Behind the Scenes: Handcrafting a Cordovan Leather Watch Strap
While a run-of-the-mill watch and a Grand Seiko are created from the same stuff, it's how that ‘same stuff’ ends up in a Grand Seiko that matters. The transformation of raw material into something extraordinary requires a high level of craft, attention to detail and meticulous hand finishing. Leathercraft, like watchmaking, is in the details, where instead of steel and sapphire, we have leather and waxed thread.
Start with a plan
We will be making a standard-sized 125mm/70mm watch strap, fitted for 22mm lug width. In addition, the watch strap tapers down to 20mm at the buckle for a modern look and more comfortable wear.
The tools involved in traditional leatherworking differ dramatically from those in factory production. Several knives are used for cutting leather: a standard utility blade, a slot punch for straight cuts, and a skiving knife to thin out edges. For stitching, first, the leather is pierced using an awl or pricking iron then the leather is hand-stitched using two needles and thread.
Strapping yourself in!
Shell cordovan leather is one of the most expensive leathers in the world. Cordovan is cut from the horse's rump, that is, the horse's butt. The "shell" in the name refers to a portion beneath the grain. The resulting material is non-porous, dense, durable, and gives cordovan its famed mirror-like shine and resistance to water and creasing, hence its popularity in luxury footwear, and its suitability for watch straps. We will be using a beautiful red-brown shell cordovan from the legendary American tannery: Horween.
For the interior, we use Zermatt from Tanneries Haas. Haas has been producing some of the world's finest leathers since 1842 and is used by several high-end luxury French brands. Zermatt calfskin leather is incredibly soft, durable and moisture resistant, making it an excellent lining material.
We begin by cutting out the leather pieces according to the design pattern as well as making necessary alignment markings to help construct the watch strap.
The liner is glued to the exterior leather creating a continuous strip which is then folded, creating a loop for the spring bar and forming a strap. Sandwiched between is a small piece of leather as padding to give the lugs definition and extra thickness. Non-stretch tape is glued to the interior to reinforce the lugs. Finally, the two sides are glued together on a curved form giving the watch strap curvature, allowing it to wear in comfortably.
Skiving down the joining edges is essential for creating a smooth transition between the liner and outer leathers and is done using a very sharp knife. The term skiving simply describes the process of thinning down a leather edge.
Leather, being a natural material, has variability in stretch and rigidity. Bending and shaping leather causes it to change dimensionally. For example, forming the outer leather around the core requires extra allowance to accommodate the core's thickness. We account for this by cutting the final shape after gluing the two sides together.
On the buckle side, the liner's top layer is skived down to create a smooth transition for folding the outer, making a loop for the buckle spring bar and securing the fixed keeper. Speaking of the keeper: it is constructed from cordovan, lined, skived and creased.
Edge creasing is an elegant way to highlight edges with a decorative line. This is done using a heated iron and applying pressure to work a crease into the leather.
At this point, we're starting to have what looks like a watch strap. While not strictly necessary, stitching gives the watch strap a bit of extra detail, elevating it and ensuring strength between the layers of leather.
To stitch the strap, the stitching holes are first created by piercing the leather using a pricking iron or an awl. Pricking irons are essentially sharpened forks made from hardened steel, which aids in the formation of uniformly spaced stitching holes. In this case, it is 3.0mm apart.
Hand stitching is incredibly time-intensive but offers exact precision and the requisite control to create luxury leather goods. Saddle stitching is a specific hand stitching technique that uses two needles to weave thread into a locking stitch. The watch strap is stitched using 0.30mm thick natural linen thread.
There are several ways to finish leather edges: raw, burnished, painted or folded. Raw or burnished edges are a good choice for tool watches but are not suitable for dress watches. Edge painting, on the other hand, is an elegant finishing method that is incredibly durable. Paint is carefully applied with an awl and then leveled with sandpaper. Consecutive layers of painting, sanding and polishing result in a smooth, glossy finish. While this process takes a bit of time, the results are well worth it.
Finally, we punch the adjustment holes and we’re done!
The not so humble watch strap
My goal in writing this piece is to share the artisanship involved in transforming simple leather and thread into a high end, completely handcrafted leather watch strap. Of course, something handmade isn’t inherently better than something off an assembly line.
Mass production certainly has its place. Consider, for example, the Seiko NH3x/4R3x movements we know and love. These are some of the most popular mechanical movements today thanks to their durability, reasonable precision and affordability. While the industrial engineering involved in producing these movements is nothing short of astounding, a hand-finished and hand-decorated movement from the likes of Jaeger-LeCoultre, F.P.Journe or Grand Seiko is something entirely else.
Clearly, there is something undeniably special about hand craft.
In strap making, each cut, stitch or punch needs to be perfect. There simply is not enough real estate to hide mistakes. One misaligned stitch stands out just as much as misaligned minute markers.
Cutting and stitching leather isn’t inherently complicated, however, executing these basic actions perfectly each time takes skill, an incredible amount of attention to detail, and can not be rushed.
Fine leathercraft is a celebration of artisanship. For the right watch, there is simply no substitute for handmade.
Here is your chance to win this watch strap!
That's right modfam! The beautiful leather strap featured in this tutorial is now up for grabs for one lucky IG follower!
Simply head on over to this post for all the details and mechanics.
Good luck everyone!
Don't forget to check out our guest writer Nonsatiation on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/nonsatiation/) for more fine leathercraft.