Zeiss Ikon  –  Vintage Camera Brand

Zeiss Ikon Brand Overview

Zeiss Ikon logo

Founded: 1846 — Jena, German Confederation
(modern day Germany)
Currently: Carl Zeiss AG
Pentacon GmbH

Zeiss Ikon Brand History

Zeiss Ikon was founded in the German city of Jena in the November of 1846 as a small workshop for Carl Zeiss, a 30 year-old optical engineer. Soon, Zeiss began producing scientific instruments like scales, telescopes, and eventually the microscopes which would lay the foundations of Zeiss’s optical career. As demand for microscopes grew among scientific and medical communities, Carl Zeiss sought the expertise of Ernst Abbe—a professor of physics at the University of Jena—and together they began pioneering what is now regarded as modern optical design. By 1876, Zeiss and Abbe’s microscopes became world-famous and the company, now no longer a small workshop, grew to have 360 employees by the late 1880s.

After Carl Zeiss’s death in 1888, Ernst Abbe expanded the company’s offerings and formed a division specifically for the development of photographic lenses. This part of the company performed extensive research and development and the groundbreaking Planar lens design was born in 1896 followed by the brilliant Tessar of 1902, ushering in a new era of advanced optical design. Zeiss also began producing cameras in 1902 having acquired the manufacturer Palmos AG but stopped in 1909 when Zeiss pulled out of the industry and abandoned its acquisition. Independent again, Palmos merged with several other camera companies to form Ica.

As the Great War erupted in Europe, the company switched gears and began producing military optics for the Kaiser’s soldiers like rifle scopes and binoculars. After Germany’s eventual defeat in 1918, the country’s economy collapsed as it struggled to pay off the massive war reparations defined by the Treaty of Versailles (Germany only finished paying off this positively enormous sum—approximately 442 billion USD in today’s money—over 90 years later in 2010). German industry struggled during this period of hyperinflation (at one point, a single US dollar was worth a staggering 4.2 trillion marks) and camera companies were no exception.

To stave off financial ruin, four major camera companies—Ernemann and Ica (the very same Ica which absorbed Zeiss’s former camera business 17 years earlier) of Dresden, Contessa-Nettel from Stuttgart, and Berlin’s Goerz—merged in 1926 and, with significant financial support from Zeiss, became the conglomerate known as Zeiss Ikon. While new cameras were being designed, a selection of models from the four original companies continued to be produced but now with the new Zeiss Ikon name and logo. Soon, a new wave of high quality bespoke models began rolling off the production line. The stalwart Ikonta line of folding cameras started in 1929, the incredible Contax series of rangefinders was introduced in 1932, and the great Ikoflex twin lens reflex cameras began in 1934.

During World War II, Zeiss used its optical expertise to produce instruments for all three branches of the German military including binoculars for Wehrmacht commanders, bombsights for Luftwaffe aircraft, and periscopes for Kriegsmarine U-boats. In fact, Zeiss’s contributions to the war effort were so significant that its facilities were among those deliberately targeted during the Allied bombing campaign against Dresden. The ensuing destruction caused serious damage to over 130 Dresden factories including several belonging to Zeiss Ikon

After the war ended, the Allies descended upon Zeiss Ikon like a wake of vultures. The Americans landed first and began relocating the most important parts of the company to the old Contessa-Nettel factory in Stuttgart. Later on, the Soviets stepped in and began sending a steady stream of the company’s remaining machinery, engineers, and scientists to the Arsenal Factory in Kiev. As Germany was being split into East and West, the Stuttgart group moved to the small city of Oberkochen where it was reestablished as Zeiss Ikon AG. The bits of Zeiss that were left behind were seized by the East German government and nationalized as VEB Carl Zeiss Jena in 1948. The two companies fought for control of the Zeiss trademark and finally settled on a compromise with Zeiss Ikon AG reserving the right to use the name in western Europe and the United States while VEB Carl Zeiss Jena would use it in Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and the Soviet Union.

In 1959, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena merged with Welta and Eho-Altissa to form Pentacon which continued producing cameras into the 1990s until the company was shut down and later restructured. On the other side of Germany, Zeiss Ikon AG purchased Voigtländer in 1956 and launched the superb Contarex line of 35mm SLRs which continued until Zeiss Ikon AG ceased camera production entirely in 1972. Over the next few decades, the company continued to keep its name in the limelight, even entering into partnerships with Yashica, Kyocera, and Sony to supply lenses. Now known as Carl Zeiss AG, the company produces a wide range of medical and industrial optics as well as continuing its long tradition of making some of the finests camera lenses that money can buy.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of Zeiss Ikon cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, WI, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), p 708-730.

“ZEISS History,” Carl Zeiss AG, https://www.zeiss.com/corporate/int/about-zeiss/history.html

“Carl Zeiss AG,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Zeiss_AG

“Zeiss Ikon,” Camerapedia, http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Zeiss_Ikon

“World War I reparations,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_reparations#Impact_on_the_German_economy

Bombing of Dresden,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Dresden

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