Leica: Beauty in the hand of the beholder
“A Leica camera is a powerful thing. One touch can change your life.” with these wonderful words starts an interesting interview with Stefan Daniel Leica’s director of production management:
Daniel was just 8 years old when he was first introduced to these classic cameras courtesy of his cousin, whose parents both worked at the Leitz factory – the pre-1986 name of the company behind the Leica brand. As part of Style Week on Pocket-lint, there really was no better man to talk to about what makes a gadget look great.
“I was always fascinated in taking pictures; always keen. I don’t know why; to express myself, to have something to show someone, to record stuff? The first time I touched a Leica, I was overwhelmed. It was the magic moment of the product itself. I’ve heard it happened to many with Leica and it also happened to me. I was so inspired that I thought ‘why not work for them?’”
Growing up Solms, Germany, where the company is based, it perhaps wasn’t quite the far out idea it might seem. Leitz had a superb reputation and naturally accounted for the employment of a large part of the community, and it was in 1984, at the age of 16, when Daniel made the decision to begin an apprenticeship in the precision mechanics division rather than attend university. It was a decision that would ultimately see him as the man responsible for the look, feel and inner workings of the Leica M cameras for the last 12 years and even their glassware two; everything from the Leica M7 onward.
“It’s my job to collection opinions,” he tells us happy to talk from his desk in Germany. “I collect what people like about the M6 and M8, for example, and write down a product concept. It’s total production management; everything from the idea – whether internal, external or from customer feedback – until the last piece is sold onto the market; the whole life cycle.”
It might seem like a far cry from the agonising tests of creating and ensuring that the working parts of a camera fit together perfectly, to exceptionally low tolerances, through thousands upon thousands of shutter releases, aperture changes and speed settings but, for Daniel, it’s the lessons behind the key to Leica’s design success.
“Engineering at this level gives you a feel for the materials. Filing, turning, grinding surfaces gives you a feel for internal workings and how materials fit together. They’re the basics for the further steps of design and we aim for quality.
“How something is built and how it’s worked down to its moving elements – exactly how the shutter dial clicks to make sure it feels good and that there’s no play at all – that is what we do. So when you pick up a Leica camera, it feels as if you have a precision instrument in your hand. I’m not a musician but I’m told that if you look at Fender guitars it’s the same as people say about them. They feel perfect.”
It’s small wonder that the manufacture times on some of the lenses can be up to 6 months. If you want the very best that money can buy, then there’s a waiting list of over a year before some of the more select lenses can reach the hands of a consumer.
It’s not in the construction itself though. With all the raw materials in front of an engineer, it might only take up to 6 hours to actually build a Leica M camera or lens but sourcing some of precise parts are where the bottlenecks can occur. For example, Leica has its own recipe for a certain type of glass that manufacturers will melt for them but for only two weeks each year. Miss the week by a day and there’s a long time until the next one comes around.
Of course, all the wait on the customer’s side helps go towards that special feeling of owning a Leica camera, whether the company intends that to happen or not.
“Sure, it might make you feel exclusive but we feel we stretch it a little too far,” Daniel jokes. “We’ve added capacity, new employees and machines over the years but, still, the demand is overwhelming.”
The full interview: Leica: Beauty in the hand of the beholder