-First of all, let me say that even the word “replica” implies that the product you purchased is legal, which is a “tribute” to the original product rather than an open denial
Every day, along with kind offers to provide me with Viagra or make me rich overnight, someone invites me to purchase a luxury Swiss watch at a fraction of the normal price. OK, so the timepiece in question might not be a genuine Rolex, Cartier or Patek Philippe, but according to the spam emails that pour into my inbox, these ‘replicas’ are made to such a high standard that I’d be a mug to spend three or four grand on the real thing.
Strikingly similar- but which Rolex Submariner is genuine and which is the fake?
THE TELL-TALE SIGNS
1. Rolex watches are fitted with a sapphire crystal (the glass face
of the watch) that can only be scratched with a diamond.
2. The ‘cyclops’ date window in a real version is dead centred above the number.
3. The quality of the printing on the dial should be perfect, with indicators and type evenly spaced and no fuzzy edges.
4. The genuine Rolex movement sweeps smoothly round at about 28,800 revs per hour – each second is broken down into eight steps. Even when a fake uses a Swiss-made movement, the second hand’s ticking is usually visibly jerky.
5. Over where ‘Swiss made’ appears, the brand’s logo is
laser-etched into the crystal. In a genuine Rolex, this is made
up of hundreds of dots set at different heights throughout the crystal
(so it doesn’t create a weakness in the glass) and as such is barely visible – to see it clearly you have to look through a loupe (the small magnifying glass used by jewellers and watchmakers).
6. If you remove a Rolex bracelet you should find the watch’s case number and model number engraved on the side at six o’clock and 12 o’clock .
(The watch on the left is the fake)
In the old days, counterfeit Rolexes were so poorly made that not even a blind chimp would mistake one for the real thing. They conferred upon the wearer an aura of tacky desperation, not cool. Nowadays, it’s a different story. The old tell-tale giveaways – sloppy printing, soft metal and cheap quartz movements that made the second hand clunk its way round the dial – have been eradicated.
Good fakes feel substantial, keep decent time and have the patina of high quality. Some are so convincing that the only way to tell they’re fake is to take the back off.
Most now use proper mechanical movements and sometimes boast transparent ‘exhibition’ backs so you can see the wonders of horology for yourself.
Even the word ‘replica’ suggests that the product you’re buying is legal-ish – a ‘tribute’ to the original rather than a blatant rip-off.
As a result of all these improvements, the counterfeiters now charge much higher prices. Their justification? That just as with supermarket ‘own brand’ goods, you’re buying practically the same thing as the genuine article, but without some greedy brand taking a huge profit.
The first website I visit – let’s call it website A – sells replica Rolexes for a reassuringly expensive £400.
Yes, it seems a lot, but surely they wouldn’t have the brass neck to charge such astronomical prices for a fake unless the quality matched the outlay? Then again, they’re criminals, so moral rectitude and offering value for money probably aren’t high on their list of priorities.
Throughout its pages, Website A goes to great pains to stress that, unlike other unscrupulous operators, they’re in the business of selling that gloriously oxymoronic item, the genuine replica. ‘You will not find the same quality replicas elsewhere,’ it trumpets. ‘There may be people who try to represent other fake watches as being Swiss-made but only we can guarantee it.’ How exactly they do this isn’t clear.
Mind you, Website A certainly does come across as reputable. They insist they’ll give you a full refund if you’re not satisfied with your watch, and even mend it when (I mean if…) it breaks.
If you fancy a model that isn’t shown on their existing range, they’ll make it for you to order within three weeks. But the real clincher, for me, is that they invite you to pay using PayPal, the money-transfer system owned by eBay. If PayPal have given Website A an account, they must be legitimate, right?
The watches pictured on the site look great. I decide that for a man of my standing only the finest fake Rolex will do, so I fire off an order for a platinum Yachtmaster, type in my credit card details and press ‘Send’.
The next site I visit (Website B) offers watches at considerably cheaper prices – replica Rolexes cost a mere £100. Bargain! My eye is caught by a Submariner with a black bezel.
OK, so they do warn me that in spite of being a diving watch, my fake Submariner isn’t actually water resistant but hey, for a hundred quid, who’s complaining? Once again, I place my order. My new watch, I am informed, will be with me within three weeks.
Counterfeiting is one of the world’s biggest growth industries and now accounts for five to seven per cent of all global trade. In the UK alone, the black market is worth more than £9 billion. It makes me wonder, have I just broken the law?
I talk to David Grome, a barrister who specialises in prosecuting cases relating to counterfeit goods. He assures me that while it is theoretically possible to say that someone who knowingly purchases a counterfeit watch is aiding and abetting the commission of the offence by the seller, buyers in the UK (unlike those in France and Italy) are never prosecuted.
This is good news for the 34 per cent of the UK population who admit to having purchased counterfeit goods. Many of us do it while overseas, using excuses like: ‘I buy abroad because that way our country doesn’t lose money on tax.’ Or: ‘It contributes to the local economy of poorer countries.’ But does it really help the locals? Or does it simply line the pockets of some very unpleasant people?
‘Ten years ago, counterfeiting was a cottage industry. Nowadays you really do see the involvement of major organised crime, with links to other activities such as drugs, prostitution or people-smuggling,’ says Grome.
Counterfeiting is perceived as a fairly low-risk, high-profit crime where the professional trader can clear £1 million in a year. I’ve worked on cases where the proceeds of the sale of Class-A drugs were being laundered through counterfeiting operations.’
Most of us believe that buying counterfeit goods is a victimless crime – a bit of fun. But the conditions suffered by the people making the goods are often appalling. According to Grome, the fake Rolexes I’ve ordered are almost certainly made in the Far East.
There are reports from China of workers being imprisoned so they can’t inform on their bosses. Their families are threatened, and violence and intimidation are part and parcel of the operation. Children are often forced to assemble counterfeit watches and sunglasses as their hands are better suited to handling tiny parts.
Moreover, according to a 2003 Interpol report, the proceeds of counterfeiting have been used to fund terrorism. I’m not suggesting that by buying a fake Rolex I’m contributing directly to the coffers of Al-Qaeda, but the point is, I don’t know.
Putting aside such unpleasant thoughts, when my fake Rolexes arrive, I have to admit I’m impressed.
They feel heavy and solid; to my untrained eye, they’re just like the real thing. The faces are neat, well printed. The one thing that does bother me is that in terms of quality, they’re indistinguishable. OK, so the Yachtmaster bezel moves round a bit more smoothly than the Submariner’s, but otherwise I’m at a loss as to where the extra 300 quid went.
Even more perplexingly, they arrived in identical plain boxes, one red, one black. Could they have come from the same place?
To really know how good they are, I need to compare my watches to the real thing. I make an appointment to see Simon Bodle, managing director of David Morris Stores, which has a thriving concession in Selfridges.
Although he is impressed by the quality of my fakes, he too struggles to see any difference between them. ‘I’d guess that this was the more expensive one,’ he says, gesturing towards the Submariner. Great, so my £100 fake is more convincing than my £400 fake.
He then brings out the genuine versions. They certainly aren’t cheap – David Morris Stores sells the Submariner at £3,290 and the Yachtmaster at a whopping £4,840 – but it’s only when you get your hands on a real Rolex that you see the shortcomings of the replicas. It’s like getting behind the wheel of a Bentley after driving a Fiat Panda. Everything feels smooth to the touch. The links all fit snugly. The watch doesn’t rattle and the bezel glides around effortlessly with no tell-tale clicking sound. The genuine Rolexes are quite simply perfection.
After inspecting the fakes, Bodle guesses that the movements were manufactured by Swiss firm ETA, which is owned by Swatch and supplies most of the Swiss watch industry.
This is confirmed by a quick look at the websites. And yet, just because my fake boasts a genuine Swiss movement, that doesn’t make it anything like a £400 watch.
‘The ETA movement in these fakes probably cost them about a fiver,’ explains Bodle. ‘The case would also have cost about a fiver and the whole thing was probably assembled for 50p in a filthy sweatshop in China in terrible conditions, probably by some children. If you then sell it at £400, that’s an enormous profit.’
In other words, if you think of my fake in automotive terms, what I’ve just bought is a Ford Fiesta masquerading as an Aston Martin, sold to me at the price of an Audi.
A week later, my credit card statement arrives. The £400 payment to Website A shows up with a PayPal reference.
In other words, I have just bought illegal goods using PayPal. Surely this can’t be right? I contact PayPal and explain the situation. They reply with this statement: ‘PayPal in no way endorses illegal activity and we thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. We are reviewing the account in question and will investigate in accordance with our policy.’
They stress that, ‘PayPal is an electronic money payment service rather than a banking or escrow service. PayPal is not a guarantor of any transaction.’
However, they do have an Acceptable Use Policy which states, ‘You may not use PayPal to sell counterfeits, unauthorised replicas, or otherwise unauthorised items, such as counterfeit watches, handbags, or other accessories.’ Which is what Website A is doing. Therefore, as a result of Live’s enquiry, its PayPal account has been frozen.
So, I’m now in possession of two fake Rolexes. I have aided and abetted an illegal act and delivered a 4,000 per cent profit to organised crime. At this stage, if I’d bought a genuine Swiss watch, I’d be feeling on top of the world. Instead, I feel like a total mug.