Hands-On Jean Rousseau Custom Alligator Strap

Is there any sense in spending $375 on a watch strap?

My Vacheron Constantin ref. 99932-P has an atypical lug-span of 17.62mm, and those lugs are spindly little protrusions that require an exact fit. This Vacheron is also a fine platinum dress watch, so a fine alligator strap was certainly in order.

Jean Rousseau was the obvious choice, and even Vacheron Constantin recommends them. I’ve owned one other alligator strap from Jean Rousseau before, and it’s one of the best crafted and durable straps I’d ever experienced. At first I didn’t think it was necessarily worth the $375 price tag, but after a couple years of ownership, I am convinced that it was an excellent investment.

All my other straps – alligator or otherwise – pale in comparison. Some look just as nice, but aren’t pliable, and thus begin to crease and crumble. There is a tendency for alligator to crease along the seams between scales, and the Jean Rousseau alligator skins seem mostly impervious to this problem.

Jean Rousseau straps are also made from very specific pieces of the alligator skin in which the scales become geometrically integrated into the shape of the strap itself. Most alligator straps do this, but rarely with the care to produce such sensual results as found on a Jean Rousseau strap.

An alligator skin can cost well over $1000, and they’re not huge, maybe 3′ (one meter) long at the most. When you pull open one of the many drawers containing skins at the Jean Rousseau boutique, you’re gazing upon tens of thousands of dollars worth of the world’s best skins. And there are a lot of drawers. Perusing these skins is an incredible experience, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to get the exact strap you want made by exceptional craftspeople from the best materials available. Thinking it through, the $375 price tag starts to seem reasonable.

I live close enough to Manhattan to visit their atelier, which is now in an enjoyable townhouse setting on 54th Street, above a lovely restaurant up a flight of quarter-sawn oak stairs. The attendants ring you in from the stoop, and you enter one of the classiest retail spaces in the city. I immediately felt special and calm, which is a rare feeling in Manhattan.

It’s this kind of treatment that’s so calming: Bottled water, sparkling or still? Espresso? Can I get you anything else while you look over some of the leathers?

There are two ways to make the choice of leather for your stap. You can play with the hundreds of little samples on chains, and you can also handle the full hides from which your strap will be made.

I find that the tabs are great for narrowing down your sense of direction: color, texture, gloss, matte or semi-gloss finish, and so on. With your watch in hand, this is an efficient and joyful way to get started.

My next step was to ask to see the full skin of the few promising options. Laying my Vacheron onto the large skins made it obvious what was most flattering to the watch and to my eye. Of course, I made notes on alternative skins for future custom straps, which can conveniently be ordered without visiting the boutique.

I chose a blood red semi-glass alligator with a gray alligator lining, no stitching, and rolled edges such that the strap looks entirely blood red on wrist. Not knowing a thing about choosing which part of the skin to use, I left that up to the craftsman who understood that I wanted a luxurious taper to the strap the complimented the curvaceous lugs on my Vacheron. He took calipers to the lugs and buckle, and said it’d be ready in about a month.

It’s the best strap I’ve ever owned. The way the strap tapers adds a luxuriousness to the experience of this watch that wasn’t there before. It is so well suited to the watch you’d swear it was stock. Clearly Jean Rousseau knows what they’re doing, and they know how to work with Vacheron Constantin dress watches from yesteryear.

I’m going to get another one soon. This time in a light tan with silvery stitching for a casual vibe. The $375 price tag seems entirely worth it to me, not just for the strap, but also for the engaging experience of working with fine craftspeople who so clearly care about what they’re making, who operate on a small scale, and who make hard-wearing products that will far outlast the affordable options.