Watchmaking in Germany

Leica’s dream: to capture time and keep it

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November 2023

Leica's dream: to capture time and keep it

With its new ZM11 watch, the German company is detaching itself from its photographic aura and launching itself body and soul into a watchmaking venture, while still honouring its heritage. In doing so, it aims to attract a broader customer base in addition to the aficionados and purists of the mythical brand.


camera is a clock for seeing,” said the French semiologist, Roland Barthes. A collection of enmeshed gear wheels, springs and finely engineered parts serving to capture time. In that sense, watches and cameras share a common origin and objective. It is not surprising, then, that a few years ago the famous camera manufacturer Leica embarked on a watchmaking venture. After a hesitant start, this autumn the German company is firmly stating its ambitions: to make watches a major line of business in its high-precision manufacturing activity.

Last October, beneath a sudden shower of fine rain in the German town of Wetzlar where it was founded, Leica welcomed journalists from all over the world to present its new collection of watches, named ZM11 for “ZeitMesser”, a measurer, or keeper of time. Of sober design, robust in appearance, it takes its brushed forms from the region’s long industrial tradition.

No frills, instead rounded lines that lend it a more luxurious air than the L1 or L2, the brand’s first attempts to break into the luxury watch market in 2018. They tried to imitate the aesthetics of the brand’s famous black-and-red cameras to attract aficionados. With this new version, Leica is breaking away from its photographic arm with the avowed goal of reaching out to a new, wealthy customer base.

The new ZM11 model is equipped with the calibre LA-3001, accurate to -4/+6 seconds a day and with a power reserve of 60h.
The new ZM11 model is equipped with the calibre LA-3001, accurate to -4/+6 seconds a day and with a power reserve of 60h.

Partnership with Chronode

Housed in a 41-millimetre, stainless-steel or titanium case water-resistant down to 100 metres, the diamond-set hands rotate around a facetted dial presented as the model’s mini-technological revolution. To see the effect, you have to search with your eyes, lean in towards the lens-like domed crystal as would a photographer seeking the right angle.

Made up of fine, brushed and sandblasted lamella, the dial offers a play of shadows “evoking the subtle charm of sunlight passing through blinds,” explains Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Leica Camera AG. You could even draw a parallel with photography, so reminiscent of the opening and closing of a shutter is the impression of depth obtained.

Dr Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Leica Camera AG
Dr Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Leica Camera AG

A look inside the case reveals a tailor-made movement called the Leica LA-3001. For the previous models, the L1 and L2, Leica entrusted the delicate task of designing a watch movement to a company based in the Black Forest, Lehmann Präzision, which owns its own watch brand: Lehmann Schramberg. Leica was able to boast a watch 100% “made in Germany”.

For this new collection, Leica recruited the services of the Swiss company Chronode, based at Le Locle. Building on its calibre C102, the company in the canton of Neuchâtel spent one year developing this new, self-winding movement, of which the distinctive features are an accuracy of -4 to +6 seconds and a 60-hour power reserve.

Leica's dream: to capture time and keep it

The watchmaking roots of Leica

While Leica can no longer boast a “100% German-made” watch, it presents its new product as the mark of “European excellence”. A return to its Swiss-German roots in effect, because on closer inspection watchmaking turns out to be part and parcel of Leica’s genetic makeup. During his youth, its founder, Ernst Leitz I (1843-1920), worked in the watch industry in Neuchâtel.

Leica's founder, Ernst Leitz I (1843-1920), worked in the Swiss watch industry in his youth.
Leica’s founder, Ernst Leitz I (1843-1920), worked in the Swiss watch industry in his youth.

It was in the factory of Matthäus Hipp, the director of production at the federal telegraph network company in Bern and the father of electric horology, that the young Leitz trained in precision mechanics. He returned to Wetzlar in 1864, where he was recruited by the town’s Optics Institute. When he bought the business in 1869, he introduced the series production he had learned from M. Hipp. This revolution propelled the little optical instruments factory onto the international stage.

In the early 20th century, the Leitz company grew to be the world’s number one producer of microscopes. At the end of his life, Ernst Leitz returned to the Switzerland of his youth, dying in 1920 in Soleure, then the beating heart of the watchmaking industry (editor’s note: he might even have come across the founder of Europa Star, Hugo Buchser, who at that time was launching his watch brand, Transmarine).

A view of Wetzlar in Germany, home to the Leica headquarters, in 1913
A view of Wetzlar in Germany, home to the Leica headquarters, in 1913

Renamed Leica, a contraction of “Leitz-Camera”, the factory underwent a second revolution under the direction of Ernst Leitz I’s son, who took up the reins of the family business after his father’s death. Contemporary cameras being cumbersome and difficult to transport, one of the company engineers, Oskar Barnack, had the idea of sizing down the negatives by making use of the 35mm format, then the reserve of the cinema, which enabled the size of the cameras to be reduced. The photos were then printed from enlarged negatives.

His invention went hand-in-hand with the birth of photojournalism and travel and war photography, as the “ur-Leica” cameras could easily be slipped into any pocket. From then on, it was possible to capture moments in time in places where no camera had gone before.

Leica's dream: to capture time and keep it

As portable as a watch

The German brand experienced its greatest hours starting in the 1930s. Now the favourite tool of the world’s most famous photographers, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Elliott Erwitt, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, the Leica bore witness to the iconic events of the 20th century by fixing time on film. It is this dream which today is prompting the German company to turn towards this other keeper of time, the watch. But the target is no longer the reporter or wartime adventurer. While robust, the ZM11, with its expensive look and new Leica Easy Change bracelet-changing mechanism, is more suited to gala dinners than field work.

Engineer Oskar Barnack developed the company's compact camera that became the world's number one.
Engineer Oskar Barnack developed the company’s compact camera that became the world’s number one.

This graceful, inventive new mechanism takes the form of a push button with a red dot, inserted into the base of the bracelet and reminiscent of the video shutter release on the brand’s M6 camera, or the one used to unlock the lens of the analogue models. With a push of the thumb you detach the bracelet from the case and simply slot in one of the other models, in stainless steel, titanium with a butterfly clasp, vulcanised rubber or Cordura fabric with a pin buckle.

The Leitz factory in 1957
The Leitz factory in 1957

It is well-designed, very simple – perhaps too simple: you feel that a wrong movement of the wrist in active conditions could unclasp the bracelet. A reporter in the room expresses astonishment: “I can’t see myself rolling around on the ground to shoot subjects with that on!” The price, too, demonstrates Leica’s desire to hang out with the top-of-the-range: 6,800 to 8,150 euros depending on the bracelet and chosen finish, with three colours to choose from: Coffee Black, Midnight Blue and, in a limited edition of 250 pieces, Leica Red. It will be available from late November in a selection of Leica stores around the world.

“Unlike our first collection, which targeted fans of Leica cameras, with the ZM11 we’ve opted for a change of direction. From now on, we’re making watches because we believe in watches,” says Dr. Andreas Kaufmann. It remains to be seen whether, like its cameras, this new horological orientation so desired by Leica will make history too.

Leica's dream: to capture time and keep it

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