The Conversation: Integrated Bracelets
Our stories this year about bracelets provoke a dialogue on a niche but important subset. The editors of WOW Singapore and Thailand trade blows between the lugs
Here is a not-so-bold claim. You probably have a wristwatch on right now; it probably sports a metal bracelet of some kind. If not, then you probably have at least one in your collection. Given that you are reading a watch magazine, this is hardly an exhibition of Nate Silver-esque statistical prescience. But, to add some uncertainty to this, what about the recently trendy integrated bracelet? Do you have a watch with that sort of bracelet? Is this even a proper trend? And honestly, it is only recent if you consider Rolex a new brand, because it got its start in the 20th century.
Then again, you might argue that Rolex does not have any models with integrated bracelets in production now. You would be right, of course, but only if you are a purist who believes that an integrated bracelet needs to be truly inseparable from the case. That is, after all, why it is called integrated. Fair point, but here is Bell & Ross BR 05 Chronograph a wrinkle: what if the watch in question has some sort of quickchange strap system? While we are setting the stage here, here is another wrinkle: what about those vintage wristwatches with soldered mesh bracelets? Are those integrated? As you can see, there are so many points to argue over that we could not resist arguing amongst ourselves here…
Seriously though, we have spent many pages over several issues looking at bracelets, and this inevitably leads to a debate between our editors on the merits of the subject. By way of contrast, over the years, we have dedicated a tiny number of pages to this part of the wristwatch – we do not even shoot watches with bracelets as often as we do bands of any other sort. WOW Singapore is definitely trying to flip this narrative, and WOW Thailand has questions…many questions.
Ruckdee Chotjinda (RC): I have a confession to make. The first integrated bracelet watch I know is the Omega Constellation of the 1990s, not the Royal Oak, which was a close second only because the importer of Omega at that time was also the importer of Audemars Piguet. I used the term “importer” because this was before Swatch Group established their office in Thailand and before there were multiple retailers for Audemars Piguet.
Ashok Soman (AS): You know what, I think the first integrated bracelets for men’s watches in the modern era were actually from Omega — the Constellation model from 1969. I uncovered this nugget of information while doing a story on the great Gerald Genta 10 years ago, but was not able to substantiate it. There were two great articles on this subject relatively recently, one in QP and the other in Revolution, that confirmed that this Constellation model existed (with photos) and that Genta did not design it.
Of course, you could look at some types of bracelets, especially of the Milanese variety, that are firmly attached (soldered, most likely) to the case. These are integrated, for sure, but probably not actually proper integrated bracelets. There is also a famous curved end-link that will come into play later in this discussion I think.
RC: I am inclined not to include watches with soldered Milanese bracelets. I understand that it is “integrated” in the most literal sense of the word, but it lacks something, some visual continuity. Given that English is not my native language, would you be able to define “integrated bracelet watch” for the purpose of this discussion?
AS: Oh my friend, you very easily put some native English-speakers to shame! Nevertheless, I will furnish a definition, which I used previously in our article on bracelets this year. In my opinion, the integrated bracelet refers to any bracelet that is both physically and aesthetically inseparable from the case. In other words, the case and the bracelet form a cohesive whole. Both the thought and the work put into the bracelet add to the value of the watch. To go back to the example you cited, the Royal Oak is not the Royal Oak without its signature bracelet. This might upset some folks who got the watch with a rubber or leather strap. To be brutally honest, there are some watches you might consider adding to your collection only if you get them with bracelets. The Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus are paramount examples.
RC: I understand exactly what you are saying. I will definitely go for the bracelet as well in the case of the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. On a semi-related note, would you classify the A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus and the Piaget Polo S as integrated bracelet watches? I would with reluctance because they have distinguishable lugs, unlike, say the Bvlgari Octo Finissimo where the endpieces mesh with the lugs and the case in a more seamless manner despite the physical presence of the lugs. Visual illusion?
AS: Well, the visual illusion is important because of the Rolex Submariner and the Oyster bracelet. Strictly speaking, the Submariner has never had a true integrated bracelet (unlike the Oysterquartz and Midas models), but it looks the part of an integrated bracelet. Just to be clear, here is where that curved end-link comes in — it makes all the difference in this model. To return once more to the Royal Oak, the integrated bracelet is a defining characteristic of watches from the 1970s. All the aforementioned discontinued Rolex models are indeed from this era. This means that the Polo S has a clear historical link, while the Odysseus has more of a spiritual kinship.
RC: It is interesting how the 1970s as a decade has had so much influence on watch designs, and how several timepieces born around this time came with an integrated bracelet. We have the Royal Oak (1972), Girard-Perregaux Laureato (1975), the Nautilus (1976) and the Vacheron Constantin 222 (1977, and reborn as the Overseas in 1996) in the more expensive range, and countless other watches, Swiss and otherwise, in the affordable segment. These fell out of fashion in the 1980s and looked pretty much dated by the 2000s. It was not until the 2010s that integrated bracelet watches became sexy once again, thanks to the global popularity of the Nautilus and the Royal Oak, right? Did I miss something along the way?
AS: It is definitely fair to lay both fame and blame for the rise of the integrated bracelet on design themes that picked up strength in the 1970s. Whatever one might think of these bracelets, they were quite inconvenient for those who wanted to swop bands. Anyway, I think we should remember the influence of design movements such as Brutalism on watch design in the 1970s – in fact, this decade saw the introduction of proper watch designers, which again is attributed to Genta. To give Rolex its due here, all three bracelets definitively tied to the brand had debuted by the 1960s; some observers tie the current power of Rolex to the 1980s when it was truly the absolute monarch of the luxury watchmaking kingdom.
Similarly, computer-aided design (CAD) came to watchmaking in the 1980s, and the Swiss finally had to take Japanese ideas about watchmaking seriously. Concurrently, both the Royal Oak and the Nautilus became major successes, after initially failing to take off. The Piaget Polo also made it big at this time, reflecting the spirit of excess in the 1980s. Also in the 1980s, Cartier hired Genta to deliver on a version of the luxe sports watch for themselves, which we rediscovered this year with the relaunch of the Pasha. Finally, in the 1990s, Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe brought the know-how of making bracelets in-house via acquisitions. All of this played a part in making the integrated bracelet a permanent part of the watch industry.
Ok, that was a mad dash through the recent history of the wristwatch – and a handy summary of my extensive stories on this subject this year.
RC: I wish I had that wealth of knowledge to share. Thank you! You know, the funny thing is that my first integrated bracelet watch was Japanese, not Swiss. And I didn’t buy it because of the aesthetics but because I was offered a good deal and the watch wrapped around my wrist very nicely. Later on, I sold it for around the same price I paid for it because I could never get used to the crown at four o’clock. The one and only integrated bracelet watch in my current collection was bought in late 2012. But that was because they said the world was going to end, according to some Mayan prophecy. And, guess what, that didn’t happen, and January 2013 arrived together with the ensuing credit card statement. Ouch.
AS: Ouch indeed! Actually, the first integrated bracelet look I remember was Japanese too – somehow this sort of design does not really feel like something Swiss, which might account for all the legendary negative reaction to all the aforementioned luxe sports watch models. Even when the design proved so successful that virtually every brand was copying it (or paying tribute if you prefer that word), it was still seen in a negative light, if I recall coverage on watches in the 1990s correctly. As I noted in previous articles, I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that bracelet-makers were (and are) not Swiss. So as far as “Swiss Made” goes the bracelet is not part of the equation. Again, there is a distinction here that applies to the aforementioned trio.
RC: My experience does not extend that far back because I started only in 1998. After becoming a full-time journalist in 2014, I paid more attention to integrated bracelet watch designs once again during SIHH 2016 when Vacheron Constantin refreshed its Overseas collection. While the first generation Overseas of 1996 appeared nice and proper to me, it was the second generation from 2004 that impressed with the originality and the ingenuity of its bracelet design where the Maltese Cross was cleverly integrated (pun intended) into the design of the links. I was glad to see that these links live on in the third generation Overseas of 2016. Interchangeability with leather and rubber straps is also a plus there because now you have three looks with just one watch.
AS: On the other hand, interchangeability is the opposite of what the integrated bracelet stands for. I call these bracelets that tell the time, like the 19th century ladies wristwatches for example. These days, there are obviously designs that accommodate collectors who want both the integrated bracelet look, yet also feel like having a dress option, like a leather strap. The quick change systems over at Cartier and IWC heralded a new day for casual collectors, with plenty of Richemont brands following suit. This sort of system has since moved to a lot of groups and brands.
RC: Ha ha. I see what you mean. Well, in that case, we should probably allow some latitude in that “integrated” here refers to the “aesthetics” and not the “construction” of the watch. After all, we are operating in a time when brands need to try their best at accommodating potential customers: more dial colours, more material combinations, more strap choices, more everything to woo buyers. Anything to make a sale, right?
AS: You know, I have a friend who started wearing mismatched leather straps – both ends were different colours! From what I see on the Gram, this is not trending, which might be for the best.
RC: I have a friend who wears left and right shoes from different pairs of sneakers. I should introduce my friend to your friend. They will get along quite well.
AS: To be sure, brands can go off the rails with options and the result is an enormous range of references. But I must say that most brands are still finding their way when it comes to designing a watch that works and fits perfectly with a bracelet. I have a couple of examples myself, and the experience of wearing them is second to none. It is a combination of links that are both beautiful but do not snag your arm hairs, and lugs shaped in just the right way that the watch head fits snugly. Typically, shorter lugs are the norm with integrated bracelets, and this is key to getting the fit right. Even Breguet, which has a signature look for its lugs, finally bowed to practicality and introduced revised shortened lugs for the Marine collection. At the same time, a situation where the bracelet is the key to pulling the trigger on a given watch is rare.
RC: I don’t think I have bought a watch just because of the bracelet. But for the purpose of our integrated bracelet watches discussion, I should add that, same as you, I always look at how the bracelet meets with the case, how the link design reflects or contributes to the continuity of the lines from the side of the case and so on. Hublot and Zenith did a neat job with their Big Bang Integral and Defy Classic. I have not seen the Czapek Antarctique of this year in person but it gets extra points from me for that inverted C middle link which adds to the originality of
It has been a busy year indeed with those other launches which include the Chopard Alpine Eagle, Tudor Royal and Frederique Constant Highlife. At the time of this writing, Bell & Ross also unveils the chronograph version of their BR 05 which changes everything for me because I was lukewarm with their three-hand versions. According to the brand, on the design side of the collection story, the BR 05 is an amalgamation of their square and round watch designs. I didn’t have that depth of perception from looking at the watches, but their animated presentation explained this for me. Maybe this BR 05 will be a good thing for them in the long run so that Bell & Ross will be recognised for more than just the BR 01 and the BR 03?
AS: Great that you brought up both the Alpine Eagle and the BR 05! But to your question, there is a danger of brands being too closely associated with one look, and the integrated bracelet aesthetic can help. It completely changed the direction of Audemars Piguet and opened up new opportunities for Patek Philippe. I think the best thing for Bell & Ross is if this new bracelet look becomes an accepted part of its range. Personally, I love the look of the BR 05 (all versions) and it seems to perfectly showcase the impact of the Genta era. I agree with you that the new look gives the brand a way to expand its design boundaries.
For Chopard in particular, the Alpine Eagle is a great way to showcase the links (no pun intended) between jewellery and watchmaking. This is properly a bracelet that tells the time, and makes me see the brand in a new light. In our special section on bracelets, I called this the “total watch look,” and it is something that Chopard could have used years ago. In fact, they have had it in reserve for the longest time, given that the watch is based on the St. Moritz from 1980. It looked a bit different and was a quartz model, but if authenticity is important then the Alpine Eagle has it in spades. All that aside, the look of the Alpine Eagle fits perfectly into the contemporary landscape of watch collecting, and is one of the most handsome pieces from the manufacture.
RC: Can we say then that integrated bracelet watches are not a novelty but a resurgence of a style? It feels that way to me.
AS: Definitely a resurgence, but also an acknowledgement that a watch can be three key things simultaneously: an item of jewellery, a restrained dress piece, and a robust sports model. The sports watch has won the battle for the wrist, but it is bringing something from the feminine world of jewellery with it.
RC: Having agreed on that, I still feel deep down that the interest will not be sustained because everyone is riding on a trend at the moment. Modern history shows that the watch industry has what you can probably call a stylistic cycle or phase of about one decade. If that continues to be the case, integrated bracelet watches, save for the few established icons, may fall out of fashion again by 2030?
AS: Predictions are tough to make in these times, but a horizon of 10 years seems fair. Especially when it comes to the true integrated bracelet. To conclude on a note of dissonance here, I think the aesthetics of the integrated bracelet are here to stay. This is because, unlike most trends, this one was forced on watchmaking by the market. Demand for watches with great bracelets has skyrocketed, even if you take Rolex out of the equation. Certainly in our region, and Asia in general, the bracelet is superior to the leather strap. Mark my words there my friend – and you too dear readers — because the look and feel of the integrated bracelet is forever linked to the perception of quality in a wristwatch.