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Leica Puts Watches in the Picture

Leica Puts Watches in the Picture

Leica Camera has spent the last few years working out its horological road map.

The German company, known globally for its cameras, lenses and other optical instruments, dabbled in watches from time to time during its 154-year history. Then it announced its first in-house collection in 2018, with the two models arriving in stores early last year and a design variation introduced in April.

Now, a collection of seven timepieces is scheduled to roll out by the end of the year.

“Like the cameras, the watches follow Das Wesentliche, this German expression that Leica follows that we translate to ‘the essential,’” said Marcus Eilinger, co-managing director of Ernst Leitz Werkstätten, the Leica division that develops its watches. “It’s the idea of eliminating all distractions and looking to the core of something.” Named for Leica’s founder Ernst Leitz, the operation is based on the camera company’s campus in Wetzlar, Germany, about an hour’s drive north of Frankfurt.

The watches were designed by someone familiar with Leica: Achim Heine. A professor of experimental product design at the Berlin University of the Arts, Mr. Heine has worked on several Leica cameras, including recent versions of the M series, and he extended their aesthetic appearance to the watches.

The first collection featured the L1, a time-and-date model ($10,000), and the L2, with a G.M.T. function ($14,000); the 41-millimeter stainless steel timepieces later were renamed the ZM1 and ZM2. The ZM stands for Zeitmesser, the German word for timepiece.

Both models feature what Leica calls the first patented push crown (traditionally, crowns are pulled out and twisted to set the time). And each one has a proprietary mechanical movement that requires manual winding, made by the German watch parts manufacturer Lehmann Präzision. Leica has a partnership with Lehmann, based in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany, for the production and assembly of its watches.

The ZM Monochrom Edition — all black, with the exception of Leica’s signature red dot on the crown — was introduced this past spring at the same time as the M11 Monochrom, a camera that takes only black-and-white images. “It is a way to have consumers think about a camera and link that thought to a watch,” said Mike Giannattasio, president of Leica Camera North America, a Leica subsidiary.

The ZM1 Monochrom ($11,500) and the ZM2 Monochrom ($15,500) have diamond-cut, sandblasted indexes and hands, plated in black rhodium, and a strap of black calf leather that the brand said was identical to the black leather cover of the M11 Monochrom camera.

Over the years, Leica occasionally licensed its name to third-party manufacturers who made timepieces. For example, in 2014, the Swiss independent brand Valbray created the EL1, a limited-edition titanium chronograph to celebrate 100 years of the 35-millimeter camera, produced by Leica.

The same year, Leica’s majority owner and chairman, Andreas Kaufmann, decided to “look for a sincere way to make watches,” Mr. Giannattasio said.

Leica, which is privately owned, does not disclose sales or revenues and would not specify the cost of developing its movement. But the average price of such a project for well-established watch companies is more than $2 million per movement, and Leica’s investment was likely larger as it required scaling and infrastructure.

“I don’t know if it makes financial sense, but makes emotional sense,” Mr. Giannattasio said, adding, “We have a very clear plan and a passionate obsession.”

The result was a watch that Jawad Ahsan, 44, chief executive of a real estate tech company, said had “engineering as impeccable as the seven Leica cameras I own.”

A resident of Paradise Valley, an Arizona town just north of Scottsdale, Mr. Ahsan said he “jumped at the opportunity to own the first Leica watch,” a ZM2 that was shipped to him in March 2022. Last week, he got off a waiting list for a ZM2 Monochrom; both versions are currently sold out.

Daniel Blunschi, who is co-managing director of Ernst Leitz Werkstätten alongside Mr. Eilinger, said, “We started with extremely limited production first appealing to Leica customers.” And so far, the two men said, most of the watches have sold to Leica customers.

But in the future, Mr. Blunschi continued, “in the marketing, we switch a little more to watch clubs.”

“The third approach will be more lifestyle,” he said.

Leica’s next collection is to include seven novelties, with a new complication, as well as some metal bracelet options. And they will “look completely different; a bit more modern, but not contemporary,” Mr. Blunschi said. The company also is working on a third movement that it hopes to introduce in 2025.

“We are a problem; we have too many ideas,” Mr. Blunschi said. “Fortunately Leica is a culture as well as a product, and we are discovering watches are the same.”

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