How To Spot a Fake Rolex (And Avoid Buying One)

How To Spot a Fake Rolex (And Avoid Buying One)

A common question I get from friends and family – often in the form of an impromptu phone call from an estate sale – is “how can I tell if a watch is fake?”. While there’s no single answer that applies across the board, especially in the Franken-watch world we live in, there are some easy things to look out for, even if you know nothing about watches. Since Rolex is undoubtedly the most-faked brand on the market, I’m (mostly) going to focus on them. I hope that you, the reader, clicked on this article out of caution and/or curiosity, and you’re not glancing over at a dubious Rolex you just purchased for a “great price”. Whatever the case may be, you’ll walk away from this article with valuable insight on how to spot a fake Rolex, and better yet, how to avoid buying one in the first place.

Fake Rolex Red Flags: Intangibles

Image Source: Petite Geneve

Before detailing the physical attributes of a fake Rolex, I’d like to cover some intangible red flags when it comes to buying a watch in general. Identifying these red flags could prevent you from getting burned, even before laying eyes on a watch. 

Buy Watches from Trusted Sellers

First and foremost, only buy watches from trusted sellers. Restrict your search to reputable dealers and established online marketplaces, specifically those that offer authenticity guarantees and/or returns. When vetting a seller, consider the following: does this seller have a public reputation to uphold? Do they have positive reviews outside of their own platform (e.g. their private website, Instagram, etc.). Are their prices reasonable, meaning they’re not far off of similar examples on other platforms? These are good questions to ask not only yourself, but the seller. Any honest company or dealer will understand your caution and willingly answer these types of questions. In short, you should only buy watches from entities who have your positive experience in their best interest: those who want you as a repeat customer. Trustworthy sellers aren’t trying to make a quick buck like some guy on Facebook Marketplace without a profile picture. 

Find The Watch’s Approximate Market Value 

Do your research when it comes to pricing. A quick and easy way to do this is to search your desired watch’s reference number (or model name, year, and other identifiers) on eBay, filtering by “Completed Items” and “Sold Items”. This will show you prices that watches actually sold for – not just what they’re listed for. If you find a watch whose price seems too good to be true, it probably is. A Rolex listed for a fraction of its market value is likely fake, broken, stolen, or non-existent. Accurately appraising a Rolex in today’s world is not hard; virtually no one is unknowingly selling their Rolex for a bargain. 

Pay Attention to Pictures and Descriptions

In the case of an online purchase, pay close attention to pictures and descriptions. Even if you know nothing about watches, pictures can tell you a ton. As a baseline, you should be looking for high quality, well-lit pictures from all angles of the specific example listed. If you’re unsure or would like to see more pictures, ask the seller. Again, any company or dealer worth their salt will happily provide you with additional pictures and information. The same goes for descriptions. You’re looking for comprehensive information about a watch, both good and bad. This should include a detailed condition report (aesthetic and mechanical), service history, and whether or not the watch comes with its original box and papers (more on box and papers later). Make sure the description is consistent with the pictures, and if you’re unsure, ask questions. If a seller refuses or is unable to answer your questions, move on to a seller worth your time and money.

Fake Rolex Red Flags: Physical Attributes

Image Source: Analog Shift

Now that we’ve covered the intangibles, let’s go over the physical attributes of a fake Rolex watch. This is where some background knowledge will come in handy, but isn't necessary for every tip. Of course, physical attributes are easiest to observe in-person, which is why you should restrict online purchases to esteemed dealers and/or marketplaces. Don’t rely on your cyber-detective skills to buy a good watch – you simply don’t have to.

Movement (Free Sprung Balance)

No matter how many surface-level clues you're able to pick up on, inspecting the movement is the end-all diagnostic when it comes to spotting a fake. While finishing can usually be a dead giveaway, watchmaker and commenter Michael McNair brings up that the balance is often the number one tell.

Real vs Fake Rolex Balance Free Sprung

Since 1957, Rolex movements have employed what's called a "free sprung balance". This type of balance allows the hairspring to breathe at its full length unimpeded, with regulation taking place on the balance wheel via small screw-adjusted weights. These weights, called Microstella screws, are visible protrusions on the balance wheel -- you should be able to see them (above, left). If you look at the balance cock/bridge on a genuine Rolex movement, you'll see just one arm: the beat adjustor (above, left). This is in direct contrast to traditional balances that are regulated by adjusting the active length of the hairspring, achieved via a regulator and a stud: two distinct arms on the balance cock/bridge (above, right).

Of course, not all genuine Rolex movements look exactly the same (especially going back to the late '50s), and not all fake movements look the same, but these are the basic elements to look for. It's important that you do research on the particular reference you're looking to buy: movement included. As Michael pointed out in the comments, any honest seller will be willing to open up the watch show you the movement. Still, I've seen fake movements that attempt to emulate a free sprung balance, so if you're unsure, have a watchmaker take a look.

Ticking Seconds Hand

Look at the watch’s seconds hand. If it’s not moving, the watch might just need to be wound, and in the case of most Rolexes, this can be done with a gentle shake. Pay attention to how fast the seconds hand moves. Does it “sweep”, meaning it ticks multiple times per second for a smooth glide? Or does it “tick”, meaning it moves once per second? This is an easy diagnostic due to the fact that Rolex has only ever made two models with a “ticking” seconds hand: the Oysterquartz and the Tru-Beat. Unless the Rolex’s dial has the words “Oysterquartz” or “Tru-Beat” printed on it, it should absolutely not tick once per second. This is a telltale sign of a fake Rolex, or at the very least, a fake movement.

Naked Caseback

Look at the back of the watch. Most Rolex watches do not have any factory engravings on the caseback. Of course, you might run into a used Rolex whose caseback was engraved by a third party with initials, a name, anniversary date, etc. However, Rolex does not print model names, logos, reference numbers, or anything of the sort on their casebacks (with a few exceptions). Additionally, all but three Rolex models – the Cellini Prince, Perpetual 1908, and new-gen Platinum Daytona (ref. 126506) – have solid metal casebacks: not transparent. A simple look at the caseback can be very informative.

Master Your Model: Fonts, Etchings, and Materials

Image Source: Bernard Watch

Here’s where you need to do a little research. If you have a particular reference in mind, simply Google “real vs. fake [insert particular reference]”. There are only so many Rolex models in existence. As the world’s most popular watch brand, there’s an abundance of information available on every single model out there. In just 10 minutes of research, you’ll find the exact details you need to be looking for: font sizes in relation to other dial features, alignment of text with other dial features, coloration, order and placement of dial text, etc. If your Rolex was made after 2002, there’s likely a small crown etched in the crystal at 6 o’clock: visible to the naked eye at the right angle. After 2005, most Rolex watches have engraved rehauts, as pictured above. These engravings will read “ROLEX ROLEX ROLEX”, perhaps with crowns in between and with a serial number at 6 o’clock. 

Weight and Feel

This point is a bit more subjective than those previous, but it’s something to keep in mind. Rolex watches – even those manufactured decades ago – are extremely well-made. When you pick up a genuine Rolex, you should immediately get a sense of its craftsmanship. The weight and construction of these watches is in a different stratosphere from the likes of a Swatch or Timex. Obviously, quality is easier to discern if you’ve handled hundreds of watches, but if you’ve never held a “luxury” watch before, you’ll likely be taken aback by the quality of a genuine Rolex. This is obviously not a very scientific diagnostic, but it should be considered.

Box and Papers

Image Source: The Watch Club

You’ll notice the term “box and papers” on a lot of Rolex listings (and watch listings in general). This indicates that a watch comes with its original box, paperwork, and oftentimes its warranty card. “Box and papers” shouldn’t be a dealmaker or dealbreaker on its own, but should be considered in the broader context of a watch’s story. Simply, you shouldn’t expect a vintage Rolex to come with its box and papers. Saving these extras didn’t become standard practice until somewhat recently. Conversely, if a modern Rolex (within the past couple years) does not come with its box and papers, it should raise some questions. Saving luxury watches’ boxes and papers has become widely-understood as value retention: most people do it. That said, you can buy Rolex boxes (real and fake) as well as fraudulent warranty cards somewhat easily. Therefore, extras should never be the deciding factor in buying a watch, and especially not determining its authenticity.

Final Thoughts

In short, it’s crucial that you vet your seller, research the specific watch you’re interested in, and be diligent about the example you’re buying. Buying a Rolex is a significant event not just in sentiment, but in finance. You wouldn’t buy a car or house without doing a little research, so why should a four, five, and sometimes 6-figure watch be any different? Again, I hope you’re not reading this article after a questionable purchase, but if you are, I hope I provided some answers for you. If you’re looking to buy a Rolex or other luxury watch down the line, keep this article in your back pocket for when the hunt begins.

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