When word first got out that Leica, esteemed makers of some of the most beloved cameras in the world, was debuting two new wristwatches, there were admittedly mixed reactions from both the horological and photographic communities. Many of the most dedicated Leica enthusiasts were skeptical about the brand’s move into a completely different product category, and sentiment from some in the watch world (many of whom are also Leica camera users), was similar. After all, there had been Leica co-branded watch projects in the past that hadn’t exactly been game-changing — was this going to be a similar case?
Having now observed Leica’s operations in Germany first-hand and spent some time with both the watches and the team that developed them (NOTE: our L1 review model featured a red dial, but the watch also available in black), we can be reasonably assured of several things, first among them being that this project involved serious consideration, development and iteration from the ground-up, and that this is by no means just another co-branded watch. Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Supervisory Board for Leica Camera AG, began the project in 2012, speaking with several German watch manufacturers whose movements he considered for inclusion in a Leica camera. Eventually, it was decided that none of these movements was satisfactory, and Lehmann Präzision GmbH in the Black Forest region was selected to produce a custom movement, which would be finished by Leica in their Ernst Leitz Workshops in Wetzlar.
Given the complexity of the movements and their functionality, it should come as little surprise that both the L1 and L2 watches will be premium products with price points over 10,000 EUR (both watches will be available late this winter or early next spring, and be sold through the Leica LA store in limited quantities). And given these MSRPs, of course, any potential consumer is likely going to scrutinize the watches all the more carefully before making a purchase, perhaps even to the point of considering whether the development costs of completely new movements (and their being passed on to the consumer) are worth the price of admission.
As Leica camera users and collectors are such a dedicated, loyal group, there seems no better collection of people whose opinions on the new watch are thoughtful, informative, and most importantly, insightful with regard to whether or not Leica has developed a product that truly captures the essence of why people love the brand so much.
Bret Curry, Cinematographer
Bret Curry is a cinematographer based in Los Angeles, California. His credits include television shows for AMC and National Geographic and his work on feature and short films has screened at festivals including Sundance and SXSW.
“The products of Ernst Leitz Wetzlar are everywhere in the world of a cinematographer – from their motion picture lenses and tools to their still cameras – there is rarely a time in which The Red Dot is not within eyesight. Among production crew the word Leica invokes a reverence that is equaled only by that of ARRI, Panavision and Kodak (companies who are of similar age and have survived many changes in landscape). The camera department in particular is filled with men and women who have a distinct obsession with physical objects and their artful applications, so it is natural that one encounters a fair number of folks on set interested in wristwatches.
The day the Leica L1 (and L2) were announced I was on the set of a show that was shooting with Leica Summicron-C lenses, and where there were multiple Leica still cameras floating about. Though there was a dearth of amature horologists around that day – there were a number of those interested enough to listen to me justify why Leica decided to make a watch, why it was so expensive, and why I thought it was actually a pretty solid execution.
I think the overall restraint in design and how much it reflects the philosophy of the Leica camera and not the actual object is refreshing. There is a certain mid-20th century timelessness to Leica’s products that is present here. There is also the right percentage of Leica Red represented by the sub-dial hand and that wonderfully boxy and utilitarian Leica font. My new favorite complication (after spending so much time with it on my Tudor North Flag) is the power reserve, and I like its subtle implementation on the L1. Everything feels well-considered and appropriate. If anything, it feels a touch too reserved with the omission of the classic Leica signature, but that is better than the alternative. The collaboration with Lehmann for a custom German-made movement is a nice touch as well.
I only have a few complaints and wishes for future versions. For a fixed bezel watch I would have loved to see it max out at 40mm, ideally 39mm. I would also love to see a third version with a dive bezel, an extremely useful tool on a film set for many tasks including keeping yourself honest to the time estimates you give to producers. I also tend to use my dive bezel when I am shooting still photos to keep myself from spending too much time at any one location. I love fixed-bezel sport watches like the Explorer and North Flag and am glad the L1 exists, but to me a Leica watch really needs to have some time-tracking complication. Lastly, I am on the fence about the ruby crown. Leica products, despite being often represented as luxury goods, are actually well-valued tools because they truly do deliver superior quality and performance. The current crown feels a bit too ornamental for the spirit of Leica. However, generously, the ruby could stand in for what is referred to as The Leica Look, that ineffable quality attributed to the images produced by the combination of their cameras and lenses.
I like that this is a limited endeavor for Leica right now and that they aren’t expanding too far beyond their core competencies or slapping their logo on an inferior product. I can only assume that given all the factors the price point is justified, but I certainly wouldn’t be against the idea of them slightly expanding the line to include a dive watch and finding a way to bring the price point down just a bit. To that point, Leica should take whatever lessons they have learned from the introduction of the Leica Q and apply them here. To me the Q is the perfect camera, a distilled and refined version of the classic Leica M experience at a price point that has converted many Canon, Nikon, and Fuji shooters to the brand in a way that the M-system has been too out of reach to do.”
Henry Phillips, Deputy Photo Editor, Gear Patrol
Henry Phillips is the Deputy Photo Editor at Gear Patrol. He’s fostered a love of Leica cameras ever since he was given his grandfather’s pristine screw-mount IIIG from 1959. An M6, and M9 and countless press test cameras have come and gone. He recently made the slightly rash decision of selling a full Nikon DSLR kit to finance something with a red dot on it. Q? M? We’ll just have to see.
“Let’s talk about intent. Specifically, the “why” of a product. One company that’s fairly incredible at creating and cultivating this “why” is Leica. You might imagine that people who spend $10,000 on a camera that doesn’t have many of the features of a $2,000 camera would have trouble justifying it without going into nebulous, ethereal descriptions about handfeel, heirloom, and heft. What they actually do is talk about fairly concrete things: precision optics, short flange distance, rangefinder field of view, light weight and compact size. These are tangible, measurable things that differentiate the product! Sure, a Leica rangefinder is also beautiful and timeless and it ages in incredible ways, but there are distinct advantages that attempt to justify an eye-watering asking price.
Do Leica’s two new watches have that? I’m not sure. The movements are for sure novel. Sure they’re not strictly in-house but Lehmann Präzision isn’t exactly a household name. I appreciate that they did something cool with the little micro-complication of the date- and time-setting mechanism when they probably didn’t have to — one gets the sense that early on in Leica’s watch renaissance the brand name and logo will do most of the marketing for them. The upside of this kind of over-complication is it seems indicative of a much deeper commitment to watchmaking and a willingness to actually invest some money in R&D.
On the design front, the watch seems a bit…immature. Not really in the sense of being childish or whimsical or anything — this is German watchmaking we’re talking about, after all — but there’s a lot going on and the direction seems as if it’s still in the development stages. Maybe the best example of what I mean is that the GMT has 3 points of interaction and each one has a completely different finish. It feels like evidence of high-level design thinking — all three inputs have different functions, why shouldn’t they have different finishes? — but not necessarily a cohesive design language. Another: the ruby in the crown is an interesting callback to the classic red Leica dot, but why be so shy about the Leica connection? I’m sure no Leica watch buyer would fault the company for swapping that purplish stone to a simple red enamel filling. I guess it’s best summed up by this dichotomy of attachment to Leica cameras. On one hand, there are callbacks — the ruby crown, power reserves modeled after old light meters — but on the other, slightly larger hand. there isn’t really much link besides those items. If the dial said anything but “Leica”, you’d never make the connection. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? I’m not sure. Will buyers be drawn to the watch because of or despite the Leica wordmark?
Generally though, and maybe despite what my general Debbie-downer-ism might lead you to believe, I’m actually pretty drawn to the black-dial variants of the L1 and L2. Stuff like the typography, the polished case and the tech-y ness of the hands and hour indicators really do it for me. I also really like that they weren’t too precious about the brand’s heritage — this is definitely a watch for the guy who shoots a digital Leica, not the one waxing poetic about ‘the decisive moment’ and the M3.
But is all that enough to create intent? At the end of the day I’m not sure these first new timekeeping efforts present a strong enough argument. And the persuasive argument is what made Leica special in the first place, right? Let’s shove cinema film into a stills camera and let’s make it tiny using optical quality nobody’s ever seen. That’s some seriously revolutionary thinking. The L1 and L2 hint at that kind of flip-the-script mentality but maybe juuuust miss. The L1 starts north of $10,000 and to my mind, at the moment you might be better served by spending your money on the phenomenal new M10P and a Nomos Tangente. What’s exciting though, is that my answer may be totally different once Leica gets a couple more years of watchmaking under its belt and decides to really make the leap.
Adam Marelli, Photographer
Adam Marelli is a photographer and artist who spent ten years apprenticing with a master builder working on high-end residential projects and as the student of a Zen monk. He spent seven years studying in a monastery teaching students how to maintain the building in exchange for his education, and has a unique approach to photography. He currently hosts international photography workshops in Europe and Asia for small groups throughout the year.
“When Leica develops a product, it takes time. Most of the famous Leica lenses and camera bodies are years, even decades, in development before they reach their iconic status. Before then, they are often ridiculed as clunky, expensive toys for people who don’t know good value. Which is why, when we consider Leica’s new efforts to develop a watch, we might be better off by looking at the timeline of development, rather than the first release.
In 2006 Leica released the M8 digital rangefinder camera. Equally hailed and hated, the camera started an evolution that led to the new Leica M10-P, possibly the finest digital rangefinder ever made. But viewed from the consumer end this process took 12 years to refine. However, with constant commitment to the digital rangefinder ambition Leica eventually nailed it. Developing a watch might be the same thing.
If we consider the manufacturing overlap of mechanical cameras and mechanical watches, it actually makes more sense for Leica to make a watch than it did for them to develop a digital camera. They were never an electronics company, but a maker of finely machined black metal boxes (normally called cameras). To create a watch, Leica said they wanted to start with the movement, which sounds obvious, but for many new watch companies it is not how they start. Comparatively, many companies buy a ready-made movement and start with the case, dial, bezel, hands, and crown. Why? Because for the consumer market, these are the eye-catching parts of a watch and much easier to design than a movement.
Leica, in true Leica fashion, picked the hardest part of a watch first, the movement. It is precisely for this reason, that the watch will probably not realize its aesthetic potential for a few iterations. But if a Leica watch were to embody the Leica look and feel, what does the company have in their design archives that we could look forward to seeing in a watch?
A Leica M camera, from an aesthetic point of view, is designed to age well… to become a “wabi-sabi” piece of photographic gear. The original black bodies brassed over time. The black paint wore off with repeated handling to reveal the solid brass base plate. This is easily something that could be achieved in a watch conversion with a brass or bronze alloy case and a specialized DLC (“diamond-like carbon”) coating on the watch. The wear on the watch could be as natural as on a camera because a watch is handled every time it comes on/off of the wrist.
While looking at the watch, Leica has an already-established engraved font set. Whether it’s the Leica script on the top plate of an M camera or the numbers engraved to the lens barrel, Leica has all of the typography anyone would need to create a line of legible watch dials with sensible history.
When it comes to the feel of a watch, the machining of a Leica M was worked out before the days when rubbers and plastic were common. If grip was needed on a piece of metal, it was deep knurling that carved texture into the camera dials. This again could easily become the bezel or crown details on a watch.
Lastly, and potentially the most challenging, would be for Leica to develop watch crystals that utilize their lens technology. Leica’s anti-reflective lens coatings are top-notch and need to be for rending photos. The demands greatly exceed anything that exists for watch crystals. Additionally, while many watch companies opt for flat crystals, Leica has the capacity to manufacture both spherical and aspherical lens elements that curve in and out. Think of a theoretical domed crystal that has a convex point as it enters the bezel. The potential is fantastic. The only question is can this exercise be allowed to evolve in the present economic climate where products need to be instant successes? Can Leica take the approach they started in the 1900s to develop a watch in the 2000s? Only time will tell.”