Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… watch bracelets

Metal straps escape the grip of ruthless functionality at Geneva’s Haute Horlogerie fair

Swellboy on… watch bracelets

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 06 2013
Nick Foulkes

Rather like the New Year in China or the Russian Orthodox celebration of Christmas, a new twelvemonth can only be said to start horologically some time after our Gregorian calendar declares it has begun, when the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) gets under way in Geneva.

I look forward to the SIHH. It is not a place to go into anything in much detail, but rather to get an impression of what people are up to, how the industry is faring and, of course, what are the new watches to dream about this year.

I have an incurable weakness for the 1960s and 1970s, and was therefore thrilled to see not two new watches but two new bracelets make their debut. Piaget has an homage to its cuff watches of the 1970s, but as this is aimed at women, it is of little practical interest to me. However, at Van Cleef & Arpels there was a welcome return to the Milanaise bracelet, a handmade ribbon of satin-smooth gold that caresses the wrist with a quite miraculous suppleness. The high summer of the Milanaise bracelet was right in the middle of my favourite period of modern history, when the ideal watch was a paper-thin sliver of mechanical understatement, rather than the behemoths of more recent years.

I hope that Van Cleef’s readoption of the Milanaise (also embraced by IWC and a few others over the past two years) leads to an increase of interest in bracelet design. Since intricate bracelets on men’s watches went out of fashion 20 or so years ago, the metal strap has been largely perfunctory and almost austere in its ruthless functionality. There are, of course, notable exceptions, the complex, integrated designs of the Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus being the two most celebrated – although it must be noted that they were designed in the 1970s.

However, in the past it was a very different matter. Look through a detailed watch-auction catalogue and you should see the name of Gay Frères turn up at least once or twice. Gay Frères started as a Geneva chaîniste d'excellence, and during the 1940s and 1950s it created some truly inspired bracelet designs that were seen to best advantage attached to the products of Geneva’s two grandes maisons: Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. Such was its expertise that it was also entrusted with making the bracelets for the early production runs of both the Oak and the Nautilus.

I like to think that this expertise in watch-bracelet design is a legacy of Geneva’s centuries-old reputation as a centre for goldsmiths. It was only when that 16th-century killjoy Calvin came on the scene and banned jewellery that watchmaking took off. Not that Geneva has a monopoly on making watch bracelets. I believe the Van Cleef ones are crafted in an Italian workshop that used to make them back in the day, and one only has to look at gorgeous art-deco Cartiers to get a sense of Parisian creativity in this sphere.

However, on occasion it can work the other way round, as I noted when I saw that this year the recently launched Tank Anglaise (which previously came with only a metal bracelet) is now available on a crocodile strap, and has changed its character completely as a result. Perhaps this is why those clever people at Tudor have created a range of strap and bracelet options for their stunning vintage-inspired Black Bay diving watch. Right from its launch last year it was sold with an aged leather strap, steel bracelet or army-style fabric strap – a superior three-watches-for-the price-of-one type of offer. All I am waiting for is the Tudor toolkit to enable you to switch straps at home.