Watch Straps: Jean Rousseau And The Current State Of The Strap Industry
by Martin Green
When we think of advancements in the watch industry, we often limit ourselves to just the watch itself. Even in many reviews the strap is reduced to just a few lines, usually briefly mentioning what it is made of and how comfortable (or not) it wears.
We tend to forget that the production of these straps is an industry in and of itself, which functions both reactively as well as proactively. Watch manufacturers come to strap makers with their new watch designs for straps to match, but on the flip side some strap manufacturers also have considerable research and development facilities for establishing new applications that range from new finishes on existing leathers to the use of innovative materials.
Alongside the business-to-business market is there also the business-to-consumer market with demands of its own. Where a couple of decades ago people just bought a watch and kept it on the same strap until it was worn out and needed replacing, today’s community of watch collectors and connoisseurs likes to swap them out often for aesthetic purposes.
These connoisseurs are often very particular in what they need and want, and more often than not also willing to shop outside the realm of the brand that made the watch in question.
Watch straps: a colorful trend
When it comes to straps, the innovation of the leather goods industry is usually hidden within its own manufactures. Here they create designs to fit the unusual case shape of MB&F’s new HM9 while at the same time meeting the demands of Floyd Mayweather Jr. when he wants the Hublot he designed to be fitted with a strap that is a fusion of calfskin, snakeskin, rubber, and golden studs.
One of the producers that works with and supplies Swiss brands is Manufacture Jean Rousseau. Located in Besançon, the heart of French watchmaking and conveniently close to the Swiss border, it not only has its own tannery but also boutiques around the world in order to offer its expertise and products directly to the consumer.
With locations in Paris, London, New York, and Tokyo, Manufacture Jean Rousseau is capable of making watch straps on the spot from a nearly endless array of materials and colors.
These boutiques can also serve as an indication of the trends and innovations in the field of watch straps, something that became clear when I stepped into the London boutique, which is located in the Piccadilly Arcade connecting Piccadilly with Jermyn Street.
The first thing that becomes obvious is the wide variety of colors: blacks and browns are in ample supply as is blue, but also a wide array of green and red tones as well as more exotic colors such as purple, yellow, and bright orange. While these offer choice to consumers, they represent a challenge for the manufacturer: so many different colors also mean that a generous supply of the different skins in all these colors need to be stocked, as Manufacture Jean Rousseau not only offers them as prêt-a-porter items but also to craft custom-made products in the boutique at the client’s wishes.
While colors largely represent trends, this industry’s innovation is mainly found in the different finishes of the leathers, which can be quite innovative and moving in different directions. Alligator and crocodile leather might dominate the world of haute horlogerie as the preferred material to craft straps from, but calfskin is also a strong contender in both its natural texture and embossed with a pattern from an animal it is meant to impersonate.
Today it can be quite difficult to distinguish ostrich- or alligator-imprinted calfskin from the real deal. Embossing also allows for a lot of other textures that elevate the appeal of calf from its usually rather plain self.
Different finishes are also quite common on alligator leather these days. Of course, here they are used to change appearance and texture rather than take on the look of another type of leather.
Looking at Jean Rousseau’s collection, we find for example both cork and rubber finishes as well as nubuck, all of which change the look and feel of the alligator leather. Thanks to a special process, Jean Rousseau is also able to offer alligator leather that is resistant to water, making it the perfect choice for people who enjoy water as much as their leather straps.
Color is another way in which we have seen quite a bit of development, not only in trends but also in the way that they are applied to straps. One of my favorites from Jean Rousseau is called Jeans Vintage, whereby the alligator leather has been given the blue tone and finish of a pair of jeans. Remarkable is also the finish in which red, green, or blue is combined with what seems to be gold dust, sprinkled between the scales of the leather.
The result is nothing short of remarkable.
Different day, different materials
While straps have traditionally mainly been made of leather, we see a rapidly growing trend of different materials entering the scene as well. The taboo that once rested on putting an haute horlogerie creation on anything but an alligator strap is slowly disappearing.
NATO straps have been in favor for quite some time now, and woven perlon straps are also making a comeback. Rubber is another favorite, but even here we are seeing developments: most rubber straps are simply two molded pieces, but Jean Rousseau also crafts them in a traditional style, where the rubber is pulled over a filling and folded around the seams, just as a watch strap would be made in leather.
But it doesn’t stop there: Jean Rousseau’s collection now also includes cork and wood, which customers can choose to have their strap custom-made from. The cork is particularly unusual because Jean Rousseau doesn’t use it in its natural state, but also offers a variety decorated with gold and silver splashes in an Alec Monopoly kind of style.
These special materials form a new dawn for the strap industry, giving not only the brands but also the consumers infinite more choice in wearing our watches.