"What you wear is an expression of who you are," said Tim Cook ahead of the launch of the first Apple Watch. It was, in his own words, the most personal device Apple had created, and at the outset the company went hard on selling its smartwatch as a fashion item, before realising that health and fitness were more convincing reasons for people to keep it on their wrists.
Today, the $10,000 gold edition is no longer available to buy, a slight admission that the Watch didn't hit the luxury high Apple was reaching for, but it's struck a chord somewhere else: its Apple Watch bands. There's a subculture of strap aficionados that's been growing around the Apple Watch since its inception. Other companies offer ways to customise their wearables – it's one of Fitbit's selling points for the Versa – but there's nothing comparable to the Apple community of band fans.
Read this: The best Apple Watch bands
And no one's seen that subculture flourish more so than Ryan Verbeek, who runs the @AppleWatchCenter account on Instagram. Verbeek has been a fan of watches since he was six; his first was a Bob The Builder watch, but he was more keen on his grandfather's collection of timepieces. He soon discovered his own taste for shape and materials, and that some of his favourite watches were the work of industry designer Marc Newson.
"I'm a graphic artist and graphic designer, and have been a life-long design enthusiast in challenging myself by asking why I like something and uncontrollably thinking about how to improve everyday things," says Verbeek. "Marc Newson's watches had something awfully sleek, and adaptive as in the watches matched so many styles while also adding something to a style or outfit. I just loved that."
Then 2011 rolled around and rumours of an Apple "iWatch" started to seep into the tech world. Verbeek immediately took an interest, but that interest tilted sharply when it was revealed in 2014 that Newson would join Apple's design team – likely to help work on that rumoured smartwatch.
People love to discover new bands, new ways to wear their watch
Verbeek started his Instagram account that year, at the age of 14, and started posting pictures of the Apple Watch. He posted the first hands-on photos, unique combinations of watches and bands. Verbeek soon noticed that third-party bands from manufacturers started to pop up all over the place. And they started to notice his account, which was starting to gain in popularity.
"The first [manufacturer] asked if I wanted to try one of the bands out and post some pictures of it on my account. I was all in for that, and posted it as soon as I got it," Verbeek says. "At first I was a little afraid people wouldn't appreciate the showcasing of the variety of available products. But it makes so much sense if you say it, people love to discover new bands, new ways to wear their watch. See what other people do with it and how to step up their wrist game a little bit. And so it continued."
Opportunities started flooding Verbeek's way. He was getting bands to try out and showcase, and he got to speak to celebrities from around the world, like famous jewellery designer Anil Arjandas; the two waxed lyrical about their love for Apple's smartwatch, not as a gadget, but as a fashion accessory.
It does sort of bring my love for my family, origin and the watch as a bigger concept
Verbeek started talking to the co-founder of Clessant, an Apple Watch strap company, about making his own bands from a material called batik – an Indonesian fabric close to Verbeek's heart. His grandfather, who was from Indonesia, would always wear batik shirts. Verbeek has since been working on getting his own band brand, Batik Bands, off the ground.
"My grandfather didn't like the smartwatch phenomenon as much. He watched the introduction of the Apple Watch with me but didn't believe it would last all that long in terms of hype, since it wasn't what we needed in his eyes," Verbeek explains.
"Sadly he wasn't able to ever experience the Apple Watch in real life since he passed away before the release of it. But for me it adds even more of dimension to wearing my own bands, made of batik. It does sort of bring my love for my family, origin and the watch as a bigger concept, but also the specific Apple Watch a lot closer."
All about the bands
Image source: -I-AM-OP
Take a trip over to the Apple Watch Reddit and you'll see thousands of users proudly showing off their bands and watch faces.
That includes user itsabearcannon, a strap obsessive who frequents the online community, and can be found swapping his Apple Watch bands multiple times a day. "If you only ever put [the Watch] on for fitness, you'll probably have one or two silicone or Nike+ bands you like and stick to that," he tells us. "If you wear it all day like I do, you'll get a lot of use out of having a leisure band that's nice and comfy, a sport band that doesn't get too sweaty exercising, a nice band that looks good for meeting up with friends, and maybe a fancy band for wearing your Watch to a formal event or such."
As the Apple Watch has been around longer and longer, we're seeing a lot more competition. There are a lot more makers out there
It's not just the kinds of bands you can buy either, it's also how you can buy them. There's Apple's official bands, there are smaller brands like Southern Straps and Casetify, and then there are the designers who do nothing but recreate Apple's bands at cheap prices.
"I know some people who build out an entire 'rainbow collection' of Amazon silicone knockoffs and end up with a 20-30 band collection for less than $100-$150," he says. "Some people prefer to stick to genuine or high-quality name-brand bands, in which case you'll need to front more money, but generally in my experience get a better, longer lasting product."
While the bulbous square of the Apple Apple Watch may be fairly divisive still, the design of the bands has been much more agreeable – and not just from looks, but from a usability perspective too. Reddit user itsabearcannon believes the interchangeability has helped nurture an ecosystem most competitors don't get.
"Apple comes out day one with new releases and colours and continues to provide a high-quality product that is compatible with future generations. You couldn't use the same band between a Gear S1 and Gear S2, much less an S1, S2, and S3. If you bought a 38mm band for the original Apple Watch Sport, it will fit any Apple Watch ever made, and that makes Apple bands a definite win in the wearable space when you know your expensive bands will still be usable when you get the next model."
The maker's mark
Kerry and Joel Mills met in college while studying graphic design. After they got married, they decided to tinker with screen printing until Joel got a watch for Christmas. He didn't like the band and wanted to make his own, and that's when Choice Cuts started.
Choice Cuts is the Etsy store Kerry and Joel run. While they started with regular watch bands, they soon started looking into making Apple Watch bands. What started as a hobby soon grew big enough to become a full-time job, though they want to keep it small enough so they they can continue to make the bands they want to make.
However, as Apple Watch bands have gained in popularity, more competition has sprouted up. "We were probably one of the first, we were at least one of the first makers on Etsy to start selling Apple watch bands because we got there early. We got a lot of sales, the bulk of sales, I would say, from many of our Etsy competitors," Kerry says. "As the Apple Watch has been around longer and longer, we're seeing a lot more competition. There are a lot more makers out there."
Kerry says there are some good watch band makers emerging in the Apple Watch world, and that while there is greater competition, the overall market expanding is a good thing as prices for adapters have come down, which allowed Choice Cuts to lower its prices.
Jonathan King, a designer who sells watch bands on Etsy as the Colebrook Company, may be one of those competitors. He's worked with leather for about 16 years, and his primary sellers used to be bands for Fitbits. That's changed recently though, as he's primarily relied on word-of-mouth to get his bands out there.
"It took a little while for the Apple Watch bands to pick up momentum, but they're growing all the time," he says. "Right now, we're just kind of doing our best to keep up with demand."
The customer with the most demand seems to be the those who are dedicated to building out their collections. Choice Cuts, for instance, sees two types of customers, Kelly says: the one-time buyer that's buying a band as a gift for someone else, and then the obsessives.
"I would say those, the collector-types, they're more of our typical watch band customer because for our regular watch bands, we have a lot of return customers, people who come to us for four, five, six bands in every colour, for all their different watches and all of that."
As the Apple Watch's fitness features have improved, Apple has dialed down the focus on fashion, but around it a community of strap makers and lovers is quite clearly booming – and getting bigger all the time.
How we test