So you’ve decided to buy a luxury watch (or maybe even just a really nice watch, like an Omega). You’ve immediately got a problem. That problem is that the watch market is absolutely flooded with counterfeits. When you’re spending pocket change on a cheap timepiece, getting burned by a fake Timex isn’t such a big deal. When you’re instead spending several large denominations on a classy, pricey watch, you’re going to feel a deep ache in your wallet when you end up with a cheaply made clone.
So how do you buy a nice watch, something that’s going to set you back by more money than you’re comfortable just throwing away, without getting ripped off? Is the guy at the pawn shop giving you a deal that’s too good to be true? Is there any reason to believe that street vendor is offering the genuine article? Obviously, common sense plays a part, but there are a few general ideas to keep in mind when you’re evaluating a prospective purchase. While following these tips by no means guarantees that you'll go home with a quality Rolex or Omega, they at least increase your odds of passing up an obvious scam.
It’s difficult to know how heavy a good watch should feel if you’ve never handled one. By comparison, though, a well-made, high-end watch will be heavy compared not just to less expensive watches, but particularly compared to copies of the same timepiece. Counterfeits are cheaply made of cheap materials. What those cheap materials have in common is that they weigh less. When comparing a copy to the genuine article, a real timepiece will be heavy. It will feel solid. A cheaply made counterfeit will break in normal use (and sometimes even when sitting unused). Counterfeits will often feel flimsy and light.
2. Watch Material
Again, it’s difficult to know what the watch should be made of if you’ve never seen or handled the genuine article. Don’t buy a Rolex from a guy on the sidewalk if you’ve never looked at or felt the real thing. How difficult is it, after all, to stop by your jeweler and handle some examples of the watch you’re interested in buying? Armed with a good feel for how such a watch is made, examine your prospective purchase and see how it is built. Is it stainless steel or gold where it should be? Are plastics and lesser metals substituted to produce a cheaper overall product?
Little details like engravings are one of the hardest things to get right because they require extremely fine attention to nuance. Counterfeits typically will omit those details, or get them wrong outright. Sometimes this is because the watch has been produced quickly and cheaply. Other times it is because the counterfeiter lacks the precision equipment used by the genuine manufacturer. Examine your prospective purchase with an eye for these small touches. Are the proper brand engravings in the right places? Do they look clean and sharp? A well made watch will not just exhibit good fit and finish; it will also have engravings that are properly executed and exactly positioned.
Not all watches produce sound, obviously, but a mechanical or self-winding watch definitely will. You should be able to hear these mechanisms. The sound of the watch should be clear, distinct, and regular. The expression, “like clockwork” exists for a reason. If your watch sounds irregular, if the sound of the movement is not crisp and clear, there’s a problem. A cheap counterfeit may sound weak or muffled. Some counterfeits produce no sound at all because they contain a powered quartz movement, rather than the self-winding or mechanical movement expected.
Does your watch come with documentation? Real high-end watches come with paperwork. These include, but are not necessarily limited to, certificates of authenticity. Now anyone can produce a document that proclaims a watch authentic, but examine the document carefully. Does the paperwork contain a serial number? Does that serial number match the one on your watch? Does the paperwork itself appear to have been printed professionally? Cheaply photocopied documentation, sometimes reproduced from the genuine article, will be included with fakes.
The issue of pricing is complicated. Genuine high-end watches are genuinely expensive, but pricing is also a method of establishing value from a marketing perspective. It may be possible to secure a high-end watch for less than the retail price you’d pay at, say, a jewelry store. This is not, in itself, an indication you are buying a fake. If the price is too low, however — if the deal simply is too good to be true — there are only two explanations. One is that the watch is genuine, but stolen. The other and far more common reason is that the watch is fake and cost nothing near the asking price to produce. You aren’t going to buy a $10,000 Rolex for $300 bucks unless the watch is fake — or unless it’s hotter than the deal.
7. Lack Of Functions
On real watches, space is at a premium. Everything has a purpose. There is no room on a high-end watch for pushers that do nothing. Counterfeit watches may have features that are purely cosmetic — features the manufacturer of the fake was too cheap, or too poorly skilled, to reproduce. In those cases the counterfeiter simply crafts something that looks right but does nothing. This is a clear indication that the watch you’re examining is not real.
8. Typographical Errors
We mentioned Bolex and Rolox before. Typographical error are sometimes deliberate and sometimes “honest” mistakes. Broken spellings are not at all uncommon among counterfeiters, who often don’t understand the language they are reproducing. (Deliberately creating a lookalike watch with an almost-but-not-quite name is one way to work around laws against counterfeiting. You aren’t counterfeiting Omegas if your company’s brand is Trimega, after all, but you’re hoping someone will be fooled nonetheless.) Unintended typos are a dead giveaway. It's doubtful that the nice folks at Patek Philippe will misspell their company’s name.
9. Pressed and Stamped Logos
A high-end watch will be manufactured to stand the test of time. They will be well-made and durable. This extends to the logos included on the watch. Are they simply glued on? Or are they pressed into the watch with an eye for quality? How accurately are the logos pressed or stamped? They will never be crooked. If the logo on your watch is muddy, held on with adhesive, crooked, or otherwise detracts from the quality of the watch, the timepiece is counterfeit.
10. Sapphire Crystal Tint
Sapphire is used as a watch crystal because it is strong and beautiful. It is the second strongest jewel on the Mohs mineral hardness scale (after diamond, it is ranked “9,” tying with rubies). Prized for its aesthetics as well as its durability, a fine watch typically has a sapphire crystal rather than one made of Plexiglas or ordinary glass (in watch parlance, “mineral glass”). Some crystals are synthetic sapphire (the result of using high temperatures to crystalize aluminum oxide). Others are composites, such as mineral glass with synthetic sapphire coating. Mineral glass and synthetic sapphires aren’t tinted. Real sapphire crystals have a very specific tint to them.
Complications are any feature on the watch that does not include the time. This includes things like the date window as well as any of the other fancy features a watch might include, such moon phase and so on. When shopping for a name-brand, high-end watch, familiarize yourself with the complications offered. Does your prospective purchase have all of the correct complications in the correct locations? The Rolex Datejust, for example, has exactly one complication at the 3 o'clock. A seller trying to pass off a counterfeit might not know that. The copy might have other complications that should not be on the watch, or the watch might be lacking the complication it is supposed to have.
12. Band Details
The band is often overlooked by shoppers who are focused on the watch itself. A counterfeit might be close to perfect, cosmetically, until you examine the band. That inspection might point to something very much amiss. Take a look at the band compared to what the genuine manufacturer offers. Is the logo correct? Is the name right? Are these in the right places? Does anything look “off” or otherwise cheap? A well-made counterfeit might almost pass muster until the counterfeiter “cheaps out” on the band, assuming that any band that looks vaguely correct is good enough.
13. Serial Numbers
This is an important factor because the serial number traces back to the manufacturer. Do all of the serial numbers, inside and out, match? Do they match the certificate of authenticity? Even if all these numbers match each other, are the numbers plausibly interpretable as serial numbers for that specific manufacturer? How are the serial numbers placed on the watch? Genuine Rolexes have serial numbers that are engraved, not acid-etched, as acid-etching is much cheaper. Does the seller offer more than one of the same watch? Check to make sure the serial numbers on each watch are not identical. Counterfeiters frequently don’t bother to vary the numbers from watch to watch, producing instead identical copies.
14. Fingerprints Inside
A fine watchmaker would never release a watch that has fingerprints inside the casing or on the engine. A counterfeiter is much less meticulous. If you see evidence of fingerprints inside the watch, this means the watch is either counterfeit or has been tampered with. Either way, you don’t want to risk paying premium watch prices for something that exhibits this level of disregard for the product.
15. Winding Crown
Check the winding crown. Is it functional? Is it in the right place? If it should have a logo, does it? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you are probably dealing with a counterfeit. Especially if the watch has a simple quartz movement instead of the mechanical mechanism it is supposed to have, the winding crown won’t function as it is supposed to.
This may be the best indicator of a possible counterfeit, regardless of the condition of the watch itself. High-end watches typically will be offered by legitimate, reputable sellers who can afford the cost of buying and selling premium timepieces. Where, exactly, are you buying your watch? The fellow at the flea market probably isn’t offering a genuine Audemars Piguet, even if the price is on par with what you would expect to pay. (We’ve already discussed the fact that an astonishingly low price probably points to a fake.) Sketchy Internet sellers, especially those already known for purveying fakes, should be avoided at all costs, and not just because you can’t handle the watch ahead of time. The pictures they show you could be of a perfectly genuine watch, for which a fake is substituted when your order ships.
Price isn't everything
You don’t need to buy an expensive watch. There are plenty of perfectly serviceable watches at lower prices. Once you have experienced a quality, name-brand watch, however, you will have trouble turning back. Premium watches are compelling in a way that few personal accessories are. They are constant companions, worn on your wrist and awaiting your gaze throughout the day and into the night. A watch is probably the accessory you will use most once you don it. This makes it unique among the pantheon of gadgets and gear that human beings choose to carry with them.
In modern society, each of us has a smartphone in our pockets. It can be argued that wristwatches are an affectation, unnecessary to modern life. But what is personal style if not affected? There is a joy, a genuine enjoyment, that can be taken in a quality timepiece. The feel of a high-end watch, the fit and finish, the pleasure it gives when one reads its face... these are abstract benefits, yes. To the discerning watch owner, however, they are also undeniable. For those who wear watches, choosing finally to buy a high-end timepiece is the inevitable — and inevitably correct — choice.