Watch Straps

Beginner’s Guide The Best Watch Straps To Wear For Every Activity

Stay strapped.

Strap accumulation is a real thing; sometimes I feel like I’m more of a strap collector than I am a watch enthusiast. We often say that changing a watch’s strap is akin to changing its entire personality; putting on a NATO strap is like taking off your dress shoes after a long day and settling into a pair of house slippers.

Most watch straps, like the watches they serve, were designed with a purpose in mind. So given this week’s exploration of The Great Outdoors in watches, it’s as good a time as any to break down the circumstances and occasions when you might want to opt for rubber over steel, or nylon over leather.

Let’s face it, life is far too short to stick with a stock strap.

The Humble NATO Strap

The Take: Everyone’s first aftermarket strap, the ubiquitous NATO. Originally designed to meet the G1098 spec created by the British Ministry of Defense in the 1970s, these nylon straps were asked to be both tough and comfortable, easily adjustable and secure on the wrist. The NATO strap has, of course, exploded past its original military designation thanks to its easy-wearing style and affordable nature.

Not all NATO-style straps are created equal, of course. (Show of hands – how many of us have been disappointed by the quality of that five-dollar impulse Amazon purchase?) But the best NATO straps will simply make the experience of wearing a watch a little easier and a bit more comfortable. It’s the simple things that make this hobby worthwhile, like putting a dive watch on a grey NATO at the first sign of summer.

The Activity: My NATO straps have a seasonal presence in my watch collection. They came out in May, and hit the (overflowing) strap drawer in October. Any NATO strap should be more than suitable for swimming, hiking, camping, pickup basketball, really anything outdoors at all. A good NATO will dry quickly and if a springbar happens to fly off while climbing a 14er, the NATO will keep you from losing the rest of your watch. If you’re going someplace unpredictable, a solid NATO will be hard to beat in its versatility.

The Sumba Nylon Watch Strap (Multiple Colors)
The Sumba Nylon Watch Strap (Multiple Colors)

Hot Tip: If you don’t like how high a watch on a NATO strap sits, make sure and check out James’s trick for a better-fitting strap. If you don’t want to carve up a strap, however, the two-piece NATO exists as a more lightweight, if slightly less secure, option.

The Reliable Rubber Strap

The Take: Rubber is great. You always know what you’re getting with a rubber strap. It’s flexible, it’s ductile, it’s resilient – it’s rubbery. But it’s not inherently versatile. Rubber makes for a wonderful strap material in so many ways, but it’s also limited by its synthetic nature. Rubber is rubber. You won’t want to wear a rubber strap to work, school, or dinner, but when the weekend rolls around, it makes for a great poolside accoutrement.

A vintage Tropic strap

The most famous rubber watch straps are those that came attached to vintage dive watches in the 1960s and ’70s and featured a waffle-like exterior texture. The legendary “Tropic” watch strap is the way to go if you’re hunting for a rubber strap for messing around by the beach. In more recent times, there has been a boom in the development of aftermarket providers of integrated rubber straps to fit popular sport watches from Rolex, Panerai, and other brands. At one point, I purchased one of these for my Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight. I found that as comfortable and sleek as it looked at first, the novelty was short. The texture was too peculiar to wear for too long. Back to the bracelet I went. Your mileage may vary.

Rubber straps galore.

The Activity: Rubber straps are made to get wet. Water literally rolls right off the material. For spending any amount of time underwater, it’s hard to imagine a better alternative.

Hot Tip: You’ll sometimes see watch brands refer to their rubber straps as silicone or caoutchouc.

The Underestimated Perlon Strap

The Take: Originally developed in Germany in the 1950s, perlon can be identified by its unique cross-weave pattern and single pass construction. An alternative to the more common NATO strap, a perlon strap offers a more lightweight and breathable construction. Where NATOs can sit thick and high on the wrist (hence James’s famous solution), a perlon strap has a gossamer, feather-like quality that makes for easy wearability on humid summer days.

I’m a bit biased toward perlon straps. In full transparency, they’re my personal summer go-to and are one of my favorite ways to add a touch of texture or color to a watch. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy good NATO strap (and own plenty of them), I just like the qualities of perlon a bit more on my wrist.

The Activity: More water-adjacent activities? How predictable. But seriously, in my personal experience, perlon straps are better for casual swimming and hanging out at the beach. Compared to a NATO, a quality perlon strap will dry quicker, will be more breathable on the wrist, and is even easier to rinse (sandy NATO = rash waiting to happen).

Hot Tip: The cross-weave pattern allows for infinite micro-adjustment. Perlon straps are the only strap option I’m aware of that will allow you to find the perfect fit, every time.

The Inimitable Metal Bracelet

The Take: Oyster. Jubilee. Beads of rice. Milanese. Bonklip! There are so many different kinds of watch bracelets available today. Most watchmakers and many collectors even consider high-end bracelet design and construction an art unto itself. Most frequently crafted from stainless steel or gold (other frequently used materials include ceramic, platinum, and titanium), a quality metal bracelet will consist of individual links set in series, typically with a taper that eventually meets a clasp. Links can be taken out (by screw, push-pin, or the dreaded pin-and-collar) to find the appropriate fit on the wrist. Some bracelets incorporate a micro-adjustment system into the clasp, many others don’t. The biggest downside of a bracelet is exactly that – they won’t fit every wrist, no matter the adjustments. There will always be some people who are unable to adjust a bracelet to find the perfect fit.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on bracelets and watches. There are people on one side who won’t buy a watch without a bracelet, and countless others will eternally opt out for a strap alternative. (I lean toward the latter.) Bracelets are, quite honestly, an intimate thing. You could easily rationalize that a bracelet is the third most important element on any given watch, after the case and movement, for the amount of time it spends on your wrist itself. You could even go so far as to say it’s the most important when it comes to wearability and comfort. When a bracelet is prioritized and engineered to fit a specific case from the ground up – the Bulgari Octo Finissimo bracelet is a great example of this – it is absolutely a work of high design and has artistic merit. With great exception, however, the experience of a high-quality watch bracelet is limited to higher price points.

The Activity: A good bracelet can truly go anywhere and do anything. There’s a reason it’s impossible to remove the bracelet on certain high-end watches like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. Metal bracelets can be used underwater, on dry land, or in the air. They can be worn with a suit on the red carpet, at the gym, or lazing around on the couch. A watch’s OEM (that’s original equipment manufacturer, aka the one it comes with) bracelet will likely always be the most versatile option available to you.

El Primero A384 Revival On Ladder Bracelet
El Primero A384 Revival On Ladder Bracelet

Hot Tip: When given the choice between purchasing the same watch with either a strap or a bracelet, go for the bracelet. You can always swap it to an aftermarket leather strap later. Although opting for the bracelet variant will be more expensive at the moment, it will save you money in the long run if you do decide you’d like to wear the watch on its bracelet one day. Unlike a leather strap, you’ll likely have to go back to the manufacturer to buy the OEM bracelet. Trust us – that’s an expensive route to take. Aftermarket bracelet options are far fewer than strap alternatives, but they do exist. I’ve heard great things about Forstner Bands.

The Audacious Bund Strap

The Take: If it’s controversy you seek, look no further. The bund strap is a relic of ’70s style that was made popular on the wrist of Steve McQueen and Robert Redford. It’s a literal leather cuff with a watch strapped to its center, with a layer of leather between the watch and wrist.

The bund strap has its roots in aviation. The German air force, or Bundesrepublik, supplied pilot’s watches situated on leather pads to address temperature changes in the air. The other commonly cited reason was to protect pilots in the case of a cockpit fire or crash, where extreme heat combined with a watch’s metal case could damage flesh.

The Activity: To be completely and brutally honest, I don’t quite know when to wear a bund strap. Maybe when fighting a bear? Is a bund strap required attire for chopping wood in sub-zero temperatures? Who knows. I sit at my desk and write about watches all day. If I ever get a pilot’s license, I’ll promise to give the bund strap a whirl on my favorite tool watch. Until then, my misanthropic perception of ’70s-era masculinity keeps me away.

Hot Tip: Ignore my above soapbox; instead, give Jason Heaton’s classic defense of the bund strap a read.

The Ageless Leather Strap

The Take: Dread it. Run from it. Leather arrives all the same. It’s the most common type of strap for a reason. Leather is comfortable, attractive, simple to source, and available in countless sizes, textures, and colors. Wear your watch on calfskin while at the office all day, and then swap it out for alligator before dinner. You’ll have a completely different watch.

It’s an unspoken truth, but more often than not, the OEM strap your watch is delivered on isn’t that great in terms of quality. There are, of course, countless exceptions to that but I’m sure each of us has been victimized by excessively stiff straps arriving on a new watch. The wonderful thing about the continued evolution of the watch internet is that there are now more options than ever before for sourcing a high-quality leather strap for your watch. I can’t imagine the watch hobby without it.

The Activity: For all of its enduring popularity, leather straps can actually be very situation dependent. You won’t want to take your leather strap anywhere where it might get wet; if you opt for a suede strap, I’d even recommend you check the forecast before going out. No one likes soggy suede. You won’t want to do any sort of strenuous exercise with a leather strap on; salty sweat is persona non grata with leather. A simple, attractive leather strap is best for all the unexceptional circumstances in life – dinner with a friend, going in to the office, enjoying a walk. A good-quality leather strap will even patina with wear and use. Leather is for living (dryly).

Hot Tip: Don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of leather. My current affair with shell cordovan would have never happened if I hadn’t snagged one on a whim one day.

The New Kid On The Block – Alternative Leather Straps

The Take: New, experimental materials come along all the time, but the question is if they have the staying power to survive in the old-school-loving watch world. Artificial leather products are trending in all sorts of industries these days, and it seems like they just might stick around these parts. Just recently, Greubel Forsey, arguably the most high-priced watch company in the world right now, announced its intent to switch over to 100 percent alternative leather solutions for its straps. With an average price point well into the six figures, the negative-minded among us might have expected some more exotic type of animal-based leather to cement the company’s exclusivity, but no, starting January 1, 2022, all OEM Greubel Forsey straps will be plant-based.

Look, there’s no reason to beat around the bush, you likely already know if an alternative leather strap is the right fit for you. The materials will continue to evolve as time passes, and I’m sure it’s something we’ll see more and more of in the next few years. These straps aren’t going away.

The Activity: Alternative leather straps mimic the feel of weight, surface, and texture of animal-based leather, but they can have entirely different qualities. For example, the pineapple leather-based Amagoh Watch Strap in the HODINKEE Shop is naturally water resistant. As a result, when I purchased one of them (I went with Glacier Bay) over the summer, I was naturally more at ease with wearing the strap by the pool and when it might rain.

Hot Take: Some of the alternative leather straps I’ve tried take a moment to break in – if that happens to you, don’t dismiss them outright. They shouldn’t be stiff out of the box like leather straps can occasionally be, rather it feels like the fibers need a moment to loosen around my wrist.

A watch strap is a mirror for life in that way; sometimes it takes time to get comfortable and find the right fit.

Photos, Tiffany Wade.


Most of the pictured straps are available in the HODINKEE Shop; explore the full selection here.