aftermarket straps available is that you can make your own planned or serendipitous matches and discover amazing new ways to accessorise a favourite watch. Best of all, you only need to spend a few pounds to complement your watch, breathe new life into it and give pleasure out of all proportion to such a modest outlay.
Adapt your watch to different functional situations
If you’ve noticed the emergence of a common theme here, it’s how you can use strap changes to mix and match different watch heads and leather (or other) watch bands to suit different moods and contexts. Throughout this article, though we revisit this idea from slightly different perspectives, the point is the same.
Adding a leather strap to a watch that came with a metal bracelet can transform the appearance of the timepiece and move it from being a ‘tool watch’ into altogether dressier, more stylish territory. Imagine a blue-faced Omega on understated blue leather or an extrovert orange strap. Or our bronze-coloured K3 divers’ watch on sensuous handmade Zim Italian leather…
We’ll say it again: with such a wide range of genuine leather straps available from even small microbrands, it’s easy (and inexpensive) to keep a selection of straps ready for that quick change.
Make a highly visible statement
For something that’s such a small part of the cost of even the most expensive timepieces, the humble watch strap has disproportionate power to make or break your watch’s visual impact. Even with large, high-profile luxury watches, the strap may actually be noticed and attract attention before the watch itself. That’s even more reason not to skimp on investing in straps that make such striking, yet tasteful statements.
Whether you’re adapting a favourite ‘daily beater’ or making the most of a treasured vintage timepiece, a classy leather watch strap really can ‘lift’ your watch.
Different moods, styles and situations
You feel upbeat and want to emphasise your creativity in a client meeting. Or you’re going out ‘booted, suited and dressed to the nines’. Or maybe you’re consciously dressing down. From boardroom to alter, and seabed to cockpit, leather’s stylish, traditional, durable and versatile. In fact, it’s the perfect way to bring your watch into alignment with how you feel, or want to feel. And how you want others to feel about you too.
If you read Cult Watches: The World’s Enduring Classics by Michael Balfour, you’ll see how some extreme combinations of watches and leather straps work brilliantly and lend themselves to different moods, styles and situations. A quick flick through the book reveals contrasting messages delivered by watches that couldn’t be more different from each other.
For example, there’s an old-money Blancpain dress watch on chocolate brown alligator leather. And a beer-swilling Homer Simpson on an Ingersoll character watch (complete with Simpsons logo on the sand-coloured padded leather strap). And then there’s a 1938 Panerai on battered 80-year-old tan leather. In each case, the watch is unquestionably special; but it’s how each leather strap complements each watch that seals the deal.
Which leather strap for you?
Let’s look at some of the more popular watch types in more detail. We’ll see what works well with them and why, and why their characteristics lend themselves to certain kinds of leather strap. As mentioned earlier, this can’t be a definitive guide to straps; there are just too many and it’s too complex a subject, but it should give you some ideas.
A ‘wrong’ strap and watch combination can undermine the impact of a good watch just as easily as the ‘right’ watch and strap can lift an average watch. However, always remember that it’s the combination of strap and watch that you like that’s ultimately right for you. Style and aesthetics are inherently subjective.
Enlightened micro brands
When you buy a watch from a reputable brand and it comes with a strap, you buy it with a high degree of confidence that the strap has been matched to the watch head both technically and aesthetically.
Unfortunately, a good match might not be the stunning match that you want. That’s why it’s so refreshing to find at least one enlightened microbrand selling watch heads on their own. That way, you can match your preferred choice of leather strap to your purchase. And of course, never be afraid to ask the advice of the watch supplier: good ones will always offer helpful, objective advice.
That’s the ideal situation, but the likelihood is that your watch came with a factory-supplied strap. Nice as it is, if you’re anything like us, the time will come when you want to experiment with alternative straps and a different look: try swapping your Rolex Oyster bracelet for a tan leather NATO; or the one on your Steinhart ‘Pepsi’ GMT for stylish black alligator leather. It’s fun to experiment!
Whether you’re matching a strap (or straps) to a new watch head, or rejuvenating an old watch, good taste, common sense and having confidence in what you like are the keys to good choices. Here are some factors to consider, alongside your personal preference and practicalities such as lug widths and wrist diameters:
Type of watch
As we know, many of today’s watches are descended from, or inspired by, classic watches from the past. Take pilot watches: in the case of the former think about the likes of IWC, Stowa and Laco. For respectful homage watches, watches by microbrands such as Steinhart or Geckota are inspired by the iconic watches of the 1940s and 1950s.
It’s the same with divers: today’s Rolex Deepsea, Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean, Blancpain 50x and Breitling Superocean Héritage are traceable back to pioneering divers from the early 1950s. Similarly, Orient’s Mako, our K3, Invicta’s ProDive and Steinhart’s Ocean capture the essence and style of this lineage – at a fraction of big brand prices.
As Elgin discovered in the 1940s, immersion in water or exposure to a salty maritime atmosphere are the most obvious threats to genuine leather straps. If this isn’t an issue, the latest manifestations of the leather strap, whether as stitched bands, rally-style watch straps or leather NATOs, are among the most versatile strap forms available. What’s more, they’re rugged, stylish and fit in almost anywhere – a bit like you perhaps?
Co-ordination with other clothing or accessories
Again, the variety of colours, styles and textures available in leather mean you should find it easy to co-ordinate a strap with a wide variety of clothing and watch heads, as well as your other jewellery and accessories.
Your mood matters
How are you feeling today? Rugged, extrovert and adventurous, or refined and understated? Either way, whatever your mood and your preferred timepiece for the day, there’s a genuine leather watch strap out there to suit your mood and planned activity.
Chosen carefully, even a modest selection of straps make it easy to wear that Tudor Black Bay or Michel Herbelin Newport Trophy to the office, out on the road in your classic MGB Roadster (complete with perforated wood and alloy Moto-Lita steering wheel) and on to a formal evening function!
Understated or overstated?
The fine stitching of a classic black alligator leather strap is the epitome of style, class and understatement; equally, a bold orange leather carbon-fibre effect Hirsch slots in at the opposite end of the formality scale. Pretty much anything is possible with genuine leather. Just look at the offerings from leading micro brands specialising in leather straps. If you didn’t know already, you’ll soon discover that ‘a watch strap’ most certainly isn’t ‘just a watch strap’ these days.