The Watch Debate: Leather Straps Or Metal Bracelets?

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The Watch Debate: Leather Straps Or Metal Bracelets?

Words by Mr Timothy Barber and Mr Chris Hall

12 May 2023

It is a slightly shady thing to admit against the backdrop of the watch industry in 2023, but I do not like bracelet watches. I appreciate them enough to admire them at a distance, to be impressed by designs, to muse on the significance of different styles, of integrated vs standard attachments, polished links vs brushed, fixed vs detachable etc, all the jazz of 2023’s jazzed-up bracelet proposition. And, of course, I recognise the advantages: the utility, the adaptability, the possibility of seeming durable, sporty and smart all at the same time.

But on my wrist? Clunk. Compared to the smooth, snug comfort of a traditional strap, I find them heavy, awkward and just kind of unnecessary. My wrist is relatively narrow anyway, which means I inevitably need links removed and new-fangled micro-adjust systems micro-adjusted as maximally as possible.

Even then, I find myself slipping the thing off at every opportunity (and certainly when at my desk), because there’s just too much damn metal clanking around, too much engineering, too much over-thinking in the design and the making. What is wrong with a simple, elegant strap and buckle?

Something, evidently. For much of the past few years, certain bracelet watches – those that descend from particular 1970s classics – have been just about the best investment asset going and set the agenda for a revolution in the contemporary market. You know what would have been really clever? To invest in the companies supplying bracelets to the watch industry now, which are overrun by demand from brands seeking a chink of reflected glory from those 1970s unicorns.

Talk to people in the biz, and you discover that soaring demand for bracelets has been a significant contributor to the supply problems that have bedevilled the industry since the pandemic. Compared to straps, they are costly, complicated things to engineer and they add weight, bulk and additional price to a watch. But the market does not lie.

“The panoply of strap change options now available has contributed massively to the charm of watch culture”

The sporty, versatile, everything-anywhere luxury bracelet watch is the style of our times.

I hope that will change soon. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s famous Reverso watch is a good starting point in making the case for finely made, tremendously comfortable and utterly suave straps coming back into favour. Its Casa Fagliano straps for the Reverso, made by the historic Italian bootmaker, are items of deep craftsmanship. I’ve been particularly impressed with the summery canvas/leather versions recently introduced, which bring a fresh, easy look to this most classic of watches, with no compromise on comfort or craft.

The panoply of strap change options now available for almost every watch has contributed massively to the charm and addictiveness of watch culture. Worried your strap’s going to get worn out? Give it a rest and switch it out for something different. Heading somewhere hot? Change the leather strap for a bright and breezy rubber option and change the look of the watch completely. Don’t like leather? New strap materials, including vegan options, are appearing all the time.

The idea of a watch for life, attached to a strap for life, as decided by Swiss executives, is long gone. It’s a cultural thing and it traces its roots all the way back to Italian collectors who pioneered putting Rolex tool watches, the ultimate bracelet monsters, on seemingly inappropriate straps for sprezzatura point-scoring.

What they recognised is that for customisation and wearing something creatively, bracelets are an imaginative dead end. Seeing brand after brand fall over itself today to ape those few 1970s bracelet classics with yet another rerun of the same old designs, it’s a truth that seems born out.

What is the one thing we prize in a mechanical watch? Its longevity. When you invest in a timepiece that will happily outlast you, with careful maintenance, don’t you want the same to be true of the strap that holds it to your wrist?

There are selling points to leather, rubber or fabric straps – of course there are – but I have always baulked at their inherent weakness to wear and tear. Rubber is strong, but over time it can crack, fade and split and it doesn’t suit every watch or every situation. Leather lasts longer, but is still vulnerable to scuffs, spills and scratches and, even if you baby it, the simple act of daily use means you will have to replace it within a few years.

As an added annoyance, if you’ve opted for alligator leather, when you first take ownership of the watch, the strap is stiff and unyielding. You have to endure a painful period of wearing in, when you just want to be thrilled with the joy of your new purchase.

Stainless steel, or often titanium, is the fire-and-forget of strap materials. Adjust it to your size, a once-only procedure that involves minimal hassle, and away you go. It has the added advantage of being less likely to come off your wrist accidentally, too. Over-engineering or built-in safety net? You decide.

Talk of durability in watches often prompts comparisons to urban SUVs, engineered for the Highlands but most commonly seen mounting the kerb outside Whole Foods. It is true that most of us don’t need a 300m dive watch or resistance to MRI-levels of magnetism, but there’s a genuine, real-world appeal to a watch that you just don’t need to worry about, and you don’t need to be living off-grid to see the benefits.

I may live a soft, middle-class, gentrified city-dweller existence, but as father to a young child, I still value a watch that can stand up to sandpits, chocolate cake, muddy puddles, glue, paint and – yes, I’m afraid so – bodily fluids. A quick rinse under the tap and it’s back on your wrist.

“A well designed bracelet can be – should be – an extension of the watch itself”

All of which makes it sound like the metal bracelet is a purely practical choice, but au contraire. A well designed bracelet can be – should be – an extension of the watch itself and reflect its character. It can be sturdy and square-edged, like an Oris Aquis, or cool and contemporary, like the links of a Cartier Santos. A good bracelet can be a work of craft in its own right, like that of a Vacheron Constantin Overseas or Chopard Alpine Eagle.

Witness the fine brushing, perfect polishing and complex shapes that come together to form the bracelet, topped off by a smooth, spring-loaded clasp that folds neatly in on itself rather than adding extra bulk. Milanese mesh bracelets are as smooth and supple as any Nato and certain bracelet designs. The Rolex Jubilee, Piaget’s hand-engraved tree bark patterns and the so-called beads of rice and ladder bracelets loved by vintage geeks have themselves become design icons. The bracelet can be the aesthete’s choice, too.

Bracelets can be lightweight (titanium), glitzy (gold), ready to patinate (bronze) or just dependable (steel). You can customise them, too, have them engraved or, if the mood takes you, gem-set. Those are, admittedly, more high-roller modes of customisation than swapping one material for another, so if you really can’t decide what you need, the bottom line is simple. As they say on the interweb these days, get you a watch that can do both.

Strap yourselves in