Production started in 2010 with the Summilux and now the company currently manufactures four product lines for global distribution, the Summilux-C (T1.4), Summicron-C (T2.0), M0.8 to use the iconic Leica M - Look in a cinematic environment and lately the Leica Thalia lenses for 65mm Cinematography, VV, FF and S35. CW Sonderoptic GmbH is positioned in the premium segment of the respective markets and delivers innovations that set new standards in creative imaging.
The headquarters of CW Sonderoptic GmbH are in the city of Wetzlar, Germany.
In 2015, CW’s engineers got awarded by the Scientific Engineering Award of the academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.
Visiting Leica-CW Sonderoptic in Wetzlar
It was a kind of a dream, where nearing Xmas time, you think about what could be Santa Klaus best bet for your gift.
My colleague, senior optical technician Olivier Tordeurs needed to follow the maintenance workshop around the Summicron and Summilux lenses.
This is organized at the factory in Wetzlar upon request and for a group of maximum 4 people.
The date was set and I decided to join. A good opportunity to visit the factory, discover the manufacturing process of these famous tools and meet with Gerhard Baier, managing director and his team to discuss further about the joined activities of CW Sonderoptic and IMAGO.
It is not far from Brussels, driving distance, about 360 km of extremely packed German “autobahn” in a beautiful hilly landscape.
Wetzlar is located about 80 km north of Frankfurt, almost in the middle of green hills and forest. The center of the city is preserved with 400 years old houses and not too much destroyed during the war’s bombing.
From the balcony of the hotel, I was looking at an old building, years 80’s with the famous red dot on the walls. It was the old factory, now Leica Microsystems. (The townhall is the old administration building of Leitz.)
Wetzlar is apart from Jena and Oberkochen, a German center for optics as well as the most important German location for the precision engineering industrial tools.
In the morning, we were picked up by Gerhard and driven to the new LEICA City, a little bit outside the city, on top of the hill.
New modern designed buildings, one has the shape of a lens, the other of binoculars, in the middle of a kind of Zen garden and more new buildings in construction (the new CW Sonderoptic factory, administrative building and a 130 rooms hotel) “ …we hold many events and the offer for rooms in Wetzlar is not enough, so better have our own hotel for customers, visitors….” said Gerhard.
The main building is impressive with a wide entrance, bathed with natural light, all walls white. On the right – the Leica shop where you can find everything including the most expensive lenses and still cameras - the place where you need a Platinum + credit card to swipe.
On the left, a temporary still picture exhibition, the Leica wall of fame – a selection of world’s famous photographs, all taken with a Leica camera. The other side of the hall is dedicated to a very nice display of historical cameras. This will move very soon into a brand-new museum.
This place is a real tourist place, buses of Japanese and Chinese tourists are stopping by for what seems for them to be a real Pilgrimage.
But back to business, while Olivier was starting his workshop together with colleagues from Video Europe and Vantage, I did the VIP owner tour with Gerhard and we went through the process of assembling and controlling the different lenses: Thalia, Summilux and Summicron.
We were lucky to see the new Thalia 180mm on the projector bench, and I was amazed about what I saw. I very often analyze lenses on a projector, so even not being a real optical specialist, I notice immediately what makes the qualities or flaws of a lens. Switching from Thalia 180mm to Summilux 135 let appear very minor differences in definition and contrast. Of course, the Summilux is almost 3 stops more luminous.
Then we went into the different rooms where all assembling and checking operations take place: where they laser control the centering/alignment of each lens in each group and then all the groups together.
At each working station, I was introduced to the woman or the man in charge, they were very pedagogical and their passion for their work was obvious.
If controlled ok the lens can go through the next step, if not back to previous and all starting again and again until tolerances are met. And it is not easy.
Impressive, most of the operations are done manually, relying mainly on eyes, human skills and experience. All this in a quiet and relaxed environment, but serious. This is not small game at all. You understand immediately why these lenses have such a high standard of quality in the making.
Then I went together with Svethomir from Leica and Daniela Kesselem, newly arrived at CW, for a tour in the factory. Daniela is a brilliant optical engineer with a long experience in lenses. She will be working as a productmanager.
Svethomir gave us an extensive tour of behind the scene in the factory, where they polish the lenses and assemble the still cameras. He explained how difficult it is to be within the tolerances with the aspherical elements of the Summilux. There are several throw away boxes with unsatisfactory pieces of glass.
Success came very quickly as more than 200 sets of Summilux are now sold over the world.
Thalia new production of lenses for big format sensor is already sold out for this year’s production.
We talked about the further developments, the future, go anamorphic or not. As you may guess, what is said behind Leica’s wall remains there.
The day was quickly over, Olivier has finished his training and is now able to make the final adjustment on the lenses, replace front and rear elements but also order spare parts.
With a big smile, we said thanks and bye to our hosts and took the way back to Brussels under a sunny road.
Thanks to Daniela, Gerhard, Rainer, Seth and all the people we met and who shared a little bit of their time with us.
Louis-Philippe Capelle sbc July 13th, 2017