Some of these stories you’ll have heard before – we had, passed around the pub conversations of watch fairs partly as warnings but mostly for a laugh – or seen shared on forums. But not all of them, by any means. And some show how the counterfeit industry is only ever one step behind, a permanent shadow to the advances made by the best Swiss manufactures.
Fake watches fall into broadly, two categories. First, there are the cheap and ugly ones which you find on market stalls around the world: you don’t have to know anything about watches at all to know you’re buying a fake if you pick up one of these.
The second type of fake is the watch that is at least attempting to deceive you into thinking it’s something it’s not. These can still be laughably awful but go right up to nearly identical copies, with functioning movements and fairly impressive build quality.
Category A – that’s a bit of fun, right? Not much to worry about there, you might think. Maybe not in the sense that at the point of sale no-one’s being defrauded, but consider this. Counterfeit watches of all types account for a £138m loss to the UK’s economy (i.e. if you decide to spend £150 on a fake Rolex rather than, say, a real Citizen that’s £150 out of the economy – not based on if all the buyers of fake Rolexes bought real ones instead). And consider where the money’s going; so-called victimless crimes are usually funding more unpleasant activities.
Even if you’re only spending pocket money on these fakes, it adds up. And the profit involved would make a back-street bookmaker blush. Analysis of a recent haul of fakes from New York concluded that the average cost of parts in each watch was 27 cents. That’s the whole lot – bracelet, case, dial, hands, and some form of movement (at this level, mostly quartz). The watches might change hands a couple of times from wholesaler to street trader, but get this: they were selling on the street for around $250. A ten thousand percent mark-up.
Some other bite-sized stats for you before we move on. More than 40 million fake watches are made every year (compared with roughly 30 million Swiss watches). Of the fakes, around 75 percent are Rolexes. 20 percent of watch-based internet searches are for fakes. Watches amount for ten percent by volume of the counterfeit goods market. And guess what accounts for the largest share of the market by value? Aircraft components. Bear that in mind next time you catch a regional flight in the less affluent parts of the world.
We hope that as QP readers, you won’t be too close to these kind of fakes. And we’re pretty sure you wouldn’t have much trouble spotting them, either. Throughout this piece is a selection of the most heinous examples – 18kt gold that mysteriously rubs off; balance wheels masquerading as tourbillons; non-working chronographs, it’s all there. Even a Patek Philippe grand complication.
So you’re buying a pre-owned watch and you want to be on the look-out for the second category of fakes. Where do you start?
We should stress up front that this is just that – a start. Exhaustive guides to fakery on specific references are out there and if you’re not sure about a purchase, seek them out. Find brand catalogues from the correct era, if you can; find a dedicated forum; and contact the brand itself (but don’t rely on salespeople who may not be terribly familiar with old stock, especially from brands that tend to release and discontinue ranges relatively quickly, like the TAG Heuer of the 1990s. Although if you’re buying one of them, we have other questions for you…).
The more expensive your potential purchase, the more sophisticated a fake has to be, but also the greater your risk. Has the watch sold before, perhaps at auction? Fellows recently saw one audacious attempt to pass off a watch as the sole remaining Patek Philippe 3448 perpetual calendar in rose gold; a million-pound plus sale if it proved correct. It turned out to be a franken-watch bodge-together of various Patek parts – all legitimate, but not correct together. Whatever thousands it cost to put the fake together would have been worth it if it could have fooled the world’s experts.
Whereas the Category A fakes stick out like sore thumbs, the Category B may take a bit more identifying. A good start are these key questions:
Did this watch exist? Did Rolex ever make a yellow gold and steel Yacht-Master II? No it did not. Did the watch exist in this exact form? Arabic or Roman numerals? Blue dial? Tachymetre bezel? If it's a "real" watch in that sense, does it have the correct functionality? Do the fine details match?
And lastly, do you buy the seller? Does it seem probable that they own the watch they’re selling? Are they pushing for a quick sale, or reluctant to discuss the watch’s history? As Adrian Hailwood from Fellows pointed out, outside of watch dealers who see dozens of pieces come and go, most of us have some kind of emotional attachment to our watches, and even if you’ve decided to sell one of your collection, there’s a chance it means something to you. Beware anyone who seems totally detached from the watch they’re parting with.
First of all you’re going to look at the dial. Whole books could be dedicated to the subject but in a very brief nutshell, look at the following: How fine is the printed text? Has the ink bled or blobbed together? Has the dial been re-painted and if so, did they bother to remove the indices first? Flecks of paint on the hour markers can be a dead giveaway. Does the brand have certain secret signatures - like Cartier at 7 o'clock or 10 o'clock - or a certain style, like Audemars Piguet's tapisserie on a Royal Oak?
A well-faked dial will fool most people, including some experts, and the very best can be the subject of intense debate and scrutiny, particularly when it comes to vintage pieces where dial quality can up the value tenfold and record-keeping was haphazard at best when they were printed. But a little bit of care should stop you falling for a middling fake.
At some point you’re almost certainly going to have to look at the movement. Be incredibly wary of anyone who won’t show you inside the watch – there really is no good excuse not to look under the bonnet.
When you get under there, you’re likely to find one of a few things: it could be the correct movement for the reference; it could be a movement from the right brand that doesn’t match the watch; it could be a real Swiss movement from another source – a low-grade ETA, for instance – or it could be a cloned movement, usually from China. (Or, as Fellows once found inside a Cartier Santos, it could be a dirt cheap quartz movement with the empty space around it filled with shower sealant.)
For options A-D, you’re going to need to cross-reference the watch against a trusted source. Working out what movement you should see inside a vintage watch can be tricky as so many brands supplied each other, and it’s not uncommon for movements to have gone unsigned. After about 1980 though, it should be easy to find out what’s right and wrong.
The quality of Chinese copies is constantly rising. A popular one is the ETA 7750, for obvious reasons, and the copies aren’t half bad – especially compared to the earlier, more basically-finished calibres. An easy quick check on more modern watches is to look at the adjustment mechanism for the balance wheel; Chinese clones stick to the old-style two-pin adjusters whereas modern 7750s have block-shaped ones.
But there are much more sophisticated cloning operations out there. A London watch dealer showed us this example of Omega Planet Ocean Co-Axials. One’s the real deal, one’s not – side-by-side you can spot some differences but without the comparison, could you be 100 per cent sure? The giveaway is in the shock-resistant setting of the pinions on the escapement, but how many casual Planet Ocean buyers would back themselves to spot that? Caveat emptor has never been more apt.