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Rexhep Rexhepi: In pursuit of authenticity

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July 2021


Rexhep Rexhepi: In pursuit of authenticity

At the heart of Geneva’s historic city centre, the windows of Rexhep Rexhepi’s workshop – Akrivia – open directly onto the street, and it is no rare occurrence that passers-by stop to observe the watchmakers bent over their workbenches or, on the other side of the street, to admire an old man who makes watch cases. This transparency is for a reason: authenticity.

T

he young Rexhep Rexhepi (34 years old) is a watchmaking sensation. No one saw him coming, but in the space of a few short years he has enjoyed a meteoric rise, producing watches of the highest technical and aesthetic quality and obtaining the GPHG Men’s Watch Prize in 2018.

“The sole recipe is authenticity,” explains the young man. “Being true to yourself, open, genuine, crystal-clear. No sleight of hand, no role-playing. Be yourself, pursue your dream. It’s as simple as that. But it’s a long road...”

What he calls a long road, others would call a meteoric career. And today, as requests flood in, Rexhep Rexhepi restricts himself to producing 35 watches a year, with ten employees. Given the quality of his production, that is already a considerable volume in itself.

The workshop of Akrivia in the Old Town of Geneva
The workshop of Akrivia in the Old Town of Geneva
©Fred Merz/Lundi13

An epic journey

On 6 March 1998, war broke out in Kosovo. The young Rexhep, aged 12, was forced to flee the country and join his father who had been working in Switzerland for a number of years. He grew up with his grandmother, and the family lived on a shoe-string, supported by the money his father sent from Switzerland. “We didn’t have much,” he explains, “but I was very good with my hands even as a child. If we wanted a toy, we had to make it ourselves. And I was fascinated by my father’s watch, a Tissot, that I wanted to open and never succeeded.”

“I was fascinated by my father’s watch, a Tissot, that I wanted to open and never succeeded.”

When, as a war refugee, he disembarked at Geneva Airport, he was fascinated by all the posters boasting the virtues of the world’s most beautiful watches. Yes, he had really arrived in the “land of watches”. The fascination never left him.

In his late teens, he did a watchmaking apprenticeship at Patek Philippe while at the same time attending the Geneva School of Watchmaking. He assembled watches, cased them up. “An excellent apprenticeship that taught me the basics and instilled the necessary discipline into me.”

Rexhep Rexhepi: In pursuit of authenticity

But he wanted to learn more. He went to work for BNB, a large manufacturer of complicated movements, and despite his young age was soon put in charge of a group of 15 watchmakers. His three years with BNB were followed by two very formative years with François-Paul Journe. He worked on the Octa, the Chronomètre Souverain and the Résonance. He was curious, passionate, but above all he wanted to understand how François-Paul Journe had succeeded in setting up and developing his company. Because he had an idea in mind.

Rexhep Rexhepi: In pursuit of authenticity

Creating his own watch

He struck out on his own and by 2012, he was ready. “Or rather, I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t, really. I was 25, I had ideas, I was a good watchmaker, but as for everything else – sales, distribution, communications – I had everything to learn.” After two years, he sold the business. Two difficult years during which “you ask yourself plenty of questions, you ask for help and get a thousand conflicting pieces of advice. But I needed that to reconnect with my passion, find my ideas again, my desire for authenticity, and after that, I made a fresh start.”

Above all he wanted to understand how François-Paul Journe had succeeded in setting up and developing his company. Because he had an idea in mind.

And since that fateful year of 2014, everything has fallen gradually into place. He has moved forward at his own pace and grown organically. “I don’t hide behind a model, I focus on my ideas and strive to realise them.”

The AK03 Tourbillon Chiming Jump Hour. The entire movement's visible and non-visible parts have been hand finished using classical techniques such as: anglage, black polish, perlage, Côtes de Genève, Hand graining and polishing, hand engraving.
The AK03 Tourbillon Chiming Jump Hour. The entire movement’s visible and non-visible parts have been hand finished using classical techniques such as: anglage, black polish, perlage, Côtes de Genève, Hand graining and polishing, hand engraving.

But up to 2017, he was still obliged to do subcontracting to keep the wheels of his small business turning. And then in 2017, the skies cleared. Collectors took an interest in the newcomer. His entire production in progress was sold pre-emptively.

During his career, Rexhep admits to having “accepted things I’ve afterwards regretted. But I’m still grateful for the slaps in the face,” he laughs.

The AK06 with its manual-winding movement created, developed, decorated and assembled in-house.
The AK06 with its manual-winding movement created, developed, decorated and assembled in-house.

Grow up, not out

After the spectacular take-off of 2017, Rexhep could have increased his output. But he decided to do just the opposite. His stringent requirements limit his production and he has no intention of deviating from them. Just the contrary.

As an authentic watchmaker, he insists on using his hands, working old machines, lathes, punching machines, wonderfully reliable and precise, and which also offer direct creative, manual freedom that no CNC tool can ever replace. “They force you to think and create in a different way. When the possibilities are narrower, you have to think in practical terms. The end result is something simpler, purer, more essential.”

"When the possibilities are narrower, you have to think in practical terms. The end result is something simpler, purer, more essential.”

Once again, as with all master watchmakers, transmission is a key concern. Acquiring skills by transmission in order to hand them down in his turn.

The Chronomètre Contemporain. Traditional Black Enamel Grand Feu on 18K gold plate and 5N index printing on the Red Gold 5N version; White Enamel Grand Feu with blue printing for the Platinum version.
The Chronomètre Contemporain. Traditional Black Enamel Grand Feu on 18K gold plate and 5N index printing on the Red Gold 5N version; White Enamel Grand Feu with blue printing for the Platinum version.

With Akrivia, Rexhep Rexhepi controlled his products’ development (with the help of an engineer) and prototyping, he had his own components made for him by trusted partners in Geneva and the Joux Valley, and did all the decoration, assembly and adjustments himself. He strove to do as much as possible in his workshop.

But he did not yet have control over his own cases. Eager to pass on his knowledge and also learn more himself, he joined forces with Jean-Pierre Hagmann, a legendary master casemaker (his cases, such as those for the most famous minute repeaters by Patek Philippe, achieve record prices at auctions), now in his eighties and “somewhat forgotten,” Rexhep adds. He joined him and today officiates in the arcade on the opposite side of the street, filing, sawing, turning and milling.

“With him I’m pushing my understanding, finesse, subtlety, craftsmanship to even greater depths. Today you have to go out and get the information. Transmission doesn’t occur naturally any more. Yet riches come from sharing, and now the watchmakers I work with are receiving this transmission. The secrets of the trade.” Now, all Akrivia’s 35 cases a year are handmade by Jean-Pierre Hagmann under the attentive eye of those who, one day, will take his place.

Rexhep Rexhepi joined forces with Jean-Pierre Hagmann, a legendary master casemaker.
Rexhep Rexhepi joined forces with Jean-Pierre Hagmann, a legendary master casemaker.

“Time is the reflection of our work”

As with all trades and all crafts, a watchmaker also improves over time. Rexhep unhesitatingly admits that his 2012 work “is not as good” as today’s. He cites his Geneva stripes as an example. He tried his hand at them in 2012 for the first time, but it was not until 2017 that he finally achieved the desired result. “Time is the reflection of our work.”

“Transmission doesn’t occur naturally any more. Yet riches come from sharing, and now the watchmakers I work with are receiving this transmission. The secrets of the trade.”

He cites another example: at an auction he examined two antique ébauches from the 1930s or 40s, originally totally identical, one that was magnificently finished at the time, while the other, finished in the 1980s, was “a real disaster”. He sees that as a flagrant illustration of the terrible loss of know-how during those years.

Let’s not forget that Swiss mechanical watchmaking almost died out. And it is doubtless thanks to a realisation of how important the transmission of tradition is that the journey will continue.

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