How to tell if a watch is fake

Over the last couple of years, Chinese replica watch manufacturers have answered the (unfortunate) demand for high quality fake watches. There are a number of sophisticated Chinese manufacturing setups capable of mass producing moderate-to-high quality watch replicas that are, even to trained eyes, nearly exact copies of their genuine counterparts. It is no longer possible to spot out many fake watches by simply looking to see if the second hand ticks or glides smoothly.

The internet is awash with decent introductory guides for identifying fake watches, but these tips are often insufficient when the marketplace is filled with very sophisticated fakes. This guide is split into two parts. In the first part, we'll review some basic tips to help you avoid low quality fakes. In the second part, we step up our game and provide you with hitherto unpublished tips to ensure you are prepared to avoid unwittingly purchasing a sophisticated fake watch - often referred to as a super-replica.

Basic Tips

    1. If the deal is too good to be true, it is definitely a scam. Be incredibly wary of incredibly good deals, especially when buying a watch online.  Unscrupulous sellers are, as a whole, a relatively clever and tactful bunch. Novice collectors who get excited if they see a watch discounted 70% from MSRP are, as a whole, less clever. If you want to grab a genuine luxury watch at less than 50% of its market value, you'll need patience and know-how - the sort that requires hours of research and knowledge acquisition into making a proper watch purchase. If you think in terms of retail pricing and not in terms of market value, you are an especially easy target.  Also note our handy guide for private watch transactions.
    2. Look for tell-tale signs of a cheap knock-off. Poor quality fake watches will have stamped logos and laser-etched engraving in place of embossed logos and deeply-engraved text. The cases of poor quality fakes will often be scarred with unsightly machine marks and sharp edges that can break skin - with a lot of effort, mind you. If the dial's printing is messy, unaligned or odd-looking, that's a dead giveaway for a fake (or poor redial, if it's vintage). More subtle signs include misaligned indices, improperly finished subdials, luminous painting that bleeds over edges and poor finishing on small parts, like the pins that attach the hands to the dial.
    3. If the watch looks like a piece of junk, it is a piece of junk. There are a ton of fake tourbillon and Asian tourbillon watches floating around. These knockoff tourbillon watches all feature open dials with an exposed balance wheel. Genuine Swiss tourbillon watches cost upwards of 20,000 USD; so while many of the real Swiss tourbillon watches are ugly, practically all of them are nicely-finished in order to justify the five- and six-figure price-tags. On the other hand, fake tourbillon watches will have crudely-finished cases and dials, amplifying their ugliness quotient.
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These basic tips are covered in further detail all over the web; perhaps the best coverage is available over at Chronocentric. However following these basic tips no longer protects you from being duped by the most resourceful criminals. As of 2013, there are fakes available for sale that are capable of fooling authorized dealers, at least until the solid caseback is removed. The existence of high quality fakes is not widely acknowledged because there is concern that more publicity would encourage people to purchase more counterfeit watches. We feel this is a bit of a disservice to most watch collectors, most of whom are interested in avoiding replica watches, not purchasing them. With that in mind, here are some recommended practices to avoid getting tricked by the "super-replica" watches.

Advanced Tips

  1. Know thy foe. Seek out the online replica community and peruse the merchandise of their trusted online dealers. The replica collector is not your foe, unless he or she is trying to sell you a fake watch. Instead, use the replica collector community's extensive knowledge to discover which online watch models are being perfectly replicated. If you are interested in a particular model of watch and you see a replica being raved about on replica watch forums, forget about purchasing the genuine article online. The risk of being duped by a super-replica is very high, so it is worthwhile to seek out an authorized dealer and pay a premium to avoid the excessive risk.
  2. Seek out exclusivity. Replica watch production is a case study of supply and demand. If a particular model of watch is difficult to replicate, chances are it won't be replicated unless demand is incredibly high. Most watches with in-house movements are not well-replicated at this time, the biggest exception by far being Rolex watch models. While Rolex models have in-house movements, demand for Rolex knock-offs is always through the roof. As such, Asian factories have invested tons of time and money into developing fake Rolex movements, making the best fake Rolex watches incredibly difficult to identify as fake.
  3. Any watch powered by an unmodified ETA or Valjoux movement is easy to fake. Since lots of watches use ETA and Valjoux movements, Asian factories have developed copycat movements. If a watch is powered by a Valjoux 7750, the chronograph subdials and date window will always in the same place, unless the movement has been modified significantly. Therefore, the effort required to make a great replica of a watch powered by a Valjoux 7750 is much lower compared to a watch powered by an uncommon chronograph movement. Without a doubt, genuine ETA and Valjoux movements (and their close cousins, the Sellita and Concepto movements) are robust and reliable - they are great movements. Avoid getting bilked by a watch with an (inferior) imitation movement by taking a bit of extra precaution. Pay the few extra dollars and make the purchase through an authorized dealer or trusted seller.
  4. Fake dress watches are less common than fake sports watches. This is, again, an issue of demand. Demand for sports watches is higher than dress watches, specifically because when someone is decideding how money one should spend on a watch usage is so imporant, so replica manufacturers will spend most of their research and development budgets on perfecting the most popular sports models. For example, consider Audemar's Piguet, a very high end brand. Their Royal Oak Offshore line is very popular with collectors and, no surprise, the line is heavily replicated. The best Royal Oak Offshore replicas are difficult to tell apart from the real deal. On the other hand, their dressier lines are poorly replicated. If you can't spot a fake Audemars Piguet dress watch, you are in trouble. Brands that feature heavily-replicated sporty models include Audemar's Piguet, Breitling, Hublot, Panerai and Rolex.
  5. Look for watches with see-thru casebacks. The best tell-tale sign that a luxury watch is fake is a poorly-finished movement. The best replicas will feature adequately-finished movements, but I doubt you will ever find a replica watch with a very finely-finished movement. Therefore, if a watch has a sapphire crystal case-back and you have studied photos of the genuine article, you won't have difficulty spotting a fake using a caseback photo. Look for subtle signs of good finishing: bevelled and polished edges, fine surface finishing, polished screw heads, inward angles, etc. The movements that power fake watches seldom have any signs of fine finishing, except for blued screws and a coarse surface finishing. On the other hand, if the watch has a solid caseback, you can't see the movement and you may not discover it's a piece of junk until you need to send it in for maintenance.
  6. Box and papers do not guarantee the watch is genuine. Nowadays, there are Chinese factories devoted to making replica watch boxes, fake instruction manuals and fake warranty papers. What is stopping an enterprising scam artist from having a custom "dealer" stamp made, so he or she can pretend to stamp the fake papers? A modicum of effort, perhaps. Unfortunately many criminals put more effort into their craft than consumers put into theirs, so there are fake watches out there that come complete with all of the bells and whistles. Boxes and papers are useful to have, but they are no longer a guarantee that the watch that accompanies them is genuine.


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