I imagine many of you reading the title of this article will think I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole when I say I value the bracelet more than the watch itself. How can a simple chain of metal links with a clasp and some spring bars possibly be more important than a beautifully cased-up mechanical movement, or a high precision feat of quartz engineering? After all, the watch head is the part that actually tells the time, while a bracelet merely serves as an anchor point onto one’s wrist.
Before you all close your browser windows or navigate away from this clearly bonkers watch writer, let me at least try to qualify this admittedly controversial opinion for you. I’ll begin with a small but important tangent about the difference between bracelets and straps.
To explore this topic, let me ask the leading question: which watch would you recognize by the strap alone? Most of the time out in the real world the most visible part of our watch is the strap or bracelet; it takes up the most wrist real-estate, covering the sides and underside of our wrist while the watch head only covers the top.
Without the ability to check the branding on the underside of the leather, could you even identify a strap as belonging to a particular watchmaker?
This is a very difficult task even for those of us who live and breathe watches in a professional capacity. The strap pictured above is made by Patek Philippe, but only those very familiar with the brand and the shape of their pin buckles could guess that from this view.
Trying to pin it down to a particular watch, if you’ll forgive the pun, is even more difficult. This strap could belong to two Patek Philippe Calatrava references (5196J, 5227J), one Complication (5231J), or one Grand Complication (5327J), and that’s only in their current catalogue.
In contrast, there are no prizes for guessing the above image as belonging to a steel Patek Philippe Nautilus. The Nautilus is one of Patek’s best-selling collections, and a large part of that is due to the unique Gerald Genta designed bracelets. While the shiny brown alligator strap could belong to anyone at a glance, and after some deeper research could potentially be narrowed down to three collections from one watchmaker, the Nautilus bracelet is instantly recognizable.
This little experiment leads into my first argument for bracelets being more important than you might have thought. A strap of leather, rubber or nylon might be comfortable, it might be well suited to a particular outfit or occasion, but it will always be a rather forgettable accessory to the watch itself.
When paired with a strap the watch head takes dominance over the overall aesthetic, as even an enthusiast will struggle to find any recognizable or unique characteristics in a strap. However, there are some bracelets which are icons in their own right, as much a part of the overall aesthetic of the watch as the case and dial.
Notice how when discussing the Nautilus bracelet I cited Gerald Genta as the designer, while the alligator leather strap gets no such credit? This leads me into my next argument for the importance of bracelets; they have history.
A leather strap is a leather strap, their shapes and designs are usually pretty generic and the original strapmaker is often not even mentioned. Some exceptions do exist, like the straps by Italian shoemaker Santoni used by IWC, or the Argentinian bootmaker Casa Fagliano who supplies Cordovan leather straps for the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.
But these can hardly compare to the rich history of bracelet design for watchmaking, and how finely crafted bracelets by specific manufacturers became emblematic of particular eras, particular brands, or even particular lifestyles.
The bracelet pictured above is also a Gerald Genta design, made by the legendary bracelet manufacturer Gay Frères for Audemars Piguet. Gay Frères was founded way back in 1835 before wristwatches were even a thing, and back then they were known as a chainiste, a maker of pocket watch chains.
Clients of Gay Frères over the following centuries would include the most illustrious watchmakers, such as all of the Big Three of Swiss watchmaking (Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin), Zenith for their “ladder” El Primero bracelet, Heuer (before their acquisition by TAG) and Rolex, who eventually acquired them in 1998.
Vintage Gay Frères bracelets are often worth more than the watches they are attached to. All this history lets us view that Audemars Piguet bracelet in a new light. Not only are we looking at a finely finished piece of metalwork that happens to be holding our watch onto our wrist, we’re looking at something created by the most influential Swiss watch designer of all time (Genta), made by the most prestigious bracelet manufacturer (Gay Frères), which helped the Swiss watch industry as a whole survive the Quartz Crisis. Show me the leather strap that can tell such a story.
We’ve established two important aspects of bracelets so far; they can be instantly recognizable, and they can offer deep history. Is this beginning to sound similar to the reasons we, as watch enthusiasts, purchase timepieces to begin with?
If not, let me continue onto my third and possibly most important argument for the value of bracelets; they are enduring.
A leather strap is a consumable item, usually offering a few years of every day wear before sweat and exposure begin to deteriorate the material and repeated buckling/unbuckling start to stretch the prong holes like an old belt. Nylon and rubber are a little more robust, but will also show fading, fraying and cracking over time. A steel bracelet will get scratched up, but its performance and robustness will likely outlive the watch it is attached to, and scratches can be polished out if the owner so desires.
Longevity and lasting value are a big part of why I enjoy watches. In a modern world of planned obsolescence and a pervasive replace instead of repair mentality, I find the non-transient nature of watches appealing. And what better way to celebrate these values than with an iconic bracelet?