The LEICA brand is almost universally known as a pre-eminent camera maker and is a contraction of LEItz CAmera. Most consumers would not know about three other Leica divisions that supply laboratory equipment, geological instruments and microscopes.
The Ernst Leitz Werkstätten is the manufacture housed on the third phase of Leitz-Park offering a fascinating insight into the elaborate production of “Made in Germany” watches through the factory’s viewing windows. The premises include an assembly workshop, a consulting studio and a store.
[Photo Credits: LEICA except where indicated otherwise]
YES! Leica launched the first in-house assembled Leica watches – the LEICA L1 and the LEICA L2 – that draw their design inspiration from the creativity and precision of the world-famous brand. The watches were designed by Professor Achim Heine, who supervised many Leica Camera designs over the years with extensive knowledge of the Leica design motifs. The Leica signature look can be found in the design elements and features of the watches: the elegance of the hands and indexes, the shape of the finely-detailed stainless-steel case, the special fluting on the crown and the cambered shape of the watch-glass that is reminiscent of a camera lens.
Both models are driven by handwound mechanical movements developed from scratch in cooperation with Lehmann Präzision GmbH but Leica finish it off at the Ernst Leitz Workshops in Wetzlar. Lehmann Präzision GmbH were already suppliers of precision machines to Leica many years ago, independently of this watch project.
Dr Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Supervisory Board and majority shareholder of Leica Camera AG said: “I am very happy that this long-term project can now be finally presented. I believe that together with our partners we have succeeded in developing a ‘Made in Germany’ watch that is worthy of the name Leica and which represents the values of our premium brand extremely well!
If a mechanical watch wants to be a counterpart for the M, then it has to represent and exhibit something unique. I think we’ve managed to do that.”
Both L1 and L2 have a patented “push-piece” crown and zero-reset seconds. Pushing in the crown puts the movement into time-setting mode and resets the seconds hand to zero. A circular aperture at three o’clock shows the crown position: RED for time-setting mode and WHITE for neutral position.
The pusher at two o’clock position makes the date change. The L2 has an additional crown at four o’clock to rotate an inner 12-hour bezel to indicate the 2nd time zone. Both models have a power reserve indicator at nine o’clock.
Leica’s movement is top grade but they can only subject it to the chronometer test when they decide whether to comply with Swiss or German chronometer regulations. The simplest of the watches will cost no less than 10 000 euros. The gold edition will sell for a lot more.
Design and technology complement each other perfectly in Leica watches: both the front glass and the back-case-cover are made of scratch-resistant sapphire crystal, with the front being anti-reflective on both sides, and each model has the patented push-piece crown with a corresponding status display on the dial. The combination with the zero setting of the second hand is another special feature – the crown is therefore not only aesthetically appealing, but also adds a useful function to the watches.
The stainless steel LEICA L1 and the LEICA L2 were available from selected Leica Stores and chosen watch dealers from Autumn 2018. The L2 model also comes in 18K rose gold case. To commemorate the start of operations at Ernst Leitz Werkstätten, limited editions of the two stainless steel versions with red dials were released.
Leica opted for a very classic German design. Attention to detail came down to mere millimetres. It was about proportion: How to position the small circle for the seconds correctly? What to do for the lettering? The basic design was clear: the Germans are clearly influenced by the Bauhaus concept as seen in Nomos watches.
Leica wanted a connection to the M camera, for example, to be somewhere between minimalist Bauhaus and a Leica.
Leica found four or five elements that could be applied. They immediately avoided adding a red dot. Kaufmann said: “A red dot only appears on the dial when you press the push-piece. But that’s not the “normal” state: it’s there when you push it, then it’s gone when you push it again. Why? Because a red dot doesn’t work on a watch; because if you do things properly a watch is something very symmetrical with a couple of proportional considerations. So the red dot is disturbing. But we include red in the crown, where there’s a small ruby. So, in a certain way, this serves as a reference to the Leica red dot.”
Without the red dot, what distinguishes this as a Leica? They eventually found it on the top plate of the Leica M6 camera, which features the brand name written in uppercase letters. They adopted the same style and font for all numbers and letters on the watch dial – including the added ‘Wetzlar’ lettering below the LEICA name – as well as the inscriptions on the back of the watch.
Leica achieved the camera proportions from the human head. The designers developed grids for the proportions, then looked to see how human proportions are actually structured. When you look at Leica objects, you see proportions that come from both technology design and the human one. The same relationaship is used between watch and camera. For example, the Leicameter – attachable exposure meter for the M3 – gave an idea for a different type of power reserve indicator. Nice design but difficult to do with watchmaking technology. It’s an unusual progress bar that goes from black to white; but they did it not only as a design reference of the camerasa; it has a reason to be – a functionality.
They wanted to integrate Leica’s DNA. For example, the shape of the watch body echoes that of a camera. Similarly, the power reserve indicator is reminiscent of the curved blades of an aperture: when the watch is fully wound, the indicator is open and white; at the end of its running time, it is closed and black. The push-piece crown alludes to the function of a shutter release.
With conventional watches, you have to pull out the crown slightly to stop the watch and set the watch hands. On the Leica watch, you actually press the crown – rather like the shutter of a camera. The moment you push down the crown, the watch stops and the second hand jumps to zero. Another push, and the watch starts up again. This is a highly unusual detail which they think is very fitting for a Leica.
Leica Watch Evolution
The idea of producing a Leica mechanical watch has been around since around 1990. In a 1996 licensing agreement and trademark rights to Leica for 99 years detailing products that can be made with that brand, watches were the second item mentioned. When you look at the rangefinder built into the M camera, made from over one hundred parts, it’s like a small movement. A watch produced by Leica therefore, always has to have a mechanical movement. The link to mechanics is something Leica stands for.
Around 2012, Leica started discussions with various manufacturers including Hanhart, a small German outfit in the Black Forest. Leica designer – Achim Heine – already made a mood board for a watch, that was to be based on a Hanhart movement. Hanhart had some older movement designs, which could have been modified to Leica’s requirements; but nothing came of it for a number of reasons.
Leica also spoke with the founder of Chronoswiss, Gerd-Rüdiger Lang. Chronoswiss was the only new German watch brand started at the end of the 1980s. As a German watchmaker, Herr Lang initiated a few things that are now common in high quality watches. For example, the glass back was his idea to create an awareness of the actual inner workings of a watch. He also promoted a larger crown, an idea derived from the old pocket watch.
Leica did not collaborate with Chronoswiss either, but assembled a network of partners. Achim Heine introduced Leica’s new design language and corporate identity in 1999 and until 2008, he was one of the company’s main designers. They also had Reinhard Meis, a retired watchmaker from A. Lange & Söhne whose idea was the patented push-piece crown.
It was necessary to develop a Leica movement because of market circumstances. ETA made fine movements but as a member of SWATCH Group, had warned that they would cease supply to companies that made alterations to their movements. Even that decision is subject to various antitrust lawsuits. ETA controls around 70 to 80 percent of the market. Another company is Sellita but it is Swiss. The Seiko Group also has movements available at reasonable prices. There are wonderful, durable, industrial movements produced in the millions; but Leica decided to go for an in-house German-made movement.
Price and availability
The Leica L1 is priced just under €10,000 (about US$11,500), while the L2 is priced above that.
Productions numbers are small. In the first year, they probably won’t produce more than 380 to 400 pieces. After five years, Leica probably won’t be producing more than 2500 pieces a year of this type of watch.
At the moment, Leica makes up to 18,000 M cameras a year.
As evidenced by the Leica product road map from 1996, this diversification into watches is logical but we were not privy to that information when we thought they were just a camera brand. There were some portents with previous collaborations with Hermes covering Leica cameras and binoculars in fancy leathers e.g. Leica M9-P Edition Hermes.
Leica owners are a wealthy demographic or at least they are willing to spend between USD 6000 and USD 10,000 on their cameras. The low production of the L1 and L2 watches at the same high price point should make them very desirable indeed.
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web-zine.
He was former CEO of PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).