Leica trains its lens on luxury watch market
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Leica cameras have been used to capture many iconic moments in time but, now, the German company is looking to capture time itself — with a collection of high-end watches to compete with some of the biggest names in luxury watchmaking.
The company — whose cameras have been used by renowned photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson and Nick Út — says it has sunk more than €10mn into its fledgling watch division and aims to be making 3,000 mechanical watches a year within three years.
Last month, Leica introduced the ZM 11 — ZM is short for Zeitmesser, meaning timepiece. It follows the ZM 1 and ZM 2 (known formerly as L1 and L2), both launched in 2021.
The latest ZM 11 collection of time-and-date watches takes up an ambitious position. The ZM 11 in steel will go on sale on November 23 for £5,845 and the version with a titanium case and bracelet will cost £6,575. That puts it in the same price bracket as established luxury watch brands such as Omega, Tag Heuer, and Rolex.
“These are not cheap watches,” says Andreas Kaufmann, chair of Leica’s supervisory board and chief executive of Salzburg-based Austrian Capital Management, which owns a majority stake in Leica. Kaufmann says he decided to pursue a watchmaking strategy because “it was there”. He says he had invested about €12mn in developing watches. “If you do something high-end, it has to be special,” he argues.
Leica’s watches enter a booming category. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, total exports of watches with an export price (roughly half the retail price) of more than SFr3,000 ($3,350) rose from SFr14.2bn in 2019 to SFr18bn last year — in line with high levels of consumer spending on hard luxury since the pandemic.
But Daniel Blunschi, co-managing director of Leica’s watch division, says the aim is not to compete with established big watchmakers. “It’s not the idea to be part of the watch brands,” he says. “We are not thinking about selling 10,000, [or] 20,000 watches in two years. If, in three years, we are at around 2,000 or 3,000 [watches], that’s a good step for us.” According to Kaufmann, at the moment, the company can produce 500-600 watches a year.
Blunschi, who first worked in the watch industry in the 1990s with Swatch Group and joined Leica in January last year, says the ZM 1 and ZM 2 have been made for Leica’s top customers and collectors, while the ZM 11 is aimed at attracting new customers. “With this collection, we want to go larger,” he says. “We want to take a customer who likes Leica as a brand but who’s not into photography. They’re more into watches but believe the brand is cool.” Leica’s co-MD of watches, Marcus Eilinger, designed the ZM 11 and formerly designed watches for IWC and Zenith.
Kaufmann says Leica worked with a network of suppliers to produce its watches, including German company Lehmann Präzision for manufacturing and assembling parts, and Swiss movement specialist Chronode for the automatic mechanical movement in the ZM 11. The movement, adapted from a base calibre used by brands including Czapek, can carry further complication modules such as a second timezone or chronograph.
Chronode has also created movements for high-end independent watch companies, including Hermès, MB&F and Harry Winston. Blunschi says Leica is working on further complications (or functions) with Chronode, some of which will appear in a mechanical watch for the first time, although he will not elaborate further.
Kaufmann says he hopes to have 10 different watches in the Leica collection in three to five years, including a model with a mechanical alarm. The collection will only be available in 32 of Leica’s 97 stores.
However, Leica’s watch strategy has divided opinion. “I can’t see it being a success in an extremely competitive market,” says Kristian Haagen, who has written several books on watches, using imagery shot with his own Leica cameras. “But I appreciate that the watches aren’t cheap. That would kill the brand.”
Portrait photographer Charlie Gray, whose exhibition Performance was held at the Leica Gallery in London this autumn, is more convinced, though. “There’s a magic in the Leica name that spills over into these watches,” he says. “And they go hand in hand with the joy of capturing time with Leica.”
This is not the first time Leica has ventured into watches. Previous designs were produced with third-party original equipment manufacturers but were either limited editions, offered as gifts, or proved commercially unsuccessful. Its most recent attempt began in 2014, under Kaufmann. He says he had hoped to launch the L1 and L2 in 2018, but admitted that “after brutal testing . . . [they were] not ready”.
The ZM 11 has several details designed to tell Leica’s story and set it apart from other round watches. The dial is grooved to create an effect that looks like sunlight coming in through venetian blinds, and each of the grooves is lined with a different colour to the dial that only becomes visible when the watch is tilted. The straps and bracelet are interchangeable using a system activated by pushing a button decorated with a red dot inspired by the lens release on a Leica camera. The watch is water-resistant to 100 metres and comes with a five-year warranty, longer than the industry standard of two years.
Kaufmann describes the ZM 11 as a German watch, despite its Swiss mechanics. “In the watch industry, you can’t work without the Swiss,” he says, adding that, in Leica’s home of Wetzlar, it is difficult to recruit watchmakers because of the competition for talent.
Leica is a privately held company so its latest published accounts are from June 2022, when it reported a 16 per cent increase in revenue to a record €450mn. Kaufmann says he is not in a hurry to recoup his investment, however. “We have time,” he says.