Leica Engraving Characteristics  1932-53

The Tomei Collection

Do tool marks provide new information

regarding the provenance of classic cameras?


Introduction: The following is a description of an ongoing (i.e. meandering and possibly endless) study of engraving characteristics of cameras with emphasis on those produced between 1932 and 1951.  All of the engravings follow clearly defined macro patterns and fakes are often easily recognized without the need to examine microscopic tool marks - the "L" in just doesn't look right, or the cursivo is a bit wrong, etc.  However, under low power microscopy, the marks left behind by the engraving tools reveal additional characteristics beyond just the lettering style. These engraver's tool marks depend on the particular tool employed and the skill and experience of the individual engraver who performed the work.  Beyond just satisfying my curiosity, this study can form a baseline for more accurate detection of fake special engravings and other attempts to fraudulently increase the value of these cameras.  As the value of these cameras increases, and the interest among collectors continues to bloom, more fakes will appear.  Unlike those who seriously invest in coins or postage stamps, those who collect classic cameras still tacitly accept fakes, e.g. FED cameras made to look like Leica cameras, as if they are cute or harmless, neither of which is true.


There are many ways to determine the authenticity of a camera in order to differentiate the real ones from the fakes.  These tell-tale characteristics of real versus fakes have been described elsewhere in great detail.  However, most of these sources simply deal with the rather gross differences between a Russian Fake and a real Leica.  If all fakes were done so carelessly, there would be no problem differentiating them.  The fakes to which I refer are the more sophisticated ones, the ones that may use real bodies or parts, not those festooned with green ostrich leather or garish gold-toned finishes.


I became interested in the details of the engraving on cameras in terms of the microscopic tool marks that were left by the engraving tool that was used.  In one specific instance, there is a III from 1939 that has engravings of the NSDAP, SA, and a specific German military unit.  Since it has become popular to engrave phony Nazi symbols on both real and fake Leica cameras in order to fraudulently increase their value, it was important to determine how the tool markings from the engraving compared with those in the NSDAP/SA and military engravings on the same camera.  In this instance, the purpose is not to determine whether special engravings were performed by Leitz, but rather to determine whether the engravings were contemporary.  It was presumed that if these engraving tool marks compared well with those known to be authentic, then it could be evidence that the engravings were contemporary instead of being of more recent vintage. 



In order to obtain images of the tool marks within the engraved letters and numbers on classic Leica models, the area on the top housing was selected where the highly recognizable name appears.  Images were captured using a Nikon D70 SLR mounted on a Nikon PB-6 bellows. The lens employed was a 55mm f/2.8 MacroNikkor. In order to create sufficient contrast on surfaces within the engraved grooves, a single high intensity halogen spotlight was used.  Since most cameras presented highly reflective matte chrome surfaces, images obtained in this manner appear quite different from conventional photographic images of these cameras.


It is recognized that the tool markings are often partially, or even completely covered by the black paint in the engraved furrows.  However, in many older models the paint has at least partially worn or fallen off.  The paint used in the 1950's was substantially more resistant to flaking and falling off the engraving which makes visualization of the tool marks mon latter cameras more difficult.


What kind of tool marks can be recognized?  Tool marks come in a variety of characteristics. Among these are: 1. The shape and size of the tool as indicated by the shape of the furrow, i.e. whether there may be a flat or curved bottom in the furrow; 2. stuttering marks recognized by the regular serrated or choppy cutting lines perpendicular across the engraved furrow which reveals how steadily the engraver's tool was moved through the metal; 3. heat furrows that are formed as an additional smooth ridge of softened metal formed within the furrow as a consequence of heat quickly developing beneath the tip of the engraver's tool most often caused by hesitation or by briefly moving the tool too slowly through the metal with inadequate cooling.  This can be caused by a lack of sufficient lubricant that is supposed to dissipate heat at the contact between the metal and the engraving bit; 4. Rings formed when the tool direction briefly changes direction either when following a cursive or when the engraver makes an error and then retraces an engraved line. 


Engraving tool marks:

Although this camera was originally built in 1939 (No. 312196), it had been repeatedly upgraded by the factory and the top housing shown was ultimately engraved in 1953.  Although the engraving has retained the black paint, it can be see that the bottom of the furrows are curved and smooth, showing no stuttering of the engraving tool, nor any evidence of errors or re-tracing by the engraver.  These represent the conventional standard for high quality engraving performed by Leitz.

In stark contrast to the regularity of engraving characteristic of the 1950's, heree is a Leica III engraved earlier in 1935.  Aside from the macroscopic lettering style of the post-WWII period, the engraving tools of the earlier period produced very different tool marks.  Note that the engraving tool left a round furrow and the vibrating cutting tool also left a serrated surface within the groove.  This has been called "stuttering". Because the tool was moved forward by the engraver, and the cutting tip vibrated at a constant frequency, the characteristics of the furrow was determined by how uniformly the tool moved forward, and therefore, the skill and experience of the engraver who controlled the tool was critical to the uniformity of the engraving.  At a macro level, the engraved logo and numbers may look very precise.  However, at a microscopic level, there is a high degree of variability in the engraving produced in the same factory.

When a 1942 Leica IIIc Red Blind camera was examined, there appeared yet another type of engraving tool mark.  Although the bottom of the engraved furrows are slightly curved, there is also distinct pitting.  Although this tool mark may be characteristic of a particular type of engraving tool, it is also characteristic of a worn cutting tip with an irregular cutting edge.  The image below shows another view of this type of tool mark from a camera built during WWII.

Comparing the script of engravings from 1939 and 1942, it can be seen that although there is excellent reproducibility at the macro level, at the microscopic level, engravers and their tools leave behind very different markings.

The 1932 Leica II(D) is very different because it is not chrome plated but rather is lacquered brass inlaid with an alloy of lead and silver called "Wismut".   In addition, this technique used by Leitz to create the engraved markings on early black lacquered bodies, lenses and accessories was quite different from those used by most, if not all, other manufacturers of the new miniature 35mm cameras of the day.  Unlike the open engraving technique used by (e.g.) Zeiss Ikon on their black lacquered Contax I system, Leitz chose to apply a technique that was more than two thousand years old and normally used only in the production of high quality and very expensive silver and gold objects including jewelry.  The technique is very similar to what is called Niello and little or no mention of this technique has been made in print since it was used in the production of early Leica black Leicas of the late 1920's and 1930's.  Since this technique is so very special and has not received any attention or recognition in the last 70 years, we have decided to create a special section (please see Early Leica inlayed engraving.

The top of this camera, #604509, was engraved in 1952 and exhibits the same characteristics in the logo shown above for the 1953 engraved 312196 camera top.  However, the serial number for this 1952 camera reveals the engraving tool marks that are quite similar to those seen in the 1930's.  The circular cutting tip has produced stuttering in the engraved furrow and burning at the end of each stroke due to a very brief buildup of heat at the cutting tip.  This is likely due to the fact that each serial number had to be engraved individually by a different engraver.  They exhibit tool marks than clearly differ from those found in the Leica script on the same top plate.



As mentioned at the outset, engraving of the Leica logo in the 1950's appears to be of very uniform high quality. However, the need to engrave a different serial number for each body by a different engraver introduces the possibility of greater variations similar to those evident in the serial number on the top housing. The engraving of the logo was more or less standardized in mass production, but the individual serial number had to be engraved separately and was a more manual operation.

As shown on the right, the individual engravings of serial numbers on the front of Elmar lenses shows the expected variability which is likely due to individual engravers and their relative skill levels.  There appears to be far less uniformity in the engraving of the lens compared with the top housing. However, wear over the decades of handling also changes the appearance as is evident in the 1935 Elmar shown on the right.

One problem encountered with some war time and all post-war lenses is the fact that the more modern emameling was more resistant to wear and the engraving details are often obscured by paint.  

In any event, the details in the lens serial number engraving will likely be of important regarding provenance only in rare instances where a particular lens may have been re-engraved to enhance its value to collectors.  It is far more likely that "fake" Leica lenses will be identifiable by other macro differences in construction.

Many valuable Leica cameras are identified by and ultimately owe any enhanced value to the presence of specific engravings which are not often difficult to reproduce at the macro level even with only moderate skill.  However, it is rather unlikely that re-engraving tool marks can be matched to those of the original camera even by the most skilled engraver.  The collector can thus benefit from considering not only the macro appearance of special engravings, but also the micro characteristics left behind by the tools with which the engravings were performed.



Characteristics of special engravings:

As mentioned above, one potential application of the comparison of engraving tool marks is to assist in judging whether special or otherwise unusual engraving was performed about the time the camera was built (i.e. during the 1930's and 40's for most examples), or the engraving was likely performed long after the production date and for the purpose of fraudulently enhancing the collector value of a classic camera.

To be considered: Leica III, #239517 (see Leica III Military Engraving 1937).   On this particular Leica III produced in 1937 that is in the collection, there are three types of special engraving (see right): First , there is the engraving of the swastika on the top housing which appears to be performed using a fixed template rather than what may be called "free-hand".  Second, there is the engraving of the SA which is superimposed on the swastika and is clearly what can be called "free-hand".  Third, the bottom plate has additional engraving of the military unit presumably of the owner, engraving that is macroscopically relatively crude compared with that on the top housing (see above link for further details).

Note that the tool marks and quality of the engraving is very similr to that of the factory engraving.  Also note that the characteristics of the metal oxidation within the open furrow is identical in both strongly suggesting that the engravings were performed about the same time.

None of these observations can be interpreted as evidence of who may have added the swastika and SA engraving.  however, it is likely that they were added about the time when the camera was new.  It is more likely that they were performed by a highly skilled engraver and that the camera was intended as a gift.  Additional military markings are present on the bottom plate of this camera further supporting this hypothesis.

In any event, the special engravings on this camera are clearly not of recent vintage.  I would strongly suggest that the so-called Leica experts be more diligent before making unwarranted pronouncements regarding a camera's provenance without more careful examination of the camera.  In spite of the fact that so many fake Nazi engravings have been recently added to Leicas to enhance their value, these cameras were in fact highly prized by those within the Third Reich and many were engraved as commemorative objects.  Faking engraving tool marks is next to impossible to accomplish which makes this kind of study of significant value to protect today's collectors.

















5cm Elmar 1932

5cm Elmar 1935

5cm Elmar 1942







III 1937 top

Shown next to factory engraved segment on left.

Details of superimposed engravings