Looking for a new watch strap? Read on to learn everything you need to know about the different types of straps you can buy.
Swapping your watch strap is the easiest way to mod your watch and change its entire look.
Sometimes an old watch needs an update to reignite your love for it. Other times, truly extraordinary timepieces come with low quality or unattractive straps. I’ll admit that I’ve taken watches off of straps simply because I want to save the originals.
Plus, I went through a long phase of putting everything I owned on NATO straps.
The enjoyable thing about watch straps is there are so many options, styles, and materials that you can literally find something to fit any watch. Whether you’re looking to replace a worn strap on a field watch or turn a dress watch into a show-stopper, there’s a strap out there for you.
But, if this is your first time shopping for a new watch strap, you might not know what’s out there. In that case, you came to the right place. This guide will break down the most common types of watch straps and the popular materials they come in.
Table of Contents
Watch Strap Materials
Before we dive into the different types of watch straps, it’s helpful to understand the different materials they come in.
One of the most popular materials for watch straps (or bracelets, in this case) is metal. They come in many styles, finishes, and even colors. You can also find them in basic metals like various grades of stainless steel or precious metals like white gold and platinum.
Leather Watch Straps
Another popular watch strap material is leather. Like metal, leather bracelets come in a wide variety of styles and species. There are basic, casual straps made from run-of-the-mill cowhide, as well as luxe options made from exotic species like kangaroo or crocodile.
Rubber Watch Straps
Probably the most popular watch strap material, and mostly by default, is the rubber strap. Rubber straps come on digital watches and smartwatches, as well as some divers. They’re sweat and water-resistant, so they’re especially suitable for guys with an active lifestyle.
Silicone Watch Straps
Not all synthetic straps are plain rubber. There are also soft, pliable options made with silicone. These straps are incredibly comfortable while also being resistant to any moisture. Some are even antibacterial or infused with a pleasant scent.
Nylon Watch Straps
Nylon is also a common material for watch straps. These straps are ultra-casual, durable, and comfortable. Most nylon straps can track their history back to military origins, providing a hint at how rugged and tough they are.
Canvas watch straps can be somewhat similar in style and feel to a nylon strap. But, canvas typically uses natural materials, while nylon is synthetic. With that said, there are synthetic canvas fabrics out there, like those sometimes used in sailmaking.
Types of Watch Straps
While there are a lot of different materials to make a watch strap from, the styles are even more endless. These are the most popular styles you’ll see and be able to choose from when upgrading your watch straps.
The Oyster bracelet is the quintessential metal bracelet. Rolex has been using some form of an Oyster bracelet since the late 1930s, with a patent coming in the late 1940s. Aftermarket reproductions are very popular, even for guys that aren’t rocking Submariners or Explorers.
As the name suggests, Rolex designed the Oyster bracelet for diving and water sports, and as such, it looks best on sports watches.
Another popular Rolex original, the Jubilee bracelet first appeared on a Datejust in 1945 as a symbol of Rolex’s 40th-anniversary celebration. It’s been a popular style ever since.
Jubilee bracelets typically have polished center links and brushed outer links. The inner links break up into three small, shiny rows, making this bracelet look like a party on a wrist.
You’ll mostly find Jubilee-style bracelets on dive watches today, but they can really dress up a field or dress watch if paired carefully.
Mesh style bracelets can be polarizing for the watch enthusiast community; some love ‘em, some hate ‘em. However you might feel about them, the history is kind of cool.
Mesh bracelets became popular in the 1970s, pairing with dive watches used by professional divers. The Omega Seamaster Ploprof 600m was just one of those watches.
Omega’s marketing claimed that their chainmail-like bracelets were “shark-proof,” which led to calling these bracelets “shark mesh,” which eventually just became mesh.
I don’t know what good a shark-proof bracelet will do if a shark gets a hold of the wrist underneath it, but the story is interesting.
Manufacturers have paired hard-working field and tool watches with canvas straps for years. Traditionally an all-natural material, many modern canvas watch straps are actually synthetic based.
These straps are tougher than their older counterparts, and they’re also more stain and water-resistant.
You can’t go wrong with pairing a canvas strap with a diver or field watch. There’s something about their rugged chunkiness that inspires adventure, and where better to find adventure than the ocean or afield?
The NATO strap is a design first attributed to the British military, and its popularity in today’s watch community is ever-growing. Their original purpose was to prevent a service member from losing their watch if a spring bar let loose.
NATO straps are a one-piece design. They consist of a buckle, three keepers, and nylon webbing. The webbing has a long end and short end, with the long end wrapping your wrist and the short end securing the timepiece on the longer strap.
They thread between the spring bars and the case for easy changes.
Because they’re so rugged and durable, most guys wear them with divers or field watches. You could slide one behind the spring bars of your favorite dress watch, though, so keep an open mind.
Ah, rubber. If ever there was a strap that got a bad rap, it’s the humble rubber strap.
Watch manufactures have slapped rubber straps on watches since the 1960s. Admittedly, most of them are terrible. They’re usually a polyurethane rubber that’s stiff, brittle, and generally unattractive.
Luckily, today’s watch strap aftermarket addressed those problems. Many strap makers now offer silicone, vulcanized, and other modern rubber compounds that make these straps much more comfortable and attractive.
Depending on your watch, you can find straps with ends molded to fit your case perfectly.
These modern rubber straps look great on everything. Guitarist and singer John Mayer, and fellow guitarist and businessman Kevin O’Leary (both sick with watch enthusiasm) make it a point to put some of their uber valuable watches on high-end rubber straps, so don’t count out good old rubber.
If you’d prefer to feel like there’s absolutely nothing around your wrist (especially in the hotter months), you might want to check out a Perlon strap. Perlon is actually nylon-based—”Nylon 6,” to be exact—but its texture and weave make it look more organic and natural.
And, even though they look a bit delicate, Perlon straps are stronger than standard nylon.
Perlon straps are incredibly adjustable, as you can place the tang of your buckle through any spot in the weave. This makes them almost unbeatable as the weather heats up and your wrists begin to swell a bit.
I dare say that of all the nylon straps available, a Perlon strap in a carefully-chosen color can look incredible with a dress watch.
As the name suggests, dress leather straps are most at home on dress watches. These straps come in a wide variety of leather, from specialty tanneries like Horween or exotic species like crocodile or kangaroo.
Dress leather straps have refined features. They often taper gracefully from the lugs down to a size two millimeters smaller at the buckle. They rarely feature contrasting stitching, instead opting for a monochrome aesthetic.
If they have much to break up their dignified look, it’s usually not much more than a natural grain or a well-buffed sheen.
Very often, you can find these straps in leathers that match high-end belts and shoes, as the leathers originated in the same tanneries.
Leather straps don’t have to be over the top in formality to be stylish. Many casual straps look amazing on almost any watch without high-end materials or shiny finishes.
Casual leather straps come in a variety of styles, and stitching is usually the detail worth noticing. Some have perimeter stitching down their entire length, while others have a simple double stitch up by the spring bar and nothing more.
A casual leather strap can look amazing paired with literally anything. They look at home on field watches and chronographs, and they stylishly break the water-proof rules on divers.
Pair one with a dress watch, and you’ll have an excuse to wear a classy timepiece anytime you want. The possibilities are endless.
If you’re looking for a metal bracelet with some serious presence, Engineer-style bracelets might be the way to go. While the origins are a bit murky, most enthusiasts relate these straps with Seiko.
Engineer bracelets are all about chunkiness and angles. These bracelets are heavy and thick, and their five-rows of angular links reflect light in literally hundreds of ways.
While they’re rarely polished, they can be a little flashy for understated watches. They’re more at home with oversized divers and conservatively-sized dress watches.
When it comes to casual style and durability, it’s hard to beat a sailcloth watch strap. Many companies make these nylon-based straps out of, you guessed it, sailmaking material. It’s a material that’s incredibly tough, dries quickly, and looks really cool.
You can pair a sailcloth strap with a watch of just about any style. But, they really shine when you pair them with an aviation or nautical-themed (for continuity, of course) chronograph.
Zulu straps function a lot like NATO straps, but more streamlined. They’re a one-piece design, but they don’t have the additional shorter length of webbing that NATOs do.
Though Zulu straps are typically thicker than NATOs, they look very similar on the wrist since they both use nylon webbing for their construction.
Zulu straps are casual. Like NATOs, they’re excellent for sports watches, field watches, and divers. Pairing them with any rugged, military-style watch will definitely work nicely.
One of my personal favorites, rally strap origins hail from auto racing. Drivers needed a strap that would hold their watches in place to time their laps, but they didn’t want their wrists to sweat unnecessarily while gunning for the podium.
To solve this problem, rally straps include perforations to allow air to pass through the strap and let the skin underneath breathe.
Car guys instantly recognize those perforations and their automotive origins found in sports car steering wheels, seats, and other contact points that the driver would prefer to be breathable.
Their history being what it is, rally straps are most at home on racing chronographs.
Bund and Aviation
If you haven’t realized by now, most watch straps have a history built out of necessity. The same goes for bund straps. These chunks of leather sit behind the watch case, and their entire function was to provide insulation for German pilots during World War II.
At high altitude, temperatures in cockpits dropped so severely that a watch case could cause frostbite on the pilot’s wrist. Conversely, in the event of a fire, a watch case could heat up quickly and retain heat, causing severe burns even after the pilot ejected.
The bund would insulate the pilot’s wrist from both of these extremes.
History aside, if the bund isn’t your thing, traditional aviation straps are much more streamlined. These leather straps generally feature just two metal rivets on either strap. Some also feature contrasting stitching.
Obviously, aviation-style straps are a niche thing, so they look best on Flieger-style aviators, military field watches, and aviation chronographs.
While I made suggestions about which watch style each strap works best with, the watch game is as much about breaking the rules as it is respecting horological history.
You should feel free to wear any watch any way you’d like it. Throw your dress watch on an Engineer bracelet if you want, and wear your Diver on a rally strap if that makes you happy. It’s your watch to enjoy.