A good strap can completely change the look and feel of a watch — even a crappy watch. Everybody knows this. (And if you didn't, you do now.) Further, a good leather strap can really elevate a tired timepiece.
There are numerous tiers to the leather strap market: on the one hand, there's the cheap, plasticky aftermarket crap that you can buy for $20 off of Amazon that you don't want to touch with a 10-foot pole (it's mostly uncomfortable, poorly made and not terribly attractive). Then, there's the stuff you can buy for, say, $50-$100 from many vintage watch retailers that's quite well made, handsome and will last you many years. And for between roughly $100-$200 you can buy yourself a seriously fancy, hand-finished strap that you won't help but be thrilled with — something that will really complement the crap out of your investment-grade Rollie (or whatever).
But a tier above that and you're dealing with bespoke strap making, largely at the $200+ mark. There are several smaller shops all around the world who specialize this (often, they're one or two-person operations), many of which are fairly young companies who popped up the last few years to service the hordes of folks who are just getting into watch collecting — especially vintage watch collecting. One of these companies is Velle Alexander, the brainchild of Alexander Gravelle.
Based in Saint Paul, MN, Alex is fairly new to the strap-making game, but already has an impressive following and makes an incredible product. Having grown up in Arkansas making all manner of things with his hands, Alex was well poised to take on strap making following his first watch acquisition, a gift from his girlfriend. What was initially a hobby seemed like a natural fit for someone who loved building furniture with his father in college, and was now living in Minnesota, looking for something to do with his long winter evenings and limited in space. In 2018, he went on Youtube, watched some videos, bought some leather and tools, and got to work. By Christmas Eve 2018 he had finished his first strap, and by 2019 he made his first sale.
As is the case with many modern strap makers, many of Alex's clients find him through his Instagram page. From there, he speaks with the client to ascertain the person's unique vision. Sometimes, someone comes forward with a highly specific idea for a watch strap, while other times, Alex is large given carte blanche to do as he sees fit. In my case, Alex very kindly offered to make me a custom strap for a vintage watch that belonged to my grandfather, an old, solid yellow gold Longines hand-wound piece from 1947. We used the strap-making process for this leather band to document a prototypical project Alex would complete for a client — here's how it works:
First, Alex speaks with the client to ascertain that person's vision. He can offer non-standard sizing with respect to both width and length, full control over the design process, and myriad different materials. In my case, since I was going to be wearing the Longines strictly as a dress watch with a pair of leather shoes — and because I preferred brown leather to complement the honey tone of the watch — Alex suggested trying to match the leather color to the pair of shoes I'd likely wear the watch with, which we did.
After showing me samples over video chat, we settled on the following specs:
-An English Bridle leather upper: Produced by Wickett and Craig in Pennsylvania, this type of leather has been used in saddlery for centuries due to its durability, which comes from a hot wax-stuffing process used during tanning. This gives the leather a subtle sheen and makes it water- and sweat-resistant. Its vegetable tanning gives results with a unique patina that comes out over time.
-A Zermatt French Calfskin lining: Produced by the Tanneries Haas in France, this leather is made specifically for watch strap lining. Specially treated for water and sweat resistance, it's a hypoallergenic calfskin that adds longevity to the strap, which has to deal with constant contact with the wearer's skin.
-A Velodon inner lining: A stable material that prevents the watch strap from stretching. The presence of the Velodon provides a consistent fit over time.
-A 16mm (lugs) to 14mm taper
After I provided Alex with a measurement of a 16mm lug width on my Longines and a 7" wrist size, he created an electronic template in a vector-editing program to these specifications. (Alex also suggested a specific taper to the strap according to his expertise, which I agreed to.) After designing the template, Alex cuts it out from heavy card stock using an electronic cutting machine.
Alex then gathers his materials and cuts strips down to the appropriate dimensions. He glues the the stable inner lining (Velodon) to the top leather (English bridle), and heat presses his logo into the lining leather (French calfskin). He splits the top and lining leather down to 0.5mm for the 3-layer leather keepers.
Cutting and Skiving
Alex follows up his material prep by tracing his template pattern onto the leather strips he's prepared and cutting out patterns with a skiving knife. He then skives the leather where the lining will overlap the folded-over top layer such that one will material will smoothly transition to the other.
Following the cutting and skiving, Alex then glues the folded top leather around the spring bar attachment points and attaches the lining leather, which he trims with a skiving knife. He also cuts off small strips to use in the strap's keepers.
Once the top leather is attached to the lining leather, Alex punches it with traditional slanted holes for saddle stitching using pricking irons. He hand-stitches the strap using the saddle stitch method, securing each stitch individually to prevent the thread from pulling through if one stitch breaks down over time.
Alex bevels the hard edges off the top and bottom of the strap and adds a decorative crease to the perimeter. He then seals the edge with three coats of waterproof edge paint.
At the end of the process, Alex punches holes in the long end of the strap for the buckle tang. (Note: in the case of my strap, he thoughtfully sourced a vintage gold Longines buckle to match my watch.) He then constructs the straps keepers and stitches them on to the buckle end of the strap; cuts a slot for the buckle tang and attaches the buckle; and punches hole for quick-release spring bars, which he affixes. And voila!
I received my strap in a padded mailer with a personal note from Alex and immediately affixed it to my grandfather's watch, to which it fit like a glove. Previously I had a cheap leather strap on this Longines that was unpliable, much too thick and downright uncomfortable — the Velle Alexander strap, however, was none of those things, and completely changed the look and feel of the watch. (It also happened to nearly perfectly match the leather of the shoes I'll most often wear this watch with, which to my mind is miraculous considering all this was arranged over a Zoom call.)
Bespoke straps aren't for everyone — indeed, I was only peripherally aware of this upper strata of strappage before Alex reached out to me late in 2020 — but if you truly care about craftsmanship, or you have a very particular idea about what the band on any particular watch should look and feel like, or you have a watch with unusual lugs or an unusual shape, you should absolutely consider this route. You won't be disappointed.