July 02, 2022

Who are you kidding? The world of fake watches

Anybody who’s been shopping in any of the major Asian cities will know exactly what I’m talking about. The market in fake designer goods is rife. Handbags, watches, shirts, shoes, pens, golf clubs, cosmetics and even electronic devices like iPhones have their knock-off varieties.

Up until relatively recently, designer labels were not overly fussed about the fake market. The goods were cheap and nasty clones obvious to even the most unsophisticated buyer. Plastic instead of leather, obvious misspellings and poor quality manufacture were dead giveaways and unlikely to fool the buyer or his/her haughty friends.

Such awkward copies were not considered a threat to the genuine market because these low-brow buyers were never real candidates for the proper goods. That, and the cost of pursuit and prosecution in uncooperative territories, was not time well spent.

But all that has changed with new manufacturing techniques such as CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining used by counterfeiters. Replica watches in particular are now almost indistinguishable from genuine items. Minute details like screws, face textures, logos and serial numbers are so precise that it takes an expert to tell the difference, and even then under a magnifying glass.

Is the fake watch industry really costing the big brands money?

“I’ve held in my hand a fake tourbillon watch, a real high-precision mechanism. The counterfeiters have now mastered ultra-complex movements,” says Michel Arnoux, head of the anti-counterfeiting unit of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Such is the sophistication of the replicas that they are occasionally sold by unscrupulous vendors at close to the price of the original. 

This is a concern to the real watchmakers as it undermines buyer confidence and damages brand value. Costco incurred the wrath of Omega in 2011 for selling grey market watches below recommended retail. As it turned out, they were real watches obtained illegally – according to the US Supreme Court. [http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/11/08/scotus.cases/]


“Counterfeiting costs the watchmaking industry billions each year,” says Nick Hayek, head of Swatch Group whose often copied brands include Omega, Rado and Longines.


Where to find fakes


An excellent fake found in a
Bangkok shopping centre
I’ve been able to locate fake watches in Thailand (almost everywhere), Hong Kong, Beijing and Malaysia. Across the border from Hong Kong (in Shenzen) and Macau (in Zhuhai‎) are prime locations for all manner of fake goods, watches included. I have it on good authority fake markets also exists in New York City and Tokyo.

In Bangkok, for example, the massive MBK centre is perhaps the most popular source in terms of choice and quality. Prices are a little higher than in street markets, but the better vendors will give honest advice, stand by their products and offer band fittings and battery changes if required.

Online is another prime source of counterfeit watches. Websites with predictable names offer an enormous range of replica timepieces, although popular sites like eBay.com will quickly shut down any suspected counterfeit activity. Obviously, you don’t have the reassurance of seeing the item prior to purchase and prices are marginally higher than on the street after a little haggling.

Making the grade

The AAA sticker indicates the build
quality of this counterfeit TAG
You can find replica watches for as little as ten dollars or as much as several hundred depending on your eye for detail.

The cheapest ones will look passably like the real thing but as soon as you pick them up, they’ll give themselves away. Interior dials do not work, fuzzy printing, rough winding or inferior bands are common. Expect a cheap Chinese or quartz movement. The better ones in this lower category are often referred to as AA grade and are typically less than US$100.

The better replicas, or counterfeits, will take a trained eye to spot the minor differences. Small variations in dial design, hands and bands will be hard for regular punters to notice. The weight will be good and engraved surfaces finished to a fine detail. Movements are of high quality Japanese or Swiss quartz or even automatic manufacture. These are called AAA and can sell for $200 and more.

Genuine Fakes

When is a fake not a fake? One of the most confusing things about contraband is the so-called ‘factory overrun’ or ‘factory second’. These are technically the real deal because they come from the brand’s factory, but via the back door. This is most common in Indonesia with sports shoes, but can also extend to clothing and accessories elsewhere.

Strictly speaking, an ‘overrun’ is when the contracted factory (almost always in Asia) produces more items than the client ordered. This is to cover warranty issues, but there will always be surplus when the model or style is discontinued. In some fashion circles, this ‘grey market’ stock is called ‘swarf’. ‘Seconds’, as the name suggests, are imperfect items rejected by the client and not destroyed.

Authentic parts in fake watches are also possible but not so common. Movements, whether automatic or quartz (battery), are often derived from legitimate manufacturers like Seiko and Citizen and grafted into cases branded with a premium logo such as Rolex or Tag Heuer.

Obviously, a battery-powered Rolex is a fake as the world’s most famous premium watch manufacturer stopped producing quartz models over ten years ago.

Will I Get Busted?

That depends. Often replica watches sent by mail, especially to EU countries, will be confiscated and destroyed. The receiver is liable to a fine or costs for destruction. Generally, possessing a single item is not an offence, but if you’re caught with a case full, you could have some explaining to do and even face jail time depending on local laws.

Fake watches being crushed by EU authorities in 2010 

What does buying fake say about you?


The Swiss watch industry’s body (FH) and the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), launched a guilty conscience campaign in 2009 headlined “Fake Watches are for Fake people” playing on the perception that only people with poor values and low ethical standards are attracted to fake products. If fake watches are designed to fool, then I suppose it must follow that the wearer is a fraud.


Looking for the Real thing? Here’s a spotters’ guide
  • Poor or indistinct lettering
  • Compare an original. Often face layout is incorrect or hands are inaccurate.
  • An automatic second hand will ‘sweep’, while a quartz will ‘tick’ in 1-sec increments.
  • Bands, bracelets and clasps clearly inferior or loose.
  • Lightweight feel
  • Non-functioning inner dials and stopwatch
  • No genuine luxury watch is sold at deep discount
  • No serial number, although bogus serial numbers are appearing on quality fakes too.
  • Unauthorised or shady seller
Grab Facts

  • According to EU data, the most frequently counterfeited products are textiles (30%) and shoes (13%). Watches (11%) come in third, just before medicines (8%), mobile telephones (7%), leather goods (7%), electronic goods (5%) and cosmetics (5%). (source: http://www.swissinfo.ch)
  • According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, 40 million fake watches are produced every year – 10 million more than genuine Swiss branded watches.
  • In 2010, almost 1300 raids in Asia seized some 500,000 watches. Hauls were also recorded in Mexico, Brazil and Italy. 320,000 Internet auctions were shut down. (source: http://www.swissinfo.ch)
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates counterfeiting makes up 5-10% of world trade – more than the individual GDP of many smaller countries.

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