They say that the first step in treating an addiction is admitting you’re addicted, so here goes. I am addicted to watch straps. At any one time, I likely have roughly three watches in rotation but will constantly switch between 5-10 different straps. If a watch doesn’t look perfect on its included bracelet, I will start hunting for that perfect strap, or three, and then I’ll add a NATO style strap. Much like a new pair of shoes can add some punch to a good outfit, a strap is a great way to make a watch feel new again. While I cannot afford to be constantly buying watches, there is seldom a time that I am not impatiently awaiting a strap to be delivered in the mail.
The internet has allowed for a rapid expansion in custom strap making by connecting end buyers with manufactures who make a small number of straps, often to a buyer’s specific tastes. When I first got into this game, the de facto strap choice for a sport watch (without breaking the bank) was a Hirsch Liberty or possibly a Di-Modell Montana, both offering decent quality at a fair price. Years later, the Liberty is still a popular option but the market has expanded to offer a wider range of choice, especially to buyers looking to spend in the neighborhood of $100.
One of the many straps I have recently come across is from the Etsy-based brand Teenage Grandpa (TG). This one-man operation is based out of Toronto, Canada and produces a range of handmade leather straps and a series of pocket squares. These TG straps are solid leather and do not offer an edge stitching, padding or added bulk. I prefer a strap that is thin and not too rigid, so the TG style works well and should suit a wide range of watches while being comfortable on a boney wrist like mine. For the past few years, the strap market has seen a lot of Panerai-style straps which, while they look great on Panerai watches, tend to be too thick, rigid and bulky for the smaller watches that I prefer.
I’ve had a few weeks so far with three different straps from Teenage Grandpa and have found them to be quite comfortable, nicely finished and, while it is too early to comment directly on longevity, the solid leather build should be quite durable and require minimal upkeep. They are made in small batches, completely by and hand and come in a small signed box. I sat down with Teenage Grandpa’s main man Matt Smith-Johnson to get a better idea of how he got his start in leather work, his taste in watches, and some specific thoughts on the straps seen in these photos:
ABTW: Of all things you could take on as a creative hobby, why make watch straps?
MSJ: Well, my ultimate goal is to make a watch. I’ve been working on a design for a few years now, but all the logistics and engineering make it hard to dive straight into. Straps were something I could make right away, an inroad to my ultimate goal. The ‘eureka’ moment came after I purchased a Seiko Flight Computer, which had a wonderfully made watch head but a flimsy bracelet. I imagined the type of band that would bring the piece to its full potential, then set out to try and make it.
ABTW: As a designer, what do you like about working with leather? What is the value found in the return to a physical craft (with so much design now being software based)?
MSJ: I’m glad you asked this. It’s really important to me that I make my straps 100% by hand, with the most rudimentary tools. In my daily life as a designer, I work with software where there are so many program functions that I feel that the computer ‘robs’ me of part of the process. Don’t get me wrong, software is great and saves a lot of useful time, but I do miss some of the hands-on illustration and typography. I guess you could say that making straps lets me solve the problem in long-form. The slower pace and basic tools influence the design along the way. It also allows me to enjoy the process and get to know the materials.
ABTW: As straps are an extension of both the watch and the owner, what are your tastes in watches?
MSJ: I tend to like older watches in general. Right now I’m really into 70’s chronographs, like Mark 3 Speedmasters and I did recently get a [Seiko] Pogue. I like the designs from that era as I feel the designers were really trying to envision the future, which makes for some great looking pieces. I also like aged lume and a few nicks on a piece, lets you know that someone enjoyed it! Even on new pieces, I like putting on a leather strap that will wear. Unfinished material is great for this: the color slowly gets richer; it marbles; it gains life and interest as it ages. Or I will use reclaimed leather, which can add a wonderful contrast to pristine time piece.
ABTW: Do you consider yourself a watch collector? Enthusiast? How would you describe your taste in watches?
MSJ: I’m a small time collector and a big time enthusiast, which is really only that way around due to finances. I love the design aspect, and the story behind each piece, but the guts of the watch are equally as important. That’s the best part!
Other than vintage watches, I love haute horlogerie, although my tastes are almost divided. If I could magically own one haute piece, the designer in me would want an Urwerk, while the craftsman in me would want an Roger Smith… Quite polar opposites in terms of aesthetic!
ABTW: What was the learning process like when moving from your first strap to one that was ready for sale on Etsy?
MSJ: It was for me a surprisingly short road to get the first strap online. I was already working on getting Teenage Grandpa together in terms of the silk pocket squares I sell, but I started practicing strap making early last summer. The first one I made took four hours and it was absolutely hideous. It frustrated me but it also drove me to dedicate much more time to the craft. By the time late July arrived, I could make a strap but my materials were boring. My enthusiast friends caught wind of what I was doing and I started making straps for them… At first I just gave them away but then they started to offer payment, which let me know I was on the right path. I also did trades. Bring me interesting vintage leather and I’ll make a strap in exchange. I also learned a lot online during this time, pouring over tutorial videos and DIY blogs. But there are some things I just figured out for myself through trial and error, like the flame and wax sealed edges. No idea if anyone else does that, but I like the look and it’s kinda fun to do. In October I started to make stock for the store, and by November the straps were ready, before the pocket squares, which was not the original plan… Quite unexpected!
ABTW: Where do you see your leather work going in the future? Different looking straps? Wallets? Special leathers?
MSJ: I may do belts in the future as well, but for now I am still pretty consumed by the watch straps. I’d like to make my own buckles and do some screw-in rivets… Also want to explore some racing inspired looks with punched hole patterns in them. I’ve been playing with stencils and spray paint too. Not sure what will come first but Teenage Grandpa will definitely evolve!
ABTW: What specifically can you tell us about the three straps seen here?
MSJ: Ah, well where to start?
Well the 20mm strap with the dark grey and red contrast stitching is my most popular style (seen above). Dying the leather before it’s cut gives you the natural colored edges, which really look nice after they have been treated. I made that one for the Seamaster as I thought the colors would mesh well with that piece. The hole end of the strap I finished with what I call the ‘workman’ cut, as I based it on a tool belt I used for material early on. Some leather needs to have that type of end on it in order to be pulled through the keeper with enough ease, but usually it’s just for aesthetic. Otherwise I use the clean diagonal to finish off the ends, which gives my work a unique look.
The 22mm dark brown and olive strap (seen above) was made from reclaimed leather, I loved the marbling in that piece, and the material was some of the nicest I had come across – even the way that leather cut and skived felt smooth. Great stuff! Anyways, I kept the stitching color more traditional on that piece as I didn’t want to take away from the detail in the leather itself. It also leaves the pairing options wide open.
And perhaps my favorite, the 22mm distressed caramel brown (seen above). This kind of piece is something that I personally gravitate towards. I love preserving things like old rivet holes and stitching lines on these kinds of pieces. The wear on that leather was wild, it caught my eye in a vintage shop right away, such contrast! I also like taking bold moves like including the neon yellow stitch near the buckle. It’s something that gets covered up when the watch is on, but it makes for a gutsy look when the strap is off. Also, I like matching black buckles with black dials, instead of always aiming for the case. It’s less expected, and simply, more fun![End of Interview]
With a few weeks of wrist time, I can safely say that this won’t be my last time visiting Matt’s Etsy shop to browse his latest creations. Much like watches, straps come in all prices from sub $5 NATOS to handmade luxury options that can cost hundreds of dollars. Teenage Grandpa exists somewhere in the middle, offering handmade attention with interesting choices in leather and stitching, all around the $100 price mark. Whether you’ve worn through that old Hirsch Liberty or simply need something to spruce up an often unworn favorite, be sure to check out what Matt has on offer as I found these great looking straps to be comfy, nicely made, and full of character. Teenage Grandpa Store on Etsy