Entering the world of watch nerds, you will inevitably be drawn into the subculture of strap nerds, those of us who are compelled to change the straps on our watches. As you might have guessed from previous posts, The Time Bum is most definitely addicted, and quite incapable of leaving the original strap on any watch for very long. The world of watch straps is irresistible because there is such a wonderful variety of colors, styles, and materials available, and at prices to suit any budget. A different strap can transform your watch, bringing out nuances of color and design that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Some straps are objects of desire in and of themselves, hand crafted by artisans and imbued with their own special character. I confess, I have purchased straps on their own and later bought watches to go with them, instead of the other way around. Come to think of it, I've done that a bit more than I'd like to admit.
I believe we have entered a golden age of watch straps. Niche marketing and global internet sales have created a booming marketplace. Before this, most of us kept the factory strap until it wore out, then either ordered a new one from the watch manufacturer, often outlandish cost, or we browsed through the rotating displays in our local jewelry store, found an appropriate brown or black, asked the clerk to find the right size, and that was it. In retrospect, it was a sad, bleak time compared to today's abundance. Given this newfound bounty, it can be overwhelming for the watch newbie, but have no fear, The Time Bum is here to break it down for you. I will post some strap reviews in the coming weeks, but today I will start by explaining the common variants of the military style, pass-through strap, or NATO strap.
There have been several excellent articles about the history of the military watch strap in general and the NATO strap in particular. I would suggest this brief post on Watches by SJX, and then a tour of David Boettcher's Vintage Watch Straps site for a really comprehensive history. Now, I am not a military historian. I am just a guy who buys a lot of watch straps, and I make no claim to understanding (or caring about) the historical accuracy of any particular strap design or construction. As a civilian shopping for straps to suit my mood and style, it is entirely irrelevant. Rather, what I have for you today is a just basic "what's what" of the NATO style straps currently on the market, and the jargon that is typically used to describe them.
The Time Bum's Guide to Military Style Watch Straps
Most likely, 99 per cent of the watches you owned before you became a watch nerd came on either a bracelet or a two-piece strap. Both of these are secured between the lugs at either end of the case by spring bars that travel through the strap or bracelet material, acting as hinges.
Another type of strap uses a single strip of material that passes over the spring bars and under the case. For clarity, I will refer to this design as the "one-piece" or "pass-through" strap. All of the straps below are variations on the pass-through design. Civilian straps are generally nylon or leather, and in different hardware materials and finishes including PVD black, gold finish, and even bronze. Buckles may be fixed or removable. Length varies but is usually around 11 inches or 280mm
The first thing to wrap your head around is that there is really no such thing as a "NATO" strap, which is to say, there was never a single watch strap issued to the NATO forces in Europe. The NATO style strap is a nylon pass-through strap, with a fixed metal buckle and two metal rings, one of which is fitted below the buckle end to secure the tail of the strap after fastening. The other is fixed to a secondary strap through which the primary strap passes after passing through the bars, and under the case of the watch. It was first commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) in 1973. It is known as a "NATO" or "G10" because of the way they were cataloged and requisitioned. "NATO" and "NATO G10" are trademarks of International Watchman, Inc. To my knowledge, this is a recent development that has nothing to do with the original MOD contracts. There are very specific criteria that must be met for a MOD issued strap, but none of them matter for civilian purposes.
The word "Zulu" appears to have marketing origins, not military. The CountyComm sales site states "Zulu" is a registered trademark of Maratac, Inc. (see U.S. Patent and Trade Office, "Maratac Zulu"). Regardless, the term is commonly used to describe a pass-through strap made with thicker strap material and hardware than a NATO style. They usually feature a fixed buckle and rings that are heavier and more rounded. Some versions include a secondary strap like the NATO. These straps are also referred to as NATO, Heavy Duty or Extreme NATO, or simply one-piece straps.
3-Ring or 5-Ring
These terms describe a Zulu or NATO strap by the number of hardware rings it has. The buckle is counted as a ring as well. A 3-ring has two rings below the buckle and no secondary strap. A 5-ring has two rings below the buckle, and two rings on the end of the secondary strap. A 5-ring strap may also be worn with the tail passed back through the upper ring on the secondary strap.
Army or RAF Strap
This refers to a simple one-piece, pass through strap with a no extra hardware or secondary strap, and a keeper made from the same material as the strap, or a metal ring like that on a NATO style strap. This design was common after WWII, used by the U.S. Military and the Royal Air Force (RAF).
This refers to the watch strap worn by Sean Connery in the opening scene of Goldfinger (see my review of the Seiko SNZF17). It describes a nylon pass-through strap with a regimental stripe. Opinions differ as to the correct colors, but to my eye, olive and navy or black with red or burgundy pinstripe appear to be in the ballpark. The term is often used to describe a regimental stripe of any color. For the record, Bond could not have possibly worn a NATO style as it did not exist when the movie was produced.
"Bund" it refers to the German Bundeswehr, or federal defense forces. While the strap was adopted by the German military in the 1960's, the design actually dates back at least to WWI when many pocket watches were converted to wrist watches for field use. It consists of a strap that passes through a broad pad that sits under the watch. Sometimes the strap is a single piece, sometimes it is two pieces secured by tabs, snaps, rivets, or conventional spring bars. Pad design varies.