Some say he is the next Philippe Dufour. But Rexhep Rexhepi is just grateful to live his passion. The watchmaking wunderkind opens up on why it took six years to finally put his own name on his watches.
SINGAPORE (Jan 10): With a catchy name like Rexhep Rexhepi, one would almost certainly be destined for stardom of sorts. All eyes are on watchmaking’s rising star as much for his beautiful expressions of mechanical excellence, as for his fetching features and boyish charm, more so after he won the prestigious Men’s Watch Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) in 2018. Born in the small village of Zheger in Kosovo, Rexhepi’s interest in watchmaking was sparked at a young age whenever his father, who worked in Switzerland, returned home. Each time, Rexhepi would make a stealth attempt to unlock the secrets of his father’s Swiss watch when his dad was asleep. His affinity for the mechanical, however, was as much innate as it was an environmental necessity.
“In Kosovo, we didn’t have a lot of toys and if you wanted to play, you would need to construct your own toys,” Rexhepi explains. He moved to Geneva to join his father in 1998, and what the stars had already spoken was made manifest as the 11-year-old boy found himself in the watchmaking epicentre of the world. Just four years later, Rexhepi began his apprenticeship at Patek Philippe at the tender age of 15. His prodigious talent was duly noted as the young lad rose to become one of their best-performing apprentices. Rexhepi was swiftly rewarded when he was subsequently recruited full-time, thereby beginning his professional watchmaking career at one of the world’s most respected watch brands.
As the first watchmaker in his family, Rexhepi was managing an atelier of watchmakers by the age of 20. This was at BNB Concept, a think tank founded by three former Patek Philippe watchmakers that supplied innovative complicated movements to a number of well-known watch brands. A year later, he joined FP Journe, where he quickly advanced to assembling their most complex and mechanically sophisticated timepieces for the then-independent watchmaker.
In 2012, Rexhepi took a leap of faith and embarked on a dream that had been incubating since his days at Patek Philippe. He established Akrivia at the age of 26 with about CHF100,000 capital, which he raised from the sale of his car and several watches from his personal collection. “I was a bit naïve when I started; the CHF100,000 got used up quickly,” Rexhepi admits. Offering consultancy services to other brands was one way he kept the company afloat while never losing sight of his dream. Thankfully, that naiveté turned out to be a blessing after all. “If I had known every step [that was involved] and how I’d have to fight, fight, fight [to get here], I would never have started making watches,” he reflects.
The gamble has certainly paid off handsomely in these seven years. Now just 32, Rexhepi is considered by some to be the next Philippe Dufour, one of the most highly revered master watchmakers alive today. How does he feel about being compared to the living legend known for exceptional craftsmanship and finishing? “I admire the philosophy of Dufour and it’s an honour, but I’m still young and I think it’s still a little early to make that comparison,” he says humbly.
Apart from Dufour, Rexhepi names among his watchmaking heroes George Daniels, Kari Voutilainen and his former mentor, F P Journe. Beauty and symmetry Rexhepi’s atelier sits in Geneva’s Old Town and each watch is assembled entirely by one watchmaker, of which there are only five, including himself and younger brother Xhevdet, who joined the business in 2014. This singular approach is a practice shared by the most prestigious watchmaking workshops in the world and Rexhepi, together with his merry band of watchmakers, have carved themselves a fine niche and repute for a level of exquisite detailing only visible to, and appreciated by, the experienced eye.
The young watchmaker has parlayed his love for tourbillons into an exceptional series, each piece with a gravity-defying caged heart and celebrated for its striking symmetry not just on the dial but, often in the movement, too. “It’s not just an aesthetic consideration; you can’t just draw in the symmetry onto the watch. You have to think about how it works in relation to the mechanics, the components,” Rexhepi explains. The AK-06, for example, required an additional three months of work to achieve the stunning visual effect on the caseback; a beautifully proportionate floral-shaped pattern exposing the mechanism within, showcasing both technical mastery and a fine eye for beauty.
The atelier produces only 30 watches a year and from the very first piece presented – the AK-01 Tourbillon Chronographe Monopoussoir – it was patently apparent that Rexhepi’s fears of lacking the licence to play in this world due to his uncommon lineage were unfounded. “I’m from Kosovo, so it was difficult for me to come to Switzerland from a different country and say, ‘Hello, I’m Rexhep Rexhepi and I want to make Swiss watches,’” he confides.
Admitting he was “totally shy” to use his name in the initial stage of business, Rexhepi began making watches under the brand Akrivia, which means “precision” in Greek, and it was only six years later that he finally felt he had earned enough Swiss watchmaking stripes to introduce a second collection signed with his own name. Playing the name game Unveiled in 2018 and distinguished from the main line by its neo-classical styling, the GPHG prize-winning Chronomètre Contemporain is the first in this new, more limited founder’s collection bearing Rexhepi’s name. Symmetrical and asymmetrical elements dance on the deceptively simple dial, composed of multi-layered grand feu enamel (white on platinum or black on rose gold), climaxing at “6” where a sub-seconds counter holds court; its large diameter paying tribute to the officer’s watch of the 1940s. These interweave with the subtlest of concave and convex details on the case sides and lugs, creating a sort of visual tension almost unrealised by the casual observer. On the back, another visual treat awaits. This time, the wonder of symmetry comes through the opening in the plate, one of such intricate design that mesmerises the eye and reveals the inner workings of the hand-wound RR-01 calibre beating beneath.
Rexhepi’s decision to place his name on the dial proved an inner struggle he had to work through and reconcile. “‘Brand’ is a really big word and some people think Akrivia is just a brand. So, I put my name on this series because I want to show people the human behind this brand,” he shares. The shifting in paradigm, Rexhepi adds, was prompted by a client’s comment in 2014. “He said, ‘When I buy your watch, I buy your story, your philosophy. I don’t buy because it’s a brand’. So, I started thinking it was time to use my name.” “It was a big deal and I was really afraid because you never know what people are going to say. But at the same time, it’s just your reality you’re embracing,” he adds, with an earnestness that’s rather endearing. Independence and inner peace Casually dressed in a white collarless shirt and blue jeans, Rexhepi is as down-toearth as watchmakers come, and his free and playful spirit refreshing. “I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do and make my dream come true; to create what I want and have the chance to share it with people,” he says, beaming with gratitude.
It is this sense of thankfulness, perhaps, that spurred Rexhepi to donate a unique piece of his critically-acclaimed Chronomètre Contemporain in platinum for the “Only Watch” biennial auction last November, with proceeds going towards financing research for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). The watch, which features an exclusive hand hammered, grand feu blue grey enamel dial, came with an added bonus: its case was created by renowned Geneva-based case maker JeanPierre Hagmann, famed for his work with Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Franck Muller, Roger Dubuis, and, most notably, the incredibly complex case of the Patek Philippe Star Calibre 2000 pocket watch. The storied craftsman had retired in 2017 but has just re-emerged for an encore, now producing watch cases exclusively for Akrivia. He will also help mentor a new generation of case makers with the brand. “It is important to think of the future generations of watchmakers. In order to sustain and develop the artisanal crafts, we must transmit this knowledge before it is extinguished,” Rexhepi explains. His reverence for the values on which Swiss watchmaking are founded is palpable indeed. “It’s a pleasure and an honour for me to be able to make Swiss watches so the three things I try to respect are tradition, innovation and the artisan,” Rexhepi says.
Does he feel the pressure to outdo himself after winning the GPHG Men’s Watch Prize, though? “Of course,” he says. “But it’s good motivation; I like pressure and I like to be in competition.” That said, Rexhepi doesn’t feel obliged to rush the creation of the next newfangled novelty just for the sake of bringing something to market. Instead, happiness, freedom and independence top this creator’s list of priorities. “I need to make something that I’m happy with,” he says. “Today, I’m so happy to be able to go to my workshop and do what I want.” Good thing this creator and his business don’t have to answer to investors, then. “I know I’m very lucky,” he acknowledges.
Rexhepi is indeed fortunate that his principled artistry have been validated by commercial success. He started selling his pieces in Singapore about three years ago through The Hour Glass, and his watches are also distributed in London, Sydney and Dubai, buoyed by growing demand from Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia. Next to the centuries-old grand dames of Swiss watchmaking, Akrivia remains but an infant, and Rexhepi recognises he still has much to learn in his evolving journey as a business owner and creator. He believes he has since become more flexible in his approach, and has learnt to be more sensitive in listening to others while allowing himself to trust his own instincts more.
One gets a sense of a rich inner world lurking beneath the playful veneer. Inner peace, Rexhepi says, is something he has found more of lately by spending more time in solitude and reading more to edify himself. These have also helped alleviate creator’s block, on the off chance he finds his creativity wanting. Self-awareness, it appears, is something Rexhepi has in spades, and he is conscious of the importance of keeping his ego in check the more his creations meet success. “The ego is a big, big problem,” he concedes with a sigh. “It says good things and bad things, and you have to place it in the right way. I try…”
Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful