Counterfeit Rolex Watches—A History
Did I ever tell you about the very first Rolex I bought? I was doing the whole gap year thing (although a decade or so later than most people do it), bumming around Asia, when I washed up in Thailand. There, in the buzzing northern city of Chiang Mai I think it was, some enterprising young chap had eschewed the whole high class boutique thing common to so many other Authorized Dealers, and set up a large stall right there in the street. What it lacked in presentational flair it more than made up for in competitive pricing, and I walked away after a few minutes haggling with a brand new Submariner, sitting on an all black Oyster bracelet (you know, like Rolex has always offered) for around $25.
If I’m honest, I suspected foul play from the beginning, especially when my watch selling friend told me straight out it was a fake. Still, it looked pretty good to my uneducated eyes, and the four days I spent with it before it just decided to stop working passed pleasantly enough.
Counterfeits have been a fixture of the watch business for almost as long as there has been a watch business. And, contrary to how things are now, it wasn’t always concentrated in the Far East. Way back in the day, when American-made pieces from the likes of Elgin and Hampden were considered the best in the world, it was Switzerland at the center of the fakes industry. Not only did Swiss manufacturers copy the watches themselves, they also duplicated the highly efficient production techniques pioneered by the U.S. makers. Pretty soon they were churning out exact reproductions and selling them with names which were just different enough to avoid any legal shenanigans; Elgin became Elfin for instance, in a technique familiar to anyone who has ever bought a pair of Adadis sneakers or Ray Bon sunglasses.
As we all know, Switzerland now stands alone as the home of luxury mechanical watchmaking, and it is their turn to suffer the ignominy of their finest creations being plagiarized and sold to unsuspecting buyers.
And the brand worst affected? Rolex.
It is estimated that counterfeit watches valued at about half a trillion (yep, with a ‘t’) dollars hits the streets annually. Of that incredible total, the vast majority is made up of Rolex models.
There are a couple of reasons the crown takes such a hit. Firstly, they are easily the most popular and recognizable watchmakers in the world, the universal symbol for success and achievement. And secondly, they produce, by modern standards, relatively simple designs, rarely bringing out anything in the way of ultra complicated pieces. Panerai is another highly copied marque for that same reason, their output usually even less involved than Rolex.
It is, of course, a massive problem. While the phonies of a few years ago, and certainly around the time I was investing in my Thai Submariner, were almost ludicrously bad and easy to spot, these days the emergence of extremely high tech and relatively low cost technology has led to a new breed. Sometimes referred to as SuperFakes, many originate in China where manufacturers have even recreated the same types of machinery Rolex use to make their watches, leading to forgeries practically indistinguishable from the real thing. Far from being destined for a life getting touted around tourist beaches in a battered suitcase, these are so good they are sometimes selling for close to official retail to fairly inexperienced collectors, duped into believing they are genuine.
The damage it does to a brand’s reputation is significant. Rolex has always traded on its reliability and unsurpassed quality. A fake only has to lookgood, with no focus on the engineering or any of the underlying factors that has maintained the watchmaker’s status in the market. These reproes, although decent, will always be of inferior quality. Any fault tends to sour the buyer against the brand, even after it has been proven to them that it is a counterfeit. So Rolex loses a customer in the future.
Fakes Go Mainstream
Somewhere around 15% to 30% of watch-related internet searches last year were from people looking for replicas. Here, again, Rolex took up the lion’s share of bandwidth.
An entire subculture has sprung up around these imitations, or fakes by another name. Dedicated forums allow enthusiasts to swap advice on modifying their pieces with custom-made parts, with some spending literally thousands on them (which rather begs the question; why not buy the real thing?)
Just doing research for this article, the number of websites offering replica Rolex watches was staggering, and the attraction is obvious. You could have a Pepsi GMT-Master II, one that would fool any disinterested bystander 99% of the time, for a couple of hundred dollars. On the page they are that good, although the bizarre hybrid Batman with the Sky-Dweller’s GMT disc can perhaps stay where it is.
Not being a lawyer, it is hard to see how these fakers get away with it. Patent legalities are notoriously murky, and watchmakers generally don’t hold copyright on their designs because of their functional nature. It is the reason most brands have a Submariner ‘homage’ somewhere in their arsenal, copying many of the numerous elements of the world’s favorite dive watch.
But one thing brands can protect, and do so with some venom, is their name and logo. Even changing something like the the winding crown on an otherwise completely genuine Rolex watch for an aftermarket replacement would render it, in the eyes of the brand itself, a counterfeit. Why? Because Rolex crowns have Rolex logos on them and as such are part of the overall trademark.
These replicas then, emblazoned head to toe with the company name and insignia, are violating basic Intellectual Property laws, but appear to be sold legally as they are upfront about their non-genuine origins.
What Does Rolex Do About It?
Rather than seeing all this as the sincerest form of flattery, Rolex has poured countless millions into staving off the influx of forgeries. Since 2002, all new watches have been given a micro-etching of the crown logo on the crystal at the six o’clock position. Almost invisible to the naked eye, it is especially hard to recreate by the imitators, as is the ROLEXROLEXROLEX engraving on the rehaut which has been a feature for several years.
Again in the early 2000s, the brand made the catalog-wide switch to 904L stainless steel (now called Oystersteel), partly for its incredible toughness and unique sheen, but also because it would be practically impossible for a counterfeiting operation to replicate it. In fact, it is so expensive to create and difficult to work with that even other legitimate manufacturers tend to shy away from it. It likewise has a substantial weight that can’t be duplicated.
But it is not just modern Rolexes being reproduced. Thanks to the rise of technologies like CNC machining and 3D printing, the vintage market is being targeted too. It has become much simpler and cheaper to make various internal components to get a classic timepiece up and running again, landing the buyer with a functioning watch, but one worth a fraction of an all original piece (just ask John Mayer).
It can even be used to change a relatively run-of-the-mill model into a grail piece. Buying up a genuine Daytona ref. 6239 and fitting it with a fake Paul Newman dial is an effective way of tripling your investment or much more.
The Future for Counterfeit Rolex Watches
The days of the easily spotted fake Rolex are on their way out. The counterfeiters are becoming increasingly sophisticated, mainly because the people they are aiming to sell to are becoming much more well-informed.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with the brand knows a sapphire case back or a ticking seconds hand are huge red flags. Similarly, someone going in spending large sums of cash on a vintage model has plenty of material on hand at the end of their internet connection to learn all they need to know over what a model should and shouldn’t have.
But in the end, there is only going to be one surefire way of protecting yourself from buying a well setup fake, and it has been the mantra of the preowned market for a while now—only buy from a seller you trust. There are plenty of good guys in the industry, those whose livelihoods rely on the absolute authenticity of everything they sell. Hunt out those with the best reputations, the most satisfied customers and the most comprehensive expertise. Stick with that, and you can be as reasonably sure as it is possible to be you are getting a watch you can be proud of.