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While Finnish themes appear in most of his designs, Mr. Sarpaneva insists that he is not on a quest to spread Finnish culture through his watches.
“If people want to see that in my watches, they can,” said Mr. Sarpaneva, who sells 90 percent of his watches outside Finland. “I just design watches that I would wear.”
That Mr. Sarpaneva makes luxury objects that merge artistic vision with engineering is not really surprising. His father was the celebrated jewelry designer Pentti Sarpaneva, and his uncle, Timo Sarpaneva, was an internationally known sculptor and designer who contributed extensively to the Finnish design house Iittala, including creation of its well-known red logo.
Growing up in Helsinki, Stepan Sarpaneva developed a passion for building and fixing cars and motorcycles. His dreams of following directly in his father’s footsteps were altered when he failed to get a spot at goldsmith school. But then the Finnish School of Watchmaking, in Espoo, offered him a spot.
“After one year, there I understood quite clearly that watchmaking was much closer to my passion, with the motorcycles and the cars,” he said. “So I decided to stay.”
But watchmaking in Finland, then and now, was mostly repair and servicing, a prospect that left Mr. Sarpaneva’s artistic side wanting. What’s more, Finland plunged into an economic depression and, after his graduation in 1992, work was far from guaranteed.
After a year of compulsory military service, Mr. Sarpaneva entered the Wostep school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where he rediscovered watchmaking as “a profession where you could really build something new, instead of just servicing the old.”
More than 10 years at big-name companies followed, including nine at Piaget and stints at Parmigiani Fleurier, where he worked with Kari Voutilainen, the movements virtuoso and a fellow Finn, and then at the private atelier of Vianney Halter, an experimental horologist.
“With Kari, I learned the history of things and how they were made,” Mr. Sarpaneva said. “With Vianney, I learned that you have to respect those things, but you don’t have to follow them.”
Then came two years with Christophe Claret, another prestigious name in watchmaking.
But soon Mr. Sarpaneva found himself growing restless in the Swiss valleys.
His design-haven hometown, and the possibility of creating his own watches, beckoned. Mr. Claret agreed to let Mr. Sarpaneva work from Helsinki.
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In a small apartment, with his watchmaker bench in the kitchen and his lathe in the bedroom, Mr. Sarpaneva divided his time between his own designs and work for Mr. Claret.
To create his company, he sold a 1976 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead that he had rebuilt.
A case modeled on the bike’s kick-start pinion regularly appears in his designs.
The decision appears to be paying off.
While Mr. Sarpaneva remains something of an underground phenomenon, his watches stand out for the “independent spirit” of their design — and because he imports his movements from Europe rather than making them himself, they are reasonably priced by the standards of fine watchmaking, Elizabeth Doerr, editor in chief of Quill & Pad, an online watch publication, said in an email.
Then there is the distinction that Mr. Sarpaneva is from a land far removed from most watchmaking circles, she said.
“This alone,” Ms. Doerr said, “means that he sees things a little differently than others might.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 19, 2015, in The International New York Times. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe
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