As many collectors will know, after a certain point in the growing love affair with watches, one veers into the big leagues and steps up the watch collection with a hallowed brand. These purchases are something we agonise over for days or even weeks. Am I really going to enjoy it as much as I think I will? Should I get several cheaper watches instead for the price of this bad-boy? Will I unexpectedly need that money for something else more important that might be just around the corner?
Naturally, there are those with vast sums of money to throw around, and those lucky SOBs (no offence) will probably find this topic hard to grasp, but for the rest of us mortals who weigh other priorities against a watch purchase of that scale, the pain is real.
Furthermore, there are the accessories to consider. After all, who wears a watch on JUST its original strap/bracelet anymore? Lunatics, right? There are mesh bracelets, jubilee bracelets, engineer bracelets, leather straps, canvas straps, rubber straps and let’s not forget the Natos!
What are the options?
For some, the buying of different straps for the watch they adore can be just as much fun as buying the watch itself, especially in-between watch purchases. Pop onto Ebay and you can find thousands of straps from hundreds of sellers and it’s always a bit of a crapshoot to find one that delivers great quality versus price.
Some of the purists prefer to go the way of the branded straps, and it is to Omega that I turn my eyes for this piece. Omega straps are of superb quality. Some claim that the Omega bracelets are (gasp!) better made than Rolex ones! These claims usually end in shots being fired and one or more parties feeling butthurt by the words exchanged, but one thing that goes without saying is that these items all cost MONEY. In some cases, a lot of money.
The Omega 5-stripe black and grey nylon fabric strap with stainless steel buckle and fitted keepers (commonly known amongst we watch nerds as the “Bond” strap) is one of the Nato straps of choice for male Omega owners. Silky smooth to the touch and sporting hardware 007 would be proud of, these straps really boost the retro look of a nice Seamaster or even Speedmaster. Furthermore, among the Japanese brand or homage aficionados, this style is also a fan favourite, which matches nicely to a Steinhart, Borealis, Seiko and Orient watch giving it a touch of class that raises the watch to a more esteemed club, although typically it is not the Omega branded one that is paired up with these timepieces.
Yet the price once again makes many a prospective buyer pause and ask “is it really worth the money? Surely I can find something equally as good on the market that simply doesn’t have the Omega branding?” It is into this niche that Phenomenato sits.
Before I discuss Phenomenato in more detail, in the interest of balance I should point out that yes, I am lucky enough to own an Omega (Seamaster Planet Ocean 45mm) and yes I have seen and test-driven the Omega Nato strap. For comparison, I also own many Nato straps from various outlets, the Timefactors Deluxe Nato Strap, the Watchgecko Zuludiver Bond and their Striped Edge Nato, all of which attempt to match the Omega styling and quality, as well as countless other Nato straps bought online.
Phenomenato comes along
Hungary might not initially seem a likely source of quality watch straps. Although Hungary has some watch-making history of its own, it is very small in comparison to the likes of Switzerland, Germany or even Russia to the east. Nevertheless , in my years living in Budapest, I have met a great many passionate watch lovers here, struck up friendships within the local watch community, had a superb custom watch made for me by a local watch-maker and bought many flawless pieces from sellers here in Hungary.
More recently, Phenomenato.com has been launched, as the brainchild of Akos Balog (pronounced Akosh) – a Hungarian watch collector based in Budapest.
Working as an Actuary in Budapest, Akos’ passion for watches kicked off in good style when his father gifted him an Omega Seamaster GMT. He then began collecting more watches and similar to many of us, branched out into collecting straps also. It was during this time that he realised that he was not comfortable with the idea of spending a considerable amount of money on a branded Omega accessory “just” to have another strap to put his watch on, and he set his sights on creating Phenomenato.
For considerably more than a year, Akos was in contact with a great number of material manufacturers, trying to find the right balance between cost and quality to emulate in his own way the Omega Nato straps. Frustrated by the number of near-misses in terms of quality, he began to think that perhaps it was a fool’s errand, but eventually he found the mix he was looking for and then, after further sample testing, pricing research and fine-tuning Phenomenato was born in late 2016.
Made to order by Akos in his Budapest atelier, the straps come in 20mm or 22mm widths with two length options (Long or Short, 33.5cm/29cm – Short version for wrist sizes of 6.5″-16.5 cm or smaller, long version for those over 6.5″-16.5 cm). The hardware, made with high-quality stainless steel, comes either in brushed or polished finish with two fixed keepers either side of the watch and one “floating” keeper. The buckle is a slender, sterile one and also made to match the finish of the keepers.
Colour options are Black, Dark Blue, Admiralty Grey and the aforementioned Bond. The straps come delivered in a nice individual cardboard box with the logo featured on the front of it. The box does not exactly ooze luxury, but is decent enough to feel that you are getting something far better than a strap in a bag (something which Omega have been known to package their Nato straps in, if bought from an AD.)
Naturally, with any strap, the material is key to the overall quality of the item and the Phenomenato straps come with an outstanding quality feel to them. The weave is very close indeed and flawless along the length of each strap. I was fortunate enough to test-drive three of the straps, a Bond, a black and an Admiralty Grey strap, and each of the three had the same quality of finish on the material and even under close scrutiny did not show any blemishes or missed stitches.
Due to the closeness of the weave, there is little or no stretch to them, and no sign of fraying along the edges during the couple of months over which I wore them, something which would typically show up in a cheaper strap. The thickness is appropriately robust, but without causing the watch to sit unnecessarily high on your wrist and allowing you to feel that you’ve not been sold something flimsy. It’s worth noting that in the case of the Bond straps, Akos also sells a “Heavy Duty” version, which is of thicker material, but nevertheless this still remains appropriately sized and does not become unwieldy or cause loss of flexibility. The holes are laser cut and similarly kept their shape exceedingly well, as did the skilfully cut rounded end of the strap.
Subtly glossy, they have a light sheen to them that emphasises their quality and brings out the colour in each of the straps, but without looking like they were hewn from a material destined for a Goodfellas shine-fest. One tiny quibble I had was that the stitching which holds the hardware in place was not quite as invisible as it could be, but when actually wearing the Phenomenato this becomes a moot point as all of the stitching is hidden under the strap anyhow. Furthermore, Akos has acknowledged that this is a small point for improvement, and is already working on a solution to refine the stitching method which should be along in the next couple of weeks, but truth be told, I wouldn’t be put off even now, and perhaps am simply being too picky.
Priced at $40 (USD) with free shipping to the EU or an approximate 4 USD to other territories (note that VAT will be added to EU based purchases), the strap is not going to immediately contend with the budget alternatives you can find on Ebay or other commonly used outlets, but you are getting a far superior product, in my opinion. It is worth noting that Akos is currently a one-man operation and generally the straps are made to order, so expect a slightly longer lead time (the website quotes 14 days estimated shipping time) – but this is not going to be one of your quick-fix purchases, so in my view it’s well worth the wait.
So how does it stack up against some of the aforementioned competition? Well, without taking price into consideration (yet), it’s clear to me that the Phenomenato straps are a cut above most of the wannabes you will find available nowadays. The Timefactors strap has an excellent weave quality but is, in my opinion, far too thick and made my Omega PO take up waaaaaaay more space than it should. The Watchgecko straps are nice enough by comparison, but the Zuludiver Bond didn’t have the same exquisite material composition as the Phenomenato and the Zuludiver hardware felt cheaper too, meanwhile the newer prototype, edged straps they have recently added to their portfolio felt, in my view far too flimsy and the buckle holes started losing their shape after only a couple of uses.
Basically, compared to all of my nylon Nato strap collection, the Phenomenato wins out easily. Granted, it is a touch more expensive, but you certainly get what you pay for, and I have the feeling that the Phenomenato will continue to be keeping its looks after the others have become sad, saggy and stretched.
How does it compare to the Omega Nato strap, however? Well, there’s the rub. Although they are not identical clones, I feel that the Phenomenato does a far better job overall than the Omega strap. It sits well with all watches, homage, luxury or mass-produced. It holds its own far better than one would it expect it might against Omega’s Nato strap. Pricing on the Omega straps is hazy, depending on who you talk to, you can hear of prices ranging from 150-300USD. Personally, based on two quotes from France and the UK, I was told that this strap would be €150 or £120 respectively (approx 160/150 USD) and therein lies the dealbreaker for me. For a watch, I am happy to pay for what I get and considering the heritage, workmanship, design aesthetic and, yes, cachet that comes with owning an upper-tier brand, but regardless of this, when someone tells me that I will need to fork out 150 somethings for a nice piece of nylon… a voice screams inside the budgetary synapses of my brain.
So for $40ish, and representing outstanding quality in comparison to the lesser brands that are out there, and a great deal cheaper than the money -grubbing watchmakers, my vote most definitely goes for Phenomenato. I, for one, am very grateful for the time and effort that Akos put in to bring us this worthy alternative.
You can find the selection of Phenomenato straps at Phenomenato.com and can reach Akos for any additional queries at firstname.lastname@example.org