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How to spot fake watches

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Note: Most of these advices are based from the experience with TAG Heuer and Cartier watches, though some may apply generally to other luxury brand watches.
 
With the growth of precision machines and the availability of it in countries where intellectual property rights protection is not a priority; Replicas– as they now call it (a fallacious argument that since art can be replicated, thus one can make copies of anything and call it a replica), are getting better each year and getting harder to differentiate from the authentic. To find out if your watch is the real deal or not, here are my own ways of the trade:
 

Knowledge  – If you don’t know anything about the watch you are buying, don’t dive in and purchase even if you find a “really good deal”. If you can afford to buy brand new, then don’t get it on auction houses - go to an authorized dealer, feeling assured of the value of your gem is worth it. Research the make and model on the brand’s website before - not after you buy it. Knowing the features and variances of a model is a step ahead in being able to spot fakes and will prevent buyer’s remorse – in case you find out the size, color, material was not as you expected. There are a couple of times when I spotted and reported TAG Heuer watches that actually have a lot of bidders for a model that never existed: it was an Aqua-blue face Link with some colorful flower pattern on the dial – TAG Heuer is not that cheezy yet. Knowledge of the watch is the central and most important element in authenticating a watch. Know the variants, watch models will come in different colors, sizes, band material, logo, even inscriptions- these are not fakes, they’re just different versions. For example: a vintage TAG S/EL S99 has variants where the word “Professional” is written on the face  and there are variants that do not have it. There are TAG Heuer logos that are green and red, embossed silver, and others that are plain white on the same model. For example, a Blue TAG Heuer 2000 Classic with “12” on the 12 o’clock will have the green and red logo while the same model in Automatic version will have either an embossed Silver or another variant with a White logo.  
 
 
Demand for Guarantee – If it’s too good to be true, sometimes it might just be. Do not risk, secure a guarantee. Ask yourself, if this turns out to be a fake what can I do? Always demand a money back guarantee on authenticity. If a seller cannot guarantee authenticity, move away, it is against auction house rules for seller to transfer burden of authenticity on the buyer. Always have a fallback; Ebay and Paypal has a buyer protection plan that covers refund for fraud, use it to avert risks. I’ve seen a  number of sellers with a 5 to 10 feedbacks in ebay selling TAG Heuer watches with great pictures, guarantee and all – but check their feedbacks and they sold a few cents of some “iffy” things from sellers from the same country just to pad their feedbacks. Feedback alone is not an indicator of authenticity either, I’ve seen some highly reputable sellers with hundreds of feedbacks post TAG Carrera Re-Edition that can pass as real – the dead give-away was an inscription at the case back that says “CARRERA Re-Edition”,  there were never that inscription in the authentic 1964 Re-editions. Either the seller did not know better or he was committing fraud. Dont assume all vintage watches are real, there are quite a number of replica vintage out there too, some are being made now, and some are actually the “old fakes”- the fakes around the time when the original was made. The dead give away for older fake TAG Heuer is the case is made of brass plated with metal or chrome, copper will show when the plating fades. 
 
Dont be a pain either  - As a buyer, it is ultimately your responsibility to know what you are trying to purchase. Educate yourself on what you are trying to get and ask the seller questions on things that may not be clear to you. A fair business trade is what buyer and seller wants to achieve. I have had a buyer win an auction for a TAG Heuer Mid-Size S99.213, and upon receiving it, filed a case against me for receiving a “not as described” item. His reason is that his own TAG Heuer midsize has wider bracelet, therefore what I sold him was a ladies’watch.  Well,  for me, obviously this is a buyer who doesn't know what he is talking about and buyers remorse got the better of him. Mid-size watch back in the 80s would look like a ladies’ watch against the big sized watch today. The buyer had a Full size watch that he believes is a midsize by today’s standards. Precise measurements should always be taken into account, eyeballing will not do. Once received, an auction bought luxury brand watch can always be authenticated at its authorized dealer shops. Watch repair shops are not guaranteed experts on authenticating, because  they can only tell (if they have enough experience) once they open the movement, authentication should be inside and out.
 
 

Investigate: Face, Band, Case , Innards.
 
Face – This is the showcase of all watches, the dial or face. This is where the eyes land first when looking at a watch, thus, this is where a “replica” or a fake watch will do its best to imitate the real ones. The face or dial can be both the easiest and hardest place to prove authenticity. For the easy part, wrong spelling and wrong dials on a different case, and designs that never existed are dead give-away. For the hard part (replicas are getting better every time), gone are the days when sapphire crystals are used as legit markers between real and fake, most class B or even C replicas nowadays have scratch-proof crystals. Go online and search for the brand’s official website – study the originals. Some fake watch websites actually post a picture of the real model – be wary of that. The One thing that I often check on the face is hands and luminous markers, they should be consistent with the model. Luminous markers often give a good glow compared to the dullness of fakes – it is also a good indicator of age, as the luminous properties break down in time and loses its glow, its color and it cracks as the watch ages, therefore a new model should glow really bright and hold light longer and you should expect imperfections on older models. When I find a vintage watch with mint case, dial and markers, I compare it with the bracelet, strap and buckle or deployment, the wear should be consistent, otherwise something was changed. Call it a patina test for watches.
 
Band
First check the weight, note if it feels too light. Links should be solid not hollow. However, this is only true to newer models, the early vintage models of TAG Heuer used hollow links, and I think it was to keep the weight down rather than cut cost. Then check the roughness, this is almost always the fastest way to spot fakes,  it should not have sharp edges or feel uncomfortable. Rust, there should never be any rust except for the link rods, that tiny rod that hold each links together early on were not made of Stainless Steel.  The clasp on TAG Heuer can be tricky as earlier 80s models had thinner fold-over clasps than new ones. The model numbers on the bracelet lug holders should be noted.
 
Case – The case size is almost always going to be correct as these are most often made from moulds. But always check the thickness and if you do your homework you should be able to know the thickness of an authentic model. A replica vendor in Manila was able to tell at a glance that I am wearing an authentic TAG 2000 watch. Asked how she was able to tell from a distance and she told me that the same replica models that they have are thicker. This explains a lot as quality ETA  movements use quality precision parts that can be sandwiched into thin movements vs. cheap movements that use plastic parts. Automatics and Chronographs will be thicker than regular quartz.
 
Some replica cases are made of brass, plated with chrome or paint, this will soon show as the plating chips off. A stainless Steel watch will be made from a whole block of stainless steel and would never have a chip, it will scratch and dent but never chip. The back case cover is a story teller, it will indicate most things about the watch. The most obvious errors at the case back are what is stamped or etched on it. For TAG Heuer from late 90s there will always be a Model number beginning with letters . The model number should always match the watch. For example a CK1112 model number is telling us the watch is C- a chronograph, K is Classic 2000, 1 is for a Stainless , 1 is for the size (men), the last number is the variant number, usually a color. “Swiss Made” but not “Made in Swiss”.
 
There are replicas which have both model number and serial number, although on fakes, the serial number is most likely the same as every other replica on the internet. The depth, the size of the logo should be compared with an authentic model; this is often the error with fake Aquaracers - the logo of the deep diver is shallow and the size of the deep-diver is small on a replica. For all other watches, a laser etched case backs is not a guarantee, fakers have perfected that already.  
 

Internal movement
This is the final and most important area to verify authenticity. Most high-end Swiss made quartz will have an ETA gold-plated components. It is chunky and beautiful and not a tiny machine with a lot of spacers and plastic parts.
Swiss watches often use ETA movements, watch companies buy the movement and slap it into their brand cases.  By itself ETA movements will not have a brand signature, as these are practically generic. A watch repair shop can fix and replace an entire movement using the same ETA movement with only the brand name not being on the replacement. It is a good practice to ask a jeweler or watch shop if you are in doubt. Be aware that some high-end replicas use Swiss ETA movements too.  Finally, the acid test of authenticity is if you can pawn the item. When in doubt, go to the nearest reliable pawnshop and try pawning it. The watches we sell have passed Japanese pawnshop licensed authentication in flying colors.
 
Judging Value
Just like anything of value, deterioration is an enemy. Metals can be polished, but deterioration on the face like mold and rust could bring price down especially when damage is irreversible. Put into equation how much the damaged part will cost to replace or fix and that should give you a ballpark figure of the value of the watch.   Frankenwatches – be mindful that a watch can still be real but have parts that were interchanged from different models. For collectors, this is a big deal and it lowers the true value of the watch. Grading – watches are like cars, a new model that is beaten up will fetch less than an older model in pristine condition. They have engines too and movements like automatics lose accuracy in time and need maintenance once in a while.

See also:
The Truth About Replica Watches (by Forbes)
How to Identify a Fake Watch: 4 Steps (by wikiHow)
What are counterfeit watches and how to avoid getting burned buying a watch that was not the real thing (by Chronocentric)