For its first earnest entry into the watch space, Leica is releasing a pair of new watches designed from the ground, the time-and-date L1 and the GMT-equipped L2. The camera maker has clearly done its homework and these watches are much more than just off-the-shelf components branded with a well-respected logo. Let’s dig in.
The origins of this project go back to around 2012, when, according to Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Board of Leica Camera, they first started exploring the idea of creating a watch. The project went through many iterations and after speaking with people at brands ranging from Hanhart to Chronoswiss to A. Lange & Söhne they started to get a sense of just how ambitious an undertaking this was and how many people would need to be involved to bring the watches to life.
On the design side, Leica opted to work with Achim Heine, a German product designer who has developed multiple cameras and other optical devices for Leica over the last two decades. He drew inspiration from Leica’s cameras without going too overboard. For instance, there’s a round ruby set into each watch’s crown, evoking the famous red dot logo, and the power reserve indicator is similar to a gauge found on the Leicameter light meter made for the M3 rangefinder. The L1 and L2 watches are both the same medium-to-large size at 41mm in diameter and 14mm thick, and the cases are brushed stainless steel, giving them a relatively understated appearance. I’d say that looking at the watches they definitely feel like Leica products without being caricatures of the cameras themselves.
But what about the movements? You know, the actual watchmaking. For this Leica is partnering with Lehmann Präzision, a company based in the Black Forest that makes both high-precision machinery (used in the watchmaking industry) and its own line of watches under the name Lehmann Schramberg, though the latter aren’t very well known outside of Germany. This allows Leica to keep the manufacturing in Germany and to get a movement that isn’t something you’ll find in countless ébauche-based watches. This last point is something that the company is emphatic was a top priority.
The base caliber for the two watches is the L1 (with the L2 adding a GMT function and day/night indicator) and it has one key feature that really sets it apart: a crown that you push to reset the seconds to zero and enter a time-setting mode. This means you never pull out the crown or fiddle with multiple positions. You simply push it in, set the watch, and push it again to set it in motion – it operates with a column wheel, in much the same way as the start/stop mechanism of a chronograph, with two discrete positions. The date is adjusted with a separate, dedicated pusher, and the GMT model uses a second crown to rotate the inner bezel used to mark the second timezone.
While the movements are made by Lehmann, finishing, casing, and final assembly are executed at Ernst Leitz Werkstätten on the Leitz Park campus in Wetzlar, Germany (just next door to the Leica factory). The finish on the movement is somewhat industrial, in keeping with the general vibe of the watches, but it’s not careless – you’re not seeing raw edges or unfinished plates, it’s just not meant to be a flashy or showy caliber. The camera maker has no intention of setting up a full watch assembly and sees the partnership with Lehmann as a long-term one.
There are two things worth noting here as asides. The first is that if you think you’ve seen Leica watches before that’s because you probably have. Since the 1980s the brand has flirted with licensing partnerships in the space and most recently, in 2014, the brand worked with watchmaker Valbray on a limited edition celebrating the camera maker’s 100th anniversary. This however was not designed or made by Leica and was a one-time endeavor. Second, these two watches are positioned as the beginning of a new product category for Leica and it seems that the company has every intention of growing the collection. During the watch’s unveiling, Dr. Kaufmann specifically mentioned models in rose gold coming later this year, an alarm watch called the L3 that is already in the works (hopefully launching in 2019), and models targeted at women that will be made in partnership with an Italian jewelry brand.
I have to say, when I first heard that Leica was making a watch I was a little afraid. And I’m saying this as a Leica shooter who loves his camera more than almost any other object he owns, having aspired to own one since my earliest days shooting Tri-X on my grandfather’s old Minolta. There were two things that gave me pause: 1) Any time a respected brand ventures outside its core competency there is risk of compromise or missing the mark. 2) Watches are a tough thing to make and even many companies who have been creating them for over a century still struggle on a regular basis.
I’m happy to report though that after spending a bit of time with the watches today at Leica’s headquarters in Wetzlar, I can relax. The watches are, on their own merits and totally independently from the name on the dial, handsome and well-made. Phew.
From a design perspective, the watches fit in perfectly with the cameras and the language that Leica has cultivated over the decades. Setting the ruby into the crown to reference the iconic red dot in a way that has some history in watchmaking is cool, as is the format of the power reserve indicator. Both the L1 and L2 calibers are mechanically interesting and in practice the push-to-set crown is extremely easy to use and an elegant alternative to the usual mechanism. Partnering with Lehmann to create a movement that actual watch buyers will be interested in was a smart move when, in all honesty, they probably could have put any old ébauche in there with few complaints. It shows that the company is taking this seriously and doesn’t just view these watches as diffusion products or lifestyle accessories.
Now, as with any watches, there are some things that in an ideal world I’d like to see a little different. At 41mm across and 14mm thick, these feel a little large to be real daily wearers in my book. Especially when you consider the understated and portable nature of the M cameras, it would have been nice to see something under 40mm and sub-12mm, though I understand that movement constraints and market research probably prove that 41×14 is the right move despite my preferences. The GMT configuration, with an inner rotating bezel took me a minute to understand – at first I didn’t see it at all – but it’s a pretty low-key way to get more information onto the dial without adding clutter.
Overall, I think this is a heck of a freshman offering from Leica. The watches are well-made, nicely designed, and horologically interesting, all while being both distinctly German and distinctly Leica too. I’m curious what all of you think – let me know in the comments below!
Model: L1 & L2
Case Material: Stainless steel with brushed finishes
Dial Color: Black or red
Indexes: Applied batons
Water Resistance: 50 meters
Strap/Bracelet: Diamond-embossed black calf leather strap with stainless steel pin buckle
Caliber: L1 & L2
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date, power reserve indicator, setting indicator (L2 adds a second timezone via an internal rotating bezel and day/night indicator)
Power Reserve: 60 hours
Frequency: 4 Hz (28,800 vph)
Additional Details: Date is set using a dedicated pusher at two o’clock. Time setting is activated by pushing the crown to change modes rather than by pulling the crown – when activated, the seconds hand also resets to zero. Leica is seeking chronometer certification, but hasn’t yet decided whether to pursue this in Germany or Switzerland.
Pricing & Availability
Price: Pricing not yet announced, but will start under €10,000 for the L1
Availability: Later this year at 10 Leica boutiques worldwide and a handful of domestic (German) jewelers
Limited Edition: Not limited editions, but production will be constrained to around 400 pieces total for the first year.