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The watch strap ! Key element of a watch, it can change its style radically and make the wearer look like quite the refined connoisseur as much as it can look like the horological equivalent of wearing sandals with socks. Even though it’s more than half of the watch visually, this essential accessory is often overshadowed by the case and the dial who tend to get most of the attention. Yet, changing the strap of a watch can help changing the style of a watch and bringing the case out. If you follow a couple of rules, that is. So if you’re wondering how to choose a watch strap but do not want to look like a german tourist in the middle of summer, here’s a guide.

First off : the size of your wach strap

Even though you might have been told otherwise in some instances, when choosing a watch strap size does matter. If the size is not right, you might end up either with watch too tight that will cut your blood flow or too loose that will keep sliding along your forearm and make you do weird readjustment motions every 5 minutes. Or the strap might simply be too wide and not fit on the watch. So let’s prevent needless purchases and look at what to consider when buying a strap.

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The main measurements of a watch strap.

The right width for your strap

Let’s talk about strap width. A distinction should be made between the width between the inside of the lugs (w1 on the illustration) and the buckle width (w2). The latter will often be narrower, except on straight straps. You will have to know the width between the inside of the lugs to make sure that the strap will fit. If the strap is too wide you will not be able to attach it and if it is too narrow it will leave gaps between the lugs and the strap.

You should be able to find the size in the watch’s papers, on the manufacturer’s website or sometimes on the back of your current strap. If you can’t find it, do not worry you’ll just have to do it the oldschool way and get a ruler to measure the distance between the inside of the lugs. Most of the time the measurements are in millimeters and even numbers. Some odd-numbered models do exist though, and if you have one, a slightly larger strap should do the trick if the material is pliable enough ( such as leather, nylon, rubber).

Choosing the right length

Try to measure your wrist circumference to make things easier. If you have a rather average wrist, standard length models exist. There are other lengths for those that have slimmer or larger wrists. To give you an idea, here’s a non-comprehensive list of watch strap lengths in L1/L2 format (L1 and L2 being the lengths of each part of the band, as seen on the illustration above) :
– Small 105/70 mm to 110/70 mm for wrists around 16 cm
– Normal 120/75 mm or 115/80 mm for wrists around 18 cm
– Large 135/80 mm to 130/90 mm. You might want to look into custom made straps if your wrist’s circumference exceeds 19 cm

Note that those are a average measurements. The size on the wrist might differ depending on the size of your watch, thus with a larger watch you might need a shorter strap. Also check for any brand-specific fastening system or spring bars and make sure that the lugs are long enough for the strap to fit. If not, you should turn to the manufacturer to check for straps.

What about thickness ?

Now let’s talk about strap thickness. The band should not be thicker than the case, you’ll risk overshadowing it or end up looking like you’re wearing one of those strength leather armbands. Which is something you do not want, since you definitely are not a gladiator and your hardrock-rebel-teen period should be behind you, well we hope so at least. Overall favor thinner straps for dress watches and those with small dials. Military and pilot watches usually can afford thicker straps

A matter of taste

More than just considering technical details when choosing a watch strap, you have to consider the way it looks and how it will complement your watch. Keep in mind that not all straps fit all watches and some pairings work better than others. A thin leather strap on a large military watch will probably look funny, as will a rubber strap on a Patek Grande Complication. Try to avoid contrasting too much, be it on size, style, colour or even on age.

As far as colour goes, you can try to match the strap to the dial as well as the buckle to the case. For the detail-oriented among you, you can also try to match a hand or an index to a topstitch the same colour.

If you own a vintage watch, try to look for something similar to the orignal strap. You should respect the style of the watch with a matching strap. Consistency is the word here, otherwise things might end up clashing. Since not all straps and watches match, here’s a round up of the different type of straps.

What is the right strap to choose for my watch ?

Leather watch straps

Now that there are as many different leathers than there are watches. From Australian reptile leather to French cow leather, there is something for everybody’s taste and budget. When chosen right, the leather bracelet is usually elegant and stylish. It should last long, provided that you take good care of it, the same way you should take care of a leather jacket or some shoes. Also you might want to avoid wearing it under the shower or during Wednesday’s swimming lessons.

To choose a leather bracelet you will have to assess your style and the context in which you will wear the watch. We recommend steering clear of flashy colours as the watch should discreetly draw attention by itself. That’s what elegance is all about. For dress watches, favor thin and flat straps and try to match the buckle to the case and possibly some top stitches to parts of the dial. Military watches, pilot watches and chronographs can look really good with worn leather and untreated leather, especially with a lot of patina.

Note that in the event of a heat wave, sweat and leather do not mix well as it might discolour it and give it a bad smell, similar to the tourist we were talking about earlier. If you live in a hot place (or if you sweat more than average), you might want to look for another material.

Fabric straps

Nato and Zulu bands

On the rise these days, fabric straps are making quite the comeback. The most famous model is definitely the Nato (also known as G10), made popular by James Bond in Goldfinger, and sold under that name by some brands. On a side note, notice how 007 should have checked this guide on choosing the right watch strap, he wouldn’t have ended up with one way too narrow for his watch. The Nato strap also exists in leather for those into it. The true Nato strap is 280 mm long (yes is quite long, maybe too much for some) and 20mm wide. For unofficial models, you’ll have to check for yourself as lengths might differ.

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The Nato strap James Bond wore in Goldfinger. Note the gaps between the strap and the lugs.

Another type of fabric strap is the Zulu. Kind of a beefed-up Nato, it will suit larger watches better and is often made of stronger materials, such as nylon or leather sometimes. Note that it might be too thick to fit between the spring bars and the case of some watches. Also the buckle are often beefier as well.

These type of straps are usually quite cheap (from a few bucks to a couple of dozen) and provide you with a wide range of styles. They are pretty much waterproof and heatproof but also feature the benefit of securing the watch on the wrist if one of the spring bars were to break. They suit military watches particularly well, but also diving watches and chronographs. Nato and Zulu bands are quite easy to change as they do not require you to take the spring bars off. The only downside might be that fabric is not stain-proof, so if you’re the clumsy kind you might want to keep it away from that spaghetti sauce you’re saving for Top Chef.

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A Nato strap on an Omega. Note that it goes under the watch.

Perlon, Cordura and Canvas

Perlon straps are a good alternative to Nato straps and are becoming quite trendy these days. They are made of braided fabric, usually nylon or highly resistant polyamide thread. Even stronger and as affordable, these strap do not have specific holes and the buckle tongue goes straight through the braiding. This allows for an optimal fit when wearing the strap.

They also provide the same benefit of securing the watch and the same ease of change as Nato straps. Even though they are very light and confortable to wear, Perlon straps might cause wear and tear to the bottom of the case.

Canvas and Cordura straps are made of a strong fabric with a particular style. Also braided, they are usually thicker than Perlon and Nato straps. Most of the time those straps are made of two independent parts and are attached the same way leather strap are, so they lose the ease of change of Nato straps but they tend to be more elegant as well.

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The Tribute To Fifty Fathom MIL-SPEC from Blancpain, with sail cloth Canvas strap.

Steel bracelets

The steel bracelet ! A watchmaking classic but also the most expansive type of strap. We recommend always buying a watch with its steel bracelet (provided that you like the combination of course) and change it after rather than doing it the other way around which might cost you more. Steel combines strength and toughness with a distinctive timeless style. The material might be a bit cold during winter compared to leather or fabric. Those of you that do not care about the cold thanks to a bear-like hairiness should know that they might get some hair stuck between the links, which does not feel great. You’ve been warned.

Steel straps feature the advantage of being adjustable length-wise. If they do not fit, you just have to get one or several links either removed or added. Colour-wise, we recommend matching the colour of the strap to the case and keeping it simple. Overall steel bracelets go well on sports watches but are most commonly found on diving watches.

After having been neglected for a while, “mesh” bracelets or Milanese straps and their knitted look are making a comeback lately. Some well-known brands such as Breitling have put these straps on some of their models. Apple also offers mesh straps on their Watch, helping making them trendy again. Flexible and smooth on the wrist they are also cheaper than plain steel bracelets and will give a vintage look to sports watches. They will also suit more traditional watches depending on the thickness of the mesh. The only downside might be that thanks to the way their are made they are quite hard to clean and might become a breeding ground for germs, for those sensitive to these sorts of things.

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A Milanese watch strap on a IWC Portofino Dual Time.

Finally, some bracelets made by famous brands have become their own type of strap, thanks to their design and history. We think about the beautiful bracelets on the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, which designs and details are truly outstanding. Rolex also designed some bracelets that went through time without getting old : the Oyster, the Jubilee and the President, known for durability and quality. Our own favorite is the President, the most elegant of the three.

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The timeless Rolex Submariner with its steel bracelet.

Rubber straps

Rubber straps have made quite an entrance in watchmaking, leaving many enthusiasts wondering how such an undignified material would fit (considering it is used to make car tyres) on luxury items. Since then, watch lovers have come to terms with it and many brands have used it, even the most prestigious ones. We’ll mention Patek Philippe and their Aquanaut as well as Audemars Piguet and their Royal Oak and Breguet with their Marine.

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An instance of a rubber strap on the Breguet Marine.

Often seen on diving watches and tool watches, rubber straps can bring a modern twist and a new life to some pieces. While they provide a casual look, they remain quite resistant, waterproof, easy to clean and pretty cheap. If you get a good quality rubber strap, that is. Bad quality rubber will get old and look bad fast, kind of like that english teacher that used to bore you about Shakespeare while you were dreaming of your first Casio watch. Times change ! Also favor rubber over silicone, which is way less comfortable to wear.

There are many styles to chose from when it comes to rubber straps : Tropic, embossed, smooth… Same goes for colour, even though we recommend to avoid flashy colours if you do not want to look like you’re wearing a traffic cone.

Alright, what about the buckle then ?

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A leather strap with a basic pin buckle on the Oris Royal Flying Doctor Service.

To make things easier, the strap buckle should match the case of the watch. There are three main type of strap buckles. The pin buckle, a timeless classic, is easy to use since it takes after the belt (which we wish you know how to use). The same way a belt might get some wear and tear after a few month away from the gym, the pin of the strap buckle might make holes looser and damage the strap when worn often. Also this type of buckle will not work on a steel strap…

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Un bracelet en acier avec une boucle déployante simple sur la Oris Hammerhead.

Folding clasps, or deployment claps, are less harmful for the strap and have the advantage of securing the watch to the wrist, thanks to an articulated system that links the two parts of the strap together and folds on itself to close the strap. Some models are more complex than other, such as the butterfly clasp or the hidden clasp featured on the Rolex President.

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The hidden clasp on the Rolex Président bracelet

Here you go, you know know everything you need to in order to buy your next watch strap. We will keep you updated with another article about some nice places to buy watch straps or get one custom made. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. If you need help to chose a watch to go with your next strap, check our watch buying guide.