Contessa-Nettel Piccolette: For the Vest Pocket
(1919-1926, 1926-19311)

This little German folding camera personified the idea of the vest pocket camera.

Not surprisingly, it used Kodak's VP127 film (VP = Vest Pocket), which had been introduced six years earlier in 1913 2.

As noted from the title of this page, the Piccolette was a product of Contessa-Nettel and then continued life under Zeiss Ikon after the 1926 merger. The Piccolette remained in the Zeiss Ikon catalogue through 1931 -- a 12-year run, which isn't bad for a camera of modest specifications.

I need to add here that I wasn't able to find an exact date for the introduction of the Piccolette. One site gives it as 1915, while others say 1919 or 1920. My own book is a bit vague on when the Piccolette came to market -- only that it was one of the early products from Contessa-Nettel.

It's important to note that the Contessa Nagel and Nettel merger didn't occur until 1919 and wasn't fully completed until 1920. It's possible that the Piccolette was a product of one of the predecessor firms of Contessa-Nettel, although I've not yet seen any Piccolettes marked with the name of the pre-merger companies. For that reason, I don't believe that a 1915 date is possible -- not impossible, but unlikely.

Like most cameras in this period, there were numerous lens and shutter combinations with the deluxe version featuring a brown leather body covering, Tessar lens and Compur shutter. My camera, marked Contessa Nettel on the lens board and aperture scale, has a three-speed Derval shutter offering 1/25, 1/50 and 1/100 plus B and T. The lens is an uncoated triplet, an f/6.3 7.5cm Nettar Anastigmat.

This Piccolette has no leather covering -- just black paint. The lens board is attached to a small tub that holds the shutter. The entire assembly moves away from the body by lazy tong struts that lightly lock into place. A curved foot is on one end of the lens board and allows the camera to sit vertically on a table. My particular camera has no tripod socket, although I've seen photos of later models that show a tripod socket.

The design is very similar to the Kodak VP camera it produced during the same period including the rounded ends of the body, the placement of the viewfinder that is located behind the lens board and the lazy tong scissor struts.

The back lock is an oversized dial centered on the base of the camera (bottom photo at right). Like some other Contessa-Nettel roll-film cameras, the body is rounded on either end and doesn't open. Film is loaded by turning the dial on the base, which unlocks the film carrier and allows it to be slid out from the side. As a side note, the plastic spools in today's Efke and Maco films make for an extremely tight fit because they are slightly thicker. You have to work a bit to load a new roll of film.

Once the film is loaded, you slide the carrier back into the body and turn the dial to lock it. Pull the small metal slide on the back to the side and wind until "1" appears in the red window. You're ready to take some photos.

That small metal slide serves double duty as the peep hole for the wire frame finder. The wire frame slides out from under the lens board. You can see how it looks when it's extending by clicking on the small inset photo at the top of the page.

The photographer also has at his or her disposal a small reflex finder to frame their shot, and the shutter-release lever is on the back side of the lens board. The Derval doesn't require it to be pre-tensioned, so you simply push it to one side to take a photo.

As you might expect, the image in the reflex finder is very small and a bit difficult to see, while the wire frame finder is simply an approximation of what is captured on film. I don't think you should expect to use either finder for precise framing of your photo.

With the bellows collapsed, it's a very compact camera. It's just a bit thicker than a boxed roll of 127 film and thinner than a boxed roll of 120 film. You can see why I say the Piccolette personifies the concept of the vest pocket camera.

Restoration notes

This particular camera was in decent condition. As you can see, there is some loss of paint.

You have to remove the front lens panel before you can remove the lens and shutter assembly, which sits inside a small tub that is attached to the scissor struts. The struts can be pulled by removing the three screws on either side of the camera. There are guides that sit right next to the bellows that allow the struts to scissor in and out. You'll see what I mean if you disassemble one of these.

One problem area was the bellows, which had been pushed out of shape and would not collapse correctly. They probably had been compressed incorrectly for decades. The way to fix this is to clean the bellows with saddle soap, apply shoe polish and buff lightly. You can then compress the bellows and use a small tool to get them back into their correct shape. Leave them like that overnight. I've done this a couple of times before, so I knew this would part would be simple. And it was.

The camera uses a very small piece of wood between the back and the tub that holds the bellows. It had come loose, so I re-glued it.

A large flat disk on the back can be removed to collimate the lens. With this camera it's not an issue because the lens is non-focusing. But at the very least, you should start with it being correct at infinity.

1 The first group of years are for production under the Contessa-Nettel marque. The camera, as mentioned in the text, continued to be available as a Zeiss Ikon product after the 1926 merger and was listed in the Zeiss Ikon catalogue until 1931.
2 127 film was so named because it was the 27th roll film size since Kodak began numbering film in 1895 ("Collectors Guide to Kodak Cameras," by Jim and Joan McKeown, 1981).