With a stellar reputation that’s stood for more than a century, Leica’s cameras and gear are among the most covetable in the world. Last June, the opening of the company’s manufacture for non-camera-related luxury products — the Ernst Leitz Werkstätten, named after Leica’s founder — also saw the launch of its inaugural series of mechanical watches. Available in two models known as the L1 and L2, each watch is fitted with running seconds, a power-reserve indicator and date, with the L2 also featuring GMT and a day/night indicator. To date, the series encompasses models in stainless steel with black and red dials, with the addition of a rose-gold version for the L2 watch.
Dr Andreas Kaufmann, chairman of Leica Camera AG’s supervisory board, and Jérôme Auzanneau, head of its newly formed lifestyle and accessories division, shed light on the company’s decision to zoom in on mechanical watchmaking.
Of all the products in the market, why venture into watches? How did this process come about?
Andreas Kaufmann: I would encourage [watch lovers] to look at this a little more differently than just a camera-and-watch collaboration. Our main best-selling camera, the Leica M rangefinder camera, has technology comprising a total of 128 very small mechanical pieces. It assists in focus using a lever, and when you look into this, you see relations to a watch movement. We’ve engineered mechanics since 1849. Historically, the founder of the company was Ernst Leitz I. After his apprenticeship, he went into the Swiss watch industry. He came back and applied certain principles to the optical industry. We always saw a connection to watches. It’s just on a different scale.
So when was this idea initiated?
AK: We have been working on this project since 2013. We already decided earlier on that we had to do it mechanically on our own. One of the designers was from A. Lange & Söhne, who had the idea of the push-crown button. We thought that was an interesting execution. When activated, the watch resets the seconds to zero and goes into a time-setting mode. This is indicated via an aperture just to the right of the main hands — a red aperture indicates the setting mode while pushing the crown again will set the watch back in motion, indicated via a white aperture. Even with our power-reserve indicator, we wanted to give just a little more legibility than just the colors. We adapted the style of the aperture window to close in the middle, like how a camera shutter works.
The finishing, casing and final assembly are completed in the Ernst Leitz Werkstätten, where other luxury products are also completed. How similar or different is the watchmaking process?
AK: The case itself requires a complex machining process. We work closely together with our partner in the Black Forest, Lehmann Präzision GmbH, who do a small batch of their own watches. We’ve been with them for four years now. In this project, there were two watch designers and also engineers involved. It’s an interesting development process driven first by me and then by Jérôme. When you work in a team, you always have different ideas influencing you so you discuss it. It’s always teamwork-driven with some ideas, and we have to realise that some don’t work. It’s a process of a few people involved. The watch is a nightmare to produce, that’s why the ramp-up of production will go very slowly.
The L1 & L2 are fitted with calibers from Lehmann Präzision. Clearly, there is a serious tone being set here.
Jérôme Auzanneau: It depends if you’re considering this as a fashion item or as a natural extension of your mechanical expertise. We take it very seriously but it will never be a major hit in the market. This is a niche brand, and the watches are a further niche product of ours. These were designed by Professor Achim Heine, who has designed a number of Leica cameras and other Leica products. The volume [body of the watch] itself is actually a signature of a German design. It’s not too bulky, but it’s not extra slim. The proportions are very interesting. It also makes the difference compared to what the Swiss would do.
AK: Some customers may not be able to get it because it’s in short supply. That’s how we like it.
What are some of the signature design elements from your cameras that have been translated into the watches?
JA: We’ve mentioned the camera-like shutter of the power-reserve indicator, but there’s also the sapphire-crystal glass. The shape and curvature very distinctly resembles the camera lens. Even the arch of it is true to height. It’s a very subtle touch, but once you know it, you will never look at this watch the same way. It’s also anti-reflective on both sides, yet the coating on the lens is a know-how of Leica. The lens goes up to 60 layers of coating. Admittedly, we can’t reveal anything because it’s our little secret, but the watch had to have something special in the glass.
The “Leica” script that you brand on the watches is also a very conscious decision, I suppose.
AK: It’s actually been a bit of a debate on how to brand it. Usually the “L” in Leica is a specific, curvy “L”. We worked a year on the design and we concluded that this “L” didn’t look right on the watch. The Sans Serif typeface is also a writing that we use. Using just these simple letters, it looked much better than the more dramatic version of it. This is a Leitz font. When Leica came on the market in 1925, the Leica logo was oval. As it developed over the century, the final version was [created] in the ’80s. It looks nice, it’s unusual, and it’s ours … but it doesn’t work on the watch. In our opinion, the watch has to be more or less symmetrical.
Regarding the colour of the dials, black is legible, while red is not a common colour for the dial. Coloured dials that are trending nowadays are blue or green. This red is bold but it is not too bright.
AK: There were few watches over history that were coloured red, so red is an interesting colour. But we’ll only do a small batch for the beginning. It’s a surface-coating process but for a watch, we wanted to go a bit darker. Originally I wanted a colour that was Rolls-Royce Rosewood Red. It’s like a lighter Bordeaux. I have a Jaguar in that colour. It’s a very intense, darker red but it did not work.
How has the public reception been like for the watches?
JA: It’s been beyond our expectations. It’s a bit of a challenge because it’s a disruptive product for Leica. It’s something that we’re not really expecting. Yet it works because Leica has always been playing with the unexpected. When you launch a camera like the Leica M Monochrom, which shoots only in black and white, it’s telling people to get rid of the colors. The result is just the focus of the image quality. That’s where you’re amazed. It’s pure Leica. This is a real mechanical product.
Are there suggestions for improvement that you’re taking away to work on?
AK: At the moment we’re concentrating on this size. We intend to launch the L3, which will have an alarm function, end 2019. We’ve also already given thought to how a ladies’ watch would look like based on this design concept. We’re studying this because we think a ladies’ watch should be a 36mm, and also considered as a piece of jewelry. We will be able to produce 500 pieces next year. And the year after, maybe 900, and upwards from then on. Our ultimate goal is never more than 2,500 pieces a year. Production-wise, it will always be a complicated movement and you can’t scale [up] production like this.
Is this the same approach for the camera models?
AK: Cameras are a little different because they’re “software” and a lot easier to do. They’re electronics, as compared to a pure mechanical development. Pure mechanical things are pretty complicated and even more nowadays because, in certain cases, you don’t have the right people and their know-how anymore. The good thing is, in cameras and optics, we have an apprenticeship and you shift this at the end and you have a watchmaker. It’s fine-tuning mechanics.
I got to try the Leica Q when it launched a couple of years ago — it merged smart technology by controlling the shutter via an accompanying app. Do you see this happening for the watches as well?
AK: I’ve seen how quartz and digital watches killed the Swiss [watch] industry when they were introduced. Digitally, we have the Apple Watch. Is it a watch? No. I believe the most perverse thing was having the Apple Watch in gold. It’s at such a high price and there’s no software update. It’s basically a gold case with some technology inside which will stop working one or two years down the road. Does it make sense? I don’t know. Admittedly, it’s a nice piece of technology. Though I would say it’s a rude piece of technology, because people are always staring at it. Mechanical watches, however, have a discreet way in giving you a short look at the time. For the next 10 or 15 years, it’s still timeless, and for most ladies’ pieces, it’s jewelry. The problem with digital products is always the battery. You always have to have a certain amount of energy, meaning you always have to recharge. I would not mix mechanical with digital because it boils down to the battery. Simple things in life sometimes kill certain technologies.
What are the plans in the near future for Leica watches? How far is the brand going on this route?
AK: Earlier, I mentioned the L3 where we actually have an idea that we may not need a closed back case for an alarm complication. The closed back is usually the function you have in the old Vulcain Cricket system. Within a closed back, it utilizes a little hammer, and it reverberates with a quick, resounding repetition. We want something a little more melodious and there might be a way to do it without a closed back. We also have an idea about L4, L5, and even L6 models… but let’s see.