A leather strap is an important part of Apple Watch hardware. Apple wouldn’t make so many themselves if that weren’t the case. The longer you wear an Apple Watch, the more you realize it needs leather for grounding in the material world.
Apple hardware design has long since begun to depart this earthly plane. One gets the sense that, for Jony Ive, if there must be a physical component to a product, at least make it an abstraction. But Apple is simultaneously pushing into a new computing paradigm, moving off the abstract space of our desks, onto our bodies, and into the world with us, and that poses a test to the Jony Principle. I imagine him floating in his infinite white expanse, asking, “How can a product be an ethereal abstraction of pure software, a skeuomorph of a familiar object, and a physical object in its own right, all at the same time?”
Apple Watch is the product walking the thinnest line between all those realms.
Apple’s entry-level watch bands make the device evaporate into Ivespace, which works for more hesitant Apple Watch wearers, particularly new ones. I was one of the many first-generation Apple Watch buyers who never even considered a SKU other than Space Gray Aluminum with Black Sport Band, making the thing as invisible as possible while I figured out whether I was nerd enough to wear a wrist phone out in public. Apple’s basic bands either tend towards invisibility or its exact opposite: loud colors and materials that make the watch seem striking and unfamiliar, perhaps so it won’t be compared (unfavorably?) with accepted watch fashion.
But once you’ve worn an Apple Watch for a while, you realize it’s as real, visible and tangible a thing as your very hand, and you start to understand how the band forms the object into part of your body. You begin to realize Apple Watch can thereby assume different forms.
You may choose a more visible case for your next watch (I went with Silver Aluminum). You may, as I did, develop a financially risky habit of stockpiling bands appropriate for certain outfits, environments or activities. There are many designs and materials to which you might take a liking: the bizarrely comfortable space-rubber of the Sport Band, lightweight nylon, intimidating metal links. It doesn’t take long to realize, once you’ve started down this road, that the most comfortable, versatile, real-looking watch band material is leather.
A solid leather strap balances out the Apple Watch case, with its imposing height and classic-UFO lines. It’s hard to imagine a less lifelike material to augment the body than aluminum, but there’s no more lifelike material than skin. The watch case’s materials are hard and brittle. Leather is tough but soft. It humanizes this device — which is indeed an intimate, embodied thing with its heart sensors and voice interface — rather than letting it stand as trans-human.
As I gladly join the wearable computing future, this humanization only matters to me more. I find myself wearing more green and brown clothing — so-called “earth tones” — as the century gets weirder. I’m not a very fashionable dresser (or person), but I am a conscious one, and I dress the way I want to feel and be seen in the world. The embodied technologies I wear are part of my dress, as are of course the outdoor materials and natural tones of the clothes I tend to wear. They’re all of a piece. (It’s too bad AirPods make your head look like some kind of terrifying, surrealist flush toilet; I utterly destroy my look with those a lot of the time.)
What I seek to avoid as a daily Apple Watch wearer is that look I see to my chagrin all the time in the kinds of affluent areas where Apple Watches are worn conspicuously, in which the watch practically jumps off someone’s wrist as a strange-looking, ill-fitting computer. I have numerous bands so I can choose the one that looks natural today, or this evening. As I’ve said, what looks natural on me tends to be what looks natural, period; I don’t have any metal bands, and I have a thing for leather ones.
Apple clearly supports this choice, as evidenced by the number of leather bands it makes itself. But the choices Apple has made with leather bands are annoyingly Ive-ian. Apple’s leather bands are like cartoons of watch bands.
Leaving the fanciful Hermès collaborations aside (please), Apple has three of its own leather band designs: Modern Buckle, Classic Buckle, and Leather Loop. I disclaim complete ignorance of the Modern Buckle, and Apple does not even seem to be selling it anymore — though I never saw any press about its cancellation — and I guess that says it all. I love the Leather Loop and have it in black and “Cosmos Blue,” but its incredible magnet clasp design is the exception that proves the rule: If you make it look like a strap for Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing door lock remote, it’s not going to read as a leather strap.
That leaves the Classic Buckle to serve our purpose in this inquiry, but sadly it does not. I regret buying it, and I regret even more that I bought two, in brown and black (this is a risk for me with leather bands, as I’ll continue to demonstrate). My most succinct description of Apple’s Classic Buckle is that it’s oversimplfied. It’s what a comic book character’s leather watch strap would look like, with a big, shiny loop for a clasp, overwrought trim lines, and a completely uniform and spongey leather. It makes Apple Watch look like a fake watch. If the more outlandish colors in which the Classic Buckle is offered appeal to you, I could imagine it working as a kind of future-oriented statement about what a watch was. If you’re looking for a leather strap to give your watch a formal or natural look, skip the first-party bands.
The question that immediately follows, then, is where to look next. First I tried Nomad’s leather strap since I am a devotee of their Pod Pro charger and trust them to make Apple Watch stuff. Alas, more regret. Their leather straps look edgy and sci-fi, which is exactly not what I was going for.
I later discovered Clockwork Synergy, and their prices are dangerously low for a junkie like me, so I spread myself out in their rather spacious collection. I fell hard for their Cordura bands, which are lined with leather on the inside for softness, but which provide more of an army surplus fabric look that doesn’t feel as earthy as I’m looking for in leather. I’m also happy with the Vintage Leather strap in their Gentlemen’s Collection, which reminds me of my dad’s lawyer watches he used to wear when I was little and he wore lawyer watches. I got that in brown and black, and it will enable me to confidently insist that even an aluminum Apple Watch can be made to work on a formal occasion. It’s not right for everyday scenarios, though; I’m a writer, not a lawyer.
My everyday leather strap needs to be rugged and simple. It’s hard to balance quality and price in that sweet spot. Clockwork Synergy’s Dapper collection veers too far toward price and away from quality; the Aged Leather strap I bought from them was squishy and weird from day one, and it split on the side on day 14 or so. I’ve looked around at other brands a little bit, but I’m too skeptical to take more risks on pricier bands. Honestly, I had given up looking by the time Kyle Koster from Range Leather Co. hit me up through my contact form.
Kyle said he found my blog while looking for Apple Watch fans (guilty as charged), told me they were working on an strap, fully acknowledged my “don’t pitch me, bro” warnings, and 100% correctly assumed that an offer of a free Apple Watch band would not count as a pitch to me. I grew more optimistic as he and I went back and forth discussing the product, our preferences in watch bands, and our problems with what’s already out there. I loved the “respectable trade” philosophy I read on Range’s website, and the very idea of a band designed in Wyoming instead of Cupertino resonated with what I wanted. I wasn’t too moved by the aesthetics of their other products — a little too country for me, maybe — but I saw the quality.
I would never softball a review because of a free review unit; ask Google what happened to the Nexus Q they gave me (I still use the tote bag, though). If this Range Leather strap didn’t do it for me, I would tell you unhesitatingly. But my optimism was deserved. Surely by this point in the article you understand how often I change my watch band. Since putting Range’s strap on, I haven’t changed it once, even to exercise. That’s how comfortable it is.
It’s interesting how they threaded the needle on quality versus affordability. I was struck to see this starkly branded packaging on my doorstep, but I was amused and charmed by the slightly goofy confetti packaging inside. The first thing in the package that caught my eye was not the strap itself but the included 1 oz. tin of protective “leather cream,” a nice touch. It accomplished the bang-for-the-buck part of the premium feeling, as well as the you’re-going-to-have-this-for-a-while part. Then, for a company with hardware-startup margins, I was duly impressed to see they included two tails for sizing, just like Apple does. I know my Apple Watch strap size by now, so I went for the small tail, and I actually landed one notch looser than usual, right smack dab in the center. That seemed like an auspicious sign.
I thought this would be too early in my relationship with this product to review it, but I got too excited and had to write. This strap is so simple that I’m not worried about any part of it wearing out, I’m just looking forward to it wearing in. The metal has a classic pre-aged look to it, and it’s a small number of simple, sturdy pieces. The leather is all from one gorgeous piece, so I know that will only look better the more beat up it gets.
I was a little wary of the amount of metal hardware I saw on the naked strap, but it made sense after I put it on. All the extra rivets on the buckle side are covered by the tail, and they serve a great purpose of holding the retainer fixed in place. It’s the same kind of metal ring as the buckle itself, and they lie down at almost the same angle when the strap is poked through. It’s pleasingly symmetrical, and I didn’t know how tired I was of moving retainers around until I got this strap snug and realized everything would stay where it was. I don’t know how unique a watch strap design feature this is, but this is the first time I’ve seen it, and Range has designed it beautifully.
One incredibly generous choice Range made deserves a shout-out on its own paragraph: Range Leather Co. has a rather attractive stylized mountain range as its logo, but they’ve made the choice to put the logo between the buckle and the retainer, so it’s covered by the tail of the strap when you’re wearing the watch. This strap has no visible logos. In an era of commodification of everything, I’m so grateful for this choice, and I’m sure the company realizes how distinctive the band looks without the need for branding overload.
There are two visible, circular rivets visible on each end of the strap, securing the lugs. This is the most distinctive feature of the Range design, and I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I was wrong. Just like the leather itself, circles help humanize the design of Apple Watch. With these rivets plus the red dot of the Digital Crown, my watch has circles going all the way around, and they really help to emphasize the device’s rounded corners instead of its straight edges.
The leather itself, of course, is the real selling point. Range buys from Chicago’s Horween Leather, as does Nomad, but the two takes couldn’t be more different. Whereas Nomad treats the leather like an instrument of their brutally 21st-century design, Range coaxes it into the shape of a watch strap with the most basic touches. I never imagined an Apple Watch could look like an old thing — in the good way, not in the way Apple’s dorky bands will make it look six years from now — but Range Leather Co. has done it. They’ve made the Apple Watch design look soulful.
The strap comes in Black, Nut Brown, and Natural (from darkest to lightest), and I love the brown one I got. I am at high risk of getting one for myself in black. (EDIT 10 minutes later: Yep. Too late.)
Adapters are available in Space Gray, Silver, and Rose Gold, and the hardware comes in either Matte Black or Matte Silver. Gold Aluminum watch people may feel out of luck, but you might consider going with black. Since the screen is black, I’ve found black band elements look surprisingly good with any Apple Watch. Of course, all I can tell you first hand about the Range Leather band is that the silver stuff looks great with the Silver Aluminum watch case.
Range Leather’s Apple Watch band product is launching with an Indiegogo campaign today. The list price of the band is $60, which feels like exactly the right price to me, but there are great discounts for early and copious backers.