The Devil’s In the Details: The Story of the NATO Strap

Man wearing a NATO strap browsing through records
Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Like many watch spotters, probably the first nylon watch strap I ever saw was on the wrist of Sean Connery’s James Bond in Goldfinger

In the opening scene of the film, we catch two glimpses of Bond’s Rolex Submariner, which he wears on a black, green, and burgundy striped band. First, we see it strapped over the arm of Bond’s scuba suit while he covertly plants some explosives. Then, moments later, his wetsuit swiftly discarded, Bond steps into a crowded bar wearing a white dinner jacket. As he pauses casually before lighting a cigarette to check the time (and the countdown to the explosion), we again spot his Submariner just as it catches the flame of Bond’s lighter — a foreshadowing of the explosion that lights up the screen moments later. 

As a thought experiment, let’s put aside for a moment how canonical this combination of a luxury dive watch worn on a nylon strap would become and instead try to see it as if for the first time. If viewed in this way, just about everything about the 007’s watch combo reads as ‘wrong’. 

First, there’s the fact that the enduring image of Bond’s Submariner in Goldfinger has him wearing the most casual kind of watch band with just about the dressiest type of evening wear (forgetting, as most of us do, that he had been doing some much more context-appropriate scuba diving just a few seconds prior on screen). Moreover, with all of those colourful stripes announcing themselves at a distance, said band is hardly incognito, especially given the understated appearance of the watch face and the apparent dressiness of the occasion. Then there’s the fact that the strap is noticeably the wrong size, with an apparent width of 16mm compared to the Submariner’s 20mm lug (Rumour has it that the strap belonged to a crew member who offered it up at the last minute). And, most egregious of all, especially given the ever-rising stock of the Submariner, there is the odd match-up of a plain, bargain-basement armband with a considerably swankier Rolex.

Inevitably, however, as with all of those short shorts and terry cloth rompers, on Sean Connery it somehow looked fantastic. With his sartorial superpowers, Connery/Bond didn’t just make this odd coupling look perfectly natural, he managed to make it enviable. So much so that generations of watch wearers have been popping their timepieces — however tony they may be — on dirt-cheap nylon straps ever since. 

Seiko Automatic Diver watch on a NATO strap
The now-iconic diver and NATO combo
Image credit: Paul Cuoco on Unsplash

In fact, Bond has become so entwined with the aesthetic of a dive watch worn on a nylon band that two of the Omega Seamasters released in conjunction with Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond have come with the option of a NATO strap. The first was the black and grey number from 2015’s Spectre, while the most recent Seamaster accompanying 2021’s No Time To Die features a design and colourway that is clearly reminiscent of Connery’s original  (a note-perfect costuming choice for an era of Bond that has been characterised by many such self-aware, retrospective flourishes). 

That original Connery strap still looms large enough that when I started buying nylon bands, the Goldfinger-inspired design was the first one I went for. Moreover, among horology heads, the selfsame strap is still referred to as the ‘Bond NATO’.

The only problem if you’re a stickler for detail — which, let’s face it, most watch- and clothing guys are — is that Bond’s nylon number in Goldfinger isn’t technically a NATO. For one thing, Goldfinger came out in 1964, which (as we’ll see shortly) predates the invention of the NATO strap proper by nearly a decade. Then there are the details. If you keep a close eye on 007’s wrist (which, knowing that his watches do far more than tell the time, you should probably do as a matter of course), you’ll see that his strap is made of just one continuous piece of fabric, which a NATO is not. The style Bond is wearing would more accurately be called a ZULU.

So, what exactly is a NATO strap then? To begin with, the name is something of a red herring. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded in 1949, doesn’t have very much to do with the strap that shares its name, which only came on the scene in 1973 thanks to the British Ministry of Defence. At that time, MoD soldiers were issued chronographs on standard leather bands. New starts soon realised, however, that their more seasoned brothers-in-arms prefered a considerably more sporty kind of strap. When asked how they might get their hands on these straps, the recruits were told to ‘fill out a G10’. In other words, complete the requisition form needed to acquire a nylon webbing band, labelled with the NATO stock number G1098.

Seiko watch on a NATO strap
Image credit: Louis Mornaud on Unsplash

As to the characteristics of this watch band (new or original), it’s all fairly straightforward. Any NATO watchband consists of two nylon straps, a long one and a short one, the fixed ends of which are attached near the buckle. At the loose end of the short strap is a keeper (a kind of flat, metal loop) through which the tail of the longer one passes in securing the watch to one’s wrist. The watch itself is attached by threading the longer strap through each of the lugs (those little spring-loaded metal rods used to attach any strap, NATO or otherwise) so that the watch case effectively sits on top of the strap.

While this might all seem a bit fiddly, there is some sound logic to the design. The NATO strap’s military origins called for reliability under extreme circumstances. Since a soldier losing their watch at the wrong moment could have disastrous consequences, the strap was built to ensure that, even if one of the lugs were to give in, the watch would neither come off of the strap nor off the wearer’s wrist. The extreme hardiness of nylon fibre added a further layer of security. It was also more climate-appropriate. Unlike leather, nylon’s moisture-wicking properties made it both ideal for sweat-inducing physical activity and rainy climates (It was, lest we forget, devised by the British).

The original NATO, known officially as the Defence Standard 66-15 (or DefStan 66-15 for short) was 22mm thick and came in a shade known as ‘Admiralty Grey’. It also featured surplus length in order to accommodate any size of arm or — should you need to wear it on the outside of your sleeve, as Bond did before ditching his wetsuit in Goldfinger — any thickness of clothing.

Their contemporary trendiness means that NATO straps now come in a range of sizes and you can pick from any number of shades and patterns. These days, nylon bands have become rather like the socks or T-shirts of watch-collecting: They’re fun, colourful, easily interchangeable, and you never seem to have enough of them. They are also comfortable to wear, easy to clean, and have a place in just about any wardrobe. Most importantly, however, they are nearly always cheap to buy (which is not to say, like with designer tees, that you can’t fork out three figures for one if you so please).

Vintage man wearing a suit and NATO strap watch
Image credit: Guido van Nispen / CC BY 2.0

And, as with buying any T-shirt online, it’s probably worth getting out a tape measure just to make sure that the one you’re buying will actually fit your body, whether that be human or mechanical. Not all lugs are the same width, so make sure the strap you get isn’t too narrow or, worse, too wide to fit the watch you want to wear it with. Don’t make the same mistake as 007 and get a gadget that doesn’t quite fit.

Sizing issues notwithstanding, Bond was clearly on to something when he popped his diver on a nylon band. Setting aside all of the cinematic allure, there’s a wonderfully democratic quality to these straps that I think accounts in large part for their enduring popularity. Any £13 number is likely to house a £50 Timex as just comfortably as it does any £7 000 Rolex. Now, whether that strap is technically a NATO or not is an entirely different matter. Although — taking a cue from said band’s putative moisture-wicking properties — personally I wouldn’t sweat the details.

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