The Perils of Fake Rolex Watches
Technology is wonderful isn’t it? Seems like every day we get a new innovation or breakthrough; some fresh timesaving, labor-reducing gadget that makes life just that little bit easier and more convenient.
Things that seemed impossible a few short years ago are now commonplace, thanks to an unrelenting cycle of scientific and industrial progress.
If I was a cynical person (I actually am; I’m English) it would be here that I’d point out that every positive usually comes with a negative (and vice versa of course; I’m not that bad).
Skills and expertise that have been developed to make genuinely wonderful things happen in various constructive ways can often find themselves coopted for disreputable purposes as well.
The counterfeit watch industry is just one such example.
Years ago, a fake Rolex was little more than a gag gift. They were so poorly realized that they fooled absolutely no one, and were usually bought as a joke keepsake of an exotic vacation—something to show friends and laugh about. We’ll call that the good old days.
In the modern era, some reproduction watches, and Rolex in particular, have become so sophisticated they are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Cutting-edge manufacturing techniques have caught up to such an extent even seasoned experts have trouble telling the authentic from the imitation.
How Big is The Problem?
All told, the counterfeit fashion business, taking in everything from purses, shoes, clothing, sunglasses, all the way through to luxury watches, rakes in the better part of two trillion (with a T) dollars a year.
Of that, the trade in knock-off timepieces amounts to around a billion dollars annually, with the lion’s share taken up by fake Rolexes.
With that kind of money up for grabs, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at just how quickly the technology has progressed. The forgers now have access to equipment and machinery they could once only have dreamed of. 3D printers, one of those things we mentioned which have been responsible for significant beneficial breakthroughs, are now so cheap almost any business, reputable or otherwise, can afford them. In the hands of an expert watchmaker employed by a company making fake watches, they can produce components which are exact duplicates of the original.
On top of that, the best forgeries have had real care and attention devoted to them. Without poring over a loupe and examining every edge and bevel, every numeral or the outline of an engraved serial number, there is no way to spot a fake.
Who Makes Them, Who Buys Them?
The vast majority, somewhere around 85% to 95%, of counterfeit Rolex watches have traditionally come from China, although the latest reports suggest the practice is now spreading widely throughout the rest of Asia.
It is estimated that about 1.6 million fakes are produced every year, compared to roughly 30 million real Swiss watches.
During my own travels in the region, and in China especially, the sheer brazenness of the forgers is something hard to describe. Rather than just a guy with a suitcase full of dodgy pieces on a street corner, ready to bolt at the first sight of a passing policeman, fake watches, in fact fake goods of any description, are sold out of bone fide bricks and mortar stores. There are banners above the door advertising the fact they are copies, and I never saw one place not teeming with eager customers.
Of course, the counterfeiters also supply a global network of traders, with the bulk being sold online. Something like 30% of internet watch searches are for ‘replicas’. Instagram boutiques, Amazon; they are all ideal for selling fakes.
But who is buying them? There are, apparently, two groups.
The first are those who want the real thing but can’t afford them and purchase a fake in the full knowledge of what it is. They want enough of the look of the genuine watch to fool friends and enter into the deal knowing they are likely not getting something good enough to pass down as an heirloom, but something that will do for now.
The second group, one that is only getting bigger as the quality of the fakes continues to increase, are those parting with substantial amounts of money in the expectation of buying the real thing. In fact, it is the actual high cost of the watch that can do more than anything to convince someone of its authenticity. The first word many people associate with Rolex is ‘expensive’, so if they are presented with an ‘expensive Rolex’, it stands to reason it must be legit.
What Harm Does it Do?
At first glance, that’s not an unreasonable question. Rolex grosses somewhere around five billion dollars a year. Compared to that, the returns raked in by the forgers pales somewhat.
But the real serious problem lies in just where that money goes. There is a very well recognized link between the profits made by counterfeiting groups going to fund drug dealers, organized crime, human traffickers and terrorists.
If you remember back to the assault on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoin 2015, the two men who carried out the attack had an arsenal of weapons including assault rifles, machine guns and even a grenade launcher. The incident, which left a dozen people dead, was funded by the sale of counterfeit goods on the streets of Paris, including watches.
Selling fake goods is anything but a victimless crime.
As well as the connections to serious illegal activity, other dangers posed by imitation watches include the materials being used. U.S. laws prohibits toxic substances like lead, mercury or cadmium due to the possibility of them being harmful. Counterfeiters are not bound by those same restrictions.
And, of course, there is the damage done to the original manufacturer’s reputation. A brand like Rolex has spent more than 100 years painstakingly making a name for itself by creating the highest quality products it can, and spending untold billions in the process. Their success relies on the superiority of their craftsmanship and their engineering prowess. Those who buy a Rolex have, and are entitled to have, certain expectations of their watch.
If it then falls short of that unspoken agreement, because it hasn’t been made by Rolex, it is a dent in the company’s standing in the eyes of that customer that is difficult to repair even if they are informed the watch is counterfeit.
Rolex is very much a victim of its own staggering success. One of the most aspirational brands on the planet, everyone wants a Rolex.
For those who can’t afford them, a fake is a tempting choice. But even for those who can afford them, the company’s policy of strictly limiting the supply of their most popular models leads many people down the road of grey market dealers and the internet’s less salubrious channels. Here, with demand for the likes of their steel sports models at its most frenzied, the best forgeries sell for almost retail prices to unsuspecting buyers.
It is estimated there are more fake Rolexes in circulation than all other watch brands combined. There may even be more fake Rolexes than genuine ones out there.
One of the biggest problems facing both the manufacturer and their customers today, it is the reason having complete faith in your dealer is the first step in the buying process.