Iconic, simplicity, innovation—these are all words that can be used to describe both Leica and Apple, two companies that have set themselves apart for their marriage of top-of-the-line technology with instantly identifiable design. So when Apple designer Sir Jonathan Ive approached Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Supervisory Board for Leica, about collaborating on a special edition camera, Kaufmann says the company jumped at the opportunity.
“I had been in discussion with Jonathan before—I’ve known him since 2009 or so—and then he came up with this idea, that we should do something together for the (RED) auction. Then I got a letter from Bono, and it was clear that we should do it.”
The result is a custom-made digital rangefinder camera, blending the technology and iconic look of the Leica M with Ive’s Apple design aesthetic to create a unique piece of history that Gizmag describes as, “the love-child of a Leica M, a MacBook, and the Instagram logo.” Kaufmann and the Leica team like the description, although Head of Product Management Stefan Daniel is quick to point out that you could just as easily say the Instagram logo looks a bit like a Leica…
The camera, which the company has been working on since last December, is the product of over fifty engineers and over nine hundred prototype parts, according to Daniel. The body of the camera, which is built out of a single, solid block of aluminum, is finished with more than 21,000 little holes, engraved into the body by laser at the Apple factories in Cupertino. That process alone takes ninety-six hours, he says, a fraction of the time spent designing and manufacturing this unique piece of machinery.
While the interior of the camera—electronics, shutter, software, sensor—is standard to the classic Leica M, over one hundred parts had to be redesigned or modified to fit with Ive and partner Marc Newson’s design. “Jony simplified everything, and I mean that in the sense of reduced,” explains Daniel. Newson echoes his sentiments, “The Leica object embodies the most iconic qualities of a camera. It ended up being a process of distillation and concentration.” But while some elements have changed, the Leica team says the camera remains true to the principles that have come to define the iconic brand.
“It is simplicity, authenticity and design,” says Daniel, with CEO Alfred Schopf adding, “Also heritage, craftsmanship and longevity, I would say. In 1954, we made the very first M, and you can still use all of the lenses we were making back then with the very latest model.” Kaufmann echoes their sentiments: “I think what defines a Leica is optical excellence and experience since 1925. Also the craftsmanship and the German engineering [of the product]. I think that’s a good combination.”
So can we expect to see more Leica/Apple cameras coming to stores near you? Only time will tell. The Leica team all gave very positive reviews of the collaborative process working with Ive and Apple this go round. Daniel recalls, “From the beginning, it was a great relationship. And from what we saw, the engineers from Apple, and Marc and Jony, they shared the same passion for this project that we did.” However, Leica remain cautious about the possibility of future joint ventures. “My personal opinion is Apple is not that good at partnerships, up until now,” says Kauffman. “So we’ll see.”
The Leica camera was one of forty-four items up for auction at Sotheby’s on November 23rd as part of “Jony and Marc’s (RED) Auction,” with all proceeds going to benefit the HIV/AIDS charity founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver in 2006. Ive and Newson curated the entire catalogue, and the Leica was one of a handful of items designed by the British duo themselves, alongside an aluminum desk and a custom Dom Perignon cooler. With a final sale of a cool $1.8 million, the camera is also the most expensive item on the books, although it didn’t quite shatter the record set just last year for the most expensive camera ever sold (also a Leica, one of only twenty-five 0-series models produced in 1923, which went for a whopping $2.77 million).
Leica cameras are numbered sequentially, starting with the very first commercial model in 1924, which makes this the 4,888,888th camera the company has ever produced. That serial number of 4888888 may have driven up the price in the end, with Head of International Sales Steffen Keil explaining, “The number eight is lucky in China and Japan, where many of these camera and design collectors come from. At the auction in Vienna last year, there were about five of them competing that really drove the price up.”
Whether it was the competition or the holiday spirit of giving, wallets seemed to be wide-open at the Sotheby’s event, which raised an incredible $26.2 million, all of which will go to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in Africa. ($13 million of that total was from the auction sales themselves, while the other half came via a matching donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Somebody is definitely going on Santa’s nice list this year.) Other Apple offerings on the auction block included a special (RED) Edition of the highly anticipated Mac Pro as well as a pair of solid rose gold Earpods, both custom Ive and Newson designs that fetched $977,000 and $461,000 respectively (the Mac Pro broke the record for most expensive desktop PC ever built or sold, shattering the previous world record set by Zeus Computer’s novelty platinum, gold and diamond-encrusted models).
Whoever won the Leica RED camera now owns a once-in-a-lifetime piece of photographic history, at once a part of the heritage that Leica holds so dear while also representing the cutting edge of modern design and technology. “Many iconic images were shot with a Leica,” says Keil, “Which all contribute to the heritage of the camera,” adds Schopf. “We have a saying: With other cameras, you take pictures. With a Leica, you make pictures.” But with such a hefty price tag, do they actually expect this camera to add to that historic catalogue of photographs?
“The picture-making capabilities are all there,” Daniel assured me the day before the auction. “But it really depends on the buyer. I think it’s going to be a lover of design and a lover of cameras, somebody who is aware that he is getting a unique piece. For sure you can shoot with it. But I think somebody will try it once, and then put it back on its little shelf.”
“I don’t know, I think it could be kind of cool to go to a party with this camera,” Keil speculates. Just stay away from the champagne:
this may be an Ive design, but AppleCare for the camera is currently unavailable.