Leica’s Very Special Limited Edition EL 1 Chrono With Valbray
Côme de Valbray, co-founder of Valbray watches, is the perfect example of the typical Leica customer. An avid amateur photographer for many years, the trained engineer perfectly understands and appreciates the luxury camera brand. In fact, one could almost say he is fairly fanatic about it.
So when Valbray co-founder and artistic director Olga Corsini told him that Leica wanted to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a limited edition in honor of that brand’s centennial, de Valbray was too shocked to believe it at first.
De Valbray and Corsini founded Valbray in 2009. De Valbray’s background focused on micromechanics (though not horology), while Corsini led a successful career as a jewelry designer for leading haute joaillerie brands such as Bulgari, Gucci and Chaumet.
The premise of the 12-man-strong brand the duo created is not founded on the technical tricks of clever complications within a movement, but rather the unusual visuals inspired by – what else? – the lens of a Leica camera.
In fact, the pair’s small manufacture, which is based near Lausanne, Switzerland, focuses on in-house fabrication of the case, hands, dial, and unique diaphragm element. The movement powering the time display is the one item that is consistently outsourced, and in this case is the most reliable chronograph available: the Valjoux 7750.
Leica, as I have now learned, is the brand of choice for the passionate photography buff. The frenzy surrounding it can well be compared to that of an impassioned collector of Patek Philippe or vintage Rolex.
Leica celebrated its centennial in May 2014 with a number of amazing new elements: inauguration of a brand-new factory building housed within a complex called the Leitz Park, a number of special new products and, of course, the Valbray EL 1 Chrono.
I will come back to the Leica side of this anniversary in two days, so be sure to check back, as today I would like to focus on this special watch.
“Using a Leica camera creates certain emotions,” de Valbray explained as he turned the bezel on the EL 1 Chrono and then adjusted the focal distance on the lens of his Leica to demonstrate how both have the same feel. “We worked hard to ensure that our watch’s bezel, which opens and closes the diaphragm, feels just the same way.”
The Oculus diaphragm, as Valbray has named it, is the crux of the Valbray timepiece. A patented invention by de Valbray designed to imitate a camera shutter, it instantly changes the way the time display looks when it is manipulated. The Oculus, which comprises 16 single blades, acts as a cover for the dial.
It is opened and closed simply by turning the rotating bezel. The time display is readable whether the Oculus is opened or closed, while the chronograph displays are hidden by it when it is closed.
The flange and dial also seriously imitate a Leica lens with font and stylistic elements. The color scheme utilizes Leica’s corporate colors, while the date (at 3 o’clock), chronograph minute counter (at 12 o’clock) and chronograph hour counter (at 6 o’clock) recall the layout of the setting controls on a Leica.
The running seconds at 9 o’clock recreate the camera’s isometrics button. The stylistic element “4.5” located at 4:30 on the dial (visible only when the Oculus is wide open) is reminiscent of the aperture of the first Leica camera from 1914.
The sapphire crystal on the case back is smoked, recalling the dark room in which early photographs were developed, though the rotor is skeletonized to allow more of a view of the mechanics. The high-tech case’s crown is embossed with Leica’s logo.
Even the very name of this timepiece is rooted in Leica’s history: EL stands for Ernst Leitz, one of the founders of Leica, which comes from Lei (= Leitz) and ca (= camera).
Finally, a small but very cool detail. Each timepiece is delivered in clever packaging that includes two straps crafted by Camille Fournet and a tool for changing them. As I can personally attest that changing one’s own strap is generally not the easiest thing to do – a process often leaving a mark behind on a prized stainless steel case – I was very glad to hear that de Valbray also sought to fight the difficulties involved.
He has invented a new way of attaching the strap to the case by two very special, easy-gripping screws that hold the tool tight, not allowing it to slip and thus scratch. Additionally, there is no spring bar to lose.
The brown leather strap is designed exactly like the camera strap that Leica uses: a masterpiece in strap-making.
The collaboration came about thanks to Leica CEO Alfred Schopf, who is apparently an interested connoisseur of high-end timepieces. Schopf, who has been instrumental in completely restructuring Leica in recent years, making it more of a “lifestyle” brand, was impressed by a core value shared by the two brands despite their disparate sizes: high-quality European manufacturing.
This was the first watch collaboration ever for Leica, and judging by the joyous look in Schopf’s eye as he introduced it at the press conference, I would predict it won’t be the last.
Case: sandblasted grade 5 titanium, 46 mm
Movement: automatic Caliber ETA Valjoux 7750
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date, chronograph
Price: € 17,999
Limitation: 100 total: 50 titanium and 50 with black DLC (diamond-like carbon) finish, only distributed in 56 Leica boutiques and at Chronopassion, Paris as of June 25, 2014