Don’t Buy a New Watch, Buy a New Watch Strap

Person's arm with a leather watch strap
Image credit: Hannah Tims on Unsplash

Reader, I’m broke. 

This is, as I’m sure you well know, a common state of affairs for those of us afflicted by a love of clothing and watches. These things don’t come cheaply — and even when they do, there’s an inevitable tendency to start peering over the proverbial fence at the greener pastures of a higher price point. 

This means there’s never quite enough cash to go around, especially when one is forced to contend with such minor irritations as food, board, and utility bills. What a drag when there are so many nice outfits waiting to be bought!

Of course, a lack of funds doesn’t get rid of the desire for those alluring aforementioned fits. I still spend hours of any given week browsing through stuff I have no hope of buying. The camera roll, notes folder, and bookmarks on my phone are all groaning under the weight of coveted products I have no hope of getting anytime soon. 

Woe, as they say, is me. 

As I alluded to earlier this week, my window shopping habit is particularly pronounced when it comes to watches. I seem physically incapable of passing by a window display containing watches without stopping and spending several minutes fogging up the glass. I typically won’t leave until the security guard, rightly assessing that I have no hope of affording anything in sight, begins to shift about and clear their throat. The same is true online. If there were a virtual plate glass window separating me from the various timepieces I ogle on the internet, it would be permanently smudged with prints left by my grubby, penniless mitts.

It’s a sad state of affairs but the growth of my watch obsession seems doomed to be inversely proportional to my hopes of affording any of the ones I like.

But no matter, I long ago figured out how to overcome this particular curse. It’s simple and I’m here today to share it with you: Forget buying watches; get yourself a new watch strap instead. 

Caroline Bonaparte wearing a wristwatch
François Gérard’s portrait of Caroline Bonaparte wearing an early example of a wristwatch probably painted between 1810 and 1812
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The wristwatch has been the standard choice of timepiece for about a century now and with its adoption came the watch strap. The earliest examples of wristwatches date as far back as the sixteenth century — Queen Elizabeth I, for example, was given a ‘clocke’ with an ‘arm band’ as a gift in 1571 by Robert Dudley whom she had made Earl of Leicester —  and for a long time were essentially lavish curiosities. Within a few centuries they were being worn as items of jewellery among women more generally and, in the wake of the wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, caught on among men and replaced the previously ubiquitous pocket watch. 

Those early watch bands seem pretty ad hoc by contemporary standards. They were often made of materials that seem woefully unfit for purpose, like metal chains, shoddy ribbons, or hefty leather contraptions sometimes called wristlets which tend to resemble saddles more closely than they do watch straps. 

Luckily, however, as the twentieth century progressed and the wristwatch became the main way of telling the time, the need for more comfortable and reliable straps quickly led to a host of novel strap options. You can now find ones made of metal, leather, rubber, nylon, plastic, and more besides. There is a strap for every occasion, activity, and level of formality imaginable. Watch owners can take their pick when outfitting their favourite timepieces with everything from classics like the Oyster, Jubilee, and President bands — all of them named for the Rolex models that introduced them to the world in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s respectively — to slightly more eye-catching ones like a perforated rally number or a bulky bund strap

While I own a modest handful of watches, the number of straps in my collection is positively extravagant by comparison — as well it should be because buying watches is a famously expensive habit while getting your hands on any number of different straps is relatively cheap and easy. I’ve written before about NATO straps, which currently outnumber the actual watches I wear them with at a ratio of about three to one, but I also own a bunch of different leather and metal straps and have my eye on at least a dozen more. 

As a way of illustrating the versatility that owning a range of different straps for a single watch brings, let’s take the example of the watch I wear most often, a budget-friendly Seiko 5 I bought last year and elegised not long after. For that one, I’ve got the metal strap it came on (which I thought for a while was a Milanese but I now believe is closer to shark mesh), a rugged-looking rawhide or billet strap, and a cream-coloured NATO. With just these three straps this single timepiece can be transformed to fit all manner of different contexts. The metal option works well for more formal occasions (as it happens, this particular band configuration appears in Seiko 5’s new  ‘Suit Style’ subcategory), the leather option has become my everyday go-to and pairs especially well with workwear and milsurp, while the NATO is pretty much all I wear in summer or on holiday for being so light and fuss-free. 

And this is by no means exhaustive. A different metal strap — say an Oyster or a Jubilee — could make this Seiko 5 look more like a conventional dive watch, while a rubber alternative might transform it into something altogether more sporty. Options abound and the extent to which the same timepiece can be restyled and reimagined can feel remarkable at times.

As the good folks at Primer put it in their helpful guide to watch straps:

‘A proper strap is an essential companion to any watch, and switching it out is an easy way to experiment with a whole new style. A broad and diverse strap collection can greatly extend the number of combinations available to you; to an observer, the band is often more visible than the face of the watch, so a large assortment of straps will make a small collection of watches appear truly enormous.’

Just make sure you read the fine print to guarantee you’re getting the materials and the sizing you want. Many a watch fan, myself included, have been caught up short by a supposed leather band that begins to flake on the first wear or a strap that doesn’t match the lug length of the watch you hoped to wear it with. 

With that taken care of though, the world of watch straps is yours to explore and can be enjoyed at nearly any budget. It’s certainly more cost-effective than forking out for a new watch. So, when in doubt — or in debt, for that matter — don’t buy a watch, buy a watch band.

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