The design

Product designer Achim Heine talks about the challenge of creating a watch from a Leica context.

You have previously designed several cameras and binoculars for Leica. Did you benefit from this experience when working on the Leica watches?

Being familiar with Leica and their products certainly gave me a good foundation. The first camera I designed for Leica was the C1 compact in 1999, followed by the C2 and C3, the Leica CM and CM Zoom, the Digilux series, the D-Lux and Leica’s Ultravid binocular models. This has certainly given me an in-depth understanding of the brand and its different facets.

But of course, watches are in an altogether different category.

Yes, indeed, Leica primarily stand for cameras and sports optics. This meant that for this project, I had to determine a connection between these different types of products, and find the right inspiration for the design of a Leica watch.

What were your sources of inspiration?

To my mind, the watches perfectly complement the Leica product portfolio. For one, Leica as a company have always been synonymous with supreme excellence and mechanical precision – which is, of course, also a fitting basis for the development of a very complex mechanical watch. Secondly, the concept of time plays an important role within photography. The exposure time, for example, is vital for a successful image. Then there is the selftimer mechanism in classic Leica models that resembles a small watch movement; its runtime may only be 10 seconds, as opposed to a day or a week, but the principle of using mechanics for the purpose of measuring time is still the same. So you could say that, in addition to technical excellence, the watch also has some functional commonalities with Leica’s cameras.

A watch is more than a functional tool to measure time — it is also a piece of jewellery and a statement about the wearer’s personality.

Which design principles do you consider to be essential in the new Leica watches?

The Leica products of the past 100 years have predominantly been very purist, with many interesting geometric details. This has always inspired me, particularly when I was working on camera designs. When developing the watches, it was always clear to me that there had to be a close connection between the strong geometry of the cameras and the exterior aesthetics of the watches.

What role do you think the watches will occupy in the world of Leica?

Watches represent a new product category for Leica, so it must be carefully evaluated where on the market they are to be positioned. A distinguishing feature of this watch is that we have not simply adapted an existing movement: Andreas Kaufmann specifically wanted to develop a genuine Leica watch, in order to introduce an innovative product to the market. He is a watch enthusiast, and was convinced that the Leica brand with its propensity for technical perfection could contribute something extraordinary to this field. This means that the watches represent a separate aspect of Leica, and are not just an addition to the camera catalogue. Yet at the same time, the watches can’t be too divergent from Leica’s other products – after all, they are intended to be part of the brand, with many parallels and commonalities, as well as some clear distinctions.

In your opinion, what is more difficult to design – a camera or a watch?

Over the course of my career, I have designed a great many products, and the watch concept certainly counts among the more demanding challenges. There are so many decisions to make that determine the watch’s overall appearance: materials, surfaces, colours, form and texture of the operating elements, hands, indices, numerals, typography, dial and cover glass, to name but a few. This makes the design process extremely complex – especially as each of those decisions has a strong bearing on the overall character of the final product. Andreas Kaufmann and I discussed at great length which elements, functions and innovations might be fitting for this new Leica product. And then Markus Lehmann came on board, an entrepreneur from Germany’s Black Forest region whose company not only produces top-of-the-range machinery for the watch industry, but also makes its own brand of exceedingly high-end wrist watches. The two companies entered into a very close cooperation that enabled those involved to explore new and unusual options – thereby ensuring that the Leica watch could deliver something truly special, also in terms of functionality.

Can you give us an example of these special characteristics?

Together with Markus Lehmann we refined and evolved the concept of the push-piece crown. With conventional watches, you have to slightly pull out the crown in order to stop the watch and set the watch hands. On the Leica watch, however, you actually press the crown – rather like the shutter of a camera. The moment you push down the crown, the watch stops and the second hand jumps to zero. Another push, and the watch starts up again. This is a highly unusual detail which, in my opinion, is very fitting for Leica.

Has the Leica watch been developed with a specific target group in mind?

There are, of course, many Leica fans around the world who appreciate the precision and design of products Made in Germany. For me, the design process was a continuous balancing act between the rather functional exterior of a camera, and the aesthetics of a timepiece that is, after all, also a piece of jewellery. A watch is both a utilitarian tool to measure time and an analogue masterpiece with microscopically small, yet robust mechanics – but it is also an ornament that can express something about the wearer’s personality. Wearing a Leica watch is a statement; it shows that technical excellence is something this person holds in high regard.

To what extent does the Leica brand come into play?

This was an extremely important question for me, right from the beginning of the design process: just how closely should the Leica watch reflect the brand and the characteristic red dot? After a few experiments I quickly decided that I did not want to display the red dot and classic Leica logo in cursive writing on the dial. I felt that putting the Leica dot on the watch pushed it too far towards the appearance of the camera, and detracted from its status as a stand-alone product. I spent a long time looking for an alternative solution – something that was rooted in Leica’s history and the foundations of the brand.

I eventually found it on the top plate of the Leica M6, which features the brand name written in uppercase letters. Consequently, I adopted the same style and font for all numbers and letters on the dial – including the added “Wetzlar” lettering below the “Leica” name – as well as the inscriptions on the back of the watch.

Achim Heine is Professor for Product Design at the Berlin University of Arts. He developed numerous designs for Leica cameras and binoculars between 1999 and 2008.