Meet the Mozart of watchmaking – and his mentor
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“The watchmaker’s watchmaker.” “The coolest name in watchmaking.” “One of the youngest success stories in Swiss watchmaking.” These are typical of the encomia heaped upon Rexhep Rexhepi who, at the age of 36, makes some of the most coveted timepieces of the modern era. Demand for his watches far outstrips the annual production of around 40 pieces and has earned him the reputation of being a Mozart of the mechanical movement.
He arrived in Geneva in 1998 aged 11, fleeing impending war in his native Kosovo, and was instantly confronted with his destiny. “The thing that I remember when walking through the airport on my first day in Switzerland was all the advertising for watch brands. Starting school was a little more complex, as I only spoke Albanian!”
Just three years later, he had made up his mind to become a watchmaker and secured one of the highly prized apprenticeships at Patek Philippe, joining the storied Geneva maker as a trainee at the age of 15. His pièce école, made at the end of his three years of training, was an exquisitely refined pocket watch that spoke of the mature watchmaker within the deracinated Balkan teenager.
Aged 20, he joined the innovative startup BNB Concept, an outfit that typified the exuberant, complication-led watchmaking fashionable in the first decade of the 21st century. Within a year he was running a team of more than a dozen watchmakers. When BNB went bust, he landed another job working for the most renowned of the independents, François-Paul Journe. By the absurdly young age of 25 he had achieved more than many watchmakers manage in a lifetime, but he knew that if he wanted to achieve more, he needed to do it on his own. In 2012, he opened a workshop under the name Akrivia: his first watch was a chronograph tourbillon.
By far the most extraordinary thing about Rexhepi is just how nice he is. Quiet, gentle, understated and modest, he appears at peace with himself and in tune with his endeavours. His two workshops facing each other across a cobbled street in Geneva’s old town are characterised by a sense of calm and patient study.
And yet, for all his accomplishments, it was not until 2019 that he felt sufficiently established to contact the celebrated casemaker Jean-Pierre Hagmann. “Every watchmaker thinks about the movement because we want to innovate, but we don’t think that much about the aesthetic,” he says. “With time, I realised the case is the first thing we see and touch, and I felt it important to find somebody who could teach me how to make them.”
Rexhepi could hardly have chosen a better teacher than the impish, shaven-headed octogenarian Hagmann, who began his working life in the 1950s and has worked at the great Geneva boîtiers and chaînistes. Such is Hagmann’s virtuosity that cases of Patek Philippe minute repeaters stamped with the letters JPH are sought out by collectors, and his expertise at coaxing and simplifying the tiny bell-like sound from these chiming watches can be likened to the skill of a master violin maker.
“Everybody was talking about this gentleman when I was at Patek Philippe and it was a dream that one day I would make a watch case with him,” Rexhepi says. “It took all my courage to call him – he really is a true artist.”
Hagmann, who had already retired twice, couldn’t stand being idle. “I don’t mind working, and once I saw Rexhep’s workshop I was certain it would be a good place for me,” he recalls. “Each component is made one by one. I don’t know of another workshop like that, it’s exceptional.”
Exceptional is also a word that aptly describes Hagmann. He is wearing a plum velvet waistcoat with silver buttons and high embroidered collar over a densely patterned floral shirt, and his eyes glint with youthful mischief behind round wire-rimmed spectacles; there is more than a touch of the 19th-century polymathic inventor about him. “If I have nothing to do, I look for something to do,” he says, revealing that one of his hobbies is restoring vintage motorcycles. “In the 1970s I took a break from the watch industry and worked preparing and maintaining Kawasaki competition bikes for the Endurance racing team, Godier-Genoud.” But he devotes his weekends to boatbuilding. “I like to smoke my pipe when working on the boat,” he says. “And when I have nothing else to do, I make steam engines.”
However disparate his engineering activities, they are united by a single principle: “I always look for the simplest ways to achieve a result, but the result has to be great. Simplicity, but never at the expense of quality. What I like about Rexhep is that he works very hard pursuing excellence and harmony – you can see it in the movements, the bridges are symmetrical.” He is also impressed at the younger man’s ability to make both movements and cases internally.
Certainly, Rexhepi has absorbed his mentor’s maxim regarding simplicity. “Since Mr Hagmann arrived, I have become more minimalist in every way,” he says. “It’s a real philosophy of watchmaking.”
“And there is a lot of personality,” says Hagmann. “He is not content with copying, but wants to make things differently, and refuses some modern methods which can depersonalise the pieces,” he says with pride. But he cannot resist adding with a grin: “Hopefully I remember the working methods and the tools used in the past.” Still, in the highly unlikely event that he forgets how to make watch cases, he could always pass on his skills building steam engines, boats and motorcycles.