There’s a famous scene in This Is Spinal Tap in which the guitarist of Spinal Tap, Nigel Tufnel, shows off his guitar collection. He finally comes to the crown jewel, a Sea Foam Green Fender Bass VI, an incredibly rare instrument that’s now worth a small fortune. When the documentarian approaches the Bass VI, Nigel sharply answers, “Don’t touch it! It can’t be played, never!” The documentarian seems confused at why Nigel would buy an instrument he wouldn’t actually play, resigns himself to the absurdity of the situation, and walks meekly to the side, letting Nigel spout more hilarious nonsense.
If the idea of owning something you won’t actually use seems funny and absurd, then you must be new to the world of limited edition, gold collector’s cameras.
Gold cameras are the greatest and gaudiest expression of camera collecting. They’re incredibly rare, very shiny, and for the most part, absolutely silly. Collectors say that under no circumstances should they ever be shot, lest their value plummet upon first touch. If I owned one I’d hesitate to even look at it. They’re cameras in name, but seldom do they ever fulfill their function.
As a shooter, the uselessness and excess of gold cameras makes me chuckle. To the hardcore collector they can be holy grails, the pièce de résistance of a camera collection, and a tidy source of income for those with the dough and the wisdom to buy low and sell high. For the rest of us plebeians, they’re fun to gawk at.
But where did this grand tradition of gold-plated cameras come from? Let’s dive into it.
The limited edition gold camera as we know it originates from who else but Leica, a name intimately linked with both photographic history and luxury. Riding high on the runaway success of the Leica II, Leica decided to commemorate the achievement with a limited run of four gold plated Leica II’s dubbed the Leica Luxus II. The Luxus II set the formula for all gold cameras to come; it was plated in twenty-four karat gold and wrapped in crocodile skin. The camera is among the rarest in photography, with only four ever made, and only one whose whereabouts are currently known. Leica’s policy of scarcity for the Luxus II paid dividends; the one known Luxus II fetched $1.6 million dollars at Bonhams in Hong Kong.
The Luxus II’s scarcity, outrageous looks, and high value made it ripe for counterfeiting. Countless Luxus II knockoffs exist, the most famous of them being the Soviet Union’s FED 1-derived knockoffs. A couple of these early examples were actually fairly convincing copies but the vast majority of them are low-quality knockoffs. For whatever reason, the Soviets decided to stick with the gold knockoffs and as a result, thousands of gold Soviet Leicas and Leica-derived cameras exist, covered in nothing but the finest of fake Soviet snakeskin.
Producing limited runs of gold cameras became a popular way for camera manufacturers to commemorate company achievements and landmark designs. The late 1970s saw a great number of gold cameras being made, some of which happened to be the greatest cameras of the decade.
The Rollei 35 S got a limited-run gold edition for the Rollei factory’s 60th anniversary. Limited to 1500 copies, this camera came complete with an African lizard skin bag and a mahogany box. Olympus upped the ante and made gold editions of both the OM-1n and the OM-2n, both of which rank as some of the rarest cameras in the world. Olympus only made twenty-five OM-1n Golds and twenty OM-2n Golds, and made these available only for Olympus employees. The OM-2n Gold featured a dedicated Gold Zuiko 35-70mm f/3.6, and both were presented in a ritzy leather bag with the famous name “Maitani” impressed on the front.
The tradition continued into the 1980s most famously with Minolta and Nikon. Minolta commemorated the success and technological achievement of the Minolta CLE by making a gold edition which was only sold by lottery. Minolta only made 300 copies of the Gold CLE and restricted distribution to the Japanese market as well, making them incredibly hard to find outside of Japan.
Nikon similarly decided to commemorate the successes of both the Nikon FM and the FA by making gold editions of both. While the FM was only privately distributed, the FA was offered to the public to celebrate its winning the European Camera of the Year Award in 1984. The FA is perhaps the most famous of the gold Japanese SLRs as well as one of the most numerous, with about 2,000 copies made. It’s covered in red lizard skin (Leica Luxus II-style) and provides instructions to clean the camera using a blower brush and Nikon’s proprietary Gold FA cleaning cloth to protect the pure twenty-four karat gold plating.
Gold camera manufacturing slowed during the 1990s, but the flashy gizmos didn’t go away entirely. The Leica M6 got the gold treatment in 1992 a la the Sultan of Brunei, who ordered 350 sets of gold-plated M6’s in a show of royal extravagance. These M6’s have “Sambutan Jubli Perak” engraved on the top plate, and are covered in black leather with red accents. A special gold-plated Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 engraved with “Sambutan Jubli Perak 5 Oct 92” was also packaged with the camera.
Leica also decided to make 300 gold editions of the Leica R6.2 SLR to commemorate the reunification of Hong Kong with China. The Hong Kong skyline comes engraved on the top plate, and the camera also comes packaged with a special gold Summicron-R 50mm f/2 lens, encased in a wooden box with matching skyline engraving.
Now that the gold camera phenomenon is mostly on its way out these days (Leica notwithstanding), gold cameras mostly exist as elusive trophies for some, and a novelty for many. They remind us of the underlying absurdity of collecting cameras, or collecting anything, really. But if you’re lucky enough to run into one, snag it if you can. Just make sure you don’t touch it or look at it accidentally.
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[Some images within this article were supplied by friend of the site Paul Rybolt]