A visit to Akrivia, in Geneva’s Vieille-Ville one sunny October morning, involves quite a hike up through a maze of cobbled streets and picturesque squares. It couldn’t be further from the industrial zones of Plan-les-Ouates and Meyrin, where most of the Geneva-based manufacturers are found. But it was here, in the heart of the old city, that the first watchmakers and casemakers had traditionally set up shop.
With two workshops in the same narrow street, one at number 15 for Rexhep Rexhepi, founder of Akrivia, and the other a few doors down for Jean-Pierre Hagmann and the new Akrivia casemaking atelier, this historical location is the perfect match for their traditional, time-honoured ways of working.
Separated in age by almost half a century, they seem rather a mismatched couple at first, until they begin talking about watches and start joking around like two school friends at the back of the class.
Born in Kosovo, Rexhepi moved to Geneva as a child, where he discovered the world of watchmaking. “I chose to become a watchmaker because the idea that one day I would be able to make a mechanism that could give me the precise time simply fascinated me,” he says.
In 2002, aged just 15, he joined Patek Philippe as a watchmaking apprentice, where he stayed for a decade before setting up his watch brand Akrivia. “The minute I became independent, my goal has been to integrate as many crafts into my watches as possible, mainly because I want to learn how to do things myself as the more crafts we master, the more we can be free to be creative,” he says.
When he heard Jean-Pierre Hagmann had expressed an interest in returning to casemaking, Rexhepi’s heart almost missed a beat. “I had been following Mr Hagmann’s work for many years,” Rexhepi says. “I’d heard people talk about him — collectors, watchmaking friends, colleagues, the guys at Patek Philippe — and the idea of creating a case with him was a dream, but I never dared contact him. I thought he would say, ‘Thanks, Rexhep, that’s really nice of you, but I have more important things going on’. Then a few months back, a friend said, ‘Why don’t you just call him, explain who you are and what you are doing and you will see if he agrees or not?’ So, I took my courage in my hands and picked up the phone.”
A legend in the world of casemaking, Hagmann — born in Geneva and self-taught — has created cases for some of the greatest names in watchmaking: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Blancpain, Franck Muller and Roger Dubuis. His cases are made entirely by hand using traditional tools. Even his technical drawings are created using nothing more than a pencil, a ruler and a compass. He pulls a large folder out from a bookcase and proudly shows me some of his past work, meticulously sketched and documented by hand, tracing a large part of 20th-century horological history.
For experienced collectors, the JHP signature engraved discretely on one of the lugs of a timepiece is a seal of excellence and watches featuring his work often command higher prices at auction. He is best known for his work on Patek Philippe minute repeater cases such as the reference 5029, which was one of the projects that he admits enjoying the most, but also worked hand-in-hand with Patek’s watchmakers to create the case of its Star Calibre 2000 grand complication.
At 78 years young, Hagmann had already been in retirement for two years when Rexhepi contacted him. He remembers the conversation fondly. “It was a Saturday. The phone rang and he told me he was a watchmaker and how honoured he was to speak to me. I told him to send me his address and I would come and visit him. The following Tuesday I went to see him as I wanted to see where he worked.”
It didn’t take much to persuade Hagmann to pick up his tools again. “I guess I was looking for something without really knowing it.”
The first order of business was to set up a new workshop as Hagmann had sold all his equipment to Vacheron Constantin two years previously.
Over the following months, the two worked together searching for all the tools they would need, visiting local horological markets, machine fairs and asking around. They now have 80 per cent of what they need; enough to get started.
Their first joint-effort timepiece was a unique, platinum Chronomètre Contemporain for the bi-annual Only Watch auction that was held in Geneva early in November, with proceeds going to finance research into Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
Hagmann was given free rein on the case and he made a number of small alterations to make it even more beautiful. “Some of the changes were hardly noticeable to me in the beginning,” says Rexhepi, “but now I can see them clearly. We had created cases with certain lines in the past that I found very attractive, and yet now I can see an evolution because he has brought things to my attention that I had never even thought of before.”
They are now working on four projects together and Hagmann is going to be transmitting his knowledge to Rexhepi and one other person. When asked how it is going, Rexhepi smiles, “I did wonder if the difference in age would be a problem, and now that we have already started I can see that we have a different way of working. On one hand, there is our team, which is young, and there is Mr Hagmann with all his experience. He is very methodical in his way of working; he needs his tools to be organised in a certain way and he won’t be able to start until everything is in the right place and everything is perfect. I tend to be more ‘Olé-olé’ in my way of working, so this is a good thing because his organised way of working is rubbing off on all of us.”
Hagmann’s excitement for this new project shines through. “We are going to search and find solutions to make cases in a workshop like in the past,” he says. “We will only do a few pieces, one by one, or at the most a series of five, but always with a view to innovate and do something harmonious. Harmony is essential: the harmony of shapes, the harmony of volumes, the harmony of colours and the harmony of relationships. It is a whole world that I apply to watches.”
It is obvious both watchmakers are having a blast. “Thanks to Akrivia, my prestige is going up,” remarks Hagmann, “but sadly not my fortune!” he whispers to me just loud enough for Rexhepi to hear. They both roar with laughter. “We are not rich, but my, are we having fun.”
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