It’s a rare occasion when an independent upstart can captivate an old-fashioned and conservative industry like Swiss watchmaking. It’s even more difficult for that attention to remain unwavering and grow into a swell of expectations rarely seen in horology, something more akin to the cyclical world of haute couture, where flashes of youthful brilliance are commonplace, but more often than not, shine brightly before fading out of influence.
But this is watchmaking. An industry where the makers and artisans don’t die, rather they live forever, or until a conglomerate exhumes them with a limitless marketing budget and a tag-team, by-committee product build-out stuffed with skeletons – sorry, I mean skeletonized dials – and an eye on Instagram for the next big thing.
That’s why Rexhep Rexhepi’s emergence has come at the perfect time.
Horology isn’t for the fickle minded. Careers in the industry mirror the consumer’s mindsight in many ways, the most apparent, in my opinion, is that starting an independent firm, just like the purchase of a fine timepiece, isn’t measured in years, but rather in decades. Enthusiasts and collectors spend tens of thousands of dollars (or more!) on watches every single year. And yes, there are those “serial flippers” out there, but many of us take our decisions and purchases seriously with the thought of handing our watches over to our children or grandchildren. Contemporary watchmakers, especially independent ones, are similar in the fact that their horological impact is measured in terms of decades. It’s an unfortunate reality that many of the beloved independents from the Revival Era of luxury watchmaking (the 1990s on) had to plant their roots and ply their trades under the roofs of established marques instead of developing their own brand identity earlier in their careers.
That’s what makes Rexhep Rexhepi’s meteoric rise over the past six years all the more impressive. With a few notable exceptions, the men and women who founded the independent brands we love today were later in life when they were able to break ground on their firms. Rexhep Rexhepi, on the other hand, founded Akrivia in 2012 when he was only 25 years old. Now 31, Akrivia has exploded within the contemporary watchmaking scene and has its horological identity fully secured under the steady and dynamic hand of Rexhepi.
Although his age is indisputable and might be low in number compared to his many venerable contemporaries, his experience as a watchmaker is far beyond his years. And to get to the heart of Rexhepi and what has driven him this far, you need to go back to his beginning.
A Young Kosovan Makes His Mark in Geneva
Born in Kosovo in 1987, Rexhepi and his family immigrated to Geneva during the lead up to the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. Although his neighborhood in Geneva, which Rexhepi describes as filled with people in the watchmaking industry, was a major influence in the realization of his future career, it wasn’t his first step into the world of horology.
When Rexhepi was a child in Kosovo, his father traveled frequently and would occasionally return home with a Swiss watch on his wrist. Intrigued by the uniform ticking sound and confused at how the hands progressed, he took the initiative of opening the watch up to explore its mechanism.
Although Rexhepi’s father initially hoped he would become a lawyer, their location near several prominent watch manufacturers proved irresistible and it wasn’t long before he submitted an application to the Patek Philippe watchmaking school at only 14 years old. After passing the entrance exam, Rexhepi’s calling was solidified when he had the privilege to join as a trainee when he was 15, an opportunity that he understands is unique. This is where Rexhepi began to comprehend the value of traditional watchmaking and the effort required to succeed in a craft that is, in many ways, a lifelong learning process.
Three years of apprenticeship followed by two years working in the Patek Philippe manufacture and Rexhepi was ready to move onward with his career. His next step was joining BNB Concept, a now-defunct workshop that was focused on the production of highly-conceptual movements. Soon after joining, he was placed in charge of a team of more than 10 men, some decades his senior.
“At Patek Philippe, I learned about tradition; working at BNB opened my eyes to the fact that there were new ways of utilizing those traditions for the development of new creations,” Rexhepi says of his time there.
Craving a new challenge after another three years had passed by, Rexhepi applied for a position within François-Paul Journe’s manufacture. After passing a bench test, he worked side-by-side with Journe and his small team for 18 months. Rexhepi still holds Journe as a major influence and an example of entrepreneurial success in the small world of independent watchmaking.
In the months following his departure from F.P. Journe, Rexhepi bounced around a few short-term consulting gigs focused on assisting brands with movement construction and occasionally hopping on their bench. Tired of helping other watchmakers realize their horological goals, Rexhepi laid the groundwork for his own brand. Finally, in 2012, Akrivia (Greek for precision) was established.
“After having worked for 10 years for other people, I felt that the time had come to realize my own story,” Rexhepi explains. “I had too many ideas in my head and I had the energy to accomplish them. When I think back, I realize that I might have been a little bit too daring, but I never regretted starting my own journey.”
The Dawn of Akrivia
Progress was gradual during Akrivia’s initial months. The capabilities and ideas were there, but Rexhepi found the process of developing the company itself a challenge. Founding an atelier and developing a watchmaking philosophy? Not a problem. But training watchmakers to understand that philosophy, as well as dealing with the challenging minutiae that comes with founding and running a startup? Some on-the-job learning was necessary.
Going back through those hyper-limited watches produced in the brand’s salad years reveals a specific – and complicated – motif: tourbillons. Rexhepi regards Abraham-Louis Breguet’s seminal invention as one of the core elements of horology.
“I chose [to focus on] the tourbillon because it was, in my humble opinion, the best way to prove that I had reached a certain level of craftsmanship,” he says. “Whatever some people think, it is a very noble and historic mechanical construction, if executed in the traditional manner. And more prosaically, my years at BNB allowed me to accumulate a lot of experience on that very specific type of complication.”
The five timepieces that were made when Rexhepi was still in his 20s offer a crucial look into the early stages of Akrivia and how the brand identity has evolved over time. Each model was different and featured a variety of complications, but there were a few consistent details that carried over. Each watch from the AK-01 Chronographe Monopoussoir (monopusher chronograph with tourbillon, a rare combination) to the AK-05 Tourbillon Barrette Miroir featured the following: a 60-second tourbillon, a manually-wound movement with a 100-hour power reserve, a case over 40 mm, a complex case structure and unique case design, immaculate hand finishing, and a price tag approaching, or over, six figures.
The first watch presented by the brand, the AK-01 Chronographe Monopoussoir, had openworked registers acting as chronographic curlicues that revealed the hypnotic movement below. An exposed gear at 4 o’clock enabled the monopusher functionality. The AK-02 Heure Minute was a time (and tourbillon) only watch that came in two iterations with either a blued and hand-hammered or matte polished dial available. The chapter ring featured drilled dots that added a layered feel to its appearance. The hand-hammered dial featured unusual, plumped hands while the matte polished version had extended spade hands.
The AK-03 Tourbillon Chiming Jump Hour featured the now-customary tourbillon at 6 o’clock adorned with a digital jump hour at its precipice and further supplemented by an exposed chiming hour complication at 12 o’clock, meaning that a chime (that could be silenced thanks to a pusher) would sound off the changing of the jumping hour. It also came in either a hand-hammered finish or a matte polish. As you can see so far, complications were stacked upon complications and were always complemented by the frenetic energy of a tourbillon as more and more members of the horological elite starting paying attention to Rexhepi’s production.
In the AK-04 Tourbillon Regulateur and AK-05 Tourbillon Barrette Miroir, Rexhepi’s evolving horological conceit became clearer. In the AK-04, the hand-hammered or matte polished dial and black-polished bevels provided an impressive, yet non-revolutionary take on a regulator-style dial. The AK-05, released in 2016 as the last of the five tourbillon-focused watches, placed full attention on its kinetic complication at 6 o’clock. The tourbillon cage’s barrette-style bridge was black-mirror-polished by hand to reflect any and all light that comes in contact with it. The Arabic numerals were also black-mirror-polished, before being thermally blued, and featured beveled edges. Contrasting the polish was the recognizable matte-finished dial separated into two frames (providing a distinctive two-tone effect) by screwed plaques.
Another main design theme for Akrivia seen throughout these early releases was a focus on symmetry. One of the reasons the tourbillon has developed a somewhat “infamous” reputation in contemporary horology is due to the fact that it interrupts the cohesion of the dial with its constant movement and gaping aperture. Rexhepi and Akrivia contradict this notion through the usage of an annular design that makes the tourbillon a cornerstone of the watch’s appearance. Comparing the openworked subdials of the AK-01 with the segmentation of the AK-05’s two-tone dial reveals this sort of design consistency and care that is often left to the wayside by more well-known marques.
“I view the creative process as an integrated whole,” Rexhepi says. “Symmetry for me represents harmony. I think a human eye can better concentrate on harmonious lines, but I also like to create a tension between symmetrical and asymmetrical aspects.”
Four years and five watches in, Rexhepi’s younger brother, Xhevdet, a fellow Patek Philippe apprentice, joined the small Akrivia team upon graduating from the Geneva Watchmaking School. The following year, seeing greater exposure and exponential growth, Rexhepi moved the brand into a larger atelier in the heart of Old Town Geneva.
In 2017, Akrivia unveiled its first non-tourbillon timepiece in the AK-06, a transitional release for the brand as well as a pivotal moment in Rexhepi’s horological growth. Distinguished by a steampunk-esque dial design that incorporated exposed parts of the movement on the dial, it introduced a hacking-second/zero-reset mechanism into Rexhepi’s repertoire. A zero-reset function basically pauses the balance wheel in its tracks and sends the second hand back to “zero,” which is used to make setting the time a more accurate endeavor. This action is wholly visible on the dial itself through its exposed parts. Once again, the small seconds at 6 o’clock is complemented by the circular power-reserve indicator at 12 o’clock, while the exposed parts of the movement on the dial delight in their purposed asymmetrically. Showing these movement parts on the dial side of the watch allows the exhibition caseback to highlight the minimalistic back of the caliber. All that is visible are a few gears, the regulation system, and balance, accompanied by a bridge that cuts through its center. Geneva stripes run gently across the pale gold movement plate.
“The AK-06 represents a turning point for Akrivia by concentrating on producing the perfect three-hand watch with a power-reserve indication,” Rexhepi says of his goal for the AK-06. “All the finesse of the movement would be in the details of the construction of the stop seconds – with an “all or nothing” activation mechanism — and the zero-reset. The success of the AK-06 comforted me because I saw that the real watch collectors appreciated the sheer value of a ‘less is more’ approach.”
The triumph of the AK-06 led directly to what was unveiled at this year’s Baselworld fair: the Chronomètre Contemporain. The Chronomètre Contemporain is a watch that many pundits have highlighted as the most impressive timepiece of 2018 and is an early favorite for this year’s GPHG award in the Men’s category. More importantly, it represents a new chapter for Akrivia as it continues to pivot towards unexplored territory within the horological mainstream.
With the Chronomètre Contemporain, Rexhepi wanted to create a contemporary wristwatch interpretation of an old-school marine chronometer. He then combined this desire with his love for the refined lugs and rounded shapes of officers’ watches from the 1940s and ’50s. For the first time, the watch features no exposed elements on its white or black grand feu enamel dial and it shrinks the case dimension down to 38 mm compared to the 41-mm and above width seen in previous Akrivia timepieces. The hacking second/zero-reset function carries over from the AK-06, but otherwise, this watch is purely focused on a traditional representation of time. Visible through the exhibition caseback is the manufacture Caliber RR-01 that features an eye-catching blend of anglage, perlage, black polish, côtes de Genève, hand graining and hand engraving. Again, there’s a play between symmetry and asymmetry through the totally parallel bridge design on the movement and the opposing jut of the lines framing the Roman numerals on the dial.
Another maiden choice seen on the Chronomètre Contemporain was Rexhepi’s decision to sign the dial with his name rather than with the Akrivia handle. This decision was reached to signify a new vanguard for the Akrivia label as a whole.
“The Akrivia atelier is the basis of all watches produced, whether under the Akrivia name or the Rexhep Rexhepi signed pieces,” Rexhepi describes. “The movement inside the Chronomètre Contemporain is meant to be the first chapter of a new product line with a more classical aesthetic, and movements focusing on the traditional essence of watchmaking. This separation of lines is a natural process because I want to be clear in our product imagery, and at the same time, I do not want to be constrained to only the production of classically inspired timepieces – or only a modern aesthetic. I need to have the freedom for both points of view, also because I have so many years to go in defining Akrivia’s future development.”
This choice to distinguish the lines between contemporary and classic is a defining statement toward the longevity of both Rexhepi and his brand. It provides a reason to think in terms of decades rather than single years. Rexhepi understands that the work he does right now will reverberate throughout every future venture he undertakes. Every watch he makes moving forward will borrow from his experiences during his formative years at Patek Philippe, take from his time with F.P. Journe, and be influenced by the mistakes and victories of the first six years of Akrivia. It’s this empirical approach that has helped cement Akrivia and Rexhep Rexhepi as the heir apparent to horology’s future.
What Comes Next
Akrivia currently produces approximately 25 watches each year on a made-to-order basis. While growth is expected, Akrivia’s traditional approach to watchmaking involves time-consuming hand finishing and decoration that will continue to keep production on the small scale. Rexhepi is also concerned that too much growth would keep him from the workbench and regulate him to a manager role, enforcing deadlines and pushing papers rather than working on the watches that will bear his legacy.
The current standard at Akrivia regarding outsourcing production and finishing is simple. Everything that can be embellished by hand is hand finished at the Akrivia atelier in Geneva. All the finishing and decoration on hands, dials, and movement parts are done by hand in-house. Production of parts — which are based on Akrivia plans and designs — are outsourced to qualified partners based in Switzerland who Rexhepi works with on a long-term basis.
“At the moment we are considering the idea of acquiring our own machines to make parts directly, only for the reason of a good workflow; however, if we do that, the quality would be no different to what we are doing right now,” Rexhepi adds.
Although Akrivia has grown in prominence within the well-to-do and borderless world of deep-pocketed collectors, his presence in the American market borders on nonexistent. In fact, Akrivia currently has no retailers in the United States (although they do have a commercial agent in EsperLuxe) and his first stateside trip will come next weekend at WatchTime New York 2018 (Get your tickets here). When asked about future growth in the United States, Rexhepi understands its importance but refers back to his overall watchmaking modus operandi.
“Our growth can only be harmonious when it is in line with our product philosophy, meaning long hours of painstaking handwork, thus naturally limiting production numbers,” Rexhepi says. “I have no desire to produce in large volume because it would invariably mean compromising my vision. We are already very lucky to have an enthusiastic community of watch collectors trusting us. Any growth, in the USA or elsewhere, will have to take place in an organic manner as a consequence of our daily work.”
Another traditional arena of watchmaking where Rexhepi remains bullish is the importance of watch fairs in the globalized world of horology. Despite growing his brand in an era where social media, forums, and online watch blogs run the gambit in terms of spreading awareness and knowledge, Rexhepi still sees value in face-to-face meetings with collectors, journalists, and retailers that only a showcase like Baselworld and SIHH can provide. This past summer and fall were particularly damning for the once-infallible trade shows with the Swatch Group pulling out of Baselworld in its entirety and monolithic independent entities like Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet announcing plans to drop out of SIHH following its 2019 iteration. Regardless, Rexhepi has confirmed Akrivia’s presence at Baselworld moving forward.
“People will always need to meet somewhere, somehow in person,” he says. “Each country is trying to create and attract its own public, and the hegemony of there being only two major shows is no longer a given fact. Of course, this puts Baselworld in a difficult situation today, but it was time for the show to reinvent itself for a fast-changing world. Akrivia will take part in Baselworld and I firmly believe that in the long run something positive will emerge, but no one knows yet if it will be a new Baselworld, or maybe ‘Anotherworld’?”
As 2018 approaches its final months, and the chapter on Akrivia’s sixth year closes, Rexhepi has found time to reflect on his accomplishments so far. At the age of 31, he has effectively become a conduit of horological relief for the angst that previous generations feel in a time of smartwatches and smartphones. He’s an embodiment of traditional craftsmanship yet a maverick that isn’t afraid to push the envelope when it comes to movement production and dial design. But instead of any stress that might come with having the burden of independent watchmaking’s future placed squarely on his shoulders, Rexhepi feels relief at having made it this far and is confident moving forward.
“The first five years [of Akrivia] were a steep learning curve where I had to face many challenges, but I never lost the faith in my dream, and luckily everything came to fruition as I wanted,” he says, before adding: “I don’t see my becoming a watchmaker as a coincidence, but as a deliberate, conscious choice.”
Become one of the first American watch enthusiasts to meet Rexhep Rexhepi and view Akrivia’s timepieces next weekend at WatchTime New York 2018. Get tickets here.