For a very short period during World War II, the Carl Zeiss Optical Factory at Jena built Sonnar lenses in the M39 lens mount used by their biggest competitors, Ernst Leitz Cameras in Wetzlar. During WW2 trade with Nazi Germany was either restricted or forbidden in most countries. The German government, needing foreign currency for the ongoing war effort, appointed the president of Carl Zeiss to coordinate export of German products, probably because of Zeiss’s established contacts with foreign companies.
Carl Zeiss-made Contax foreign sales, along with Leitz’s, had plummeted during the war. However, German military organizations were commissioning Leica cameras to be used by military photographers and German journalists assigned to the Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and the Wehrmacht. To ensure ongoing Zeiss production, the president of the Carl Zeiss Jena plant ordered that Leicas should be fitted with Carl Zeiss lenses. And so Carl Zeiss in Jena retrofitted several Contax mount lenses for the Leica Thread Mount: a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 50mm f2.0, a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 50mm f1.5, a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 85mm f2.0 and a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 135mm f4.0. All were produced and sold, although in quantities limited by the contingencies of war, until the end of WW2.
By the end of the war, the Russians had overrun Jena and appropriated the Zeiss manufacturing plant there. The Soviets ran it under their auspices for some time, continuing to produce Zeiss optics under the Carl Zeiss Jena brand, including the M39 LTM Sonnars. The company that remained, “Carl Zeiss Jena,” was not a “fake” company bearing the name of Carl Zeiss; it was the same company in the same factories where all the pre-WWII lenses were made. The company name remained “Carl Zeiss”, and the location of the company remained marked on the lens as the wartime lenses had been.
The Soviets subsequently dismantled the factory and transplanted it to Charkov in Ukraine. They took with them to Charkov Zeiss designs, machines, stock, and workers forced to relocate to Charkov, where the Zeiss factories were reconstituted by the Russians as restitution for the German’s destruction of the Charkov FED plant during the German invasion of the Ukraine. They left, as a legacy, an unknown quantity of Carl Zeiss Jena lenses in M39 mount. These Zeiss Sonnar lenses are the progenitors of the the Jupiter-3 (50mm f1.5), Jupiter-8 (50mm f2.0), the Jupiter-11 (135mm f4.0) and the Jupiter-9 (85mm f2.0), which would be built to the same design, and often with the same machinery, as the Zeiss optics built in Jena. The Russians even adapted the Contax-mount Biogon 35mm f2.8 to their Jupiter-12 35mm f2.8 in LTM.
The legitimacy of M39 LTM Leica Mount Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnars are often called into question by web “experts.” The problem is that much of the factory records were plundered or lost during the Soviet occupation, offering fertile ground for all sorts of whacky “Red Scare” theories about the Russians “faking” CZJ lenses. Contrary to what is usually claimed, almost all the M39 lenses that have come onto the modern market are genuine and can be established as such with some critical examination (see below). What seems to confuse collectors is this: many of the CZJ Sonnars are post WW2 Russian Army Of Occupation lenses, which are only different in build date from their WW2 German build counterparts. However, the internal components are the same as the 1941 to 1943 assembled lenses, and they were assembled with Zeiss machinery and know-how. All Jena factory made WW2 CZJ M39 lenses made during the war had “ears” just as their Contax counterparts did (remember, these were retrofitted Contax lenses), while the post-war Russian-made LTM lenses were produced with Jena factory optics, machines and parts, often don’t have “ears”, but are still legitimate “Carl Zeiss Jena” lenses.
Another thing which confuses collectors is that, even before the partition of Germany, there were three organizations with the name of Zeiss. Carl Zeiss Optical, established by Carl Zeiss; after Carl Zeiss’s death sole ownership passed on to his partner Ernse Abbe, who established Carl Zeiss Stiftung which would acquire Carl Zeiss Optical as one of its core divisions. Carl Zeiss Stiftung grew and diversified, in 1926 acquiring four camera manufacturers, merging them to form Zeiss Ikon, its photographic equipment division, based in Dresden. Zeiss Ikon bought lenses from Carl Zeiss Optical for its cameras but Carl Zeiss Optical was free to supply its lenses and other products to other camera makers too. Given all of the above, confusion and misunderstanding seem to trail vintage Zeiss optics at every turn.
Illegitimate CZJ lenses do very infrequently pop up for sale, usually by sellers in the former Eastern Bloc. These are Contax lenses hacked into Russian Jupiter lens mounts, being sold as original Carl Zeiss Jena M39 Sonnars. Or they’re Jupiter-3s with the front lens ring removed and replaced with a fake Carl Zeiss Jena lens ring. Those are the fakes. But it seems to me that there is no practical incentive to try and turn an old Jupiter 3 into a CZJ. The effort and expense of machining a CZJ front ring and replacing it in a early 50’s era Jupiter 3 doesn’t match what little extra money the CZJ would bring over a Jupiter 3 sold as such. So, the bottom line is this: if you’re lucky enough to have found one along the way, your CZJ Sonnar is probably genuine, irrespective of the irrational claims of some self-appointed experts who see fakes everywhere.
If you know what you’re looking for, it’s not difficult to spot a fake. The first step in determining whether its a fake Zeiss lens converted from a KIEV is to look on the lens’ focusing ring. Russian lenses use metric screws while Zeiss used non-metric screws. Additionally, the Zeiss ring has one short and one longer screw; converted KIEV lenses have equal length screws; the Kievs will typically have a big “M” for the focusing scales while real CZJ’s will have a small “m”; and the “T” engraving on the front shield, which should be red, will often be white on the fakes. *
In his book Non-Leitz Leica Thread-Mount Lenses, Marc James Small states: “For the most part, [the wartime] lenses have serial numbers in the 2,6xx,xxx to 2,8xx,xxx range, are ‘T’-coated & marked, & all are inscribed ‘Carl Zeiss Jena.'” The 276 series was the last true wartime series, 279 and up were produced in the Jena plant after the Russians had completely taken over Zeiss plants and production. Thus, my copy, #2,866,450, the one shown in the photos, would have been produced in the Russian run Jena plant post-war using Zeiss optical glass, parts, labor and know-how.
I bought my copy from a guy who was selling camera equipment he had inherited from his father years earlier. It was dirty and unused for probably 30 years before he put it up for sale on Ebay, from Ohio, with some really cheesy photos and a description that clearly indicated he had no idea what it was. In talking to him afterwards, he told me his dad had brought it back with a camera from Germany during the occupation, but that’s about all he knew. The lens, bearing all the marks of being legit, cleaned up nice. I had it disassembled and the tech said it had the internal markings consistent with an original.
Older lenses like the CZJ Sonnar weren’t designed with the same tolerances as today’s computer designed and robotically manufactured optics. They don’t have the same materials and were subject to more impurities. They age and discolour. They often have a single coating rather than being multicoated like modern lenses. The Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar is a cool lens, both as a collectible and as a user, obviously very vintage in character – not very contrasty, not super sharp wide-open but better and better as it’s stopped down. Wide open it has a beautiful soft character with a creamy rendition of out of focus areas, nothing like the clinically harsh and contrasty look of modern Zeiss optics built by Cosina. The photos below are good examples of its character.
I find it a great lens to use on my M8, a way to build some imperfection into a digital image. Or, better yet, pair it with some Double XX pushed a few stops and developed in D76: perfect.
Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar. Photos by Andrew Fishkin.