There are certain moments in what I loosely describe as my “professional” life that stick in the mind. November 5, 2018, is one of them.

I was serving on the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, the annual awards ceremony that we in the watch world call “the horological Oscars.” The jury was meeting in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, a splendid Beaux-Arts building in Geneva’s Old Town overlooking the lake. The meeting itself was not particularly dissimilar from ones before or since. But it has lodged in my memory as my first physical encounter with the Chronomètre Contemporain, made by Rexhep Rexhepi.

At that time, I knew of him only very peripherally. His brand, Akrivia, was a relatively recent start-up that seemed, prima facie, much like many other independents: high-end micro-mechanics executed in what I saw as a slightly self-conscious modern way.

The Chronomètre Contemporain was different. As soon as I picked it up, I knew it was something special. Sometimes an object speaks to you, and this one told a tale of simplicity and beauty. Everything about it spoke—or, rather, whispered—of quality in the most understated manner imaginable. The 38-mm. diameter is neither large nor small. The black dial could have been lacquer but was in fact grand feu-enamel. The sobriety of its Roman numerals and the overall restraint of the face had something of the early Art Deco period about it. The lugs had been hand-soldered to the case walls, and the play of light over the contrasting brushed and polished surfaces was like that of candlelight reflected in an antique mirror of Venetian glass.

“As soon as I picked it up, I knew it was something special”: the Chronomètre Contemporain.

There was a similarly restrained excellence about the movement, certified by the Besançon Astronomical Observatory, historically the gold standard of precision testing. Through the crystal caseback it was possible to admire the mechanical symmetry of the beautifully finished movement with broad stripes of Côtes de Genève engraving, gleaming anglage, and, visible through the wheel train, perlage. Even though it was a watch that did nothing more than tell the time, it had clearly been built by someone with a refined eye and a dexterous hand. It did not express its excellence with an abundance of otiose components. Instead, it was equipped with a stop-seconds function and zero reset for precise time setting. This was the quintessence of watchmaking without anything superfluous to its aim of giving the wearer the hour of the day in the most accurate manner possible.

On paper it was nothing exceptional, but in the metal it was bewitching, a masterpiece of extreme subtlety that I knew there and then belonged on my wrist … until I saw the price: $60,000, way beyond my means, but not as far beyond my means as the $2.3 million achieved at auction in May of this year by another of Rexhepi’s watches, the time-only Chronomètre Antimagnétique in steel, sold at the annual Only Watch charity auction. It was the third-highest price achieved; only the timepieces of Patek Philippe and Richard Mille fetched more.

Rexhep Rexhepi’s Chronomètre Antimagnétique sold for $2.3 million.

It is an astonishing rise for a watchmaker not yet 40 years old, even more remarkable for the fact that he arrived in Geneva, not speaking a word of French, aged 11, in 1998 to escape the brutal war in Kosovo. The minute he got off the plane, his future was determined: his abiding memory of arriving in Switzerland is walking through Geneva Airport marveling at the abundance of watch advertising. He is one of those fortunate men who know what they want to do with their lives at an early age, and he wanted to make watches. By 14 he was an apprentice at Patek Philippe. Other work followed, including a spell with F. P. Journe, a man widely acknowledged as the leading watchmaker of his age.

Then, at the age of 25, having worked for a decade in the Swiss watch industry, he struck out on his own. His first watch was a monopusher chronograph with a tourbillon (a mechanism that compensates for the effects of gravity on the escapement), a piece in the typical “independent” idiom: Ph.D.-level watchmaking, beautiful finishing, and a slightly funky case design. Other tourbillon watches ensued, and after a couple of years, finding business tough, he established a following for his brand.

The play of light over the contrasting brushed and polished surfaces was like that of candlelight reflected in an antique mirror of Venetian glass.

But while horologically excellent, it was not unique. With the growing popularity of independent watchmaking came an increasingly crowded market, in which adding further functions, finishing techniques, and design foibles did little to differentiate between makers.

It was simplicity and understatement that set him apart, no open-work dials, no complications, just hours, minutes, and seconds in a round case—the sort of watch a child would draw. His well-deserved G.P.H.G. win in the winter of 2018 made him known to the horological mainstream.

But apart from making a small series of highly complex chiming chronographs with Louis Vuitton, which he says was more of a personal collaboration with Jean Arnault, Rexhepi has, like the Chronomètre Contemporain, kept a low profile.

Although he is routinely described as one of the very top independent watchmakers, he is keen to shed that label. The popularity of independent watchmaking is such that it has become a trend, a kind of fashion statement. But trends come and go, whereas great watchmaking endures.

There is a genuine humility about him, and he acknowledges that he has much to learn. Interestingly for such a passionate watchmaker, he is sensitive to the fact that a watch is much more than just the movement, and he has used his success to open workshops along the Grand-Rue in Geneva’s Old Town.

First, he lured octogenarian case-maker Jean-Pierre Hagmann out of retirement. Hagmann, who looks like a genial gnome, seems an unlikely cult figure, yet he is celebrated by collectors for the cases he made for Patek Philippe’s minute repeaters and revered for the cases he made for the renowned Patek Philippe Star Caliber pocket watches. This incredible craftsman can now be found in his own workshop, right across the street from Rexhepi’s watchmaking atelier.

A watch is not much use without a strap, so last year Rexhepi set up a small leather studio a few doors down the cobbled street from Hagmann to master this often overlooked aspect of the industry. Then, in April of this year, he opened an enameling workshop to bring his dial-making in-house.

Two masters: Rexhepi and Jean-Pierre Hagmann.

But there is more to this than merely securing his supply chain; it is about going ever deeper into the craft of watchmaking, understanding its nuances and its arcana. There is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, which keeps him humble and drives him forward. I would not put it past him to occupy further sites on the Grand-Rue, maybe somewhere he can make his own springs or watch glasses.

Earlier in this article I described the Chronomètre Contemporain as the sort of watch a child might draw, and it put me in mind of Picasso’s line “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Great art—or, in this case, watchmaking—is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. It may have taken Picasso a lifetime, but Rexhepi is still only 37.

Nicholas Foulkes, the author of more than 20 books on the arts and history, is a London-based writer and editor