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6 ways to spot a fake or replica luxury watch and what to look for

Updated Wed 27th July 2022 by Craig Gibson

Looking to invest in a luxury watch, but worried you could be buying a fake or replica?

It is a real concern.

The good news is if you buy a luxury watch from a reputable dealer you are very unlikely to encounter a fake. However the quality of fake or replica watches has also improved greatly – so you do need to know what to look for. This is especially true if you are buying directly from a seller online, like on eBay or a marketplace like Facebook or Gumtree.

Educate yourself by reading our guide, so you know how to spot a fake luxury watch, and what tell-tale signs to look for.

How to buy a luxury watch safely

Take the time to do your homework on a watch before you buy it. This will a go long way to making sure that you get a genuine timepiece and not a fake. Protect yourself by making sure you:

  • Only buy from a reputable dealer or online retailer.
  • Check the serial number of the watch to ensure that it is genuine and there is no duplicate out there.
  • Confirm the the watch has all the necessary paperwork, including a letter of authenticity, and the original box – though vintage models may not have all this.
  • Ask for photographs of the timepiece, including close up images of the case, face movement and bracelet. This can help you establish if there is damage and wear to the watch, and if it is a fake.
  • Have the watch examined and authenticated by a licensed watchmaker.

You can also use price as a gauge of authenticity. If a Rolex Submariner is selling for a few thousand dollars or even less, your alarm bells should definitely be ringing pretty loudly. As they say, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is!

The most common fake luxury watches

Like the rest of the counterfeit or replica industry, be it handbags or sneakers, it is all about moving stock of what is ‘hot’ and in vogue at the moment. For watch brands, Rolex is easily the most faked manufacturer out there. You can find a cheap Submariner replica in just about every market from London to Bangkok and everywhere in between.

Rolex Submariner, one of THE most copied watches.

The Rolex Day-Date and Datejust are however the title holders of the most copied watches – at least for now. Next up are other top watches from brands like Audemars Piguet, Panerai, IWC and Omega – hey even the intricate Richard Mille RM27-02 has been copied.

You also need to beware of a ‘Frankenwatch’!

What is a ‘Frankenwatch’?

A Frankenwatch is not quite a fake, but is rather cobbled together from a bunch of different genuine, after market and/or replica parts. So you could be looking at a Speedmaster with an original case and bracelet, but the dial and pushers could have been cannabalized from another model. The worst scenario is that some elements could be fake. This not only devalues the watch, but it may not function as it should due to the inferior parts used. This is a difficult beast to identify, and Frankenwatches often fool serious watch collectors.

A genuine Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph

Should you care?

That depends. If you are not a collector and have no intention of selling the watch – you may be quite happy to have a watch that is not totally ‘stock’, but works just fine. Many collectors will not touch a watch that contains non-genuine parts. Bear in mind that non-genuine parts will devalue your watch, so think carefully if you are considering this option when it comes to repairing your timepiece.

So what signs do you need to look for to spot a fake watch? Let’s find out.

6 ways to spot a fake luxury watch and what to look for

Use these 6 steps to help work out if a watch is fake or the real deal…

1. Weight

Authentic Tudor Black Bay

The first tell tale sign to look for in a high end luxury watch replica or fake is the the weight. Genuine timepieces are generally made from more solid materials, typically high quality stainless steel or precious metals, which weigh more than the inferior metals and components used to construct a fake or counterfeit watch. A fake will therefore typically feel ‘light’ in your hand – though it helps to have a genuine version to compare it to. Watchmakers will often weigh a suspected fake on an electronic scale to confirm its authenticity.

2. Crystal and date window

Cyclops on genuine Rolex Submariner.

Does the watch dial look a little hazy through the face? Is the face scratched? Chances are it is a fake if you cannot see the dial clearly, as fakes generally use a lower quality glass or mineral crystal that has imperfections. It is also easily scratched. Genuine high end watches use a sapphire crystal that is scratch-resistant and extremely durable. The date window, or cyclops can also give away a fake watch. This is because the original manufacturers specify a certain magnification so the date is easily legible for the wearer. Fake watches often have a weaker magnification, or no magnification at all – so the digits appear small and are more difficult to read. 

3. Finish

Engraving on rehaut of Rolex Submariner

As you would expect the overall finish of a replica watch is nowhere near what is achieved in a state-of-the-art factory. A brand like Rolex designs, develops and produces all the components of its watches in-house, a process that includes the casting, machining, assembly and finishing of their timepieces. In fact, Rolex has three distinct sites for different components: (Plan-les-Ouates – development and production, Bienne – movements, Chêne-Bourg – dials and gemmology). This investment and attention to detail results in a flawless finish on any genuine timepiece, with a mirror finish free of blemishes the most obvious result.

Extremely poor example of a fake Rolex with spelling mistakes via Wikimedia Commons

Rolex started engraving its brand name and the model number on the rehaut or inner bezel, precisely to make it more difficult for counterfeiters to copy their watches. It is now present on all new models. Counterfeiters struggle to match this quality and craftsmanship as they invariably are working in very different conditions, with inferior tools, materials and resources.

finishing-on-Audemars-Piguet-Royal Oak-bracelet
Exemplary finishing on Audemars Piguet Royal Oak stainless steel bracelet

On fakes this often results in ill fitting bracelet end links, where they interface with the case lugs, as well as metal cases and bracelets with rough edges and finishes. Bracelets on a genuine timepiece will also often have stamps inside the folding clasp mechanism. Another giveaway are bezels that do not rotate smoothly, or fail to rotate at all – all common features of a fake watch.

4. Movement

Omega’s legendary Cal.1861 Chronograph Movement via Shane Lin/Wikimedia Commons

Movements are  where, with a little sleuthing and knowledge, you can definitively identify a fake or replica timepiece. Some luxury watch brands are famous for their movements, which are the intricate internal mechanics that make a watch do what it does. These are exceedingly complicated components that are very expensive to design, develop and produce. So complex and costly, that many top watch brands –  IWC, Breitling and TAG Heuer amongst others – rely on third party specialist manufacturers for their movements. Lemania is one of these famous movement manufacturers, having supplied the mechanics for Omega’s now iconic Speedmaster, which was was based on the their 321 calibre movement.

This inherent complexity also makes mechanical watch movements very difficult to replicate, which means fakes often have an inferior version – or on really cheap/poor fakes where many opt for a battery driven version. This can result in odd anomalies, like watch hands ticking when they should glide around the dial. As a general rule of thumb, perpetual movement watches should not tick. A movement is obviously difficult to assess online, but any serious seller should include close up photographs of the timepiece’s movement. Movements should obviously have everything in the right place, and be engraved with logos/badges and/or serial numbers in the appropriate locations.

5. Serial number

This may seem obvious, but how many of you take the time to check the serial number of a watch? For serious collectors this will often be the first step to establish a timepieces authenticity – because serial numbers are unique to each watch. There should only be one serial number for every watch produced. The first step is to do a quick Google search. If you find an online listing for the same watch with the same serial number then it is highly likely one, or even both watches are replicas. This is because fake or replica watches are often produced in batches – and it is saves counterfeiters time and money to give them all the same serial number.

Watch manufacturers engrave their serial numbers in different places, Rolex is between the lugs, Omega on the rear or inside the watch while Panerai are on the back of the case. A watch without a serial number will also indicate a fake. There are various online databases you can use to verify the serial number of a watch. These include the US-based Watch Certification Services, which offers an online verification report. Manufacturers also have online databases of serial numbers, which you can use to confirm authenticity. These are often paid services.

6. Dials, printing and lettering

Original (l) vs fake (r) vintage Rolex dial, via Rolex Passion Report
Original (l) vs fake (r) vintage Rolex dial, via Rolex Passion Report

The dials, printing and lettering is another area where you can spot a fake or replica, especially if it is a poor reproduction. The detail on the dial including the size of the logo, typography and wording on the dial of a fake is often not perfect, though fakers are getting better at this – to the extent that some experts have been fooled. Rolex aficionado Philipp Stahl, who produces the Rolex Passion Report, has documented the production of high quality fake Rolex dials.

Focus on the coronet (Rolex crown) and ‘R’ printed on the dial, as well as the luminous paint added to the dial. There should be no smudging or anything unusual about the logo or lettering on the dial.

Philipp Stahl, Rolex Passion report

“The print is generally a bit to thick (on a fake) and in detail it’s very close to the original but just not perfect, not Rolex, not vintage, not original!” He recommends focusing on the coronet (Rolex crown) and ‘R’ printed on the dial, as well as the luminous added to the dial. There should also be no smudging or anything unusual about any watches logo or lettering on the dial. These detailed elements of a watch are very difficult to reproduce faithfully, and could indicate you are dealing with a fake. Unsurprisingly Panerai fakes are difficult to identify, mainly because the iconic dial is so simple and without any great detail.

​You should now be in a better position to judge if a watch is the real deal, or a fake.

Here at Zaeger we have an extensive range of pre-owned watches, where you can get more for your money. Or buy brand new pieces from all the major luxury watch brands. Want to view a watch? Its as easy as getting in touch to arrange a private appointment. We have showrooms in Melbourne and Sydney, where we can help you choose the right watch for you.

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