We think that a bracelet can make or break a watch. Don’t get us wrong, a strap is fantastic too, but when on the wrist, and more importantly when paired with the right piece, it changes everything. Some of the most interesting and inventive designs in the outer orbit of horology, have manifested themselves in the form of bracelets, from the classic ‘40s Gay Frères beads of rice, to the ever-reliable Oyster from Rolex. However, it is an area of the watch world that rarely gets the attention it deserves. Perhaps, in the popular consciousness, these metallic bands seem purely utilitarian or even, too simple to appreciate. In many auction listings, they get relegated to footnotes, or passing mention, if only to reassure potential bidders that they are indeed original, or period correct.
Being an area of particular interest to us, we thought it would be worth digging into a little deeper. From how they were originally made, to the pleasure that collectors experience in wearing them, we look at their origin, survey some of the more notable makers and also examine what goes into their manufacture. From the bespoke, to the industrial, these are much more than functional objects used to secure a watch to the wrist, there is plenty to be discovered and enjoyed. In many ways, bracelets are the perfect example of how function and aesthetics can complement one another, to create satisfying, and at times surprising, results.
In order to comprehensively cover their history and that of those who made them, we spoke to Alex Barter, an auction house veteran who used to run watch auctions in Switzerland for Sotheby’s. From the folded steel bracelets used for tool watches, to the unmatched creative output of Gay Frères, the reference point for vintage bracelet design, we uncover how these bands evolved over time. We also spoke to a small handful of collectors, from Yang Zepo, a young Chinese collector with a varied collection of vintage watches and matching bracelets, to Philip Toledano, an artist with a penchant for more unusual designs, such as the Patek Philippe “Swiss Cheese” bracelets of the 1970s. Between them, they help us capture a sense of the satisfaction that goes into wearing and owning some of these examples and how they can elevate a particular watch.
Finally, we wanted an insight into what it takes to make a great bracelet in a traditional, artisanal fashion, by speaking to the makers themselves. As such, we reached out to Santiago Martínez and Montse Gimeno of the Barcelona-based Atelier de Chronométrie. They have been crafting their own vintage-style bracelets for years now and take on commissions for those who want the experience of owning a bracelet which might have been made half a century ago. From the collectors to the makers, we find out more.
The ever-popular Beads of Rice.
Why do we have bracelets?
Many of us may look at our watch collection and see reams of leather and suede. Lightweight and easily swapped, the strap option seems the logical choice for many. It is often assumed, as well, that the first wristwatches came on leather straps, as they were small converted pocket watches with soldered lugs. However, if you look further back, the first record of a wristwatch comes from a gift given to Queen Elizabeth I in 1571. This was possibly more of a jewellery piece with a movement, than a truly functional timepiece, described as being an “armlet”.
Inside the Barcelona-based workshop that give life to Atelier de Chronométrie’s bracelets.
We start to see more of these elaborate bracelets, containing small spring driven movements, as we move into the 18th and 19thcenturies; there are mentions of “a watch to be fixed to a bracelet” in an account book of Jacquet-Droz and Leschot from 1790. By the middle of the 19th century, most watchmakers were producing these jewellery-like pieces that, whilst compact, were not considered reliable timing instruments. Not only were they not terribly accurate, but technology was not yet developed enough, to properly seal the cases. As a result, they were incredibly prone to dust, water and shock damage in the exposed position on the wrist, when compared to the more protected placement of the pocket watch.
While we start to see metal bracelets become more prevalent in the 1930s and ‘40s, we don’t see a wide adoption of them in men’s watches until the ‘50s, going into the ‘60s. Before this, most watches were made from precious metals and would have had fairly narrow lugs widths.
As a result, a bracelet would have given one of these timepieces a more effeminate look. Women’s watches and jewellery pieces were still being made through to this period, with a growing amount of creativity seen with the integration of movements into jewellery bracelets.
While gold was much easier to work with. We mainly see golden bracelets being reserved for ladies’ watches in the first half of the 20th century. Folded steel bracelets start cropping up for gents’ tool watches around the time of the Second World War. Prior to the introduction of these sturdy bracelets, military watches were either held on by a traditional leather strap or one made from fabric. Since then, the innovation and evolution of the watch bracelet has closely tracked that of the wristwatch itself. Short of going to the Moon, bracelets have been there for nearly all the other milestone timepieces that have been made over past last century or so. While there are plenty of significant watches out there, what about the significant bracelets?
There may be many other bracelets that spring to mind before this one, but we thought it pertinent to start with one of the earliest designs to have been envisioned for attaching a watch to the wrist, the Bonklip. The first examples of Bonklips appear in the ‘20s, produced by an American jewellery specialist, Walter M. Krementz. However, his work was never particularly commercially successful, so didn’t catch on in any significant way. It wasn’t until a patent was filed in the United Kingdom by Dudley Russell Howitt on March 6th, 1930 that we see the rise of the Bonklip begin.
The original patent showing the drawings of the Bonklip by Howitt.
This unusual metal mesh, that threads through itself, started to gain popularity as a cheap technique to make a stainless steel bracelet in varying widths. At the time, working with stainless steel was difficult for many manufacturers and so simply folding thin sheets of metal, with very little finishing, meant that these could be produced on a limited budget. This allowed them to scale production with relative ease, providing a tough bracelet for the emerging field of tool watches that were born of the Second World War. The British Ministry of Defence issued Bonklip bracelets to the Royal Air Force crews in the 1950s and ‘60s. You can find Bonklips on the IWC Mark XI, alongside other military-issued watches such as Lemania chronographs and Smiths pilot’s watches. All having the Bonklip as an option, they were also available on fabric straps.
A classic Bonklip attached to a rainbow diver from Mido, courtesy of Fratello.
After 1950, the patent on this design ran out, so you start to see a boom in the production of similar bracelets from a range of other manufacturers. Most notably, from Gay Frères, supplying them to Rolex who fitted them on to Bubblebacks, often with folding clasps instead of the hook system that Howitt patented in 1930. Funnily enough, during this period, bracelets were indeed an expensive add-on, representing sometimes almost half the price of the standalone watch, in the case of a two-tone Rolex Imperial. This gives you a sense of the complexity of producing these at the time.
Gay Frères showing the range of sizes the Bonklip could be used for.
Speaking of Rolex, many list the Crown’s bracelet designs among their favourites to have been fitted to a watch. In many ways, the Bonklip was the precursor to the more rugged, riveted Oyster which Rolex introduced in the ‘30s. This increasingly solid construction seemed to provide a more stable base for the brand’s growing range of professional watches. The first Oyster bracelets were made by Gay Frères and there was a classic, incremental evolution of the design as the years passed.
The initial appearance of an Oyster bracelet in a Rolex catalogue was in 1948, after a patent was filed in 1947. Those characteristic curved end links wouldn’t appear until 1952. From then, it has only seen relatively minor tweaks and improvements from differing amounts of tapering, to clasp updates. Whilst there is much more we could delve into on the topic of Rolex bracelets – from the Jubilee to the Presidential – we feel that these have already been covered in some depth before, by others, so would encourage you to read their work to find our more (with this and this being a useful resource).
Original Rolex catalogues showing the construction of an Oyster bracelet.
When covering this topic, it is impossible not to address the integrated designs of the Royal Oak and Nautilus. Both of these bracelets were produced by Gay Frères, who were actually consulted on the designs to ensure that it would be feasible, from a production standpoint. Though most might remember Gerald Genta’s sketches as the inception of these designs, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe had to work closely with Gay Frères to ensure that the ideas could become a reality.
With stainless steel still being particularly difficult to work at the time, the earliest prototypes were produced out of white gold. While these were not the first bracelets to be integrated into the case of the watch, they were arguably the most significant and most replicated versions. They also represent one of the most notable examples of a bracelet being thought of as integral to the design, rather than just a later addition. The power of this approach has been proven through their popularity, with only minor tweaks over time.
Two Royal Oak ref 14790 bracelets showing their tapered design.
While the Nautilus bracelet is certainly an iconic design, we think there is another from Patek Philippe that also deserves drawing attention to: the “Cheese Grater” or “Swiss Cheese” bracelet found on some pieces from the 1970s. Found on the ref. 3448 perpetual calendar, or the Beta 21 powered watches, this unique design epitomises the creativity that the brand was channelling at the time to help combat the effects of the Quartz Crisis.
It is believed that these bracelets were made in very small numbers by a specialised jeweller in Pforzheim, Germany. This is one of the many inventive bracelet designs which came out of Patek Philippe during 20th century, at a time when they worked closely with a range of specialised bracelet makers, who would regularly propose varied designs to the manufacture.
The unique construction of the Cheese Grater.
Finally, we cannot aim to cover significant bracelet designs without mentioning the beads of rice.
Having enjoyed a resurgence in interest of late, this bracelet style first appeared in the 1940s and is often heavily associated with GF. Whilst it was adopted early on by Patek Philippe, it was of course also used by a range of other brands, from Omega to Longines. With a simple and self-explanatory name, it is one of the most comfortable bracelet designs out there, having inspired a myriad of derivative designs since its inception. From brick style to the honeycomb, there are multiple, small-link bracelets, that all stem from the beads of rice.
A Beads of Rice bracelet under construction at Atelier de Chronométrie.
One notable example of this was the honeycomb that Rolex made use of in the 1940s and 1950s. While speaking with Alex Barter, he mentioned having handled one, attached to a Tudor Oyster Prince from 1959. Unusually, inside the clasp was stamped “Made in England”. After doing some digging, he discovered that Rolex, Tudor and other Swiss manufactures at the time, would just ship the watch head to their retailers, leaving them to add bracelets from local suppliers. This was supposedly a work around the export tax for completed watches at the time.
As Rolex is still stamped on the clasp, it is assumed that it came from a workshop that worked closely with Rolex and was allowed to produced bracelets for them, not a random supplier chosen by the retailer. This limits the number of potential points of origin; some online believe it may have been Watch Accessories Birmingham, which was owned by Oscar Winter, a close friend of Hans Wilsdorf himself. This is not confirmed, however, but merely a working theory. This is also why you can find Rolex bracelets with “Hecho en Mexico”, or Made in Mexico, on the clasp.
A Tudor Oyster Prince with a curiously “Made in England” bracelet, courtesy of Alex Barter.
This is perhaps telling of the level of detail which collectors focus on when studying watch bracelets. Especially when trying to figure out whether a bracelet matches the watch that it accompanies, these features are particularly important. For example, vintage Omega Speedmasters came on a whole range of bracelets, with different signatures on the clasp and end links, which should match, and also coincide with certain years of production. Even within the Royal Oak 5402, which appears to have the same bracelet across all examples, different details and signatures are found throughout the production of the reference.
For example, the early flip lock clasps featured an “Audemars Piguet” signature, where later examples featured a shorter “AP”. These smaller signatures, which might not catch one’s attention at first glance, can be rather important. They might signify the difference between an original part and a later replacement one. As such, the minutiae found on bracelets can be incredibly valuable to collectors, and becomes an area of study and obsession for many.
The stamping that should appear on a Rolex Oyster bracelet, with collectors always being on the lookout for matching clasp, bracelet and end link numbers.
The bracelet makers you need to know
The obvious place to start here is with possibly the most famous bracelet maker of all, Gay Frères. Highly sought-after by those enamoured by vintage pieces, their iconic rams head stamp can significantly increase the value and desirability of a bracelet. We’ve mentioned their name several times already in this article, which should give you a sense of the kind of impact they had, while operating as an independent company, before being bought by Rolex in 1998.
What many watch enthusiasts might not know is that Gay Frères’ history stretches back to before watch bracelets were even a thing. Founded in 1835, they were based in Geneva, where they became renowned as jewellers and goldsmiths making ladies jewellery and chains for pocket watches. They continued making jewellery for most of their existence, with some of the pieces made during the 1960s and 1970s, still highly sought-after.
A classic Gay Frères advertisement proudly stating that they produce Oyster bracelets.
Their first venture into watch bracelets appears to be producing the Bonklip for Rolex. Thanks to their expertise and ability to work with stainless steel, they were able to supply many of these new tool watches with equally rugged bracelets, at time when many other bracelet makers struggled with the tough material. These utilitarian bracelets could not have been further in design and concept from the precious jewellery which they had been making for a century already, however they were able to make both. In many ways, the expertise and attention to detail which they carried over from one area to the other, contributed to their success.
An IWC Ingenieur with a sportier take on the Beads of Rice.
After the Bonklip and the Oyster, Gay Frères began to form relationships with other big watchmaking houses in Switzerland, like Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe, who were based just around the corner from them in Geneva. For Patek Philippe, they famously produced the beads of rice bracelet that the ref. 1518 was sold on at Phillips in 2016, for CHF 11 million, setting a world record at the time. Later on, they would go on to produce more iconic bracelets for Heuer and Zenith chronographs, such as the “ladder bracelet” that accompanied their El Primero pieces and has stayed in the brand’s catalogue ever since.
What is important to remember about Gay Frères is that they were a big company. In fact, they were the largest factory in Geneva in the 1970s, employing over 500 skilled workers. They could claim to be bigger than most of the companies they supplied, such as Patek Philippe. The company is still making bracelets today, however, they were absorbed by Rolex in 1998; something Rolex has become renowned for, as they buy out their suppliers to simplify the supply chain.
The enigmatic insignia of Gay Frères.
Another manufacturer which we think it’s worth drawing your attention to – as Gay Frères didn’t make every watch bracelet in the world – is Ponti Gennari. This is another Geneva-based workshop, which actually used to operate out of the building that is now the Patek Philippe museum. Their craftsmanship was so valued and highly praised by brands and collectors alike, that watches would not be supplied with a Ponti Gennari bracelet, they were an added extra that would have to be requested at the point of sale. In the 1950s, at the hight of their popularity, it could add an additional CHF 1,500 to the price of your new Patek Philippe.
The building that once used to hold Ponti Gennari’s workshop and is now home to the Patek Philippe Museum.
Ponti Gennari were very much specialists in what they did and worked closely with Patek Philippe on many of their designs, which ended up only ever being cast in precious metals. Their style was always on the more flamboyant and ostentatious side, being experts in diamond setting and working gold into repeating patterns that would work their way around your wrist. They were a marker of individuality for those who could afford it. The company itself was bought by Piaget in 1969 and continued to produce jewellery and jewellery-like bracelets for them for decades following that. Interestingly enough, the famed master casemaker, Jean-Pierre Hagmann started his career at Ponti Gennari before moving onto Gay Frères. When we spoke to him, he told us that his experiences in jewellery and bracelet making proved invaluable to his eventual work as a casemaker.
An elaborate bracelet design from Ponti Gennari.
Finally, we thought it worthwhile to bring some attention to the bracelets made by Wellendorff. Another jewellery company, this time originating from Pforzheim, Germany, their history dates back to 1893, when they were founded by Ernst Alexander and Julie Wellendorff. Well known in the jewellery world for creating a soft touch rope necklace, they brought this expertise to A. Lange & Söhne.
According to Eric Wind being quoted in GQ, the bracelets that Wellendorff made for the German watchmaker are considered by some collectors to be “the best bracelets of all time.” Considering the bracelet on its own can sell for $60,000, without a watch attached, there’s certainly reason to believe that have a seriously passionate following. Wellendorff unfortunately no long produce watch bracelets, which only adds to their rarity if you do encounter one in the wild.
What makes a good watch bracelet?
Not all bracelets are sold for $60,000, so what differentiates the good from the bad? What should you look for when you’re considering buying a vintage watch with a metal bracelet? According Yang Zepo, a collector of vintage watches from Patek Philippe to Ulysse Nardin, it’s important to look at “not whether it’s beautiful per se, but whether its style matches or complements a specific watch.” He goes on to talk about the notion of “correctness” when it comes to matching a bracelet to a vintage watch. “One hears the talk of a bracelet being period correct or incorrect,” Zepo says. “But I also perceive, among the watch collecting community, a set of implicit rules that determine whether a bracelet is stylistically correct.”
A Laurent Ferrier with a Gay Frères bracelets on the wrist of John Goldberger.
However, some flexibility with these rules can also lead to personal enjoyment, as long as the breach isn’t too outrageous. A riveted Oyster-style bracelet on a vintage Patek Philippe or Longines Calatrava can instantly give it a more sporty, casual appearance, which counterbalances the more classic connotations of the watch. If you ask the likes of Phillip Toledano, a collector of all things unusual, the design of the bracelet comes second. “Well, quality first. There are a huge number of bracelets out there that just look cheap.” Prioritising quality can be very important, as your bracelet is only as strong as its weakest link. But what makes a watch bracelet higher quality?
One factor to look out for in vintage steel bracelets is folded links. These bracelets are assembled by folding thin pieces of steel into the desired shapes in such a way that, when wrapped around the thin metal palette at their core, they hold together in the form of a watch bracelet. Often difficult to see from the front, a quick glance at the side and the back of a bracelet will reveal if this is the construction you’re dealing with. This style of bracelet was common due to its ease of production. As a result, they tend to not be as well made, and therefore can be prone to stretching over time, especially if they are of a certain age. Creating bracelets from solid pieces of steel, takes a lot longer with specialised knowledge, that means it can be hard to find top quality, solid steel vintage bracelets, unless they come from a prestigious house such as Gay Frères.
A straight end link Beads of Rice bracelet from the Tokyo-based vintage retailer, Private Eyes.
One issue that many collectors have with finding a vintage bracelet to go with their older timepiece is the price of them. Some steel bracelets fetch alarming sums on the secondary market, not only for the craftsmanship that has gone into them, but also their rarity. This rarity is often linked to the fact that a lot of them break and simply get thrown away. Speaking with a jeweller local to us here in London, with a lot of experience repairing vintage bracelets, he mentioned that sprung bracelets can often be the main culprit when it comes to malfunctions and costly repairs. When a spring goes in one of these, it can often need to be replaced with a handmade part, as spares from the factory just don’t exist anymore. This high cost can lead to the whole bracelet being thrown out. Thus, increasing the rarity of these.
Various bracelets under construction at the Atelier de Chronométrie in Barcelona.
To get a better idea of what goes into making such a bracelet, we spoke to Santiago Martínez and Montse Gimeno of the Barcelona-based Atelier de Chronométrie, an independent watchmaker based in Barcelona. Since creating their first watch nearly five years ago, they have been working with a small father and son workshop, also found in Barcelona, who are second and third generation bracelet and case makers. They help them produce vintage style bracelets, using traditional techniques. “We cast all of our bracelets from solid metal, with each component being produced and finished individually.” This individual finishing can add up. As they told us, “the bracelet that we’re designing for our next watch, the AdC 8, has 200 components to it.”
The finished product from Atelier de Chronométrie.
While they create bracelets for their own pieces, they also take commissions for people who want an authentic looking bracelet, to pair with their vintage watch. Sometimes finding a period correct bracelet in the right condition can be too hard and making one from scratch makes more sense. Have a Patek Philippe ref. 1463 “Tasti Tondi” which needs a stylistically correct matching bracelet? Look no further. “We always make a prototype of the bracelet in silver, to see how it will look and if it works correctly, before we make the final piece in gold.” However, they don’t just make their bracelets in precious metals, “our bespoke stainless steel pieces can cost as much as our gold ones. Simply because of the extra work and love that has to go into them.” This goes to show just how hard steel can be to work with, that the raw material itself makes up such a small percentage of the price of a bracelet.
Martínez also told us of one special order that a client placed with them for a two-tone steel and yellow gold bracelet that was so complex in its design and construction that it took a year to complete. While a normal custom design can take two to three months from start to finish, “no one ever complains about how long they take. All of our clients realise these bracelets are a labour of love.”
Two Patek Philippe chronographs owned by Ben Clymer and Yang Zepo sporting Atelier de Chronométrie-made bracelets.
If you are intent on getting a period correct bracelet for your own timepiece, then we would always suggest that you check the stamping on the end links and clasp. Does it have a brand stamped there? Are there matching codes on each end link? Are there corresponding hallmarks if the bracelet is made out of a precious metal? All things that can be checked with imagery online or a quick inspection in person. Finally, we would always advise getting vintage bracelets adjusted by a trusted jeweller. You may have adjusted a modern bracelet before, but some of the older models can be trickier and more fragile, needing a trained hand. The trusted split pin has not been around forever unfortunately.
Two original takes on the Beads of Rice bracelet from Tag Heuer and F.P. Journe.
Just as we covered the most interesting watch boxes, we believe that the bracelet can often be an overlooked aspect when buying or appreciating a timepiece. With so much attention paid to the dial, case and movement, the thing that holds it to your wrist is equally as important, we believe. While at first sight there may be fewer design subtleties than a dial, or lesser mechanical complicity than a movement, the truth is great bracelet design has quite a lot of detail and intricacy to get lost in. From looking at how a specific bracelet was developed to deciphering the different hallmarks on the buckle, there is tremendous pleasure to be found in studying, hunting and appreciating watch bracelets, vintage and modern.
There might be more options out there than you first expect and you shouldn’t feel restricted by your watch, to pick the style of bracelet for you. Matching a delicate beads of rice bracelet with a vintage chronograph can bring a certain charm and levity to what could be a more serious looking tool watch. While we could put it many different ways, we think no one says it better than Toledano, “like an amazing frame on a painting, the right vintage steel bracelet can utterly transform a watch and make it sing.” We’ll leave it at that.
Our thanks to Alex Barter, Yang Zepo, Santiago Martínez and Montse Gimeno, Phil Toledano and Auro Montanari for giving up their time to speak with us and share images of some of the more incredible bracelets that you can find.