Unlike the stack-em-high, sell-em-low mantra of the high street, you don’t buy a watch on impulse. Whether it’s Swiss-made or built in Stoke, anything handcrafted, from minuscule cogs, is going to hit your bank balance hard.
Which means that, unlike your T-shirt rotation, it’s unlikely you switch watches every day. But precisely like your T-shirt rotation, one style won’t work everywhere. You’re not James Dean. You also don’t have his royalty cheques. So you need a budget-friendly way to switch up what’s strapped to your wrist. Or, even better, what straps it to your wrist.
Like tees, chinos and field jackets, the NATO strap went AWOL from military ranks, crossing to the fashion pack. Originally created for British soldiers in the 1970s, it embodies a ready-for-anything aesthetic, even if your personal battles are only with your email password.
Because the NATO strap is crafted from a single piece of fabric – normally nylon – you don’t need to take off both your watch’s spring bars to switch one in. And if one of the bars pops open, its extra ‘watch keeper’ strap keeps your Rolex on your wrist. Handy whether you’re dangling from a parachute, or chasing down a forehand.
“Changing your strap is a clever way of changing your watch for different occasions,” says Simon Spiteri, accessories buyer at Mr Porter. “A NATO strap is perfect for sport and performance activity.” Durable, swappable and easy-to-clean, you can click in your NATO post-locker room without sacrificing the style aesthetic.
Watch brand Zulu are a key brand that offer a vast yet affordable portfolio – everything from ravey neons to military-nodding khakis. Daniel Wellington, although more famed for the watches themselves, also boasts a range of NATO straps that are more Ivy League than in-the-trenches; think repp tie stripes that encircle your wrist, not your neck.
When pocket watches moved onto men’s wrists, leather was the obvious way to hold them on. It was soft, supple, and kept the look luxurious. As then, so today. Only now, cowhide is joined by exotic skins, coruscating colours and huge variety in texture and pattern.
Alligator leather (the preferred choice of your Swiss big hitters) is hard-wearing, but takes a bite out of bank balance and conscience. Calfskin is usually cheaper, with a softer look and feel. Tuscan, nappa and even non-allergenic camelgrain leathers offer different textures to experiment with.
When considering which works where, start with colour. “Black tie merits a conservative leather strap in darker tones,” says Patrick Kansa, contributing editor at A Blog To Watch. As your look shifts less formal, your strap can brighten up.
Bund straps is a label that offers options for tricky specific brands. Fancy swapping out your classic Panerai but struggling to find a strap that fits? Bund have got your back without breaking the bank. Elsewhere, Hirsch offers a massive range of leather straps so you can mix and match (and experiment with more left-field choices) to your wrist’s content.
As a relative newcomer (in watchmaking terms anyway) the rubber strap is often favoured by younger brands in a bid to target new wearers. Often coupled to chronograph-riddled dive watches, the rubber strap says you wear your watch to do a job.
Granted, when said watch is £15k of Cartier Dive, it’s unlikely it’s ever going to meet salt water. Which raises the question of why Swiss-made watches ever come with rubber straps, when most of their owners think PADI* is a Thai island where you’d welcome the full moon. The answer is the same reason your boss now wears Japanese denim to work – the rise of luxury things that are made to look casual. It subtly says you can own special things without treating them like they’re special.
But even if you never leave dry land, rubber has its functions; gym fans will appreciate the fact it’s hard-wearing and doesn’t take on that deathly stench of leather and sweat. Some Swiss brands have already tacked towards the fitness trends, with both Breitling and Hublot often providing an additional strap to interchange. If you want something more bespoke, however, ZRC Watch Straps craft specialised options that ensure a perfect, non-slip fit.
Although not considered a strap per se, a metal bracelet can still be seamlessly interchanged with your favourite dial – the only issue is that you’ll often require the help of your local jeweller.
Bracelets are durable and – most important – versatile. Whether you’re suiting up for work or play, a glint on the wrist always looks best beneath a shirt cuff. Golds contrast well with monochrome, while neutral steel suits navy and colours. Just stick to your watch brand’s bracelets to ensure all the edges sit flush.
*it’s actually the Professional Association of Diving Instructors