A Thorough Guide to Watch Straps: Different Types and the Best Ones to Buy

From steel and rubber to leather, NATO, perlon and more

December 21, 2022 7:26 am
the best watch bands, straps and bracelets on a blue background

Once you have a decent grasp of different types of watches, your focus may turn toward accessorizing said timepieces. After all, one can’t very well fund a new Patek Philippe purchase each month — but one sure as hell can switch out the strap once in a while!

But beyond playing dress up with your favorite watch — and yes: fully grown men do this, sad as it may be to admit — understanding the different types of watch straps and when each is appropriate, where to source them from, what their histories are, etc, is supremely helpful. (Knowing, for example, that only Sean Connery can pull off the combination of white dinner jacket, Rolex Submariner, and regimental nylon strap will probably save you some undue sartorial embarrassment the next time you find yourself in Jamaica.)

Of course, unless you’re buying a watch “head only” (i.e. just the watch head itself) from a vintage or pre-owned dealer, your timepiece will almost certainly show up on a perfectly good strap. Most of these are serviceable, some are truly great, and a select few, such as the titanium dive bracelet with automatically expanding clasp that comes with Tudor’s larger Pelagos models, are freaking genius. 

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Regardless of the quality of the strap on which your watch arrives, however, many folks prefer to experiment with other straps — they remove the metal bracelet from their dive watches and switch ‘em out for NATO straps, or they throw their pilot’s watches on Bund straps. (Or, if one is clinically insane, one can remove the straps from several watches and simply walk the streets of New York with a pocket full of jangling watch heads, sans straps. We don’t recommend this, however.) Switching out straps is simply part of the fun of collecting watches, and best of all: straps are much more affordable than watches themselves, so building a collection of them is relatively painless. 

Before we get started, it pays to familiarize yourself with different types of watches. Check out some of our guides to the following timepiece categories:


Dive watches

Military watches

Dress watches

Pilot’s watches

GMT watches

Now, without further ado, let’s get strapped. 

best metal watch bracelets on a blue background

Metal Bracelets

Many timepieces still ship on metal bracelets — steel, titanium, precious metals, or otherwise. In fact, the list of occasions on which a metal bracelet is inappropriate is actually much shorter than the amount of instances in which they’re a great fit. (Dress watches, for example, are classically best styled on thin leather straps, generally black or brown. And a shiny, reflective metal bracelet would need to be covered if worn during military service — those pesky reflections can be seen from far away.) 

Bracelets come in many forms, and if you’d like to really take a deep dive into their history, we recommend exploring the Gay Frères company, which produced numerous notable types before being subsumed into the juggernaut that is Rolex in 1998. From the wartime “bonklip” to the gloriously elegant “beads of rice” to the mesh “Milanese,” metal bracelets are versatile, robust, and often beautiful. But perhaps none is more ubiquitous, imitated, or lasting than the Rolex Oyster, which still ships in various guises on different Rolex watches — most notably, on the Submariner.

Three Excellent Metal Bracelets:

Bulang & Sons Beads of Rice Straight End Link Steel ~$131
Available in various lengths and diameters, this vintage 1930s/1940s-style “beads of rice” looks best paired with a vintage watch — especially a chronograph.

Strap Code Super-JUB II QR $72
An aftermarket version of Rolex’s beloved “Jubilee” bracelet, this tapered version comes with straight “quick-release” end links and a double-button diver’s clasp.

Forstner Ladder Bracelet $125
Perhaps no one is doing bigger things in bracelets these days than Forstner, whose “ladder” bracelet recreates a vintage Gay Frères style that once accompanied the Zenith El Primero. 

the best leather watch straps on a blue background

Leather Straps

This is a startlingly broad category — and that’s a wonderful thing! A leather strap is no longer merely the expensive, lizard or alligator hide affair that comes paired to a $30,000 dress watch from the likes of Patek or Vacheron. These days, one can find leather straps in all kinds of guises: some are painstakingly modeled after particular vintage types, while others are wildly creative and colorful contemporary works of art. The trick is knowing where to look for them, as there’s unfortunately plenty of poorly made garbage out there. 

A well made bovine leather strap generally costs somewhere in the $75-$150 range, give or take. Once you get into straps made from exotic materials, such as lizard, snake, ostrich, alligator, etc, the price increases to $200+. However, these days more and more folks object to using such materials, and happily, there’s a growing market of alternatives: Some companies make bovine leather straps embossed to look like lizard, for example, while others make vegan leather straps whose manufacture does not use animal products at all. 

Three Excellent Leather Straps:

Bas & Lokes Everett Light Grey Suede Watch Strap $159
Handmade in Sydney, Australia and customizable, this gorgeous suede strap is almost laughably comfortable, and a perfect, dressy accompaniment to a beloved tool watch.

The Amagoh Vegan Pineapple Leather Watch Strap In Carlsbad Caverns $85
HODINKEE sells a plethora of well made straps, perhaps none quite as interesting as this vegan leather model, which is — believe it or not — made from pineapple leaves. 

The Strap Tailor Pueblo Leather Bund Watch Strap – Stealth Black $154
The “Bund” strap is a popular accessory to watches issued to the German Bundeswehr in the 1970s. This modern calfskin version is customizable and beautiful. 

the best nato straps on a blue background

NATO Straps

The contemporary nylon NATO is an outgrowth of several types of military-issued straps that came about between World War II and the 1970s. In its current guise, the NATO consists of two lengths of nylon, one long, and one short — the longer length is secured to the watch using its spring (or fixed) bars between the lugs, while the shorter length connects to the first via a metal keeper. The entire shebang is then cinched to the wrist and secured via a pin buckle and keepers.

Though its has its origins in the military — the strap’s design means that the watch head is firmly secured both along the length of the strap and upon one’s wrist — the NATO is perfectly suited to any active lifestyle: Get ‘em wet, get ‘em greasy, it doesn’t matter; simply wash it the sink, let it dry, and voila! Best of all: NATOs are inexpensive, and you don’t have to spend much for quality. (One thing to note: We don’t recommend SCUBA diving with a NATO — they loosen underwater, and can slip off one’s wrist!)

Three Excellent NATO Straps:

Wind Up Watch Shop US-Made ADPT Mil-Strap $48
If you are inclined to spend a bit more on a NATO in order to purchase something American-made, we highly recommend the stiff and robust ADPT strap. 

UTE Watch Co. The Sumba Nylon Watch Strap In Army Green $20
Probably the best $20 you’ll ever spend in watches, this NATO is thoughtfully designed, well sized at 290mm, and features excellent hardware. 

Crown & Buckle Supreme NATO $34
A popular and emerging sub-category within NATOs is the premium “seatbelt” style. This example from Crown & Buckle is comfortable, smooth, and available in different colors. 

the best rubbber straps on a blue background

Rubber Straps

If you’re going to be sweating or spending an extended period of time underwater — i.e. diving! — then a rubber strap is your new best friend. While vintage examples would become brittle over time and were prone to cracking, modern types are made of higher-tech materials, and many are even hypoallergenic. (These days there are even rubber one-piece straps, which are pass-through types styled after vintage military straps. Pretty cool!) Once again, we’re spoiled for choice in this category.

In the 1960s, many dive watches actually shipped on OEM rubber straps, such as those from ISOfrane and Seiko. Thankfully, numerous companies have resurrected these vintage styles, which are once again available to accompany you (and your watch) to the depths of the ocean — or, at least roughly 40m into its depths. While rubber straps typically pair with dive watches, there’s nothing stopping you from wearing one with, say, a water-resistant chronograph. (We’d probably recommend not pairing one to your vintage Patek Philippe Calatrava, however.)

Three Excellent Rubber Straps:  

Tropic Strap $79
The contemporary Tropic — with its “tapestry” pattern vulcanized leather surface — is made to mimic the 1960s originals, which dedicated SCUBA divers swore by. 

ISOfrane Strap $139+
Developed in the 1960s from rubber used in the automotive industry, the ISOfrane strap is unabashedly heavy-duty and thick — perfect for plying the ocean’s depths. 

Hirsch Urbane Natural Rubber Watch Strap $87
If you’re looking for an everyday rubber strap with the aesthetics of a leather strap — well, here you go! This one’s all natural, waterproof, and hypoallergenic, too.

the best perlon straps on a blue background

Perlon Straps

Though not as popular as NATOs, perlons are of a similar ilk: Made of woven nylon, they pass between the spring bars on your watch and lay flat against the watch’s caseback. Unlike NATOs, however, they only have one length of fabric, meaning the watch head sits much closer to one’s wrist. Also, unlike NATOS, perlons are braided from small nylon loops — rather than one, tightly woven length — making for a different feeling against the skin. They’re also fast-drying, and because of how they’re woven, can be adjusted to nearly any size along the length of the strap.

Flexible, colorful, and best of all — cheap — perlons can be had from many different sellers these days. Still, we say spend a bit more money for one made by a reputable strap specialist such as Crown & Buckle or HODINKEE — invariably, these will last longer than some $3 model you find on Amazon. Perfect for hot summer weather, a good perlon is so light and supple that you’ll likely forget you’re even wearing it.

Three Excellent Perlon Straps

The Logan Strap by HODINKEE $14 
Modeled after the original perlons developed in Germany in the 1950s, the Logan is woven by master craftsmen who supply nylon to the automotive and aeronautical industries. 

Crown & Buckle Linen Melange Perlon $16
Woven from two thread colors, this contemporary offering from C&B features an adjustable length, brushed stainless steel buckle and an extra floating nylon keeper.

Clockwork Synergy Perlon Strap $12
Featuring a heat-sealed end and available in myriad colors, widths, and buckle types, this fun offering from Clockwork Synergy is a great, affordable perlon choice.

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