How to Pick the Best Leather for Your Watch Strap

It’s a curious thing, the impact that a strap or bracelet has on the aesthetics of a watch.

A blingy yellow gold bracelet when worn on a Rolex Day-Date may conjure images of Tony Soprano and his crew idling in front of a Newark pork store. However, that very same watch paired with, say, a cognac brown calfskin strap, with tone on tone hand stitching, becomes elegant and even understated. In the same way, a plain and simple Timex can go from pedestrian to dapper by dawning an exotic hide.

So how do you go about styling your watch?

Watch straps are made in a dizzying array of materials, from vegetable tanned leather and alligator skin to woven nylon and vulcanized rubber.

How Are You Going to Use Your Watch?

Thus, when embarking on the mission of choosing a strap, or a wardrobe of straps for your watch, the question that must first be asked is, ‘How am I going to use this watch?’

Is this rugged dive watch ever going to see salt water, or will it be more of a desk diver? Is my slim time only watch going to accompany me to a black tie dinner, or brunch the morning after? Perhaps you’re one of the lucky enthusiasts who is content with a one watch collection and need your piece to transition effortlessly from day to night.

The secret to having a dynamic watch collection is knowing how to pair a timepiece with different materials for different settings. After all, your selection is really only limited to your imagination and budget, or certain international trade restrictions. (We can probably all agree it’s best to avoid the hides of endangered species.)

calfskin leather watch straps
A series of calf straps from Analog/ShiftL Kahlua Taupe, Stout Black, Rye Brown, and Mojito Green. These are supple, top grain leathers.

Calfskin Leather: The Best Leather for Watch Straps?

For leather straps, calf skin leather is a safe go to for daytime or nighttime wear. Think of it as the Oxford cap toe of watch bands: a bit dressed up, but generally appropriate anywhere you’d want to go as long as it’s not too formal. Most of the premium leather straps you’ll find on the market are calf skin because it is comfortable and classic.

Other Leather Watch Straps

Other forms of cow leather are commonly used for watch straps as well, including vegetable tanned, suede or texturized leathers.

suede watch strap
A Rolex DayDate (with a Tiffany signed dial) on green suede strap with contrasting gold stitching.

Suede Watch Straps

Suede tends to offer a more casual, yet still considerate look and can be worn in a very similar way to suede boots or shoes.

textured leather watch strap
A Rolex 1680 ‘Red’ Submariner on textured grey strap – Quartermain Alpine grey with its goat skin-like textured pattern.

Textured Leathers for Watch Straps

Waxed cowhide stamped with texture, such as Saffiano leather, offer a more chic way to dress up a timepiece without going full on evening wear. Think of these as the Chelsea boots or wingtips of the strap world.

exotic leather watch strap
Two straps: one from Analog/Shift, a mojito green calf strap and one an OEM Rolex alligator strap. Both on 18k Yellow Gold Rolexes.

Exotic Leather Watch Straps

Yet more formal still are the exotic leathers – this is where alligator, crocodile, stingray, and others come into play. Gator hide is a common go to for many luxury watch manufacturers, but can also be custom made by some high end strap or leather goods companies.

nylon watch strap
Nato style nylon strap, Olive Drab green. Of military origin, these straps are often used for field watches or sport watches.

Non-Leather Watch Strap Options

The most casual options are going to be synthetic materials: woven NATO-style nylon, vulcanized or silicone rubber, plastic. The straps are all going to sit squarely in the realm of sporty. While there are some fun and subversive ways to wear these straps on dress watches, you will often see them on dive, pilot, or field watches.

How to Avoid Overpaying for Watch Straps

Once you’ve picked the desired aesthetic, it’s time to learn what many have learned before: watch straps can be unbelievably expensive.

If you’ve ever purchased a well-made belt and paid a couple hundred dollars and then turned around to buy a watch strap, you may be surprised to find that it too can cost a couple hundred dollars. So what’s going on here?

The fact of the matter is sometimes watch straps are overpriced. Plain and simple. Often times, if you’re on a budget and looking to mix up the look of your timepieces, the brand or manufacturer of your watch is probably not where you want to go to buy a strap. When you buy a name-brand strap, you’re usually just paying for that name. As such, it behooves you to look a further afield to third part brands that offer similar, if not superior quality materials, at far more reasonable prices.

Great options include:

This is where the discerning buyer has to look closer to find the quality because the details make the difference: hand stitching vs machine stitching, wrapped edges vs painted edges, bonded leather vs genuine leather. All of these factors can mean the difference between something that is worth spending a bit more or not. (The second example in each “vs” here is the cheaper option.)

The Takeaway

The truth is, whether you have multiple watches in your collection or one old reliable timepiece, you can drastically change the impact of your favorite wrist bound accessory. For many watch enthusiasts out there, the question is less ‘Which strap one strap should I wear?’ and more ‘Which strap should I wear today?’ And in the very same way shoes, bags or other accessories can and bring variety to your overall style, watch straps can give a timepiece a wardrobe all its own.

Troy Barmore is a Senior Timepiece Specialist at Analog Shift. All images courtesy of Troy Barmore.

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Troy Barmore is the Senior Timepiece Specialist at Analog/Shift, a vintage watch retailer in New York City. Growing up in the mountains of Colorado, Troy has had a passion for subtlety and detail since childhood. Whether it be denim, leather, eyewear or watches, he has made the study of quality goods a lifelong focus.

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