Speedmaster lore is so rich and so deep that it encompasses far more than the watches themselves. Of course, this is the case with any niche field of collecting, but when your watch of choice has been worn to the Moon, the details tend to get drilled a little deeper.
And so, surrounding the Omega Speedmaster you can find a whole host of Moonwatch adjacent paraphernalia — patches, pamphlets and all manner of straps, from Velcro to this humble strap. Originally called the Forstner Komfit strap, it is now more widely known as the JB Champion strap. The American bracelet company Jacoby Bender acquired Forstner in 1963, who originally manufactured the mesh-type bracelets under the name Komfit.
Taken on their own, these lightweight mesh straps are nothing special. Middling quality and of a style popular in the middle of last century — and after that with an increasingly aging demographic. That is, of course, until that same strap became part of the standard kit on the wrists of that golden era of NASA astronauts, and flew in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Indeed, the first Omega in space, Wally Schirra’s CK2998, and the last man on the Moon’s Speedmaster, Gene Cernan’s personal 105.003, were fitted on JB Champion straps.
At this point, you might well be wondering just what a Komfit is. Well, strap in for a concise history lesson. Forstner was founded around 1920 in New Jersey and was a jewellery company with a focus on chains, straps and bracelets. The Komfit is an original design from 1939 and is basically a highly adjustable, easy-to-remove bracelet, where the buckle and clasp can be positioned at any point along the bracelet, ensuring a quick and accurate fit. It’s kind of the mid-century equivalent of the Apple Watch’s Milanese Loop.
How then, did this wearer-friendly bracelet end up on the wrists of some of history’s most famous figures? Well, as with many of the more arcane realms of early NASA lore, nobody is entirely sure, but the consensus comes down on a combination of functionality and fluke. The latter is the unknown: in 1962, Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper purchased personal Speedmasters for use during flights, and in images from the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission of October 1962, Schirra is clearly wearing (what would have been at the time) a Forstner Komfit strap. We’re not sure how it ended up on his Omega, but the why comes down to function.
The ease and wide scope of adjustment of the Komfit strap meant that astronauts could easily take it from the wrist to the outer sleeve of their spacesuits, with minimal fuss and zero tools. On top of that, the lightweight and build quality meant that if the band caught on something, it would be relatively easy to break — sure, losing the watch wouldn’t be ideal, but a much better alternative than an astronaut possibly losing a hand. The story of the choice of bracelet is also corroborated by the Omega Museum and former NASA engineer James H. Ragan, who was responsible for equipment testing for the Gemini and Apollo programs.
Regardless of the origins or the rationale, the strap caught on, and the distinctive combination of Speedmaster, spacesuit and Komfit strap became ubiquitous. So much so that in 1964, as part of the official chronograph testing process, Donald Slayton, NASA’s director of Flight Crew Operations, ordered the purchase of 12 JB Champion expandable watch bands.
So this is how the Komfit strap became Speedy legend — with original models fetching pretty premiums on eBay. But now there’s another alternative.
Forstner bands have recently been relaunched and is, decades after the original, offering Komfit bracelets virtually identical to those worn by Schirra, Armstrong et al. We say “virtually” because the company was purchased by Jacoby Bender in 1963, which means the Komfit Forstner bracelets were never used by the astronauts. But “virtually” also because in several mission-critical ways the distinctive bracelets have been improved upon. The lightweight build and infinitely shifting clasp and buckle mechanism are fundamentally the same, though of a higher quality construction than the original. The bands fit more securely than before, the clasp reworked to avoid the “slip” issue found in the vintage versions. The vintage end pieces were only up to 19mm wide, but the modern version now goes up to 20mm and is much more suited for contemporary proportions, with a choice of curved or straight end-links. Unlike the JB Champion bracelets, the Komfit bracelets have fixed width end pieces, and come with the inscription “STAINLESS STEEL – Forstner – KOMFIT – PATENTED USA.”
The reborn Forstner Komfit strap is an excellent example of how you can bring your Speedmaster — be it vintage or modern — closer to mission-spec. You might not have the fly-by-wire skills, or re-entry protocols down, but with a Speedy on this strap, you have surely got a little more of the Right Stuff.
More information: forstnerbands.com
Images courtesy of Forstner & the NASA repository
Forstner Komfit Strap
Straight end or horned end, spring loaded, recommended for watches with lugs ranging from 18mm to 20mm but will fit 16mm also.
16mm at the central mesh portion
Accepts spring bars up to 1.8mm in diameter (includes authentic Omega spring bars)
Original, a longer length to reflect the size used by astronauts over their space suit and Regular, made to fit small to medium wrists.