Swellboy on… watch bracelets

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

Image: Brijesh Patel

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

I look forward to the SIHH. It isnot a place to go into anything in much detail, but rather to get animpression 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 forthe 1960s and 1970s, and was therefore thrilled to see not two new watches buttwo 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 wasa welcome return to the Milanaise bracelet, a handmade ribbon of satin-smoothgold 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, whenthe ideal watch was a paper-thin sliver of mechanical understatement, ratherthan the behemoths of more recent years.

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I hope that Van Cleef’s readoption of theMilanaise (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 watcheswent out of fashion 20 or so years ago, the metal strap has been largelyperfunctory and almost austere in its ruthless functionality. There are, of course, notable exceptions, thecomplex, integrated designs of the Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet and PatekPhilippe’s Nautilus being the two most celebrated – although it must be noted thatthey were designed in the 1970s.

However, in the past it was a verydifferent matter. Look through a detailed watch-auction catalogue and you shouldsee 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 inspiredbracelet designs that were seen to best advantage attached to the products ofGeneva’s two grandes maisons: Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. Such was its expertise that it was alsoentrusted with making the bracelets for the early production runs of both theOak and the Nautilus.

I like to think that this expertisein watch-bracelet design is a legacy of Geneva’s centuries-old reputation as acentre for goldsmiths. It was only when that 16th-century killjoy Calvin cameon 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 inan Italian workshop that used to make them back in the day, and one only has tolook at gorgeous art-deco Cartiers to get a sense of Parisian creativity inthis sphere.

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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.

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