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Why not...? - NATO, Bund or mesh?

Why not...? NATO, Bund or mesh?

The collector's point of view on... original wristbands.

We often tend to forget that the great watchmaking revolution of the early 20th century was the ability to wear a watch on the wrist. And while watchmakers did the groundwork that enabled the movement to gravitate from pocket to wrist, one should not understate the importance of an accessory that was essential to the viability of this change: the wristband – whether strap or bracelet.

Without it, nothing would be possible. While the concept behind it appears obvious, it nevertheless deserves our full attention. In addition, over the years, it has taken on a completely different dimension by shifting from a simple “show-off element” to the true “guest star” of our favourite objects!

In fact, aside from a few notable exceptions that we will discuss a little later, watch manufacturers have never really paid serious attention to the wristbands fitted to their creations. In most cases, anything other than black or brown simply hasn’t been an option. A little patent leather on dressy models (how perfectly horrible!), occasional variations in gold or blue tones, but rarely anything really exciting. Not to mention a total lack of originality in the realm of metal bracelets, which are about as boring as they could possibly be.

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And yet, if there were an ever an element of the watch in which creativity can play a leading role, it’s the wristband. It is above all generally the only feature to which a user can give a personal touch! The influence of this accessory on the entire piece is truly amazing, since a change in colour or material can make the watch take on a whole different dimension.

A few years ago, Cartier had already understood that by equipping its Roadster with an innovative wristband-change system, enabling smooth transitions from steel to leather or canvas. More recently, IWC equipped its Ingenieur and Aquatimer models with a similar device. Their only problem is that these attachment systems are very specific and prevent any possibility of opting for products other than those offered by the brand. Only a handful of brilliantly creative names in the business such as the Atelier du Bracelet Parisien (ABP) are capable of making straps that work with these fastening systems.

IWC has also made a noteworthy attempt to combine watchmaking with leather workmanship through a partnership between the brand from Schaffhausen and Italian shoemaker, Santoni, well-known for its delightful patina effects. But once again, these associations remain few and far between.

They do however open the door to other options, leading fans of fine craftsmanship to take the initiative when it comes to strap changes.

There are several options out there that can give a helping hand. In the realm of “classic” leather, there are firstly the great tailor-made leather specialists such as ABP or Camille Fournet. There are also dozens of artisans who offer interesting creations online. For them, creativity knows no bounds. Leathers, colours, size, holes – anything can be customised. Simply delightful.

Amid this veritable avalanche of possibilities, I nevertheless wanted to present three straps that vividly illustrate watch owners’ desire to take control of this accessory. All are oldtimers and have been modernised with various degrees of success. But they simply cannot be ignored.

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The NATO

Minimalist, military and slim are the three words that perhaps best sum up this strap born of an English spec list in the 70s. At the time, the expectations of the MoD (Ministry of Defence) were clear: the aim was to equip watches with a simple, robust and inexpensive strap. The NATO was born and met the following requirements: slim (1.2mm), long (to be worn over any gear), made from a single piece, 20 mm between the case lugs and fitted with a fixed buckle.

It did not take long for this military accessory to emerge from the depths of anonymity. Indeed, from 1964 onwards, the famous James Bond wore his Rolex Submariner Big Crown on a black, khaki and maroon nylon strap.

If you have been paying close attention, you will by now be wondering: “How could James Bond be wearing a NATO strap in 1964 when it was only invented in 1973?” The answer is quite simple: the elegant spy wasn’t wearing a real NATO, but a nylon diving strap. The difference? The diving strap is a simple fabric band, whereas the NATO has a fabric band that goes between the lugs and is secured by a second band that goes under the watch.

So everyone still talks about the “Bond” NATO, although it never existed. Isn’t that funny? However, one thing is for sure, the marriage between Rolex and NATO has proved a lasting one. Today, according to certain statistics, the Submariner is the watch that uses the most NATO straps.

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Their advantages are the fact that they are indeed inexpensive and can be used in a hundred different ways, enabling countless modifications of the watch’s appearance in step with changing moods and outfits. Today, NATO straps (and their single-band Zulu or US Army variations) are everywhere – to the point that they have given watch brands some ideas.

Two examples deserve a mention: the first belongs to Omega, which has just launched its Speedmaster Limited Edition 2014 on a magnificent NATO, one of the most beautiful on the market. And the brand from Bienne is not stopping there, because it now offers a series of straps that are perfectly in sync with its historic models that include both the Speedmaster as well as the new edition of the Seamaster 300.

The second is from Maurice Lacroix, which last November offered a Limited Edition of its Pontos Diver to support the Movember movement. This model is equipped with an incredibly beautiful NATO brown leather strap displaying the logo of the association that is fighting prostate cancer.

The NATO is thus going upmarket and is now available in the most precious leathers, bringing this basic accessory into the world of luxury! Your turn to give it a try!

The Bund

The NATO is the star of military straps, while the Bund remains more “discreet” in terms of prevalence and yet it is visually anything but!

This is about a leather strap that makes it possible to mount the case on a round or oval leather support or base serving to insulate it from the wrist itself. It looks like a cuff wrap but is in fact really useful, including in military situations. Pilots wore this type of strap during the second world war when cockpits were neither pressurised nor air-conditioned. At high altitude, the steel of the cases froze and ran the risk of sticking to the skin. In intense heat, it might become hot and cause burns.

Even though this type of strap already existed in 1915, its name comes from the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) and often refers to a particular model: the one that equipped the famous Heuer Bund chronograph made for German aviation around 1970.

This bracelet also had its day thanks to an actor: Paul Newman. The latter had the habit of putting his “Newman” Rolex Daytona on a so-called ‘fatstrap’ equipped with a US nameplate, which was none other than a variation of the Bund.

These days, this type of model remains far rarer and has stronger connotations than a NATO. It makes the watch bulkier and takes a lot of space on the wrist. It undoubtedly does not suit everyone, although it works perfectly well with smaller-diameter watches. Recently, Tudor launched its Heritage Ranger and offers it on a gold leather Bund strap.
See if you dare!

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Mesh

No leather this time, but steel.

The mesh is also known as the Milanese mesh or woven steel bracelet. It appeared in the 1960s, and was considered a “luxury” bracelet. It was quite expensive, due to its design featuring small links that made it the most flexible steel bracelet ever made. Its style was strongly associated with the Sixties and Seventies – and in fact contributed to its fall from grace.

With the change in era and fashion, the mesh bracelet vanished almost entirely from the radar screen! Too old, too stylised, too… ugly. In addition, given its construction, it could not be snugly fitted and therefore left a gap between case and bracelet that was anything but appealing! But as often happens, opinions change.

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Today, the mesh bracelet “is back”, encouraged by the fashion for all things vintage. Some watches go with the Milanese mesh bracelet better than others. Forget the mesh for a Rolex or Panerai, but consider one for an Omega.

It was indeed partly Omega that revived the contemporary mesh bracelet by launching its new Ploprof a few years ago. IWC also dared to go with this option in its new Portofino, as too have Breitling with the Superocean and Zenith with the Pilot El Primero.

But to prove that the mesh bracelet is really back and will be a star in 2015, just look at Apple. The future Apple Watch will be offered in a geeky magnetic metal mesh version of its ancestor! See for yourself!

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