An Expert Guide To Watch Straps And How To Change Them
From the butch bracelets of Breitling’s Chronomats to the contrast-stitch padded calfskin of a Bremont pilot’s chronometer, your watch’s strap is as bold and masculine a statement as the precision instrument attached to it. But how to choose the right strap for you? And how do you change your watch strap? Here is our guide to watch straps in all their varieties, including a short history.
How to change your watch strap
Switching up your strap options can make a watch more comfortable and more practical – especially if you choose a rubber or Nato strap – and it can bring new life to an old favourite. Best of all, it is a way of bringing your personality to your watch.
More and more watch brands are including multiple straps with their watches and some, such as Vacheron Constantin, have patented quick-change systems for swapping between rubber, leather and steel bracelets. For those that don’t, here’s a simple guide to changing and adjusting your watch strap.
One important tip before you get started: make sure you have the right strap width. Check the lug width of your watch – that’s the point at which the strap is attached, measured between the two arms, or lugs, that hold the spring bar and, by extension, the strap in place. It can vary between 18mm and 22mm. Most straps are available in multiple sizes, so just make sure you get the right one for your watch.
Buy a strap-changing tool (Weiss makes a beautiful one). It should have a fork attachment for spring bars and a thin, flat-tipped pusher for non-spring bar watches and for removing metal link hinges. Do not think a screwdriver or penknife will work here. It’ll just make a mess of your case.
Lay your watch face down on a towel or cloth. Always work from the back so, if your hand does slip, any scratches won’t be visible.
Insert the forked end of the tool between the lug and the strap, then gently apply pressure away from the lug while pushing slightly downwards so that the bar pops out. On a bracelet strap, you’re looking for two recesses on either side into which you insert the forked end of the tool.
Slide the removed spring bar into your new strap, then insert one end into the hole on the lug. Use the tool to depress the spring bar and slide it gently into the other hole. Now you’re ready to wear your new-look watch. If you want to swap your existing strap for a Nato strap, remove the spring bars as above, then reattach them to the watch and thread the strap through the gaps between the bars and the case.
If you need to alter the length of your bracelet, the links nearest the clasp should have exposed hinge pins – look for the tiny metal dots on the side. You need to use the other end of your tool to push the pins out to remove a link or two. A lot of force is required as the pins are held in place by friction. We’d advise investing in a pin-remover holder so that the bracelet is held fast and you don’t end up stabbing your other hand.
A brief history of straps
It may surprise you to know that men were late adopters of wrist-worn timepieces. It was women who first embraced the convenience and status-signalling advantages of a watch on the wrist, held with finely wrought bracelets and chains.
One of the earliest references to what we would perhaps now call a wristwatch, or at least an “arm watch”, was the New Year’s gift presented to Elizabeth I by Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester in 1571. By the 19th century, thanks largely to Breguet and Patek Philippe, “wristlets” were well and truly in vogue with the world’s aristocracy.
Gentlemen stuck with pocket watches kept on the end of a long Albert chain, however. They considered wristwatches too small to be properly engineered for accuracy and too prone to damage being wielded about in the open all day.
Cartier’s Santos, which was made for the pioneering Brazilian aviator Mr Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904, was the first purpose-built wristwatch, but it was the Great War that consolidated the wrist as the place for a man’s watch. In the trenches of the Western Front, officers wore souped-up pocket watches attached to their wrists via crudely soldered silver bars. This early style of wristwatch with wire lugs soon became known as an “officer’s watch”, or more commonly a “trench watch”, a look referenced by Bell & Ross’s WW1 collection today.
In the middle of the 20th century, the advent of recreational diving brought with it fresh challenges – leather and saltwater don’t mix well. Step forward, the bracelet strap, pioneered on Rolex’s seminal Oyster and initially realised in collaboration with suppliers to the jewellery trade. Then along came the modern scuba fanatic’s preferred material, rubber, and the military-issue Nato fabric strap. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.
Steel bracelets are the most popular choice, especially for dive watches and anything that trades on its ability to take a few knocks. As well as its innate durability, steel bracelets have substantial folding clasps, often with micro-adjustment capabilities, which makes them the more secure option. Some brands now offer titanium bracelets – strong, lightweight and less prone to overheating in the sun – as well as bronze, ceramic or carbon fibre. A bracelet watch made from a precious metal, especially gold, is the ultimate power-dressing move; one’s yacht can’t be far away. If you go down the linked-bracelet route, do ensure that it’s properly fitted to your wrist. A dangly bracelet weakens the links. And bracelets can be hard to keep clean. Follow our trusty guide to watch maintenance and you’ll be golden.
Whether it’s alligator, crocodile, calfskin or even NOMOS Glashütte’s favoured Horween Cordovan (horse, believe it or not), a leather strap is arguably the most versatile option, available in colours that span the rainbow and straddling both casual and smart. Leather was the original strap of choice for pilots, so it isn’t surprising that this gives the design a retro aviator look. It’ll wear faster than a bracelet, but age gracefully in the process, much like a leather jacket. The best leather and bracelet straps are European, with Italy, Germany and Switzerland being the biggest suppliers.
A rubber strap is a must for diving watches and, by virtue of diving watches’ booming popularity, increasingly popular as a smart-casual choice, even when attached to a considerably high-end timepiece. The best rubber diving straps come with a rippled “accordion” detail that stretches over a wetsuit. Rubber only really got a look-in in the 1960s when Austrian firm ISOfrane developed the first durable rubber strap especially for divers. Rubber was previously prone to cracking at low temperatures and blistering in the heat, but ISOfrane’s isoprene compound, derived from petroleum, retained all the lightness and waterproof qualities along with comfort and durability. It was even infused with vanilla extract to disguise the smell of stale sweat, something that Hublot borrowed in the 1980s.
The easiest and most affordable way to switch up your wrist style is with a Nato strap, usually made of brightly coloured nylon, but occasionally fabric (Montblanc has some intricately crafted by a French weaver on the same Jacquard looms used by Lanvin and Prada for its ribbons and labels). The Nato’s origins are hardly fashionable or fun: the British Ministry of Defence’s Defence Standard document 66-15 of 1973 first commissioned and defined “strap, wrist watch”. Coming in at 20mm wide to fit the British Army’s standard-issue CWC watches and available only in Admiralty grey, its folded loop design meant things held fast on your wrist even if one of the pin bars spanning the lugs pinged off. These days, the popularity of DIY-strap changing and a move towards more casual dressing has led several manufacturers to choose textile straps as the standard option.