Full Metal Alchemy
World of Watches recounts the importance of metal bracelets of all sorts — and chart the course of one storied manufacturer
World of Watches first set the scene for an overdue discussion on the many virtues of the metal bracelet of a wristwatch. Today, we continue that conversation.
Why is an entire section — or what amounts to one — devoted to bracelets necessary? The answer to that has its roots in the sort of climate we find ourselves in. The tropics can be brutal to leather straps of all types, and can even do rubber straps in. The bracelet, on the other hand, can be bathed in perspiration for decades and keep on trucking. Overall, bracelets are the way to go for daily beaters, even if you do not work outdoors — just getting from meeting to meeting can be a sweaty business.
The other reason for a long read on bracelets is that there are very few good sources of information on bracelets used in the watch trade. As far as the Swiss go, this is because the bracelet is excluded from the “Swiss Made” criteria, and will likely remain excluded. Trade magazines such as EuropaStar and WatchAround have explicitly made this point, noting that the network of external suppliers could not be deprived of the opportunity to work on bracelets, since they had to give up other aspects once the Swiss Made regulations were tightened a few years ago.
Practically speaking, this means that brands rarely talk up their bracelets, even when they introduce new designs. The previously referenced Hailwood-authored piece illustrates this as it mostly features original research and commentary, much like this story. The most notable exception as far as brand communication goes is Rolex, which maintains a full section in its press pack devoted to bracelets and clasps, as well as its manufacturing capabilities in producing its own bracelets. It is a reminder that Rolex actually bought up its own supplier in its efforts to vertically integrate its production (which you can read about elsewhere in this story because this supplier is an important part of the history of wristwatches).
Of course, Swatch Group has under its umbrella a company called Lascor that specialises in making bracelets. Similarly, Comadur is also a noted Swatch Group specialist in materials such as sapphire and ceramic, supplying cases, crystals and bracelets to a variety of brands. Even here though, details are sketchy because the individual brands do not list who makes what. The world’s largest watchmaking group declined to offer supporting images or comments for this story, for example. By way of contrast, the group lists Nivarox SA as the maker of its hairsprings as a matter of course, and supplied information and materials for our stories on the escapement (see elsewhere in this issue, and issue #54 and #55).
On the brand level, Rado very kindly notes the specific involvement of Comadur in its production, which you can read about in our cover story. Longines notes when specific movements are produced exclusively for the brand by ETA, while Jaquet Droz is not shy that its movements are made by Frederic Piguet, which is effectively synonymous with Blancpain. Speaking of Longines, this brand has an interesting pricing policy, which might or might not be new. The prices of models with leather straps and metal bracelets are the same; this is a far cry from the early days of the wristwatch, when prices might have gone up threefold if a metal bracelet was used.
Speaking of pricey bracelets then, even Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe do not devote much of their communication to their very famous bracelets. This is a true oddity given the genuine artistry and craftsmanship that go into the Royal Oak and Nautilus bracelets. Also, both brands had to do a lot to master everything that goes into the making of these bracelets, not to mention gaining expertise in working with steel. To be clear though, both Patek Philippe and Audermas Piguet make their famous bracelets today, and hand-finishing is definitely something to look out for here.
The big names that make both watches and jewellery do indeed have expertise in making bracelets
Interestingly, one brand that does include such information on its website, and did send us information and materials were Breitling, which proceeded to tell us that its bracelets are made by a supplier. Some of the images that illustrate this story are from that source, so if you are familiar with the inner workings of the Swiss watch trade, you might be able to figure out what facilities are featured.
ALL ABOUT WEARABILITY
It must be noted here that the big names that make both watches and jewellery do indeed have expertise in making bracelets. This includes the likes of Cartier (it certainly makes its own Love bracelet, among other things, and provided the template for the interchangeable watch band that is used across a variety of Richemont brands), Piaget, Chopard and Bulgari. This is completely intuitive given that jewellers are acutely aware that their creations will be worn and should be comfortable no matter the design. The result, to cite just one example, is that the Cartier Love bracelet is the world’s most recognisable item of jewellery, in its class, and it is a product by itself. The Rolex Oyster bracelet might be its counterpart as far as watches go, but it is most definitely not a product in and of itself for Rolex.
Having said that, the big chunky links of the Oyster bracelet, especially that centre link, have influenced bracelet design in watches across the board. While not as singularly definitive as the style of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the Oyster bracelet has inspired countless imitators and variations. Just try to think of all the styles from various brands
that emulate or call to mind those two iconic watches – chances are you can name all of them. Now do the same with the Oyster bracelet, and also consider what is available from after-market vendors. Google the Rolex Oyster bracelet if you like. Odds are that even if you do not own a Rolex with this style, you probably have a watch with a bracelet that was influenced by it.
But what is the big deal about bracelets, you might ask, and rightly so. There are no definitive answers, unfortunately but one comment sums everything up nicely. “People like to wear bracelets. They’re more durable and it’s part of the casual movement of culture,” Eric Wind, of vintage watch retailer Wind Vintage told GQ last year. Any number of watch brand CEOs, including Wilhelm Schmid of A. Lange & Söhne, and Edouard Meylan of H. Moser & Cie, echo these sentiments, especially the part about the continuing expansion of casual wear over formal wear. Metal bracelets do have the advantage of being suitable for both casual and formal occasions, especially when compared with leather or rubber. It is indeed a funny sort of world, where something born of the world of jewellery becomes a sign of being casual, just by virtue of being rendered in a non-precious metal.
FIT FOR THE WRIST
The watch bracelet that emerged in the 20th century was a very particular sort of animal, completely apart from anything in jewellery. For one thing, the 1930s saw an explosion of watches made in steel, with accompanying bracelets, and firms that made said bracelets had experience with this metal; steel was alien to most jewellers, for obvious reasons, but also to most high-end makers of watches. Wristwatches were still relatively new, and the strap option most watchmakers went for was leather. A quick glance at trade press advertising (see EuropaStar archives) reveals various makers of bands and bracelets all vying for the attention of watchmakers. The short of it is that, for the most part, the only parties with an appreciation for the particularities of bracelets were the brands, and this remains the case today.
This lack of attention by the public relations and marketing departments sometimes signals that there is real value to be found in the watch band. Indeed, the few times brands do make a big deal of the little bits that make a timepiece a wristwatch it is to highlight a particular partnership. This includes the ongoing ones between Parmigiani Fleurier and Hermes, IWC and Santoni, and Jaeger-LeCoultre and Casa Fagliano. This year, there is a very nice paracord strap (made from parachute cord, hence the name) from Luminox for its new series designed by Bear Grylls and something on the eco-friendly front from Breitling, namely the Econyl fabric straps.
Of course, where leather, rubber, silicone or fabric is concerned, no one expects Swiss watchmakers to have those skills mastered in-house. Yes, H. Moser & Cie made some jokes about this but it is all rather more telling when the watch uses a metal bracelet. Brands make their cases out of metals so it seems they have adjacent expertise, at the very least – unless they use a specialised third-party casemaker of course. A metal bracelet will feel like a true part of the watch, rather than something nice and sturdy keeping it close to your skin. In other words, the bracelet should really be considered part of the watch, as we have argued in the previous segment. For its part, H. Moser & Cie makes its argument completely tangible in the Streamliner watch.
Bear in mind that it does not have to be this way at all, and in most cases it is not. The example of the Patek Philippe 19th century watch illustrates that the design of watch and bracelet can be entirely separate. While it is clear that the first watches designed to be worn with a band were introduced in the 19th century, these bands are not bracelets. Bracelets themselves are a bit mysterious, despite being the part of the watch that we interact with most frequently — as mentioned, bracelets are also part of the story of jewellery and now wearables (though not in metal). In short, this is a big subject to grapple with, and even the most interesting parts are a bit subdued.
ODDS AND ENDS
For example, every watch magazine runs multiple stories per issue on mechanical calibres. However, these same titles will go years without addressing bracelets and straps. This is one of the reasons so many titles have not addressed the matter of exotic skins in the watch trade. We do not have time to tackle this important detail in this story but the tl;dr of it is that these will be passé, even if they remain available in many Asian markets. From this year onwards, the use of crocodile and alligator leather is banned in California, and the implications are far-reaching because of course watch straps are affected. Even Rolex takes a hit here since it does offer crocodile leather straps.
WOW is certainly not exempt from the above criticism on coverage, especially with regards to how often we shoot watches with bracelets. It is a matter of convenience; truth be told because the bracelet makes it difficult to position and handle the watch. It has nothing to do with how the watch wears because such watches wear exceptionally well, when fitted properly.
The big chunky links of the Oyster bracelet have influenced bracelet design in watches across the board; it might be the most imitated style in the world
Anyway, as previously noted, this is a trade-wide issue not a media issue. Only Rolex and Hermès talk up their bands, and only in the way that makes sense for each. Obviously, that means Rolex discusses its bracelets but not leather straps, while La Montre Hermès does the opposite. Most brand executives confess, in informal discussions, that making bracelets is a frightfully difficult business that is best left to the experts – meaning third-party vendors. This contrasts strongly with watchmaking brands complaining publicly and privately about fashion labels attempting to make wristwatches. The most famous of these must be the late Nicolas G. Hayek’s rant about his tailor (Ermenegildo ‘Gildo’ Zegna) trying to enter the watch business (as recounted by Joe Thompson for Hodinkee). Hardly anybody says anything about the makers of bracelets, other than to note that they are skilled professionals who provide a necessary and much-appreciated service.
On that note, nothing illustrates the above point better than a look at one such manufacturer of bracelets. Perhaps one day, the story of Gay Frères will echo across more brands in watchmaking.