“We’re not just a camera company,” explains Dr Andreas Kaufmann, chairman of the Leica supervisory board and majority shareholder of Leica Camera AG. “We actually started with microscopes and binoculars before launching a camera in 1924,” he adds. “And with the launch of a watch today, we are stepping into our future as a lifestyle brand.”
It’s past midnight in Wetzlar—a quaint German town north of Frankfurt that was formerly the seat of the Imperial Supreme Court of the Holy Roman Empire; but today, is better known as the home of Leica—and Dr Kaufmann is still full of spirit. Face flushed red with laughter and eyes smiling, he’s ushering his guests (a hodgepodge of journalists, colleagues and top clients) from the dinner table to the bar.
“Why create a watch?” asks Dr Kaufmann rhetorically. “We are in the business of creating beautiful tools, so the watch is just another beautiful tool.” Fair enough. Leica is famous for exceptional craft and technicality; key components in creating a timepiece. And when you consider that cameras are effectively measuring the time that light hits the sensor, the connection appears even more logical.
Seated in the restaurant of the Ernst Leitz Hotel—just one part of the newly launched Leitz Park III that comprises a gallery, cinema production facility, and the Ernst Leitz Werkstätten; the new watch workstation that will oversee assembly and finishing of the new Leica watch—I speak to Dr Kaufmann about the road to creating the Leica watch, the aesthetics of German design, and his affinity with Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.
ESQ: Why launch a watch now?
Andreas Kaufmann: The short answer: because we’re ready. You know, to develop a new watch movement usually takes much longer than six years. I started looking into watch manufacturing in 2012, and Leica always had a few iterations or prototypes around, but this time we were serious.
ESQ: And you invested your own money to make the Leica watch a reality…
Andreas Kaufmann: Yes, I spent my own money on it. And we developed it in a separate company from Leica—Ernst Leitz Werkstätten—but still part of the Leica Camera AG group.
ESQ: How similar or different is the final product that we have today from what you first envisioned in 2012?
Andreas Kaufmann: Different. Because when you start something, you don’t always know what complications are going to come your way. Which is okay, because if you knew of the challenges that lay ahead, you might not have embarked on the project in the first place. I just had this idea to create a timepiece, and it had to be a true Leica watch. So we looked around, talked with people from the movement industry in the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland, but in the end we decided to create our own exclusive movement, working with Lehmann Präzision GmbH, to make it all in Germany.
ESQ: What complications did you encounter?
Andreas Kaufmann: Well, we have launched the Leica L1 and L2 that should be available in stores in September, but the product that I really love, but is not there yet, is the L3 with an alarm clock function.
ESQ: And you plan to launch this next year?
Andreas Kaufmann: Hopefully by the end of 2019. It is complicated because the goal is to create a sound that is more like music, rather than a drilling alarm sound. It’s tricky, but it’s doable.
ESQ: Do you consider launching a watch line a risk for Leica?
Andreas Kaufmann: Because we have a small production line, I don’t think it’s a risk. We can react to changes in the market, and we are already thinking about watch models up to L6.
ESQ: In this whole process of creating a Leica watch, I’m sure there were a lot of voices telling you to create this or that, but what were your core principles—or guiding lights—that you always had at the back of your mind in the creation of this timepiece?
Andreas Kaufmann: Well, Leica is German design with a human touch. It’s not just German design. There’s Bauhaus which is very matter-of-fact; but Leica is a bit gentler. I’ve known our designer for the watch, Achim Heine, for 12 years or so. He did a great book about the Leica brand, and we had a discussion with him for years about what a Leica watch should look like. When we finally decided to create a Leica watch, we had about two years of continuous discussions, going back and forth using CAD and 3D printing. And I have to say, I think the final product looks good.
ESQ: People buy Leica cameras because it takes beautiful pictures, but people also buy Leica cameras because it is a beautiful product.
Andreas Kaufmann: I never understood why someone would create an ugly product (laughs).
ESQ: With that in mind, what do you personally find beautiful about the Leica L1 and L2 watch?
Andreas Kaufmann: First, it’s the movement. For people who know movements they will look through the clear case back and say, “Wow, what did you do there?”
ESQ: Because there’s so much attention paid to the hand finishing.
Andreas Kaufmann: Yes, but also we don’t really show the screws on the case back, so it’s a very flush design. There’s beauty from the backside of the watch. Second, the dimensions. We really worked on the symmetry to a tenth of a millimetre. And finally, the silver finish on the case itself. We will actually change the black dial to add a touch of blue, because blue will really accentuate the silver.
ESQ: Any other changes planned for the Leica watch?
Andreas Kaufmann: There will still be a few minor changes here and there—like introducing a real ruby to the crown. The current model that you’ve seen has a synthetic ruby that sits flush with the crown. Let’s see if a real ruby works, if not, we will keep it flush with the synthetic ruby. Otherwise, the dimensions and how everything sits together, is final. As you can see, it’s a very German watch with clean lines and restrained design—and that’s what I like.
ESQ: The Leica watch will launch this autumn in select markets, one of which is Singapore. Why is Singapore such an important market for Leica?
Andreas Kaufmann: Oh, Singapore! Singapore is a great city. Singapore was able to create this unique combination of East meets West—there’s a Chinese background, Malay background, Indian heritage and British colonial influence. Lee Kuan Yew was a very strict ruler, but he was right. I’ve read a few of his books, and yes, he was a tough guy, but he wanted Singapore to not be a backwater town—he wanted to create something special and unique. The only thing I don’t like about Singapore is the humidity (laughs).
To achieve a goal, sometimes you can’t compromise. You can’t always be asking people for their opinions, because in the end, as the Australians say it, you end up with some kind of “hodgepodge”.
ESQ: So you agree with Lee Kuan Yew’s mindset of having a strong vision in order to achieve a goal?
Andreas Kaufmann: To achieve a goal, sometimes you can’t compromise. You can’t always be asking people for their opinions, because in the end, as the Australians say it, you end up with some kind of “hodge podge” (laughs). I like Singapore because it is so efficient, just look at the Changi airport. It’s impressive.
ESQ: And people in Singapore also love watches.
Andreas Kaufmann: People in Singapore love beautiful things. It’s not easy to create beautiful things, and usually beautiful things can’t be done for cheap. That’s the way it is unfortunately.
ESQ: Talking about beautiful things, obviously Leica lovers will buy the Leica watch because it is a beautiful timepiece. But how do you convince non-Leica lovers to buy the Leica watch given the options in the market? What is your message to them?
Andreas Kaufmann: It’s a unique German watch with a special movement boasting a classic design. Also it’s not skeletonised—so many watches now have skeletonisation and I think it’s overdone. So if you’re after something handsome and clean, I think this is a good offer.
ESQ: What do you want people to feel when they wear the Leica watch?
Andreas Kaufmann: Because gentlemen only own a few pieces of jewellery—watch, a ring or two, and maybe something on your jacket lapel—the watch is an important investment. Obviously a watch should feel comfortable, but that’s easy to do. But the main thing is this: when you look at your wrist, you love what you see.
The Leica L1 and L2 watch will be available in Singapore from September 2018, retailing in select Leica stores.