Virtual Integration — a Dive Into the Watch Metal Bracelet
World of Watches set the scene for an overdue discussion on the many virtues of the metal bracelet of a wristwatch
The wristwatch is only able to sit on the wrist by virtue of its humble band. Some watchmakers have dared to imagine this band as part of a cohesive whole. We set the scene for an overdue discussion on the many virtues of the metal bracelet.
When you are used to wearing a watch, you notice its absence. It can be quite alarming to need a quick check on the time, look to your wrist for a bit of unobtrusive advice from old faithful and discover that – for some reason – it is not there. Most often this is because you have taken it off and forgotten to return it to its rightful place. If you have multiple watches, this is not unusual at all. If you have one watch that you really do call ‘old faithful’ then you will indeed be shocked to find it missing; perhaps you are on holiday at an onsen and have forgotten that you took off your watch along with the rest of your clothes.
A reasonable protest at this example is of course that you would never check your wrist for the time in such a situation, just as you would not do in the shower at home. One simply does not subject leather and fabric straps to such indignities. A perfectly reasonable objection, unless the watch happens to be on a metal bracelet. This is because such an accessory lends a timepiece a certain sense of invulnerability, however unjustified it might be. Onsens and spas (any kind of hot shower with a lot of humidity basically) are notoriously rough on the gaskets that keep moisture out of the case, and bracelets do nothing for that – a pity really because checking the time in a spa would be quite useful but that is a subject for another occasion. Also, non-reactive materials such as titanium and ceramic tend to tempt one into taking chances.
Back on point, it can be quite the thrill to saunter up to a pool, with one arm in particular being in an especially jaunty mood. That arm of course would be sporting a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with an Oyster bracelet in the traditional Oystersteel when everyone else in the group has erred on the side of caution. Now, the Daytona is also available on the Oysterflex bracelet, which is arguably an even better fit for water sports, but you really need the Oyster bracelet to make this a statement. The only thing better than this would be to arrive at said pool with a Richard Mille RM020 chained to your wrist, or perhaps just clipped to your trunks. This would be totally ‘baller’ as they say. Yes, when such a move is quite deliberate, it can be considered very ‘alpha’ – it might also be a tad too aggressive in some situations so always check your privilege.
ANOTHER SPORTING CHANCE
On that note, watches with bracelets are perfectly acceptable for women – indeed the very first wristwatches were made specifically for women, as demonstrated by the Patek Philippe No. 27 368. This watch was made for, or at least sold to, a Hungarian countess in 1868. In the current era, any Patek Philippe Twenty~4 will make the cut, as will the Bvlgari Serpenti or the Cartier Tank. Actually, there are any number of Cartier watches that will do the business poolside, all purpose-built for women.
For the purposes of this story though, we are primarily looking at sporty models – yes this is an add-on to the sports watches feature published in issue #55 – and the role that the bracelet plays there. That said, there are really only two types of bracelets that need to be considered – the integrated bracelet and the interchangeable one (because any bracelet that is not integrated can be swapped out, with varying degrees of effort). To be sure, there are plenty of variations in both categories and one important overlap, which is where this story begins properly.
One of the pull-factors of the sports watch is the bracelet, but this may or may not be the integrated sort; it does have to look integrated though
As noted last issue, one of the pull factors of the sports watch is the bracelet, but this may or may not be the integrated sort. What is clear though is that there must be some sort of confluence between the bracelet and the overall structure of the watch. So the Rolex Submariner does not use an integrated bracelet but the way the Oyster bracelet (above, note the curved end-link) meets the case of the Submariner is seamless. There is none of the extra space around the lugs, case and band where they converge that characterise watches with leather straps, for example. This point is key to understanding the winning qualities of the bracelet because it also defines how the watch sits on the wrist, while providing a cohesive visual experience. The NATO strap takes advantage of this, and plenty of tool watches go the distance in this regard (as noted elsewhere in this tale).
Some brands also went the distance here, going beyond the tool watch in fact, and created timepieces with integrated bracelets as the ultimate in watchmaking glory. Rolex is represented here with the King Midas and Texan watches, but these looks have long since vanished from its assortment. Omega had the distinct honour of pushing out the integrated bracelet watch with the Constellation model of 1969, but this look too has disappeared into the archives – the current Constellation goes with a look more in-line with the design revolution that swept the watch trade in the 1970s.
This brings us once more to who else but Gerald Genta. Genta created the best-known versions of these sorts of design-forward watches, but neither Patek Philippe nor Audemars Piguet – at that time – had the know-how to go beyond the prototype stage in creating the cases and bracelets he designed. Fortunately a solution was at hand, which we get into elsewhere in this tale, as far the bracelet is concerned. Similarly, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin developed their own sorts of bracelets that tell the time, and they were joined by IWC and Girard Perregaux. As a jewellery brand making a watch bracelet in precious metal, Piaget might have had the requisite know-how to produce its Polo model, but the others probably used a supplier of some kind.
Swiss brands are notoriously taciturn in revealing their suppliers, or that they even use suppliers. As you will see in the next part of this story, this plays out in ways both strange and completely expected. In any case, these watches – along with virtually everything Genta designed – have been cited as the moment that the bracelet watch for men truly became a part of our shared cultural landscape. Unsurprisingly, many of these are considered contemporary classics of watchmaking, even as the era that birthed them has been regarded with collective shudders by the Swiss watchmaking world.
It is worth noting here that Rolex already had all three of its metal bracelet styles in play during all this hubbub, and while none are integrated, they all do share that trait of looking and feeling like part of the case. This remains true even when Rolex swaps one bracelet for another, as last seen in the example of the GMT-Master II. The watch has been offered on the Oyster bracelet since it debuted in 1954-55 but last year was paired with the Jubilee bracelet for the first time. Rolex has not introduced this change in other existing versions of the GMT-Master II other than the steel models, with the Oyster bracelet still in play for the white gold, Rolesor and Everose gold models. You can actually view them side-by-side on the website now, or right here, and see for yourself how the look changes. From our perspective, it is remarkable how well both bracelets work with the watch head; it might also work as an argument against physically integrated bracelets. As it stands, you can have the Oyster bracelet on the Oystersteel model, if you feel like going after-market on it.
Other brands have taken a different route here, offering an integrated look with a quick-change option. Notable names here include Vacheron Constantin for its current Overseas model (the original and the 222 that preceded it featured true integrated bracelets) and Cartier for just about everything. It seems like this actually gives brands more say and room to play, since after-market options for authentic bracelets will (presumably) be limited to the brands in question.
Perhaps the broader point here is that a brilliant watch deserves an equally brilliant band. Leather, fabric, silicone and rubber all get the job done but a bracelet that meshes (no pun intended) with the case is on another level. And it works no matter the price. Take the very accessible Maurice Lacroix Aikon for example. It features a case and bracelet architecture that operate as one. The entire aesthetic is also profoundly good-looking. Indeed it is so good looking that we would always advise buyers of Maurice Lacroix Aikon watches to go with the bracelet. After all, the brand has a quick-change system here so you could reasonably go with other options, but there is no substitute for the Aikon bracelet itself.
Some brands went beyond the tool watch to create timepieces with integrated bracelets as the ultimate in watchmaking glory
On a different level but still sporting unbeatable and very recognisable architecture are any number of Seiko offerings; these bracelets can all be swapped out for something else too. The new Seiko 5 sports line features some fine examples, as do the Prospex, Presage and Astron lines. You can really take your pick here, but it is worth noting that Seiko did have proper integrated bracelets in its collection not so long ago but you will have to go vintage on it, if that is what you are hankering after.
Having the look but not the uncompromising fit of the integrated bracelet is useful, in many ways. Bvlgari demonstrates as much with the superlative Octo, which works best with a bracelet but is offered with a leather strap too. It is not a sports watch – even in its marketing messaging – but it conveys a certain architectural robustness that belies its record-breaking slimness. In this regard, it takes a page from the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak playbook, but runs its own game. To be fair here, Bvlgari uses its jewellery expertise to play with all manner of bracelets and bands, including the Tubogas and the Serpenti models. Without the bracelets or bands, these models would simply not exist.
TOTAL WATCH STYLE
One brand that offers both integrated and almost-integrated bracelets is Glashütte Original, with the SeaQ getting rave reviews last year. The SeaQ plays the same look-and-feel game as Seiko and Rolex, perhaps offering a middle ground between them. As you can see from the visual (opposite page, top), having the integrated look but reserving the option of swapping out can be important, especially if the timepiece in question is meant to be properly functional. However, the German brand has a true integrated bracelet in its Seventies collection, which references a 1970s model that had a similar look, but not an actual integrated bracelet (as noted in Adrian Hailwood’s story for our friendly competitors Revolution). The current version of the Seventies watch boldly references the era that gave rise to the integrated bracelet, and is the only such watch to make a connection to this particular chapter in watchmaking so boldly.
Having said that, the integrated bracelet is certainly having a moment right now. When Breguet announced a major facelift for its Marine collection in 2019, mainly focusing on the bracelet and the lugs, it did not receive much press. Turns out it was but an early notice of watchmaking going all-in on what might be called the total watch look.
In the last six months, no less than four significant integrated bracelet watches have occupied our interest, and pages in the case of one model. Indeed, more might appear by the time you read this. These are – in order of appearance – the Chopard Alpine Eagle, the A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus, the H. Moser & Cie Streamliner and the Hublot Big Bang Integral. In three cases, these watches introduce the integrated bracelet to sports models from these brands – aside from Chopard, none of them had such a watch in the collection, although Hublot did have a relatively sporty Classic Fusion model with a different bracelet that might also have been integrated. As for Chopard, the Alpine Eagle is a throwback to the very first watch designed by Karl-Friederich Scheufele when he joined the family business back in 1980. It is back, with a new sporty mission and a rather ambitious name. It also bears a message of generational continuity, which is a handy thing indeed with an integrated watch head and bracelet design.
These latest sporty watches with bracelets make a go at imagining the wristwatch as a whole object, right down to the design of the clasp. Everything is as seamless as possible in an effort to create the ideal wristwatch. If these brands have their way, this wristwatch is the bracelet that tells time. So where is Rolex in all this? Look no further than the Crownclasp, available in all versions of Rolex metal bracelets.