Why it is time to take counterfeits seriously

Adrian Hailwood, watch business manager at auction house Fellows, talks about why it is more important than ever to fight watch counterfeiting.

There was a time when fake watches seemed like a bit of harmless fun. Soaking up the sun on a beach on holiday you might have just been tempted by a rough approximation of a luxury watch. So what? The watch was a couple of pounds, wouldn’t really fool anyone and by the end of the flight home it had stopped working, the plating had worn off and your wrist was green.

Today fakes are big business. Last year the Federation of the Swiss Watchmaking Industry estimated that more than 40 million fake watches are now produced annually creating over $1bn in profits. A 2011 court case in New York demonstrated the profit potential when they revealed that the parts for the fake watches being sold for $250 in the city’s street markets cost 27c per watch to import.

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The fake watch industry is illegal. It contravenes copyright, undermines the original manufacturers and cares little for its workers or safety of its products, but problems really begin when the fake and authentic watch businesses collide.

The trade in pre-owned watches is enjoying spectacular growth, whether through high-end dealers, auction houses or on eBay. More and more retailers are adding pre-owned watches to their offer and increasingly, pawnbrokers are lending against watches. This demand for stock makes it easier for fakes to enter the system and then be passed on to an unsuspecting buyer who trusts the legitimacy of the vendor.

In recent years we have seen the rise of the ‘super fakes’. These, while distinguishable from the genuine article, are a little too close for comfort. Copy movements are being used with the correct size and functionality and automatic rotors are engraved to match the original, even under solid case backs. Dials are getting better and even the bracelets and clasps – for so long an afterthought – are feeling more like the real thing. All this is wrapped in fake packaging with fake booklets and guarantee cards. The range of brands being copied is widening, taking more valuers and buyers out of their area of knowledge.

As some manufactures of ‘prestige’ watches apply only minimal tweaks to a basic ETA movement, the quality gap between fake and real is narrowing. The differences are still there to find but it now takes experience and diligent research to spot them. Opening a watch to check the movement is now a basic requirement, but you need to understand what you see when you look inside. If you don’t have the real thing to compare, online research is your best option.

At Fellows, we offer seminars to valuers to help the fight against fakes, alongside an authentication service. As the brands bring out new models every year and the fakers get better at their craft one thing is for certain – we all need to keep learning.

This article first appeared in the September issue of WatchPro. To read the digital version of September’s WatchPro, click here.

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