The vast majority of fake Rolex watches in the world are cheap, easy-to-spot knock-offs. “You know that if it cost $50, it’s not a real Rolex. It’s a very obvious fake,” says Matthew Bain, a Miami-based watch expert who operates Matthew Bain, Inc.
But others are not so obvious. Bain says that just last year, a group of counterfeit ceramic Rolex Submariners snuck into the market. “If you didn’t look at one next to the real one, and you just looked at it alone, you probably couldn’t tell it was fake,” he says. “A lot of people got burned.”
As technology and counterfeiting methods advance, understanding the intricacies of genuine Rolex watches is increasingly important for prospective buyers. Illegal counterfeiting of watches is a billion-dollar industry, with an estimated 30 million to 40 million fakes introduced to the market each year, according to the Swiss Watch Industry.
Sometimes counterfeiters mix and match parts from real Rolex watches and fake ones, making distinguishing the two even more difficult. “They might get a real Rolex movement and then they make a fake case around it. It’s very hard to detect the originality of it,” Bain explains.
While only an expert — and luckily, we have many — can really be trusted to determine whether or not a watch is genuine, we’ve compiled a list of 13 tell-tale signs to help train your own eye to spot a fake Rolex.
1. Serial Numbers
Genuine Rolex watches have their serial numbers deeply engraved into the metal, whereas fakes often just have it “etched” with acid. The serial number is located behind where the band connects to the body of the watch, on the six o’clock side. On the 12 o’clock side, you’ll find the model number, typically denoted by the text, “ORIG ROLEX DESIGN,” followed by the number below. In order to view the number, you have to remove the band; this requires a pushpin or small paper clip to remove the pin that holds the band in place.
Counterfeiters often don’t bother changing the numbers, instead printing the same digits on each replica. A simple Google search for your watch’s serial number should reveal whether that particular fake was mass produced. “Many times they will etch the wrong model number on a watch. For example, a Submariner model number for a Yachtmaster,” says Abe Diveroli of Primetime305.
As of late, Rolex has also improved their own methodology in this regard. “The newer Rolexes have scrambled serials,” he says. “You could no longer date them without going to a Rolex dealer. Also, the serial numbers are now etched in the silver bezel under the crystal at the six o’clock.”
Rolex movements are self-winding and mechanical, as opposed to quartz or battery-powered. They also have “Rolex” engraved into them, although the placement of that engraving differs depending on the piece. This is a bit trickier to check, though, as Rolex is adamant that only brand-certified watchmakers should access the movement. One caveat: Oysterquartz Rolexes from the 1960s and 1970s were produced with quartz movements.
The printed text on the face of Rolex watches should have an exquisitely fine appearance with no blurs, splotches, or unevenness. Look closely for inconsistent spacing in the font or ink bleeding caused by cheaper printing methods.
The magnifying lens that enlarges the date on the face of the watch — dubbed “the Cyclops” — should, well, magnify (2.5 times magnification, to be exact). Hold the watch sideways to get a glance at the date without the magnifying lens. If you’re questioning whether or not it actually looks any bigger when looked at straight on, it’s probably fake.
The Cyclops on an authentic Rolex is convex — you can feel a bump when you run your finger over it, and it’s dead-centered over the date. If either of these criteria are not met, the piece may be of dubious authenticity. But another caveat: some Rolex-wearers actually prefer to remove the Cyclops, so a previously owned piece may have simply been modified.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Note that “waterproof” is superior to “water resistant,” and the majority of Rolex watches in the Oyster line should hold up for a whopping 100 meters underwater. If it stops working while you’re out for a swim, best to just leave it at the bottom of the sea.
Rolex watches are typically heavier than their counterfeits. A quick Google search for your particular model’s weight should bring up the exact amount to the gram.
The casebacks of most Rolex watches are plain polished steel and absent of engravings, drawings or other decorations. Exceptions include the Sea-Dweller, which has the name of the watch and some variation of “Gas Escape Valve” written on its titanium back.
A transparent caseback that lets you see the inner-workings of the watch — with the exception of some very rare pieces from the 1930s — is also a common sign of a fake.
8. Crown etching
On all Rolex watches made in 2002 and onward, you’ll find a tiny etched crown logo at the six o’clock position. It might take a magnifying glass to make out clearly. Because it’s so small, counterfeiters have a hard time replicating it.
The second hand on a real Rolex should, to the naked eye, smoothly rotate around the face. If you can see the second hand jerk with each tick, it’s a fake. That’s because the high precision of a Rolex movement is actually broken down into eight tiny micro-ticks per second, making it look like a continuous motion. Additionally, there should be no audible ticking sound on a genuine Rolex.
Each Rolex model comes with a specific style of hands. The Yacht-Master, for instance, has a much thicker minute hand than most models, while a Daytona’s hands stretch a bit longer and are rounded on the end, reaching all the way to the hash marks. The Day-Date model features shorter hands with flat tips. Counterfeiters will often use whatever parts are available to save money, hoping the buyers will overlook this detail.
The crown — we’re referring to the part on the side of the watch used to set the time — will always have the Rolex crown logo engraved on the end. The crown and stem on a real Rolex consists of a single metal piece. Many replicas, however, are made up of two pieces glued together, so look closely with a magnifying glass.
Some Rolex models feature a “Triplock” crown, denoted by the crown logo atop three dots. Triplock crowns feature a gasket that seals off the inside of the watch from water. These include the Sea-Dweller, Submariner and Daytona. When the crown is fully unscrewed, you can see the black o-ring. Some good counterfeits will have similar looking gaskets, but they only serve to fool the buyer and are merely cosmetic.
The date should change sharply at midnight. Don’t panic if your watch is a few minutes off — that’s likely just a sign that the watch needs some maintenance. But if the date changes slowly, or is more than 15 minutes off, it’s indicative that the timepiece may be a fake.
The band — or bracelet, as it’s often referred to by Rolex enthusiasts — should lie straight and not kink when laid on a flat surface. Links spacing might stretch and widen with time, but the individual links should still fit together correctly.
Bain cautions that authentic watches may be paired with inauthentic bands. “A lot of faking occurs with the bands because, say you buy a gold Rolex Presidential, you wear it a lot, the band gets stretched,” Bain says. “So there’s a lot of aftermarket gold bands that are not really made by Rolex. They’re heavily faked.”
Due diligence is extremely important before making a purchase. If you’re planning to buy online, check the merchant’s rating. Ask the seller for references from watch associations like the International Watch and Jewelry Guild. Inquire with his or her previous clients about their experience. “A good step is comparing very closely your watch with pics of the same model from a reputable dealer,” Diveroli says. “A lot of fakes are off only on minute details.”
And finally, use common sense: If a deal appears too good to be true, it probably is.