Monday, January 16, 2017

Replacing the Proprietary Watch Bands on Victorinox Swiss Army's Hunter Watches

Part 1 of a 2 Part Series on Replacement Watch Bands for the Swiss Army Hunter Watches

Previously, I wrote an article about some of my favorite analog-digital watches made by Victorinox Swiss Army... the Hunter Mach 1, 2 and 3. As time goes by, these watches may become more difficult to find on the used market, and certainly the original wristbands will be harder to acquire.

The Swiss Army Hunter Mach 3, Mach 1 and Mach 2 from left to right.
Even though Victorinox offers replacement watch bands many years after the watches go out of production, all things must eventually pass. There are no longer any new watch bands for the Hunter watches available from the manufacturer, and stragglers are not easily found in the residual aftermarket of dealers. I have asked experts like Reflections of Infinity that can usually source obscure Swiss Army straps directly from Switzerland, and I was told that these are just not readily available. Unless someone finds a stash of "new old stock" hiding somewhere, you might literally have to buy a used donor watch to get a replacement watchband or get lucky on eBay.

The Hunter Mach 1 and 2 were Swiss Army's excellent take on pilot watches.

Swiss Army Hunter Watch Band Styles

I have owned all three versions of the watchbands for the Swiss Army Hunter watches, and I always feel overprotective if I am not wearing the all-metal bracelet. This is because rubber and plastic can degrade leading to a failure in materials. The high-end version was a seamless all-metal bracelet that is an engineering marvel and feels practically indestructible.

Victorinox Swiss Army Hunter Mach 2 on a coveted all-metal bracelet with deployment clasp is the best option!
The simplest Hunter watchband option was a pre-curved rubber strap with a stainless steel buckle. The weak link for the rubber watchband is that a tear might start at a sizing hole, which could eventually rip the watchband in half. The strap keepers can split as well, but those are easily replaced.

The Hunter Mach 1 on a irreplaceable rubber watch band. I never should have sold mine...
The third option was a slick looking metal-plastic hybrid bracelet that had a few of the metal links replaced with a rigid plastic insert. While I loved the look, the truth is that this is the least comfortable of the watch bands because the plastic inserts lack flexibility, and you can feel it squeezing against your wrist bones. If the plastic insert was individual plastic or black-PVD-coated metal links then this would have been a better wearing solution...albeit more expensive.

The Victorinox Swiss Army Hunter Mach 2 with a metal/plastic hybrid bracelet looks great, but wears tight.
The plastic insert in the hybrid bracelet could shatter if it was bent too far from its original curved shape. Wearers who attempted to loosen it for greater comfort might find they pushed their luck and then... "Snap!" The construction of the hybrid band was such that the whole thing would have to be replaced instead of just the plastic insert.

If this plastic breaks, the watchband is kaput. Swiss Army does not sell the insert part of the strap alone.
A broken strap could quickly take the watch out of circulation. It's this reason that I bought and sold several specimens of Hunter watches until every one of mine had the all-stainless steel bracelet. These are built like a knight's gauntlet, are virtually indestructible and satisfyingly heavy. And, they just look so cool!

The all-metal bracelets are the safest bet when owning a Hunter Mach 3 or Hunter Mach 2 watch.

A Future with No Replacement Watch Bands for the Swiss Army Hunter Watches

In the future, it's not difficult to imagine Hunter watches with broken watch bands. This poses an interesting design problem for me and other Swiss Army Hunter owners to solve. What could be done to keep these amazing watches on our wrists instead of stashed in a dusty drawer? Very few aftermarket watchbands could be considered direct replacements due to a narrow 12 mm lug gap. Many modern watchbands start as narrow as 16 mm and go as wide as 26 mm, so they simply would not fit.

Why not just throw a 12 mm watch strap on the Hunter and call it a day? Proportions come into play here. A thin watchband would look extremely silly... kinda like tying a watch to your wrist with a shoestring (see skinny strap below).

Going too thin on the watchband might result in a silly looking and an uncomfortably wearing watch.
Keep in mind that the OEM bracelets were massive. The original Hunter watchbands were thick and took on the appearance of a rounded, tapering bracelet with smooth curves. Specifically, the outer thickness of the OEM bracelet is 28 mm near the case and tapers to 22 mm at the butterfly clasp. That is significantly thicker than the majority of leather watchbands.

The Hunter watch case visually blends into the thick 28 mm strap. Leather watchbands will be thin by comparison.

Replacement Leather Watch Bands for the Swiss Army Hunter Watches

Any replacement in leather should take thickness into account. A simple flat leather watchband will never have the same bulk or visual presence as the original bands, but sometimes, you have to compromise if you have no other options. There are many strap choices to consider, though some might work better than others. Maybe a Hunter bracelet could be replaced with another kind of leather bracelet like the semi-rigid one shown below that accommodates different lug sizes.

Digital concept of a Swiss Army Hunter Mach 3 on a semi-rigid leather bracelet.
I thought it would be interesting (but probably not cheap) to hire a leather smith to create a classic watch enclosure for the Hunter watch. There are precedents for these that go back to World War 1 when pocket watches were first converted to be worn on the wrist. These early experimental wristwatches did not have lugs yet so they were held in place by what I call a leather cocoon. It was more like a bowl shaped cover that held the watch to the wrist band. This design might compromise the functionality of the Hunter's controls, but holes could be cut into the leather to let the pushers or crown protrude as seen on the digital rendering below.

A Victorinox Swiss Army Hunter Mach 1 in a fictitious WW1 style watch band made for a pocket watch.
Looking to the past for additional inspiration, I considered using a historical style of watch band with an additional piece of leather called a bund strap. This was derived from the early days of military aviation. (The word "bund" has many connotations, and not all of them pleasant, but that is what  the strap style is called.)

Some watch bands use a narrow leather loop and screw to attach a case. This could work if the loop was 12 mm wide.
The extra pad of leather protected the watch from sweat and the wearer from frozen metal against his skin. Airplanes were not pressurized in those days, and it was icy cold at altitude. Bund straps for chronographs are wider near the pushers and crown, but taper near the lugs to look less bulky.

A concept of a Swiss Army Mach 3 digital/analog watch on a thick leather bund strap.
You don't see bund straps too often nowadays except on retro styled aviator watches. I think they look cool and they solve a unique problem for the Swiss Army Hunters. The center strap would be small enough to work with the narrow lug space but the extra width of leather would give the watch more visual weight to play against.

One of my first digital sketches was based on a bund strap that had a relatively thin center strap. It was not 12 mm thin, but close enough that I could have probably fit it in between the narrow lugs. Spring bars were not originally used on Hunter watches so a pin tool is used to remove the lug pins from the case.

Early mockups of Swiss Army Hunter watches on bund straps with a thin center strap.
I discovered a wide variety of bund straps that are available today, however, most of them will not work without modification. My solutions might seem a bit sketchy, and I cannot exactly say if would hold up over strenuous activity or abuse. Honestly, I would almost call these fragile solutions since only 12 mm of leather is holding the watch to the bund strap.

The digital concept below on the saddle brown bund strap cuts 12 mm out of a 22 mm leather watch band. That leaves roughly 5 mm of leather material on either side of the center strip. I imagine those might have to be tucked under the watch (or trimmed). There is nothing stopping the slit leather from ripping, but I suppose a stitch or glue could be added to protect against this.

Closeup of a slit wristband on a Hunter Mach 2. Check fitment before cutting.

A thicker bund style watch band might look better than a skinnier one because it will be visually balanced.
Another possibility would be to notch the ends of a watch strap to the 12 mm lug size. Leather is folded at this end and there is stitching and glue to keep it all held together so there is some reinforcement already.

Trimming the end of a wide leather watchband down to 12 mm might work as seen here.
This type of watchband is also known as a cuff since it appears thick on a wearer's arm. It's possible to remove the lower leather part of the 3 piece watch band giving two options on how you can wear the watch. The Hunter Mach 3 is shown with and without the cuff installed below.

Concept of a Swiss Army Hunter Mach 3 on a leather bund strap with and without the cuff

Replacement NATO Watch Straps for the Swiss Army Hunter Watches

NATO straps are incredibly popular because they are easy to swap giving watch wearers an endless array of colors and styles to change the look of a watch in seconds. It might also be possible to add slits to a NATO strap that is wider than the 12 mm lug gap. This might look strange and compromise the integrity of the band, but it could be another option.

A leather NATO watchband could be slit and the Hunter watch installed onto it.
NATO straps are inexpensive, plentiful and easy to experiment with. Proper placement of the watch on the NATO strap is important. Dry fit your watch by positioning it on the strap, and make sure to check twice before slitting. There is no UNDO button.

Concept of a Swiss Army Mach 3 on a replacement NATO strap with 12 mm slit center section.
Sacrificing a cheap NATO strap to see if it will work as a replacement watch band on a Hunter watch might be worth doing. Make sure to get a wide strap so that there is strength left in the band once it it slit. The slits could be sewn or melted at the ends as protection against additional ripping.

NATO straps are made of nylon and come in many different colors and hardware options.

Other Possible Watch Band Replacements for the Swiss Army Hunter Watches

Beyond these experiments, sci-fi solutions could be imagined using CNC machines or 3-D prototyping printers or hiring a jeweler to create a custom 12 mm lug insert that would allow the attachment of traditional watchbands. I am not sure how this could work, but I added a lug link to the digital sketch below. The lug link is attached to custom metal loops. I show this version with permanently sewn canvas straps attached. Alternately, a NATO strap could be inserted through the metal loops to allow quick strap changes.

A fictitious watchband attachment system for the Swiss Army Hunter watches.
While these digital solutions are not perfect and may seem far-fetched, creative "MacGyvering" (aka jury-rigged engineering) might invent ways to keep Swiss Army's wonderful family of Hunter watches on our wrists. Next week, I will be sharing a few of my real world Hunter replacement watch band experiments. It might be worth checking to see what mistakes I make and if I come up with any viable solutions. If you have devised a creative strap replacement for the Swiss Army Hunter watches, please contact me. I'd be interested to hear what you did.

Here is my helpful disclaimer. The ideas presented here are theoretical and not tested. You should always test your own makeshift watch band to prevent dropping your Hunter watch on the ground and damaging it. Specifically, the pin that holds the OEM bracelets in place can fall out when not inserted into an original Hunter watch band causing loss or damage. You are on your own if you try any of these techniques. There... the lawyers are happy now. 

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