Trend Indexing: The days when an ordinary person could identify a fake Rolex easily are gone—there are no simple giveaways like a ticking secondhand instead of a smoothly sweeping one. “Modern fake watches are frankly terrifying,” said Matt Chapman, a Los Angeles-based vintage watch restorer and self-described horological nerd. “They can easily fool even the keenest eye. Sometimes the differences are little more than the microscopic tool marks on movement parts, or tiny discrepancies in fonts and lettering.”
That said, there are some barely detectable signs that separate a genuine Rolex from a fraudulent one, but whether any of these clues will be present on a specific wristwatch is a crapshoot. Counterfeiters are really good these days.
You can pick up a Faux-lex Submariner that will fool almost anyone for a couple of hundred bucks online, but a watch fan might be able to tell it apart from the real deal with a close look. Higher quality fake luxury watches can sell for $1,000 and are a different beast than cheap knockoffs entirely. These things will fool just about everyone, no matter how closely they’re examined, so the best detection tools you have are common sense and the expertise of others.
When buying a wristwatch, consider the source
Anyone offering to sell you a cheap wristwatch should be regarded as highly suspicious. An actual Rolex Submariner costs somewhere in the range of $11,000-$40,000, depending on your choices. A high-end fake costs around $1,000. So if someone is offering to sell you a Rolex for an unusually low price, with a dodgy story about why, your fake alarm should be blaring, even before you look at it. (This applies to all watches used in lieu of money in poker games as well.)
Fake watch salesmen go as far as providing receipts, paperwork, bags, and boxes. This ancillary material isn’t as hard to fake as laser-etching, and it could even be legit: There’s a secondary market for luxury watch shopping bags, cases, boxes, and paperwork that some people slip fakes into to bolster the illusion. So if you’re in the market for a new luxury watch, only make a purchase from a legitimate dealer: Buy from Rolex not a flea market.
Take it to an expert
If you’re buying a used watch, take it to an expert before you lay down any money, even if the guy from Craigslist seems sincere. A legit seller of anything will understand and welcome the inspection.
“It’s highly recommended to seek professional authentication when buying a high-end watch,” Chapman said. “Just imagine finding out your $15,000 ‘Rolex’ cost less than $200. It sounds absurd, but it has, and still does, happen.”
Some signs of a fake Rolex
For informational purposes, here are some of the signs that a Rolex Submariner might be fake, taken from Adrian Barker’s excellent YouTube video. Disclaimer: most of these markers of phoniness require expertise to differentiate from the real thing, so don’t rely on your observations. These signs are mostly specific to the Rolex Submariner, an extremely sought-after timepiece among watch aficionados and, coincidently, widely faked by watch counterfeiters. Other watches have different “tells.”
Check the numbers
Sometimes, fake watches have incorrect model numbers listed on their paperwork, but this is too obvious for all but the worst counterfeits. The serial number is more likely to provide clues. The serial number should be engraved somewhere on the watch—it’s laser etched on the inner rehaut (the rim between the dial on crystal) of Rolexes made from 2008 to present, for instance. Laser engraving is difficult, and etching a different number on each individual fake watch is harder still, so get the serial number and type it into Google. There are databases of serial numbers used by fake watchmakers online, and if it matches, it’s not real. (If it doesn’t match, it still could be fake, though.)
Check the “Cyclops”
Rolex Submariners that display the date use a convex “cyclops” lens to magnifies the date 2.5 times, with anti-reflective material under it to make the date easier to read. Cheap fakes might have a slightly misplaced “bubble”—a date that’s not perfectly centered is a dead giveaway of a badly made fake. But even better fakes with centered Cyclops have trouble doing it as well as Rolex, so phony watches often have a slight blue tint in the Cyclops because they don’t use the same anti-reflective material as the real thing.
Check the crown engraving at 6 o’clock
Real Rolexes have a tiny Rolex crown laser-engraved on the sapphire crystal at 6 o’clock. It’s nearly microscopic and invisible to the naked eye, so you’ll need a jeweler’s loupe or macro lens to see it. A good fake usually has one too, but the real deal is laser etched with tiny dots at different depths, whereas a fake might be a continuous line instead. (Do you see why you should just take it to a professional?)
Check the movement and feel
This, again, calls for actual expertise. Pulling up the crown and interacting with the machinery of a real high-end watch feels different than winding a fake—to the right set of fingers, anyway. A fake’s movement will not feel as “buttery smooth” as a real luxury watch’s. Counterfeiters are getting better though, so the difference can be subtle to a lay person, but even the best fakes are not going to exactly replicate the clockwork inside of a Rolex, so an expert can tell the difference between a real Submariner and knock-off in the dark.
Why not just buy a fake Rolex?
Good knock0ff watches are indistinguishable from “real” ones for all practical purposes, and you can buy them for a fraction of the cost, so what’s wrong with just wearing a fake? Nothing really, but it says something about you. Whether it says “I’m a clever bargain-hunter rocking a watch that will impress some people without shelling out the cost of a car,” or “I’m lying to everyone—conning strangers—because I’m trying to be something I’m not” depends on your point of view.
Ultimately, it’s just a wristwatch. Any meaning you ascribe to it, or status you imagine it provides, is on you. There are any number of excellent unique, stylish watches that will last a lifetime for sale for $1,000—I’m talking certified chronometers tested by the Swiss COSC, just like the luxury brands, that sell in the $1,000 range. They won’t have “Rolex” laser-etched upon them, but who cares? As watch expert Chapman put it: “For those that would happily wear a fake, please take a moment to question your own authenticity. The rest of us will be proudly sporting our entirely legit $20 Casios.”