All That Glitters is not Chrome

Sep 30, 2020  By Jason Schneider

All that Glitters isn’t Chrome:

Nickel finished Leicas, lenses, and accessories of the ‘20s and ‘30s

By Jason Schneider

It seems hard to believe, but Leica didn’t produce any cameras in their signature satin chrome finish until 1933. All previous Leicas from the Leica I (Models A, B and C) of 1925 onward, to the Leica Standard (Model E) and Leica II (Model D) up to 1932 were superbly finished in gorgeous black enamel with nickel-on-brass accoutrements, including the knobs, dials, and fixed or interchangeable lenses. Indeed, nothing says “Vintage Leica” quite as convincingly as the soft, warm glow of a nickel finish and that’s why many collectors are drawn to any such items bearing the Leica/Leitz logo.

Starting in 1933, the Leica II (model D) the Leica III (model F), and the Leica Standard (Model E) were available in chrome finish as well as black bodies, and after 1935-36 even black finished Leicas got chrome finished hardware. We did discover one curious example of a Leica I (Model C) finished entirely in gorgeous nickel plating, but whether this was done originally by the factory, at the request of a customer, or by an independent craftsman is impossible to say at this point.

The cutoff dates for nickel vs. chrome finished lenses is not quite so definitive as it was for cameras, but there are certainly examples of both dating from the early to mid ‘30s. The Leica lenses most commonly seen in nickel finish include the 50mm f/3.5 Elmar collapsible, 50mm f/2.5 Hektor collapsible, 35mm f/3.5 Elmar, and the 50mm f/2 Summar collapsible. Many Leitz medium and long telephotos of the ‘30s, including the 90mm f/2.2 Thambar soft focus lens have black barrels offset with nickel finished rings, etc. and there was also a rare rigid version of the 50mm f/2 Summar in nickel finish.

As you might expect, the beautiful nickel finish can also be found on numerous other Leica/Leitz items of the Barnack era, ranging from rangefinders to viewfinders to magnifiers and lens caps—even on the earliest version of the ABLON film leader trimming template. They all embody the esthetic of a bygone era and that’s why they exert such a strong nostalgic appeal today when everything (except maybe Leicas) seems more standardized, routinized, and predictable.

1 Comment

Nice article Jason. I have a I Model A from 1928 which is finished in nickel just like the I Model C shown above. This was, as you correctly point out, done after the original manufacture, probably not by Leica. I believe that other examples may exist. I will send a photo of the camera to Richard to forward to you. Although definitely not original, or even ‘authentic, it is a beautiful item.


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