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Why in the world is Leica making watches?

Contributor • 6 min read
Why in the world is Leica making watches?
Luxury marques attempting crossovers into the watchmaking world isn’t new. Think Hermes, Bulgari, and Van Cleef & Arpels – longstanding craft and jewellery houses who have, in recent decades, strove to carve their own niche in the notoriously insu
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Luxury marques attempting crossovers into the watchmaking world isn’t new. Think Hermes, Bulgari, and Van Cleef & Arpels – longstanding craft and jewellery houses who have, in recent decades, strove to carve their own niche in the notoriously insular watch business. While the aforementioned companies boast histories in the accessories trade which, by association, is a distant cousin of the horological industry, the move by renowned camera brand Leica to offer its own line of high-end watches in 2018 was an altogether more surprising affair.

Even so, Leica is feeling optimistic about its crossover potential. The watches are just the beginning, says Jérôme Auzanneau, managing director of Ernst Leitz Werkstätten, the camera brand’s lifestyle division formed, also in 2018, to explore product expansion opportunities. Auzanneau suggests that besides watches, the brand will be looking at offering other craft-based luxury products. “Things that highlight Europe’s heritage of luxury craftsmanship.”

Jérôme Auzanneau, managing director of Ernst Leitz Werkstätten

But back to the watches. Leica’s debut models, the L1 and L2, are no run-of-the-mill ODM roll-outs stamped with the company’s name. With a starting price of approximately €10,000, the watches had to live up to certain expectations. And in the flesh, they look like they do, brandishing exclusive movements with a high level of finishing and decoration, and pared-down designs that are nuanced and sophisticated. But it still begs the questions: Why watches? And more importantly, who would buy them? We pose these questions to Auzanneau.

Trying to get people to understand why Leica is making watches is always going to be tough, isn’t it?
For sure, it is not an easy product to present and sell. It is not a mere commodity. It takes time to explain to customers the people behind the product, and make them understand why we are making this product, and why make it this way.

Why is there a need for Leica to start a luxury and lifestyle division to support this?
With regards to the camera business, we offer some of the best tools that people can have for photography, whether for professionals or amateurs. There is an element of our customers using our products for leisure, and the lifestyle division is created to address this aspect of what we offer. Specifically, the lifestyle division aims to offer more crafts-related products besides cameras to our customers.

Leica L1 (left) and L2 limited edition

Besides watches, what kind of ‘luxury lifestyle’ products will Leica offer?
It is all going to be about crafts-based products. I believe Leica is one of the last - if not the last - camera company that is still making our products solely in Europe; in Germany and Portugal. Likewise, the luxury lifestyle division hopes to offer customers handcrafted products with strong European heritage and influence.

Is it fair to say that this is unexplored territory for Leica?
Actually, we are just continuing what Leica has been doing since the beginning. The company started by making microscopes for scientists, and that developed into some kind of excellence in technical expertise for making lenses. At the start of the 20th century, no one expected that Leica would develop a portable camera. Today, we are one of the best-known camera companies in the world. My point is Leica is a company that does the unexpected.

Leica joins a list of non-traditional watch brands making high-end watches. How much of a challenge is this?
A company like Bulgari has its own history and brings to the watch business unique products that are influenced by its jewellery and decorative heritage. Another company, such as Hermès, integrated watchmaking know-how through acquisitions, to offer strong watches of its own.

With Leica, we have decided to go straight for the 'full story'. Right from the start, our watches are made with exclusivity and authenticity in mind. We created a movement from scratch, and ensured that the design and finishing are of a top quality. It is very clear that this is not a gimmick.

Tell us about the movement company that you work with.
The company that made our movement is called Lehmann Präzision. It is a well-known company, especially in the B2B space, because apart from producing watches it also makes precision machines and components for other optical and watch companies.

Can you elaborate on the design DNA of Leica watches?
Design is a very important component of Leica products, and it needs to be reflected in our watches. They had to have the 'Leica look', which is heavily influenced by the Bauhaus aesthetic and spirit. By that, we adhere to rules such as form following function, and adaptability for series production. Of course, I must add that the key difference is that our production run is highly limited.

There are other surprising aspects too. For instance, if you look at the curved sapphire, which resembles a camera lens, you'd think that it is made by Leica. Actually, it is comes from another supplier because the sapphire dial of a watch is very different to that of a camera lens. Elsewhere, the design of the hands and indexes are entirely unique, and they have been diamond-polished twice. There is a 'less is more' spirit to the watch, but even within this framework, there are many aesthetic nuances that the owner would discover upon spending more time with it.

How confident are you in convincing watch aficionados?
Of course, our primarily audience are Leica fans. That said, though Leica is new to watches, we try to approach watchmaking in a way that is authentic. We are not simply looking for another product to sell or another trend to capitalise. Instead, it is our way of applying our own values and know-how into an area that our owners have a keen interest in. We are big on design and mechanical excellence. We have a history in making complex mechanical products. If we work this way, I don't see a reason that we wouldn't find customers for our extended product offerings.

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