Leica are known for the quality of their cameras so the brand’s first watches had to be more than the usual white label partnership.
by James Buttery
Cult camera manufacturer Leica has introduced its first true watch collection on the company’s newly built Leitz-Park campus in Wetzlar, Germany, a concrete playground of contrasting curves and towering grey box-like buildings that turns out some of the most lusted after cameras in the world.
Leica’s chairman, Dr Andreas Kaufmann, has been tentatively working with various partners to create Leica watches since 2012 having discussions with Chronoswiss and even going so far as considering a bid to acquire Black Forest watchmaker Hanhart. The most recent in that string of branded yet unrelated curios was a 2014 Valbray that aped the form of a camera shutter which, while interesting, screamed gimmick.
Along the way the project started to involve a number of central players including Achim Heine, who was formerly one of Leica’s most important designers helping establish the brand’s new identity in 1999, author and former A. Lange & Söhne watchmaker Reinhard Meis and Black Forest micro-engineering firm and watch brand, Lehmann Präzision GmbH.
Together they worked on designing and manufacturing the movements at the centre of these two new watches from the 104-year-old camera brand, although apparently an entire collection is planned with an alarm watch already in development and a women’s watch collaboration with a Venetian jeweller muted. The new movements, simply named the L1 and L2, are manufactured at Lehmann before being delivered to a purpose-built workshop at Leica where the watches are finished. The aim is to produce 400 in the first year with capacity for 2,500 watches annually in the next five years.
The movements allow for a number of specific features; both watches feature a crown that pushes rather than pulls for adjustment of the time and resetting the small seconds to zero all of which is controlled by a column wheel. They also have a dedicated date advance pusher at two o’clock and a subtle power reserve gauge between the eight and nine o’clock markers. The L2 also gets a second crown at the four o’clock to control the inner rotating 12-hour bezel which serves neatly as a GMT complication with a fairly vague AM/PM indicator on the dial.
The 4Hz manually wound movements are certainly interesting, they have the kind of complex, open architecture one might associate with a German chronograph from the likes of Lange (which points to Meis’ involvement) but with a unique finish that’s simultaneously industrial and luxe. Bridges are formed with sharp, swooping curves and frosted surfaces with raised, black-polished edges.
Perhaps the earlier, more superficial attempts at carrying that iconic brand identity over into watch design is why Leica’s latest watches are less obvious, more, as Dr Kaufmann himself states, ‘interpretive’. There’s no red dot logo for instance which would have instantly signified the watch as a Leica product. Dr Kaufmann explained that the team had tried to insert the red dot, they also tried the old Leica script lettering but apparently neither worked, leaving the designs too asymmetrical. Instead, a circular crown position indication on the dial flips from white to red when the crown has been depressed.
A second nod to Leica’s red dot can be found in the ruby set into the crown, but this does not work as far as I’m concerned. Firstly, Leicas are professional instruments with no more room for such embellishments on their watches than on their cameras and secondly, because the shade of these magenta rubies is a million miles away from Leica’s bold red.
Of course, the recognisable, traditional contrast between the leather-textured black and bare metal surfaces still found on Leica’s M Series cameras today is present on the watch in the form of the black leather strap and stainless steel case, however the case is mainly polished so you really have to be looking for the parallel to make the connection. It is interesting that a company such as Leica – for whom visual clarity is everything – would choose to pass its world-leading brand identity through such a distorting filter.
Then there is the positioning. Leica, which will be selling these through its own global network of camera boutiques, expects the watches to be priced just below 10,000 Euros, a sum which would allow you to buy into almost any of the world’s most established luxury watch brands. Given the competition at this price point within the market, Leica’s obsessive customer base must surely be the intended target for the L1 and L2.