Watching For Fakes

How can you be sure you are not buying a fake watch?

Working in the pre-owned watch market, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is, ‘how can I be sure I’m not buying a fake and how do I spot one?

As is often the case, there is a short answer and a very long one. The short answer is to always to buy from someone reputable. If you are buying new from an authorised dealer there should be no issue at all – unless it is an ‘inside job’ – which can happen but is incredibly rare. Buying from a reputable dealer or auction, either new or pre-owned is equally secure, not because a mistake cannot happen, but because in the highly unusual case that it does, the dealer or auction house will stand by their word and refund you.

Once you venture away from these ‘safe havens’ you are relying on your own knowledge and instincts, so it pays to know the state of the fakes industry right now.

Fraudulent History

Fake watches are nothing new; in 1795 the famous watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet developed a ‘secret signature’ for the dials of his watches to combat counterfeiting. It is estimated there are over 100 fake Breguet pocket watches in circulation for every real one that he made. Contemporary industry statistics suggest that in excess of 40 million fake watches are produced annually; more than all the legitimate Swiss watches. Around 75% of all fakes are copying Rolex models and the total loss of sales revenue to the UK economy from fake watches and jewellery in 2014 was £138 million.

Types Of Fakes

To understand the nature of these watches, you can group them into three levels: the laughably bad, the superficially good and the seriously hard to spot.

The first is the kind of watch that gets bought on the beach for a couple of pounds. While it has the famous name on the dial, it bears no relation to any actual model. The case feels light and flimsy while the bracelet is likely to leave a green mark on your wrist by the end of the holiday – if it has not fallen apart by then. These watches are not going to fool anyone with even a passing knowledge of the brands being imitated and are not really a concern in the pre-owned market.

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The next grade of fake actually looks like what it is trying to copy, at first glance anyway. The important thing to remember is that these are produced at a fraction of the cost of their genuine counterparts with no attempt at quality control. Externally the case and bracelet will feel sharp and unrefined to the experienced hand, while even the novice will notice differences on the dial or case back when directly compared to the real thing. At this level, additional functions such as chronographs may not operate correctly, being replaced by calendar dials and it goes without saying that any inspection of the movement will reveal something cheap and nasty.

At the top of the tree is a sophisticated fake that requires specialist knowledge to spot. These may even come with fake boxes and paperwork to lend extra credibility. Again, a side-by-side comparison will make the subtle differences stand out, but it relies on you having a comparable watch to hand.

At the top level, even the movements are copied, so opening the back of the watch is not such an easy win. Differences are there, and the vast variance in value will show through in poorer finishing or lower quality materials, but it takes an experienced eye to spot these points.

Spotting a fake watch can often be difficult, even for professionals.
Spotting a fake watch can often be difficult, even for professionals.

It’s Alive!

The vintage watch market suffers less from the outright fake, but more from a variant referred to amongst enthusiasts as a ‘Franken-watch’. This is where a watch has been put together from parts to create a more desirable whole, specifically with the intention to deceive. It has to have an underhand motive; otherwise every service-replacement part would create a Franken-watch. At a basic level it may be that a worn external part such as a bezel or dial has been replaced with a modern copy, aged to give the impression of being original.

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A more sophisticated deception might involve the use of an old movement taken from a cheap un-regarded brand and then re-engraved with the name of a sought-after company and then put into a fake case with a re-painted dial. This often happens with early chronographs where many companies used the same movement manufacturers and can take a watch worth £200 to a watch with a supposed value of £20,000. Combating this kind of fake is only done through research into what watch manufacturers actually produced in the past and can be very difficult and time-consuming. As the interest in vintage watches increases, this kind of dishonesty is becoming more prevalent.

The final kind of fake that I deal with on a regular basis started life as the genuine watch. At some point its owner decided to add a little sparkle that the manufacturer never intended; all well and good until the watch enters the pre-owned market. Many luxury watch manufacturers only set diamonds into precious metal, so a steel watch with diamonds may be passed off as a ‘factory-set’ white gold or platinum piece; even if it is not explicitly stated, the impression may be given. In unscrupulous shop windows, these pieces may even be advertised with a price comparison to the look-alike model, ignoring the fact that the diamonds are sub-standard and that the brand will refuse to recognise the watch when it comes to servicing.

Protecting yourself from fakes is like protecting yourself from wild animals: stick to the well-worn, recognised paths and employ a guide where necessary. Head out into the bush with little knowledge and a gung-ho attitude and you may get badly bitten. The old adage of ‘if it seems too good to be true, then it is’ applies.

However, if a good fake is not recognised by a dealer, then a veneer of credibility is applied when it is offered for sale, along with an appropriate price. Best to fall back on the other old axiom of ‘buy the seller’, and if you have any doubts walk away. There will always be another watch to tempt you.

Adrian Hailwood