Which watch strap is right for you: Leather, NATO, rubber, or metal bracelet?
Allow me to break down the pros and cons of each common watch strap material to help you decide which is best for you.
There are many comparisons that can be drawn between cars and watches which explains why many car people out there will often have an interest in timepieces, whether you’re interested in the mechanical componentry of watches, you’re someone stylishly-inclined, or you like modifying anything you can get your hands on.
In the case of the latter two, choosing the right strap for your watch is a big part of it, as while a watch may have a beautiful dial, the strap is what really ties the whole design together, similarly to the band on a ring that accentuates the focal diamond, or the right wheels and fitment for them on a car.
Whether you’re looking to buy a new watch and having a hard time what sort of strap to get it with from new, or you’re about to pull out your spring bar tool to freshen up one you’ve already got with a new strap, hopefully this handy guide will help guide you in the right direction for your needs as I weigh up the pros and cons of each of the most conventional watch strap materials and styles.
Just to assert the JDM-ness of this elegant Orient Sun and Moon V3 on a crocodile-textured genuine leather strap that I picked up in Tokyo, here's a wrist check from the top floor of the Miraikan.
The go-to strap material for many, leather straps offer many benefits for everyday wear. Not least is the classiness of a leather strap, as a high-quality grained or textured band will look the part in any circumstance. Leather's hard-wearing properties and soft, comfortable feel also makes it a good bet for wearing all day.
On the downside, however, leather will deteriorate over time, primarily due to moisture or a lack thereof, as too much will discolour the leather and too little will see it dry up and wrinkle or potentially crumble away after excessive wear. Genuine leather straps can also be fairly expensive compared to some options on this list, but with that price point does come high quality.
The Citizen on the left here originally had a rather dinged-up metal bracelet that I swapped out for this sporty NATO that totally enhanced its look, while the eBay-special Raketa on the right originally came with an awful faux-leather strap.
Developed by the British Ministry of Defence for wartime usage, NATO straps have become increasingly popular after being fitted to the Omegas worn on James Bond's wrist. The NATO strap's biggest party piece is that if one spring bar is to pop out of place, the watch will not fall down as the way the strap is looped together around the spring bars and behind the watch itself, something which I have experienced the benefits of first-hand.
Also bolstering the typical nylon NATO's popularity is its incredibly affordable price point and broad range of colour options. The ability to remove and change straps in a matter of seconds its also a big selling point.
This affordable option isn't without its drawbacks though, as they will require fairly regular washing if worn daily due to their dirt, moisture, and smell absorption. Go for a silly colour like I have on most of mine and they're difficult to dress up as well, although if you opt for a subtle black it is possible.
These two Casios have taken a beating while picking grapes at vineyards and stacking supermarket shelves, not that you'd be able to tell.
Rubber straps – perhaps most commonly seen on notably durable watches such as Casio G-Shocks or Richard Hammond's Tissot T-Touch – are known for being as durable as the tough timepieces they're fitted to. It's quite probably the best option for you if your watch is going to be getting wet on a regular basis as well, given it doesn't absorb moisture like the two materials previously mentioned.
The downside here is that rubber straps only really suit 'work' watches as it can look cheap compared to some materials and is probably the last strap material you'd try to dress up. It's not really breathable, either, meaning you may find it getting a bit sweaty underneath in warmer climates. Although I have heard some people mention they've found rubber straps to start taking on unpleasant smells over time, this isn't something I've personally experienced, but it's worth mentioning anyway.
The chunky bracelet on this Seiko Turtle has been purposefully chosen to best serve it on its deep-diving duties.
A watch on a metal bracelet is perfect for making it look expensive, especially with big, chunky links, which helps it look classy with a suit, yet still work with anything much like – if not even better than – leather.
The strong construction of metal bracelets gives a certain feeling of solidarity comparable to the way a German car door closes, particularly in the case of a bracelet like that shown above which not only has a deployant clasp but pin-and-collar links which are hard to remove but offer good security. For dive watches like this, their handling of water exposure if made of stainless steel is also worth mentioning.
In the case of big metal links and hefty clasps, they are very easy to scratch up over time if you don't take care, although something like a mesh-style bracelet would potentially avoid some of this issue. They can be much, much heavier than the other options listed as well, although for some this will be a selling point due to the reasoning of heaviness equalling quality. Go for a cheap watch with a cheap bracelet and there's a good chance it'll rattle around annoyingly as well, although stepping up in price even just a bit from the bottom of the barrel will avoid this issue.
The look of a NATO strap when worn on the wrist is distinctly recognisable.
So, which do I prefer?
Well, before I try to come up with a definitive answer here, a point that must be made is that I own watches with all four of these types of straps, as evidenced by the fact that all the watches you see here are from my humble collection. As such, I’ve spent plenty of time living day-to-day with each type as I’ve slowly filled the watch box, and for me, it definitely depends on an as-needs basis.
While I was a poor university student, I stuck with fun and most importantly affordable NATO straps which I could replace for a tenner when they got too manky, while when at work in the particularly laborious jobs I was doing at the time, a Casio on its original rubber strap was about the best option one could hope for, as evidenced by most of the other grape pickers, shelf-stackers, and hospos I’ve worked with also opting for them.
But as I personally try to reserve leather straps – which I’d say is what I find the most comfortable option – for cooler days or more formal occasions as I’m rather a heavy sweater and don’t want to trash straps too quickly, links just make the most sense for me personally to wear everyday doing what I do now.
On a dive watch like my go-to Seiko Turtle especially, all the benefits of strong water resistance, durability, and easy cleaning are matched well with classy looks that catch the eyes of plenty – not that I care about people looking at my watch – and even if it may be a heavy bit of kit, I still find it comfortable and reassuringly sturdy to wear.
But don’t take my word for it because everyone will have their own opinion – go and try them all yourself and see what works for you, and feel free to let myself and the rest of the tribe know which you prefer.