An online guide to collectable cameras and related stuff
Zeiss Ikon built cameras at all levels of price and features, from the fabled Contax, Contarex and Twin Lens Contaflex cameras that many photographers dreamed of owning, but few could afford, to the simplest box cameras and folding cameras. All were Zeiss top quality construction, some just had more features than others.
But as good as they were at designing cameras, they seemed equally unable to efficiently manage their business affairs. All of the parties of the merger brought camera lines with them, and it was difficult to kill off lines that competed with each other. They made too many models, each available with too many lens and shutter combinations. In one year, they had 104 different models in their catalog, with a choice of nearly 1000 combinations of model, format, lens and shutter!
The war changed everything. The plant at Dresden was destroyed in the fire bombing, along with it the plans for their flagship camera, the Contax, and the tooling was carted of to Kiev. The glassworks at Jena was under Russian occupation. Most of the key design personnel were on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain. Jena went back into production, producing the Contax SLR line. Many legal battles were fought, with the eventual victory of the "western" Zeiss over the Jena Zeiss. Eventually, the Jena plant relinquished the Zeiss trademarks.
Times were hard, but from the remaining assets Zeiss Ikon was reborn. In spite of the success of the Contax, Contaflex and the prestige of the Contarex, Zeiss Ikon never really became profitable again. They acquired Voigtlander in 1956, having owned 20% of it since the late 1940's. Yet it took ten years before they began to combine the companies and consolidate the product line. And the merger wasn't complete until 1969. The problems with competing camera lines within Zeiss, and between Zeiss and Voigtlander, plus of course, the Japanese domination of the market, caused production to end in 1971, A limited number of cameras were assembled from parts on hand in 1972.
Virtually everything Zeiss ever sold was assigned a catalog number. They were usually expressed like a fraction, the top part being the model number, the bottom part showing the format. So for example, the Icarette line of folding cameras had four models of body, catalog numbers 509, 500, 512 and 551. They were available in 5 different sizes (plus one model that was dual format for rollfilm and plates). The 6 x 9 format is cataloged as 2. So 509/2 is the model designated 509, in 6 x 9. That same model might also be available in 6.5 x 11, 4.5 x 6, 6 x 6 and 8 x 10.5 as 509/15, 509, 509/16 and 509/17. No, I didn't forget a number on the 4.5 x 6 model. They didn't assign a number to that size, and they just call it the first number. I guess they figured it wasn't confusing enough.
Well, if THAT wasn't confusing enough, in 1958 they decided to change their catalog system to a decimal system. By that time, models that were available in different formats were gone.
Beginning to see the miracle that they stayed in business as long as they did? The sad thing is that the cause of failure was not the product. It was usually of superior, if not exemplary design and impeccable execution. Rather it was a failure in management and marketing, trying to cover too much of the market with too little capital, and no rational organization in the product line. I can't help but wonder what could have been if things had been different.
This list is not complete, nor probably ever will be.
A few words about this section (which applies more or less to all of these pages). I write these pages using published references, mostly from books. I don't do much original research. Zeiss catalogs for different countries contained different products, and the whole Zeiss line can be quite confusing. Much of the reference material I have has discrepancies. I have tried to reconcile them in a way that makes sense, at least to me. But of course, I could be wrong.