About 25 million authentic watches roll out of Switzerland’s manufacturing plants annually, compared to China’s 663 million. It is a known fact that some of these latter watches are illegal copies of others, resulting in a colorful and dynamic, albeit seedy and clearly criminal fake watch industry. Why are some of the world’s top brands copied when others are left alone? Who buys these replica watches and why? What can you do to ensure you’re getting the real thing? Let’s see.
While preparing this article, I spoke with a number of people who freely admitted to being replica enthusiasts. “Just don’t use my name,” each said. One young man told me how he justified buying his first copy watch.
“I had my eye on a Panerai Luminor Marina,” he confessed. “But at a price of $6,800, I wanted to be sure the size was a good fit for me. A week on the wrist ought to tell. Right? I put down $55 for the replica. I’m glad I did. The real one is beautiful, but after a week I decided the watch was just too big and uncomfortable.”
So he justified his replica purchase by saving $6,800 on a watch he personally wouldn’t have been happy wearing. Later, he told me how he disposed of the copy – more on that in a bit. Do replica buyers have no moral compass? Are they frauds, poseurs? Or fakes themselves?
Popularity Of Replicas
People spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for replica watches – something the Swiss say has no value whatsoever. Indeed, the replica industry costs the legitimate manufacturers billions in lost revenue annually. Of course, this makes the faulty assumption that the same people buying replicas would purchase the real thing.
When the authorities discover a large cache of copy watches they sometimes make a show of the consequences. In 2010, US Customs officials shot a video of their steamroller crushing 7,000 fake Rolex watches. The message is clear - the US will not tolerate infringement of intellectual property rights by counterfeiters. Along with the 7,000 watches it crushed, ICE discovered 24,000 more fake watches in Binh Cam Tran’s home along with enough parts to manufacture another million pieces. This seizure and arrest cost Mr. Tran $2.2 million in fines and restitution, as well as six years in prison.
The Most Popular Fakes
Counterfeiters aren’t artists. They’re business people. They go for the largest possible market. That means copying watches with the greatest perceived demand. The variety of original watches copied by criminals is enormous. More so, the makes and models copied must be expensive luxury items. Otherwise, the counterfeiters would be competing against the legitimate manufacturers for the same customer.
Remember, those in the market for replica watches are not the same people who buy the real thing. Both types of customers make their purchase decisions for entirely different reasons.
Now, it's not hard to guess what the most faked watches are. Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Panerai, Breitling, and Omega are amongst the brands that you're most likely to find fakes of. Like Louis Vuitton handbags, the most popular and desirable luxury items in a category are also among the most likely to be faked. According to MSN Money, Rolex lands at the 23rd spot in the most counterfeited brands on earth. This makes it the most counterfeited watch brand, though the range of popularly counterfeited brands includes brands like Cartier, Hermes, and, yes, Viagra.
Ironically, some luxury watch brands take pride at being widely copied. They see it as an acknowledgment of the brand’s popularity. Indeed, according to Ariel, Jean-Claude Biver (CEO of Hublot) once shared with him that the authorities confiscating so many fake Hublot watches is a testament to the brand’s market success.
Where Do People Buy Replicas?
The answer is pretty much anywhere and everywhere. Most of the replicas come from China, but you can find fake watches for sale in basically every major city on earth. Canal Street in Downtown New York City, Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong, London's Petticoat Lane market, and Sungai Wang Street in Kuala Lampur are just a few places that come to mind. However, the most popular venue is the Internet. Amazon, eBay, and others carry the Invicta brand – not a fake watch but a lookalike piece. At least these sites make an attempt at policing fake watches.
Those set on buying a fake usually go to several of the countless internet sites that proudly sell replica watches. The low price is a sure tip-off. Buyers know (or should know) that they’re getting a fake. The only question is how “good” a fake is it? It’s impossible to tell from the fuzzy picture. Does anything work on the piece? Probably not. These internet sites sprout up immediately after the first is shut down. Check out their ad copy:
"We aren’t going to hide the fact that they aren't authentic…no one will ever know…we can almost be considered an extension of the actual brands themselves…even qualified people who validate the legitimacy of genuine watches can’t tell which one is real and which one is fake."
Of course none of these claims is true.
Remember that fake Panerai the young man interviewed earlier bought to test its size? “I was having lunch with a friend at the end of its week on my wrist,” he told me. “My friend admired it from across the table. Here, try it on, I offered. I carefully slipped its buckle off and made a show of cautiously handing it over, as if... My friend put it on, none the wiser. It looks better on you. Keep it.” I’ve heard the gag before.
“What? What! I couldn’t,” the friend said. “It’s too much.” Then the young man came clean and I showed him how to tell the fake from the real. “First, the crown is way too small for a real Panarai. The leather strap is stiff and machine stitched rather than supple and hand stitched. The crown lock bar is hard to move and is close to falling apart.” Not a remotely convincing fake.
Now on to Frankenwatches, which alludes to various types of watches that are cobbled together by different watch parts, both fake and original. Frankenwatches have parts and pieces from all over the place, much like Dr. Frankenstein's monster which was made of a composite of body parts pulled together from various cadavers. Sometimes equally as grotesque, you can find these Frankenwatches made of fake or partially fake parts. However, there are also timepieces out there that use original parts but from different watches of undeterminable provenance. Still, one can find mostly genuine parts in the modification. For example, the case may well be the real thing. The dial too. However, when the case back is opened, all is revealed. The finished product may be intended to replicate the real thing or it may be something the producer believes is an improvement. Unlike the copy watches that try to imitate regular production pieces, frankenwatches are often modeled after rare and hard to find timepieces. They’re (falsely) represented as vintage pieces.
I spoke to a guy who was accidentally party to the production of a frankenwatch. He, in hindsight rather foolishly, gave his 20-year old Rolex Submariner to his neighborhood jeweler who swore he regularly serviced Rolexes. Silly him. When the watch came back the hands were shiny and new. “You changed the hands?” he asked.
“They were corroded,” the jeweler stated. “I only charged you $10 for that little service.”
“You used aftermarket parts?!”
“Why pay more for something that looks just like the original?”
“Naturally,” the guy said, “my watch’s richly patinated hands that matched exactly with the rest of the dial had been discarded and were irretrievable.” The Submariner that had faithfully accompanied him on every dive he had made around the world for twenty years was now a frankenwatch. A word to the wise; unless the watchmaker is a close and trusted relative, only use the manufacturer to service your watches and clearly state the work you want done.
You may recall an article right here on aBlogtoWatch, dated March 19, 2014, Watch Lover Celebrity John Mayer Sues Bob Maron For $656,000 After Buying Several ‘Counterfeit’ ROLEX Timepieces by aBlogtoWatch founder, Ariel Adams. Reading the details of the case it sounds more like the issue revolved around re-purposed parts – both real parts cannibalized from other vintage Rolexes as well as unauthorized parts – to make a more valuable single watch.
Regardless of its outcome, the case embarrassed both parties who probably should have known better. Still, it also cast a bright light on just how difficult it can be to identify minor imperfections buried deep within an otherwise authentic piece. The consequences can be financially disastrous.
Who Buys Replicas And Why?
Case in point: I have a client who collects yachts. By last count he has seven in his collection all bobbing in a marina just outside Los Angeles. Yet he proudly sports a replica Rolex Yacht-Master. Even to the untrained eye this paste has a garish orange tinge that glares from across the room. He’s had it going on two years now. He certainly can afford any real watch he wants. So why the knock-off?
“It was a Father’s day present from my kids,” he explains. “It would break their little hearts if I didn’t wear it. Besides, it keeps good enough time. It’s quartz!” So here is my first category of replica buyer - someone who could buy the Real McCoy – and probably has several – but for a reason that makes sense to him he consciously trots out the occasional fake.
Let’s call my second category - the unsuspecting victim ("un-vics" or "unvics"). Unvics are an endangered species but some still exist. They are walking billboards for handbags, shoes, sunglasses, hats, and – yes – wristwatches. All display the world’s priciest, exclusive logos. Unbeknownst to Unvic, some are fake. Authentic luxury items are sold in company-owned boutiques and the tony shops of authorized dealers located in the nicer parts of town. They are not sold at a deep discount on the street from the trunk of a beat-up Toyota. If it sounds too good to be true…
When buying a watch it doesn’t take much effort to be an informed consumer. There are tutorials by brands showing how to tell the real from the fake. Right here on aBlogtoWatch Ariel Adams wrote, The Most Common Fake Watches (May 31, 2014). Another from Bob’s Watches deals with spotting fake Rolexes. When venturing outside the safe confines of an authorized dealer, having at least some knowledge can save huge embarrassment and often a considerable sum of money. For those who can’t or won’t educate themselves, find a knowledgeable, trusted advisor to assist with the search and authentication. I was in Hong Kong with a client a few years ago. He asked me to accompany him on a watch buying expedition. I was thrilled – buy a fine timepiece with someone else’s money? Now that’s a perfect day.