Milanese bracelets hail from an old watch strap tradition that dates back to 19th century Italy but the style finds itself in vogue once again. Kathryn Bishop runs through the joys of mesh from luxury links to fashion finishes that can be interpreted as both contemporary and retro.
Milanese watch straps are named after the Italian city of Milan, where they were first created, but today are made all over the world, from Germany to the Far East.
The straps were originally popular amongst the watch designs of the mid-19th century and today manage to straddle two opposite ends of the trends spectrum – streamlined and contemporary designs as well as retro-inspired timepieces.
A wide selection of watch brands have started incorporating Milanese straps into collections, particularly Danish watch brands such as Skagen, Danish Design and Bering, with which the straps have become synonymous. These three brands have allowed mesh bracelets to become a recurring complement to slimline case shapes and dials of an unfussy, often matte-finished nature that sit snugly and cooly to the wrist.
Milanese straps are created by a number of specialist makers and feature tiny interlinking pieces of metal that offer a smooth, snake-like strap that in many ways references jewellery bracelets of a similar nature.
Companies such as Germany’s Staib and Vollmer, both based in the gold and jewellery manufacturing city of Pforzheim, pioneered the making of Milanese mesh watch bracelets back in 1922. Vollmer says it can take 85 steps, from the raw materials to the final checkover, to create a Milanese watch bracelet – not a simple task.
Hansjorg Vollmer, co-owner and grandson of Ernst Vollmer, the founder of the eponymous family-run watch strap manufactory, says that while one in 10 watch straps leaving the factor are solid, time-consuming pieces, the majority of items are today manufactured using machines.
“The market today overwhelmingly demands reasonably priced bracelets, and for this type we use units of folded sheet metal which is punched, pressed and rolled,” he explains. “Every single watch band link is individually stamped out of a piece of sheet metal two to four millimetres thick and then pressed into form. Or it gets milled by machine, or even filed down with additional profile rods. After this, the components are linked to one another.”
Vollmer as a company has been called upon to create straps for divers’ watches, and maintains that its means of production are the most admired and hardest to replicate in the world.
Hansjorg Vollmer, meanwhile, says that a good mesh watch band can be recognised by its “consistent and stable mesh, as well as its lack of sharp edges”, and says that one of the most important yet overlooked aspects in judging Milanese watch bracelet quality is its deployment clasp. “[It] must be functional, solid, and stable,” he explains. “After all, this is the part of the watch band that gets used the most.”
Last year IWC made its move into the Milanese market with an all-steel mesh bracelet on its Portofino Chronograph and Portofino Automatic timepieces, giving both styles a more gentlemanly feel. The Portofino itself is a tribute to 1960s Italian sports cars, with its sizeable push buttons and chronograph dials reminiscent of those found on a car dashboard, but, the brand says, the addition of Milanese straps adds a cool element; the mesh bracelets “underscore the timeless character of the Portofino Chronograph”.
For 2012, Zenith has also embraced the slick style of mesh straps, updating its Pilot Big Date collection with a special edition watch featuring a steel Milanese strap. The use of the metal bracelet instantly edits the look of the watch, taking it from a classic gents’ chronograph to something a little more vintage inspired that combines both matte and polished finishes, designed to echo historic chronographs from the 1960s. The brand describes its use of the Milanese mesh bracelet as lending the Pilot “a timeless elegance that will last through the ages”.
For a more contemporary style, the Danish brands utilise the Milanese style of strap to maximum effect, creating steel and titanium timepieces with a range of finishes. Although matte is undoubtedly the most popular, these finishes have embraced more experimentation with colour over the past year. The slimline style of most of the Danish watch brands also adds a minimal, modern feel to the array of timepieces available with mesh straps.
Skagen, a brand founded in 1989 by Henrik and Charlotte Jorst and recently bought by Fossil, is known for its Milanese straps that feature in nearly all of its timepiece designs. Whether silver-tone steel for women, black or grey PVD for men, or gold-coloured mesh with rose gold PVD, the brand’s sheer number of lines means that it is collections are continually fresh. Additional touches such as crystal-set bezels, mother-of-pearl dials or blue and orange details on the dials also allow its timepieces to cross both the elegant realms and those that are a little more masculine and sporty.
Bering and Danish Designs have experimented with shape in recent collections, and both have launched more angular case shapes with mesh straps that span the entire width of the cases. Bering’s monotone gun-metal steel watches have a polished dial with a soft sheen, while Danish Designs’ gold PVD watch has a delicate 27mm square case shape, the polished finish contrasting the matte of the mesh strap.
For retailers seeking out a fashion offer, Breil, Accurist, CK and Emporio Armani have 2012 timepieces featuring mesh straps. Breil’s B Mesh is a quirky blue-hued timepiece that also has mesh details on the dial, with a design that it has dubbed elegance-meets-sportsmanship.
Both CK and Armani’s new season offers feature fashion-forward options, with CK’s Swiss-made timepieces offering a more understated choice compared to the bolder, polished-finish Emporio Armani choronograph that is part of its Vintage Collection. The 40mm watch boasts a sunray dial and references the chunky push-buttons that channel the 1960s vibe of the IWC Portofino.
Also known for their mesh straps is Mondaine, the brand that has found fame worldwide as the official Swiss Railway clock timepiece brand. Its new 2012 collection, as unveiled at BaselWorld, featured the dainty 22mm Aura women’s timepiece that is made with both leather and mesh straps that can be interchanged. It is also unique in as much as the crown tops the watch, rather than sitting on its side, making it appear not dissimilar to a tiny pocket watch.
There is a world of Milanese strap options out there, so pick your end of the market and get involved in this truly flexible trend.
This article was taken from the May 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.