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Feature: A Glimpse into the World of Bespoke Leather Watch Straps

How a strap is made from start to finish
by Ryan Teoh on August 31, 2017

Here at Deployant, we strive to bring you our honest reviews of watches on a daily basis. Today, however, we will not be taking a look at any watch in particular. Instead, we offer you a glimpse into the world of bespoke, made-to-order leather watch straps and a peek into the processes involved.

 

Feature: A Glimpse into the World of Bespoke Watch Straps

It can be said that watches are the original accessory for men, as compared to ladies who have the luxury of choice of accessories ranging from earrings to bracelets, bangles to anklets. And yet, a watch’s only accessory, if you will, is its strap. All watch lovers would know that a strap plays a vital part in the watch’s look – a NATO strap gives off a rugged vibe, a leather strap for that classic appearance, a bracelet for the workplace or formal events, so on and so forth. Of the three straps/bracelets mentioned above, the leather strap is the only strap where the human touch and craftsmanship that we have all come to know and appreciate in watches plays a role. As is the case with a marvelously finished movement such as the A. Lange & Sohne Datograph, or the magnificent diamond dust dial and zaratsu-finished case as seen in the Grand Seiko 8 Day Reserve Spring Drive SBGD001, making a good leather strap requires exquisite skill, manual dexterity and unfailing attention to detail. Of course, the craftsman who shapes the raw material of a piece of leather into a stunning strap must also hold himself to the highest standards, for only the best will do justice to the watches they are destined for.

 

Bespoke straps offer a whole new world of possibilities for your watch

 

A New Generation:

Enter Nicholas Tan, a 23 year-old Economics student from the National University of Singapore. He is part of a wave of new-generation leather craftsmen that has swept the industry, often working independently to offer bespoke leather goods to both the curious first-timer and discerning consumer alike. By not affiliating with fashion houses or brands, they are able to keep costs relatively low. We sat down with Nicholas one day to find out more about what drew him into the leather-crafting industry, and also what made him decide to be a watch strap specialist.  

 

Nicholas Tan is one of the new-wave generation of leather craftsmen

 

It all started in 2013 when he started to appreciate the way craftsman at various luxury brands, particularly Hermes, created their beautiful passport covers and wallets out of an otherwise unremarkable piece of leather. After watching videos of their meticulous craftsman at work, he decided to take matters into his own hands (pun intended). Within the space of a few days, he had amassed the tools he needed to take the first steps into the art of leather crafting. It is ironic, then, that even though it was the appreciation of the aforementioned wallets and passport covers that first drew Nicholas into the world of leather crafting, he has now turned his back on them to focus solely on creating the best leather watch straps that he can make.

As they say, it takes one to know one. Nicholas is a watch enthusiast through and through, and that has spurred him to make watch straps rather than medium sized products such as wallets, or large products like bags or briefcases. His love for watches was sparked when his grandfather’s 1972 Rolex Datejust Ref. 1601 was handed down to him on his 16th birthday. Being a 40 year old Rolex, it had aged impeccably and still ticked reliably. For that reason, Rolex will always have a special place in his heart. His passion for horology shines through in each strap he makes, from knowing how to match the right material and colour to the watch head, to choosing the right contrast stitching that would be a good fit with the overall look. In other words, the end product has to be something that he would wear himself.

 

The Process:

For such a small piece of leather work, one might wonder: just how hard could it be? Here’s a breakdown of the process to help understand better the intricate work that goes into that little strap of leather.

Step 1. Template Design

The age old adage “fail to plan, plan to fail” holds true here. Even if the best strap specialists could somehow create a well-proportioned and well-finished strap from memory and gut feeling, they would not choose to do that as a standard practice. The template design is ultimately the biggest factor in creating a consistent cut of leather that they can then apply their skills to, rather than having to worry about whether the strap even fits the watch head in the first place. With the number of unique lug designs out there on the market these days, template design is especially important for each and every strap he makes. Nicholas uses Adobe Illustrator to sketch and make precise measurements of the strap shape before printing out a 1:1 template and glues it onto 300gsm paper for future reference. Special considerations and new templates are made for ladies who tend to have a smaller wrist size than men, which prevents excess strap from hanging out through the keeper.

 

A strip of calf is cut, ready to start on its journey to becoming a watch strap.

 

Step 2. Cutting the leather

We all know the saying: a bad workman blames his tools. But for the leather craftsman who requires the best his tools can be, there is no doubt that better tools can make his life easier. Nicholas tries to use the same tools as those used in the best fashion houses so as to be able to achieve the same level of quality as they do. Most of his tools are procured from Vergez Blanchard. Founded in 1823, Vergez Blanchard has supplied luxury leather goods makers including Louis Vuitton and Hermes. Today, they are still considered to be the best in quality, dependability and longevity for leather tools. Nicholas then double checks the dimensions of his cuts with a Vernier caliper to be absolutely sure that everything is up to scratch.

 

A pre-made template is used to mark out the strap outline.

Step 3. Hand-shaping the strap padding

This step gives the height and body to the strap. Nicholas uses full grain leather shaped by hand to give each strap the required height needed to match the watch. For example, the Rolex Sea Dweller Ref. 126600  would need a thicker strap, and therefore a thicker insert, whereas a Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 5119R-001 which is comparatively thinner would need a thinner strap and insert. Using full-grain leather is more desirable because the insert itself ages along with the strap, becoming more pliable and softer over time. Most over the counter straps use synthetic or foam inserts.

 

The padding is clearly seen under the fingers here, an important element in any leather strap. Hand-shaping the leather padding requires the human touch for maximum comfort and aesthetic.

 

Step 4. Strap assembly

Here, the end product strap starts to take shape. The outer piece is lined with an inner piece to give the requisite height, but more importantly to protect the underside of the outer piece from the sweat and acidity of the wrist. Nicholas chooses to use Zermatt calf leather, also used in Hermes, because of its hypoallergenic and slightly water resistant properties. It’s soft from the start, and gradually moulds to fit each person’s unique wrist shape. After gluing these 2 pieces together, a pricking iron is used to punch a row of ¾ thickness holes for the next step.

 

An array of tools are required in the creation of a leather strap. The pricking iron is seen to the right of the red handles of a pair of scissors in the background.

 

Step 5. Saddle stitching

This is Nicholas’s self-professed favourite step. An awl, which is a sharp metal rod, completes the penetration of the holes previously punched by the pricking iron. He then does a traditional saddle stitch, which is a nifty procedure requiring 2 needles to cross through each hole, with the strap held in position with a stitching clamp. This stitch has the added benefit of retaining its holding power even if one stitch breaks, as opposed to unraveling like a cheap T-shirt sleeve. According to Nicholas, this stitch can only done by the human hand, and is what sets apart machine-made products from a handmade product. He uses Fil Au Chinois linen thread for this step. The company have been producing high quality thread since 1828 and supply Hermes for their leather work as well.

 

Nicholas showing us the saddle stitch

 

Step 6. Edge painting

After all the work, it’s time to put the finishing touches on the strap before it’s ready to be worn. This is one of the harder steps for in the process, as it is not only time-consuming but also requires a delicate touch to ensure even distribution of paint across the length of the strap without creating any bubbles. One misstep here, like accidentally getting the paint on to the body of the strap, could very well void all of the effort taken to get to this point. The paint is then heated with a Fileteuse Manuelle to smooth it out, and the strap is set aside to dry. Once dry, the paint is sanded to smooth out any irregularities and the whole process is repeated 1-2 more times. The entire process from template to painting takes about 2-4 hours depending on the type of leather and design requested.

 

All layers of paint are applied by hand

Leather Types:

Variety is the spice of life, and the spice of leather straps as well. Nicholas uses only the best hides he can find, such as Chevre goat from Alran Tannery, Zermatt and Barenia calf from Hermes, shell cordovan from Italy, and even crocodile leather that he procures from a local tannery. Here are some of the salient features of each type of leather.

  • Calf: usually used for thicker straps, nice patina
  • Goat: mesmerising natural grain, naturally soft, comes in many colours
  • Crocodile: beautiful scale pattern, exotic waxy appearance
  • Shell: incredible lustre, extremely durable, low maintenance

Of late, Nicholas has shared with us that he has been experimenting with a method of hand-dying calf and crocodile leathers to produce a vintage, antiqued finish.

 

Concluding Thoughts:

A watch movement has one job: moving hands across a dial. This seems simple, but the movement itself is a complex piece of machinery requiring much technical expertise to make and repair. In the same way, a leather strap has no other function than to secure the watch to your wrist, and yet today we have seen that an incredible amount of work, dedication and skill goes into that one strap. For all that effort, we think a bespoke watch strap is in fact a tremendously value-for-money option, as compared to buying the stock straps that come from the brands themselves. 

 

Pricing Table:

Prices are listed for information only. Please contact Nicholas at Facebook Corgerie, or Instagram @corgerie.

 

Calf strap: starts from S$ 140

Goat strap: starts from S$ 140

Crocodile strap: starts from S$ 210

Hand-dyed antique finish calf/crocodile straps: price on enquiry

 

Some examples of Nicholas’s work: blue Chevre goat in the foreground, red shell cordovan in the background, and anthracite crocodile on the right

 

Many thanks to Nicholas who graciously allowed us to interview him.

We are not affiliated with him, nor is this a sponsored post.

Feel free to drop him a Facebook or Instagram message if you’re curious to find out more about his processes and leather crafting journey.

 

 

Appendix:

Spools of thread at the ready for stitching

 

The thread is waxed before stitching to prevent fraying

 

The awl is used to precisely complete the punch through both layers of leather at a right angle

 

A closer look at saddle stitching

 

Final creases are made along the edges for decorative purposes before moving on to edge painting

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