Rolex or Replica? Some timely advice so you don’t end up making a very expensive mistake

By John E. Brozek
© InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2004
Chronos Magazine, Winter 2003/2004

Rolex was there when Hillary and Tenzing conquered the summit of Mt. Everest, and they accompanied the Piccards on their journey to the deepest ocean floor in the world: the Challenger Deep of the Marianas Trench. Chuck Yeager strapped one to his wrist when he first broke the sound barrier in 1947, as did Sean Connery when he portrayed James Bond in the spy films of the 1960s.

They’ve gone higher, deeper and faster than any other watch in the world, but it appears they may now be facing their most difficult challenge yet… counterfeit watches. With the every-growing popularity of online auctions like eBay and Yahoo, unscrupulous sellers are passing off counterfeits as the real thing—and doing so with alarming success.

Were not talking about the cheap fakes from the ‘70s & ‘80s, with second hands that ‘tick’, or dials featuring misspelled words. No, these are incredibly sophisticated replicas with sweep movements, laser-printed dials, and, in many cases, counterfeit boxes with warranty papers. What once was a business operated from the street corners of Taiwan, has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry—marketed globally on the Internet, via literally hundreds of online auctions, chat rooms, forums and dot-com sites.

How bad is the problem you ask? Well, try this on for size: Rolex currently produces around 750,000 watches, annually. However, it is believed that counterfeiters are churning out fakes at a rate of over ten times that number! Yes, the situation is bad, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better anytime soon.

With that being said, there are a few things you should look for when performing a cursory inspection of a would-be Rolex watch: Fit & Finish, and Form & Function.

Fit & Finish: Rolex has a reputation for over-engineering everything in their watches, from the movement, right down to the detail they put into a tiny screw—nothing is done half way. Therefore, I would encourage you to go to your local dealer and get as much “hands on” time with as many authentic Rolex watches as you can find. Note how they physically look, feel and operate. Next, educate yourself—learn everything you can on the specifics of the watch, and whom you’re buying from.

Genuine Rolex watches are nearly flawless, with smooth edges, and perfectly finished parts fitted with tolerances measured in microns. Counterfeits, on the other hand, will often have rough, sharp edges, and parts that sometimes feel awkward and unfinished to the touch. Genuine (gold) Rolex watches are made from solid gold parts from the case, right down to the bracelet screws. However, counterfeits are often just gold plated, which can be detected by removing the bracelet screws or spring bars. The presence of any “steel” pins or screws is a pretty good sign of a fake, or at the very least non-original parts.

Winding crowns, and rotating bezels can feel rough and frequently get hung up as they are turned. While their bracelet links and buckles can seem poorly fitted, and may have uneven or excessive gaps. Most counterfeits utilize generic parts, so hands are frequently too short, or of the wrong shape. Quite simply, if it’s not perfect, then it’s probably not a Rolex.

Form & Function: Since counterfeiters are primarily interested in duplicating the cosmetic appearance of the watch, they will often perform rather poorly. You should test the hacking feature, as well as any day, date, 24-hour “GMT” hand, or chronograph (stopwatch) functions on the watch. Wind the watch and adjust the hands. Most fakes use cheap Asian movements, so their performance is quite inferior to that of a Rolex. Furthermore, the “extra functions” are often just for show, and don’t actually work. Bottom line: does the watch actually perform like a quality Swiss timepiece?

In recent years, Rolex has added additional security features to help differentiate a genuine model from a counterfeit, including: a hologram encoded sticker on the case back, as well as a tiny (almost microscopic) “crown” laser etched into the crystal—at the 6 o’clock position. The warranty papers have also been changed to a completely new design, with watermarks imbedded into the paper to help avoid duplication by a computer scanner.

Counterfeiting has turned into a very high-tech business, and thus, anti-counterfeit security has become a timely issue, as well. In fact, the US Treasury Department has even got in on the act, with the release of a newly designed Twenty Dollar Bill, earlier this year. This new bill features color-shifting ink, a security thread, a multi-color background, and new watermarks.

While some like to believe that counterfeiters focus primarily on “modern” watches, this can be a very costly mistake. Prices for rare vintage pieces such as the exotic dial Paul Newman Daytona, and Comex or Red Submariners have recently climbed to record heights. Thus, a new breed of fakes has emerged, with counterfeiters simply doctoring up the dials of less expensive models to “create” their aforementioned (and much pricier) counterparts, in what has become known as converted or Franken-watches.

Another common “conversion” is turning stainless steel watches into two-tone ones, whereby creating a more expensive “model” by replacing the crown, bezel, hands and bracelet center-links with aftermarket gold-tone pieces. Thus, for just a few hundred dollars, one can “artificially inflate” the value of a watch by thousands. And the scary thing is these “converted” models will pass most inspections. While you’re busy trying to authenticate the movement and operation of the watch, you miss the fact that it has been cosmetically “enhanced” with counterfeit parts. This has also become a serious problem with regard to aftermarket diamond dials and bezels, which are considerably less expensive than the genuine Rolex parts.

Again, these fakes are almost impossible to identify without the luxury of a personal inspection. So, unless you know the seller, I would avoid purchasing these high-risk models from an online seller, or you could become their next online victim.

If this isn’t bad enough, online thieves are now perpetrating a whole slew of new scams, including the bait & switch: Whereas, the seller displays a stolen photo of a genuine Rolex, but ships a counterfeit to the bidder. Obviously, no amount of Rolex knowledge can protect you from this kind of situation. You’re simply relying on the honesty of the seller, and in today’s market that can be a big mistake.

Therefore, when purchasing a Rolex from an online auction site, or even from your local dealer, there is one simple rule that always applies: buy the seller, not the watch. Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware.

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