View all articles

Review: Leica ZM 11

A few years back, Leica released a watch. There were mixed feelings. Leica makes cameras, not watches, but it does make those cameras incredibly well, so it should also manage to make good watches too. Anyway, they learnt some lessons after the first outing and now they’re back. And you know what? You should probably take a closer look.


I had no idea, but I found out that Leica founder Ernst Leitz, before he got into cameras, he trained as a watchmaker. Cameras back then, in the mid 1800s, were big old lumps, like the kinds of things you had to sit still for ages for and carry around in big wooden boxes. Funnily enough, it was the micro-engineering Leitz founded his business on that trickled down to Leica producing the world’s first 35mm camera. The fine, precise mechanism, engineered by Oskar Barnack, was built on the back of an industry into which Leica is now trying to broach.

So why is Leica trying to make watches? It’s almost reflexive to say, “To make money,” because Leica in itself as a camera brand has evolved into not just a technical product, but a lifestyle one, too. That red dot is synonymous with luxury. When reviews extoll the feel of the grip or the mechanical satisfaction of the controls, you know this has transcended from mere practicality. Sound familiar?

I like mechanical overkill. I like hi-fi components whose remote controls are milled from a block of aluminium. I like car doors that close with a thunk. I like watches that record the time with two hundred tiny parts. I don’t need those things, but they all tickle a little piece of my amoeba brain that, I think, grounds me to a sense of reality, like stepping off a plane onto solid tarmac after a particular bumpy flight.

This might be pseudo psychological and maybe even a little sentimental, but in contrast to the digital pace of contemporary life, the feel of a button or a switch is almost tantric relief. I get to think about just one thing at a time, and really get lost in it. You may or may not know that I’m a keen photographer myself, and have found a particular niche in astrophotography, a process-driven, step-change hobby that lets me lose myself in the moment, to give value back to my time. And the equipment feels solid. Fundamental. Grounded.

So why is Leica making watches. Money? Let me tell you, it costs a lot of that to make one, and the only way you’re hoping to see any of that back is to make a good one. So why do Leica think they can make a good one? Because of those fundamentals. They understand what it is to appreciate even the smallest moments in time, right down to the split second. Ernst Leitz’s watchmaking skills were so crucial to the success of Leica because those moments don’t hang around for minutes at a time to wait and pose for you. You need to be able to react in an instant. Leica understands the mechanical complexity required to capture time, and so it understands watches.

The first watches, the ZM 1 and ZM 2 dipped a toe in the water, a tentative hello to a group of people it shared a kinship with but hadn’t yet become fully acquainted. The ZM 11 is a more confident stride into watchmaking territory. It’s not without its missteps, but to dismiss it entirely would perhaps be the biggest misstep of all.


If you’ve made it this far, you’ve indulged my ramblings enough as I try to give reason to the unreasonable and find rationale in the irrational. I wouldn’t say we’re all cured, per se, but at least perhaps the associated guilt of self-reward can be neutered a touch. Moving forward, we’re going to talk about the ZM 11.

If you’re familiar with the Porsche Design era of IWC, you’ll feel very at home here. The Germanic influence for this Germanic brand is very Germanic, and there’s no ignoring it. And the ZM 11 feels very Germanic, too. This thing is solid. If you’ve ever handled a Leica, the thought has most certainly crossed your mind that it could dish out more damage than it will ever take, and the ZM 11 is no exception.

I cannot stress this enough: Leica knows how to build solid, beautiful, well-engineered things. That shouldn’t be a surprise. And the ZM 11 is those things. The launch edition, for example, colours the sides of those dial slats in red, so when the watch tips towards or away from you, the dial turns from black to red. Never seen that in a watch before. It reminds me of those little toys you’d get in cereal, with a few seconds of a scored goal or something like that, that you’d tip back and forth to relive the moment. A moment of time, captured.

The hands, markers, case, crown, bracelet—there’s nothing overtly luxurious going on here, and that’s quite right. It expresses its value by making simple decisions and committing to them in steel, or in this case, titanium, too. The matte finish on the titanium I think works especially well. It has a feeling to the touch that makes it somehow seem more important a thing than you first realise.

The crown is nicely tactile and well-judged. There’s enough tactility for it to feel purposeful without it being sharp and over-stimulating. That’s Leica’s savoir faire, if we were to use a cliché watchmaking term. It can do that all day long with one arm tied behind its back. The bracelet, too, feels like bionic snakeskin. It’s simple and almost raw, judged well at the point of tactility. Whether on the strap or bracelet, the 41mm case feels bound to the wrist, rather than sitting on it. Some more taper would be nice, but not necessary.

Swapping between the two is straightforward thanks to a proprietary quick-release system, which is modelled on the iconic red dot and one of the easiest systems to use. Only sticking point is it took my lizard brain a few moments to figure out that reattaching the strap required the button to be pressed down first.

You’d expect most companies trying to add a watchmaking string to their bow would simply buy in a movement, but Leica understood that when it comes to the mechanical joy of a watch, that would be a bit of a cop-out. So the calibre LA-3001, engineered with industry masters Chronode, offers Leica’s interpretation of a mechanical movement from the ground up. You’ll find no Geneva stripes and polished bevels here. Like the rest of the watch, this embraces industro-luxe with thick lines and dark shades, topped with brusque finishes. From a practical perspective it offers industry norms such as chronometer accuracy, 60 hours of power reserve and is sealed to 100m.

The watch at launch comes in three options, black with red on titanium, golden brown on titanium and blue on steel. It’s only the black dial that gets the red stripe optical illusion, although the others are sunburst instead. There’s the choice of rubber, textile or bracelet for each, and the price starts £5,630. What pleases me most, actually, as an evolution from the previous watches, is that there aren’t too many fourth wall-breaking, “Hey, we make cameras too!” moments with this watch. They’re subtle like the red dot quick-release buttons and the lens-like sapphire case back with ridged lip and edge text, and even a slight dome that’s not only very satisfying to touch, but also creates a fun effect when viewed at an oblique angle.

How did you feel about the price when I dropped that in there? £5,630, going up to £6,810 in titanium on the bracelet. There’s some stiff competition at that price point for sure. That’s well in the realms of Rolex Oyster Perpetual money. Omega, too, the Aqua Terra a comfortable choice at the price point. Is the ZM 11 as good as those watches? You know, it doesn’t feel out of place, at all. Leica have managed to create something different and interesting, built it to a high standard and pitched it at a reasonable price.

It's not a no-brainer. At half the price it would be the kind of watch you buy because you’re sure the price is a mistake. At three quarters you’d be looking for excuses not to be tempted. At this price, it’s a good buy, but you’d have to consciously refuse to spend that money on the obvious big-hitters instead. Maybe you already have them, and you want something different and unusual.

There was a time when people thought that taking a picture of someone also took their soul from them, and right now, there’s a hesitance around Leica and its potential overreach into watches. But the ZM 11 proves the German manufacturer of all things tactile gets it. They really do. If this watch had a popular watch brand stamped on the dial., people would buy it in a second.

I can tell you all the stories and give you all the history, but there’s one thing I can’t do through this medium: put the watch in your hands. When it comes to a Leica camera, the biggest seller isn’t the glossy product shots online, and to a lesser degree it’s not even the example shots taken by the camera, it’s holding it in your hands and feeling it for yourself. The weight, the tactility, the satisfying mechanics of it. The ZM 11 is the same. If you find yourself with not much to do one day and there’s a Leica store nearby, get one in your hands and feel it. Try it on. That’s when you’ll understand why Leica made a watch.

What do you think of the ZM 11 and indeed Leica making watches?