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NATO - The NATO strap earns its stripes

NATO The NATO strap earns its stripes

It has become something of a legend. And like all the best legends, it’s part fiction, part reality. WorldTempus unpicks one of the most famous watch straps: the NATO.

Watchmaking is full of paradoxes. No matter how extreme the case materials get, each new metal lighter and stronger than the last, when circumstances call for a strap that can handle just about anything, it always comes back to good old basic nylon. That’s the original material of the famous NATO strap. Simple and effective, it spans the generations and can hold its own against any number of high-tech alloys. Has the NATO ever been bettered? 

Its history is well known. In 1973, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), decided to ditch the leather watch straps worn by its officers. These antique accoutrements didn’t react well to water, humidity or sweat. Steel was little better, and had the added problem of reflections, which could potentially give away Her Majesty’s officers’ position, if they were in a tight spot. And in both cases, if either the leather strap or the steel bracelet broke, the watch would almost certainly be lost. 

The NATO strap earns its stripes

Blancpain Ocean Commitment Limited Edition III © Blancpain

A military brief was therefore prepared. It contained the broad outlines of the object we know today: a specific material (nylon), in a single piece, with the joints, buckle, and loops all heat-sealed. All of the dimensions – width, thickness and length – are specified precisely. As far as colour is concerned, anything is possible, provided it’s “Admiralty Grey”, reference BS4800.

The legend of James Bond

Contrary to popular belief, the strap popularised by James Bond was not actually a NATO strap. Goldfinger was made in 1964, while the MoD specifications weren’t drafted until 1973. What’s more, the strap sported by Sean Connery doesn’t pass muster in terms of the military requirements – it has three colours and nine stripes, and the strap doesn’t go under the case. In fact, it’s just a regular fabric strap, certainly not an authentic plain grey NATO. To get hold of one of those today you have to find an official MoD supplier, such as Phoenix in Cardiff, which offers a few rare items for sale to the general public. 

The NATO strap earns its stripes

Omega Seamaster 300M © Omega

But the popularity of these straps (and the enthusiasm of fans) gave the legend a life of its own, and a grey/black version was attached to Daniel Craig’s Omega Seamaster 300M, thus associating the NATO label with a model that originally wasn’t NATO at all. And that is how Omega became one of the main vectors for the upsurge in popularity of NATO straps. But mass market brands such as Daniel Wellington, which sells two to three million watches each year, have also played a part. 

Did you know? 

The strap doesn’t get its name from its popularity within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. In fact, the name comes from the need to order it by its NATO Stock Number (NSN). The first word just stuck. 

The NATO strap earns its stripes

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical © Hamilton

A true NATO strap is 28 cm long. Standard straps, regardless of their material, are rarely longer than 18 cm. Why the generous cut? It’s so that British officers can wear them over the top of their uniforms! 

Today, many institutions have established signature colour codes for their own NATO creations, which have come a long way from their military roots. One interesting example can be found at the prestigious Harvard University in the USA, founded in 1636, which has its own NATO strap in burgundy with a central white stripe. 


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