Buying a pre-owned watch on the Internet can be a little bit of a crapshoot. While there are a handful of reputable sites that rigorously test and verify the watches they sell, there’s no shortage of places that, well, don’t do that at all. Which is why some guys who buy watches online end up wearing Rolexes, Panerais, and Omegas they think are real—but are actually really, really well-made fakes. And it doesn’t help that technological advances are helping counterfeiters make those fakes look better than ever before.
“3-D printing, computer-generated dial reprints, as well as just the anonymous access to the unwitting consumer through the Internet—that’s really what’s driving a lot of these, the higher quality of these fake watches,” said Hamilton Powell, founder of the Atlanta-based watch re-seller Crown and Caliber, in an interview with Men’s Journal. “It means that we have to be really good and consistently advance our efforts at spotting these fakes, which we have.”
To make sure his customers actually get their money’s worth, 11 of Powell’s 40 employees are professionally trained watchmakers: the people who make their living taking fine Swiss watches apart and putting them back together. They give every incoming watch a performance test to ensure that it’s the genuine article—and that it’s keeping accurate time. And opening up the watch and inspecting its movement, a part of the standard procedure at Crown & Caliber, is a key to making sure a watch is real.
“We’re always staying two or three steps ahead of the criminals, if you will. But for the average individual who’s buying a watch online, it’s even scarier than it’s ever been, because some of these watches, a watchmaker with 25 years experience can’t even tell that it’s a fake.” Powell said. “They have to actually open it up and look at the movement on the inside of the watch to verify their suspicion that it’s fake.”
The best superfake the Crown and Caliber team has ever seen was a faux Panerai—which makes sense given the brand’s minimalist aesthetic. But having more complications (or a more complicated dial texture or color) doesn’t always prevent a counterfeiter from trying to make their own version of a fine timepiece.
“It’s estimated that of the 30 million or so watches that are produced each year, about 6% of those are fake, so that gives you roughly 2 million fake Swiss timepieces that enter the market each year,” Powell said. “Most people don’t get fooled in person, but it’s really easy to get fooled online and so that’s where our service I think is so valuable.”
A look at some of the fakes that have passed through the Crown and Caliber studio—and their real counterparts—below.