I begin this article with a small confession. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is an example of how easy it is to be tricked. It was probably around 2003 when I started searching for an Oyster bracelet for my Rolex Datejust (which came on a Jubilee bracelet). I quickly found one on eBay and, after doing a quick feedback check on the seller, I decided to hit the “Buy Now” button.
I don’t recall the exact price but it was reasonable enough, certainly not so cheap that it was “too good to be true.” After receiving the bracelet, I almost immediately discovered that it was a counterfeit. If I had only done my homework, I would have known that the clasp codes were incorrect and that the reference number was engraved in the wrong location on the bracelet. Essentially, I paid for my lesson by buying this counterfeit bracelet. No more impulsive “Buy Now” clicks unless I am absolutely sure everything is correct.
The February 2013 issue of WatchTime included an article called “Buyer Beware.” It was an interesting read, but mainly focused on the topic of how counterfeit watches pose a potential risk for the watch industry. In this article, I would like to put the focus more on the buyers of counterfeit watches or — even worse – the so-called “Frankenwatches.”
Many buyers of cheap, counterfeit watches are simply people who would love to own a Rolex but have a budget of about $25. They know they are buying a fake watch; they have no intention of buying the real thing. And the watch will probably go well with their fake Louis Vuitton bag and Hermès belt (people still wear these things?).
So let’s skip that discussion as well. You and I are not in this category and probably never will be. Fake watches are for fake people.
Let’s make a distinction between counterfeit watches and Frankenwatches as well. A counterfeit watch – or bracelet, as I mentioned in my small introduction – is a complete fake. Nothing is genuine about the watch. Some makers of counterfeit watches are quite good these days, which means they make them out of decent stainless steel, get most of the little details correct, and perhaps even provide a fake box and fake papers. Be very careful about those. Two things will probably give away it is fake: 1.) The price. It is probably too good to be true. 2.) The movement. There will be some other things as well, mainly in the details of the watch. So either make sure you are able to verify whether there is valid movement inside or study all the details of the watch to be sure. Ideally, you would bring a similar watch with you that you know to be genuine.
Frankenwatches are another thing, and in my opinion, even more dangerous. A Frankenwatch is a watch that consists of (mainly) original and genuine parts but they are either not period-accurate or did not originally come with that specific timepiece. An example would be a Rolex Submariner from 1965, with a movement from a more recent Rolex watch Rolex (maybe not even a Submariner), a wrong bracelet, a bezel inlay from a later model, and an aftermarket plexiglas crystal. This, or another mix of ingredients, can make it hard to determine whether a watch is genuine or not.
In both cases, you need some self-education to avoid buying either a counterfeit watch or a Frankenwatch. The level of education varies, of course, and also depends on whether there is a lot of documentation on a brand or specific watch, or whether there is little or none.
The easiest way to prevent yourself from buying a counterfeit or Frankenwatch is by going to an authorized dealer and buying a new watch. However, that doesn’t solve the issues in the market of pre-owned and vintage watches. Some discontinued and vintage watches are so high in demand – with corresponding price tags – that it also attracts scum. Scum that tries to make a fortune from of the passionate collectors and buyers of pre-owned and vintage watches that think they have found their Horological Holy Grail.
Some watch brands are eager to characterize the internet as a bad place, more or less the sewer of society. We know better, of course. This view, in my opinion, mainly comes from brands that do not have a clear strategy or vision regarding online sales yet and use it as an excuse to avoid the discussion. However, other brands are very helpful if you need more information about a discontinued watch or even a vintage watch. Some will inform you whether the parts are original, and sometimes may even offer to do a check-up on the watch. In the latter case, however, this of course means that you’ve already bought it. If a lot of money is involved, a seller might agree to have the watch checked for authenticity at a brand’s service center. Unfortunately, John Mayer came to this decision a bit too late, but it is how he found out some of his watches were no good.
Buying a genuine watch is a matter of doing the homework. Whether you do the research yourself or would rather “borrow” a bit of knowledge from other collectors or sources, it will prevent you from making many mistakes. From rather stupid ones (like my own fake bracelet) to ones that were about to remain unexposed if you didn’t made that extra mile. This rule does not only apply to internet sales, of course, but also to pre-owned and vintage watches sold by traditional brick-and-mortar shops and auctions (yes, people, Frankenwatches and counterfeits even show up there once in a while).
Common sense and education is key when it comes to purchasing a watch from any channel other than an authorized dealer or brand boutique. There are some really great books out there that can make you a virtual expert on this subject matter, brand forums with a lot of knowledgeable contributors and of course various watch blogs that have covered a lot of different of wristwatches. Absorb as much information as you can and do not forget to ask about a second opinion when you are in doubt. If you have any tips to share, please leave a comment below.
(Photo of the fake Rolex with cheap Chinese-made mechanical movement by Suisse Watch Service.)
This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.