Aviator, rubber, NATO, Oyster, antique, or carbon-look: There are endless choices when it comes to picking a new watch band. More and more watch and band manufacturers are expanding their lines to include a wider range of materials and styles. Keep reading to find out more about the different types of bands available, how to change them, and what’s important to note when choosing a new look.
Why change your watch band?
Some watch owners pay very little attention to the band their watch comes on. With proper care, a stainless steel bracelet, for example, has the potential to outlast the watch itself. If the owner likes the watch/bracelet combination, there is little reason to change bands at all. The same generally can’t be said for leather straps. Some wearers are forced to buy a new band because the original leather strap has worn out. Some will replace a worn band with the same strap from the manufacturer when they could have selected something completely different. Of course, there are other enthusiasts out there who simply like to freshen up the look of their watch with a new band from time to time.
What types of bands and materials are available?
There’s no doubt about it: Exchanging watch bands is certainly in vogue at the moment. It comes as no surprise since there are so many amazing choices out there. From leather, rubber, and canvas to stainless steel and nylon, the possibilities are seemingly endless. There are even vegan watch bands on the market! Moreover, quick-change band systems are growing in popularity because they enable novices to change their own bands. What is surprising, however, is the vast difference in price for bands that look identical at first glance. Similar to other goods, when it comes to watch bands, quality comes at a price.
When buying a new band, it’s important to pay attention to the lug width, or the distance between the internal surfaces of the lugs. This, in turn, will determine the appropriate band width.Standard lug widths for women’s watches are generally between 14 mm and 18 mm. They are somewhat larger for men’s watches, ranging from 18 mm to 22 mm. Particularly large timepieces, including some Panerai models, have lug widths as big as 26 mm. Lug widths tend to be even numbers, but some manufacturers use measurements such as 19 mm or 21 mm, making the search for a replacement band slightly more difficult. That said, well-stocked online shops should offer plenty of options in all sizes.
Leather Straps: Aviator, Racing, and More
Classic leather aviator straps are usually made of cowhide or calfskin. This type of strap is characterized by riveted lug ends and prominent stitching. Both of these elements were initially intended to add to the band’s durability but now serve more aesthetic purposes. Most established band makers have a number of aviator straps in their collections. Traditional German watch manufacturer Laco offers a particularly wide range of aviator straps at different price points in addition to their beloved pilot’s watches.
Most leather racing straps are also made of cowhide or calfskin. This style of band is characterized by perforations that allow the wrist to breathe. Racing straps are the perfect choice for classic racing chronographs like the TAG Heuer Autavia and Omega Speedmaster. In addition to characteristic leather aviator and racing straps, there are countless other leather bands available in a wide range of colors and textures. Some affordable bands look like they are made of exotic leather types like crocodile, but they are almost always just embossed cowhide straps. Genuine exotic leather bands are much rarer.
That said, you will find examples made of crocodile, ostrich, fish, and snakeskin leather on the market. These genuine versions are much more expensive than their embossed lookalikes. Exotic straps generally aren’t made of 100% exotic leathers but instead feature a thin layer adhered and sewn to so-called lining leather. When purchasing exotic straps, be sure to pay attention to the source of the leather – we’ll talk more about this later on.
If you’re curious to see what’s available, browse the websites of well-known manufacturers like deBeer, Hirsch, Rios, or Hadley-Roma. You can purchase a functional leather strap for $25-30. The sky’s the limit from there in terms of price. Some tailor-made bands can cost you ten times that or even more!
When searching for bands, chances are you’ll eventually come across the term shell cordovan. This refers to a particular type of leather that comes from horsehide. It is known for its high level of durability and water resistance thanks to its generous fat content. Understandably, this isn’t the most popular choice among horse enthusiasts.
NATO and ZULU Straps
NATO straps are typically made of breathable synthetic fibers such as nylon. This type of band was originally made for military use and civilians struggled to get their hands on them. The British Ministry of Defense coined the term after giving each strap a NATO stock number. This type of strap is fed over the spring bar, through the lugs, and rests against the case back.
NATO straps are available in a wide range of colors and patterns. There are major quality differences between variants. A basic NATO strap will cost you less than $20, while certain brands sell theirs for upwards of $150. The most famous NATO strap to date is the “Bond NATO.” This strap earned its name after making a brief appearance in the James Bond film Goldfinger in 1964. In the film, Sean Connery wore a Rolex Submariner ref. 6538 on a striking black-and-green striped NATO strap.
ZULU straps are very similar to NATOs in that they are generally also made of nylon, however, the former tends to be more durable. ZULU straps were initially developed for professional divers and are characterized by their thick, oval metal loops. Like NATOs, basic ZULU straps cost less than $20. The color options available, however, tend to be less diverse, making NATO straps slightly more popular.
Brands like Tudor and Omega recognized the growing demand for breathable straps and have outfitted some of their models with them. Certain versions of the Black Bay and Speedmaster now come on NATO straps. Though the originals were made of nylon, leather and canvas NATO straps are also available.
Rubber Straps: At Home in the Water
Rubber or silicone straps are the perfect choice for diving watches. There is a massive selection of this type of strap available online, ranging from inexpensive silicone versions that cost a few dollars to high-quality versions made of natural rubber that cost more than $220. These options are available in a wide range of designs, shapes, and colors. One of the most popular variants is the so-called Tropical strap, or Tropic, which was used on very early diving watches. Rubber straps with a waffle pattern, such as those found on many Seiko models, are likewise highly sought-after.
American manufacturer Everest is known for producing high-quality rubber straps. They supply tailor-made rubber straps for several Rolex models. Another American company, Isofrane, has been producing straps for Omega and Tissot since the 1960s and 70s. Austrian-based brand Hirsch offers premium-quality rubber straps that are great value for money.
Legendary Stainless Steel Bracelets
Most watch fans will know what we’re talking about when we say Oyster, Jubilee, and President. Not sound familiar? These terms refer to three stainless steel bracelets that have been accompanying Rolex watches for decades. The Swiss luxury brand debuted the Oyster bracelet back in 1947. The design remains more or less untouched to this day and is associated with classic timepieces like the Submariner and Sea-Dweller. The Jubilee bracelet was first introduced in 1945 on a Datejust model. While the Jubilee is less famous, it’s still an absolute legend.
Other brands have since followed suit, releasing their own stainless steel bracelets, some of which bear a strong resemblance to the Rolex versions. It comes as no surprise, however, considering how timeless the designs are. If you’re looking for a stainless steel bracelet for your watch, you don’t necessarily have to go for the original model. There are countless manufacturers out there producing a wide range of bracelets. When purchasing, make sure you pay attention to where the bracelet was made. Prices for a decent-quality stainless steel bracelet begin around $45.
The so-called “Beads of Rice” bracelet also dates back to the 1960s and 70s. It earned its name from its small oval links that resemble grains of rice. After many years of living in the shadows, this design is making a comeback. For example, the TAG Heuer Autavia has been available on this kind of bracelet since 2017. The Beads of Rice bracelet is available from a number of manufacturers and can be purchased online starting around $45.
The Milanese bracelet has roots in 19th-century Milan, eventually reaching Germany in the early 20th century. The height of its popularity was in the 1960s and 70s. Due to the shape and structure, Milanese bracelets are often referred to as mesh bracelets. Prices for functional bands in this style also begin around $45.
How do you change a band?
Classic, two-piece watch bands are changed using a so-called spring bar tool. This is a special tool that separates the spring bar from the lugs. It’s not rocket science, and, in theory, it should be easy to release the spring bar. In practice, however, the spring bar may only be partially released from the lugs.
Sometimes this occurs because it’s old or dirty or there is not enough space between the case and band; this is frequently the case with snug-fitting metal bracelets. In order to avoid scratching or otherwise damaging your watch, it’s best to hand it over to the professionals. Trained watchmakers are generally able to exchange a band quickly and easily. That said, after having the band changed, make sure you check your watch for scratches, especially on the back of the lugs. Damage can greatly affect your watch’s value, depending on the model.
As I mentioned above, some watch and band manufacturers now use quick-change systems. Meyhofer, for example, uses an “Easy-Click” system. Kaufmann’s system uses the same principle, but is called “Change-It.” These straightforward systems use a sliding pin that releases the spring bar from the lugs, all with no tools or risk of damaging the case.
In 2019, Maurice Lacroix answered consumer demand for easily exchangeable looks with their AIKON collection. They’ve made it so easy to change between straps and bracelets that watchmakers can no longer be deemed the sole experts when it comes to band exchange. I think this is a very welcome change, and I hope it makes its way to other manufacturers.
What should I look out for when purchasing a watch band?
You may have heard the phrase, “buy the seller” before. In the context of watch bands, we could say, “buy the manufacturer.” In short, make sure you pay attention to where the band was made, especially when it comes to tanned leather straps. It’s not always possible, but if you purchase from established brands, it’s unlikely that your strap will be cheaply made under poor conditions. Try to find out more about the tanning process. Plant-based tanning is preferable to chemical tanning.
Renowned brands always use high-quality leather that goes through all the proper production steps to craft an exemplary strap. You can’t expect to get a durable, high-quality leather strap for a few dollars. If you come across offers that seem too good to be true, they likely are. When it comes to exotic leather types, make sure that the manufacturer has the appropriate CITES certificates in accordance with the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. According to their website, exotic leather items from Berlin-based leather goods producer Mays are in full compliance.
It’s more difficult to trace the background of straps made of nylon or other synthetic materials. Nylon and polyamide straps are industrially made from oil, making them less eco-friendly options. If you’re not sure, ask about the production processes and air on the side of caution with cheaper models. A reasonable NATO strap made of nylon should cost between $15-35 or sometimes more, depending on the brand. Omega’s nylon NATO straps are priced at $160. Likewise, exercise some caution with so-called vegan bands. A synthetic band produced in Asia with lots of harsh chemicals may be vegan, but it’s certainly not more eco-friendly or morally sound than a certified exotic leather band.